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The 1994 Rwandan genocide was a tragedy that the rest of the world overlooked, writes Alice Gatebuke, and sixteen years later the international community is still turning a blind eye to Rwanda. Recent human rights abuses – the maltreatment of a presidential candidate and the suspension of rights of an American lawyer – and Rwanda’s actions in neighbouring Congo have not been condemned by the international community. Gatebuke, a genocide survivor, argues that present-day violations of universal rights and norms must not be ignored, nor can they be excused by consideration of past acts of evil against Rwandanese people. Rwanda too, she says, must be held to a universal standard.

People often say ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’. As a Rwandan genocide survivor, I would not be alive if not for good people who stood up, advocated for and protected me, and facilitated my ultimate survival amidst the deafening silence of the international community. I was nine years old when I found myself caught in a maelstrom of violence that threatened to destroy everything I knew and held dear. And in many ways, all of those things including family, friends, neighbours, home and communities were destroyed.

I remember having a group of men wrap me in a blanket and smuggle me to a safe house in a different neighbourhood. Petrified, I watched as these men accosted and negotiated with my would-be killers on a daily basis to save my life. I watched in horror and helplessness as my mother and brother were taken from my sister, young cousin and I to be killed. My mother and brother were told they had reached the end of their lives and were then given tools to dig their own graves. Through the intervention of old friends, strangers and new allies, the lives of my mother and brother were spared, and our family was reunited.

I cannot imagine how my life would have been different had these individuals not intervened. They placed themselves and their families in danger by advocating for us. In our darkest moments I witnessed the zenith of human compassion. I saw the beauty and potential of the human spirit when good people unite for a good cause. Farmers, street kids and courageous women with children raised their voices against a group of evil-doers.

Through their acts of solidarity, lives were spared. My faith in humanity was reassured even in the midst of so much violence, death and destruction. Sadly though, the international community remained silent about what was taking place in my country.

As I watch today the increasingly disturbing downward spiral in my country of birth, I am once again reminded of the international community’s complicity and silence in the destruction of an entire nation. In recent times, when the first woman to ever run for president in my country was attacked by a mob, there was silence. While local newspapers were shut down, their writers exiled and others incarcerated, I witnessed nothing but shrugs from the international community. When Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported on the growing repression and jailing of an increasing number of people based on vague laws applied to political opponents of the ruling regime, I saw nothing but rationalisation from the international community.

Recently, an American lawyer and professor, who is representing a hopeful presidential candidate, was jailed in Rwanda. His arrest and subsequent charges were based on his work as a defence lawyer at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. He stands accused of genocide ideology and negationism, the same crimes his client is charged with.

As a genocide survivor, I take genocide crimes very seriously and strongly believe that each and every perpetrator of these crimes should be brought to justice and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I also believe that each accused deserves and must be accorded a fair trial. The right to a fair trial and due process is a highly valued universal principle. I am therefore perplexed by the silence around the professor’s arrest and the length of time it took the international community to intervene.

Due to Rwanda’s economic progress, some of which is unfortunately derived from Congolese minerals and ‘supply side economics’, human rights abuses are mere inconveniences to those strictly focused on economic growth. While Rwanda has become one of the most praised and progressive economies in Africa, the international community has watched it ravage neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo with impunity. An estimated six million Congolese lives have been claimed and, tragically, half of those deaths are children under the age of five.

The Rwandan genocide was catastrophic. I know; I was there. And I survived. However, it should not be used as a pretext for repressing the freedom of others and destroying innocent lives. Although the international community still remains silent in the face of all these grotesque abuses and human rights violations within and outside of Rwanda, the potential positive impact the international community could have on the situation should not be underestimated.

I witnessed first hand the power of good people who cared for a frightened nine-year-old girl and her family. Everyday people opened their mouths and raised their voices. My family, especially my mother and brother, were spared because of ordinary peoples’ courageous acts of generosity. I am eternally grateful to have lived to share my story. With all that is taking place in Rwanda today, especially the eerie similarities to the pre-1994 genocide period, will the international community intervene now? One can only imagine the millions of lives that could be saved.


* This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.
* Alice Gatebuke is a Rwandan genocide and war survivor, human rights activist and graduate of Cornell University.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.