Racism, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity: Assessing the Genocide Convention After 60 Years with Esther Mujawayo

Esther Mujawayo, therapist, activist, and Rwandan genocide survivor, addresses the 1st Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Esther Mujawayo: Thank you, Professor Cotler. I must say while Mr. Hamid was speaking, I was very uncomfortable because […] 15 years after the genocide, the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda [we heard] this should never happen again.  And about 15 years now after the rant and genocide I hear from Mr. Hamid that exactly the same things are happening again. 

Of course, I’m an optimist and I fight for this never to happen again but I do feel despair when I hear exactly the same things are happening again. And he said at the beginning and at end “we are human beings, we are human beings.” We are talking about the Declaration of the Rights of the Person. But is a person from Darfur really a full human being? Does he have the right to be defended, to be represented, just like a Swiss person, an American or anyone else? It was just the same as in 1994.

Tutsis were killed after 15 years. Now the only mistake, the only sin, that we had committed is to be a Tutsi. It’s because we were born Tutsis that is why we had to die. It was not that there were no treaties or no laws or conventions. They were there. There were conventions, there were treaties. But they were simply not enforced. What does one have to do to enforce it? One has to enforce them so that the family of Hamid does not have to be killed? They are simply human. In Darfur, the conventions have to be respected. Yes, people said “I have to kill you because you are Tutsi.” There are many cynical anecdotes from that time. There were children at the time of the genocide who did not know that there were Tutsi; you can’t see it when you look at people that they are Tutsi. We went to the same schools, we spoke the same languages. Even the so-called typical physical details were not clear. People asked the killers not to do what they came to do. But you cannot get rid of what you are. 

I liked very much what Barack Obama said when he spoke to Rwanda, to the Rwandese, in April this year. You can say 1 million Tutsis, one can say one hundred thousand, whatever, but behind the statistics you have people, you have fathers, you have mothers. And I would ask you now to show the first picture on the screen to tell you what is a genocide. The photo that you can see here, I was very lucky to find this photo. Many in our country were not able to find photos again. This was my family in 1984. We just had our first baby. We were very happy and we went to my husband’s family to show the baby. If you start on the left, the first man on the left is my brother-in-law. He was the brother of my husband and he was killed later on with his wife and his two children. Then there is my husband who was killed in ‘94. Then there is my mother-in-law Sisali; she was killed in 94. The little boy who’s crouching at the feet of his mother, that was my little brother-in-law who was also killed in ‘94. Then the tall girl next to my mother-in-law, that’s myself and my mother-in-law is holding my daughter who miraculously survived. The man next to me was also killed. The next one was also killed with all his brothers and sisters. Then what I see is one of the sisters of my husband. She was also killed in ‘94. The next one is Miguel Agulhas; he was another cousin who was also killed in ‘94. Out of all the people in the photo there is just myself and my daughter who survived. This is a photo of my family. And this is another one. Now this is the last picture of the family, the last picture. That’s my sister Stephanie, whom you saw earlier on. Here she was in her house with her three children. The baby she had on her own was only one year old. The one who’s holding a piece of bread was five years old and Kgaimene, who has the orange Fanta bottle, was three years old. All of them were killed, including the father who’s the one who took the picture. Thank you.

I’ve shown you these pictures and I can tell you I was lucky enough to get these photos, to find them, or those who survived after genocide, they were in such an emptiness, such an emotional emptiness. We had babies, we had husbands, we wanted to have a life like everyone else. Between April and July 1994, everything was just broken up. You survived, maybe, but you are no longer the sister of someone, you are no longer someone’s daughter, the cousin, or the wife of someone. You’ll find yourself in a completely emotional hole, in a void, in an emotional void. It’s not only this total emotional emptiness, but you also live with this idea, even a kind of guiltiness because you were the one who survived. You have this guilt with you. Of course you know that you couldn’t do anything to save them. But you also have a lot of anger. And I felt this anger come up inside myself because there are so many lives that were simply wasted for nothing. Was it possible for this to happen; it could have been different, it could have been, for this family, to still be here if there had been a will for this to happen. They knew that we were in danger of being exterminated, the world knew it, and they did nothing. Just like Mr. Hamid. And why did this happen? Because we’re not worth much, we were not worth much. 

I’m quite cynical and I do not really believe in all these beautiful words and conventions. Are we really really human if one’s own state is trying to kill you? Are there other countries, other states, where other peoples can go to try and mobilize, to do something about it? We were also not only in an emotional terrible situation but we were also in any economic disaster. Everything had been taken from the houses. We had nothing left. But it was even more symbolic. Even the roads were destroyed, the roads and the paths leading to the houses. All of these words were destroyed. This annihilation was almost saying to us you never were there, you are nothing.

Of course the people who did these things were people we knew. There were our neighbors, they were people who were respected. There were teachers, there were doctors, there were adults whom we respected. And later, after it happened, we wondered who can you still trust. It’s very difficult to live if you can’t trust anyone. But even in Rwanda in the genocide of the Tutsis, there were some humans.They were rare but they did exist. There were people who were killed because they wanted to protect Tutsis and this does give you some courage, because you think if these people have existed they may still exist. They may exist amongst ourselves and they may also exist in Darfur. These are the people we can count on. Now let me get back to 15 years later. 

I wanted to apologize for talking about my anger, but actually I don’t want to apologize because it’s simply something you have. April ‘94 it was very difficult. There are many reasons that people can give for not having done anything. But 15 years later what is being done? What is the international community doing to help those people who have miraculously managed to escape? We’ve found ourselves refugees without anybody, without our family. Most of the time we were affected physically and emotionally. There are so many people who escaped who were completely handicapped physically and emotionally.

I want to speak of some very specific cases. There was a young girl who was thrown into different holes and she is now in a wheelchair. We are trying to get her to have an operation and this operation can be done in Switzerland and in Belgium. It would cost eighty thousand euros but we can’t get this money. At the time when Solenge was being beaten and her bones broken nobody was there. And now where is the international community? Why are they not helping Solenge? I don’t want to say let’s just have a conference and then well there’s nothing that’s going to happen afterwards. But if I can’t get something out of this conference for people like Solenge and Mariclene and for others, this isn’t worth having. 

So we met amongst survivors and we discovered a terrible reality. We found that women were constantly raped by all sorts of people. Most of the survivors, especially the women, got hiv/aids, and we fought for years for these sexual violences to be recognized in international tribunals, even in Rwanda. We were lucky there because these things were taken into account. Sexual violence to women was recognized as being a legitimate complaint. But the men who were there, the men who gave these women aids through rape, they got the retroviral drugs, and they survived. The women who have to be witnesses, who were not given the drugs, who are not protected by the UN, died because they were not given the retroviral drugs. Nowadays we do have the medicines and we get them at a relatively low price. But women still have to fight to survive. What can we do for women not to worry all the time? Not to stay awake at night and think how are we going to feed our children? What is going to happen? 

But the most difficult situation is for children who remained orphans. Some had to become heads of families at 12 or 15 years of age. How can they find some semblance of a normal life? I want to challenge you today. We have to get out of here with some very specific and concrete proposals and not just declarations. Because declarations aren’t going to make a big and essential difference to those survivors. 

There’s a major chapter that I have difficulty talking about. Justice, justice for survivors. What justice is there for survivors? Of course, we hear people say yes of course if the situation is difficult. And we understand that they have to be symbolic judgments because there are too many people that have to be sentenced. There are some symbolic sentences because they have killed Tutsis, and here we have to congratulate countries in Holland for example. This has happened in Belgium. It has happened in Switzerland as well. The people who committed genocide, these were people who just like you and me were people who studied in various countries Switzerland, Belgium and so on, have connections here. For years in Rwanda there was a discriminatory situation. But it was the government that organized this discrimination, and the embassies that were here and all the organizations that contributed and nobody reacted. And to date it is simply going on as before.

Today in Switzerland who is being given asylum and who is not being given asylum? It’s a very frightening situation. There’s a young boy I’m speaking about because it’s a very specific example here in Switzerland. There’s a boy from Rwanda who wrote a book about the genocide. His whole family was killed but he was the only one left for dead but he was not dead and the Red Cross found him under the bodies. He is completely handicapped. His whole face is completely distorted because he’s been cut, his left eye was gouged out, his left arm was cut off and he is in a terrible situation. But Switzerland does not want to give him asylum. The Swiss authorities do not want to grant him asylum. Why does this boy not have the right to say I want to be safe from my killers? He went back to Rwanda and people attempted to kill him again. That man who tried to kill him is old and he is free. But the boy who suffered all these terrible injuries will never be free from these awful ideas, from these awful images. And if he could be here in Switzerland he could have psychotherapy, he could have a certain stability and he could start a new life if he was granted asylum in Switzerland. I just wanted to give you an example. He’s not the only one. There are many others.

I think my time has probably run out now. I just wanted to ask you one thing. 15 years later people will not come back if they have been killed. All I am asking is for my neighbors in Rwanda to tell me where my family was buried so that I can give them a proper burial, so that I could have a certain psychological stability and go forward in my life. 

Now asking you to fight to join our struggle. I don’t want to be coming to you with cap and hand and I don’t want to ask and beg you for asylum for this boy who is handicapped. There should be a right to compensation, very specific compensation and we should get the compensation now, not in 15 or 20 years. These terrible injuries cannot be healed. Some of the things need to be done now because in 20 years nothing can be done. For example, we need surgery. We need plastic surgery, so that our faces can be restored to something normal. People need to be offered this kind of help not as charity but they should be given it by right. Our neighbors who’ve taken a machete, who injured people such as Riverand. We should get compensation not only from our government but also from your government. 

I keep thinking of France. I don’t want to start discussing France and all the responsibilities that France had, but I would like to mention something which is not being mentioned, Switzerland, Germany, England, the United States, they said this is not a genocide and that was used as an excuse for not intervening. So I can say well yes of course, I will give you my pardon but only on condition. On the condition, namely, that you help those that have survived. They live in a very difficult situation. You must help them not survive but help them to live, to live a proper life. And they need to see some very concrete, very specific activity and actions at the high level. We have been able to reach people who are important. Now if we just want to organize a conference to be a talking shop then I’m not interested. However if it leads to practical steps that would be a great thing. Thank you.

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