From ‘dead on the inside’ to ‘truly alive’: Survivor of genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda recounts her story as UN marks 25th anniversary

“Miraculously I had no machete marks” a survivor of the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda told a solemn United Nations event in New York on Friday, 25 years on, to remember the systematic killing of more than one million people, over less than three months.

UNICEF/Giacomo PirozziIn 1996 in Rwanda, wooden crosses mark the graves in a cemetery in the village of Nyanza in a rural area of Kigali, the capital. During the 1994 genocide, over 10,000 people were burned to death in Nyanza as they tried to escape towards Burundi. 12

“Most of the survivors we have today were broken in their bodies and their souls”, Esther Mujawayo-Keiner told those gathered in the General Assembly Hall, to reflect on what UN chief António Guterres referred to as “one of the darkest chapters in recent human history”, which overwhelmingly targeted Tutsi, but also moderate Hutu and others who opposed the genocide.

Esther Mujawayo-Keiner, survivor of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, shares her story during the International Day of Reflection, 2019, by UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

She recounted how the genocide took almost all of her immediate family, including her parents, most of her siblings and her husband. She thought she might be the last woman left standing, “because it was almost impossible to survive”.

But slowly, she discovered there were other widows – a new kind of family – adding that the “widows clan” helped her to be “truly alive” and no longer “dead on the inside”, and together with other female survivors, she founded the widows’ association AVEGA.

Beware of ‘dangerous trends’

“Today we stand in solidarity with the people of Rwanda”, Secretary-General Guterres told the gathering, calling on everyone present to acknowledge “dangerous trends of rising xenophobia, racism and intolerance” at work throughout the world today.

Calling the current widespread proliferation of hate speech and incitement to violence “an affront to our values, which threatens “human rights, social stability and peace”, he saw them as the “dangerous trends” that were “clearly present in Rwanda immediately before the genocide”.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the Commemoration of the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in the General Assembly Hall, April 2019., by UN News/Elizabeth Scaffidi

“Today’s commemoration gives us an opportunity to once again raise our voices against racism, xenophobia and related intolerance, including social and ethnic discrimination, anti-Muslim hatred and anti-Semitism”, the UN chief asserted. “Wherever they occur, these evils should be identified, confronted and stopped to prevent them leading, as they have in the past, to hate crimes and genocide”.

Mr. Guterres called on all political, religious and civil society leaders to
“reject hate speech and discrimination”, and to root out the causes that “undermine social cohesion and create conditions for hatred and intolerance”.

“Let us all pledge to work together to build a harmonious future for all people, everywhere” he said, calling it “the best way to honour those who lost their lives so tragically in Rwanda 25 years ago”.

‘Enshrine’ past lessons for future generation

“Tutsi were decimated”, General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa stated. Beginning on 7 April 1994, “those [who] opposed the genocide, including Hutus, were also targeted and killed”.

Putting the bloodshed into perspective, she said that “an average of over 8,000 people a day, more than 30 in the time allocated to this ceremony” were slaughtered.

“The international community watched in horror, but we did not prevent the atrocities”, lamented Ms. Espinosa, asking those gathered to “rekindle our efforts to realize our promise of ‘never again’” by investing in education “to enshrine the lessons” of the past, fight hate speech and “call out those who dehumanize others”.

Rising from the ashes

Keynote speaker Rwandan President Paul Kagame attested to his country’s fighting spirit, of how it went from darkness to hope, and called honour and prevention acts of remembrance.

“We honour the victims. We honour the courage of the survivors, and we honour the manner in which the Rwandans have come together to rebuild our nation” he asserted.

Citing “denial and trivialization” as the foundation of genocide, Mr. Kagame stressed that “countering denial is essential for breaking the cycle and preventing any recurrence”.

Lighting candles during the commemoration of the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda., by UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

He pointed out that Rwanda has been among the top five UN peacekeeping contributors, explaining that his nation contributes soldiers and police, “with values instilled by our tragic history”.

“As a nation once betrayed by the international community, we are determined to do our part to working with others to make things better going forward”, President Kagame concluded.

For her part, Valentine Rugwabiza, Rwanda’s UN Ambassador, reflected on the time, 25 years ago, when “the world and the United Nations abandoned Rwanda”.

She viewed the event underway in “this very house that let Rwanda down”, as a historic one and expressed gratitude that although her country had experienced “interrupted” peace and security, it is now on the solid foundation “of social cohesion”.

No crime ‘like any other’

“I was asked to provide a photo of my family”, said survivor Marcel Uwineza, a Jesuit priest. “I actually don’t have any”.

He painted a picture of Hutus and Tutsis being pitted against each other, where “uncles turned against their nephews and nieces” and where his family “lost everything”.

Reverend Uwineza underscored that the genocide “was born of racist policy rather than war”, as many claim.

“We have to challenge the many deniers who use war as a means to minimize the gravity of the genocide, knowing that all lives matter, but a genocide is no crime like any other” he underlined.

Speaking about the “joy of reconciliation”, the priest described meeting the man who killed his two brothers and sister, saying that he had initially thought he was going to be murdered as well. But instead, the man knelt before him and asked for forgiveness.

“When finally I said ‘I forgive you’, I felt free”, Reverend Uwineza said.

Women must be at ‘centre of peacekeeping decision-making’, UN chief tells Security Council

Women’s rights, voices and participation must be at “the centre of peacekeeping decision-making”, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council on Thursday, describing them as “central to sustainable solutions” to challenges facing the Organization worldwide.

MINUSCA/Hervé Serefio Zambian female peacekeepers provide medical support to the local population in Birao, Central African Republic.

Through its landmark resolution 1325 on women and peace and security, the Council reaffirmed the participation and involvement of women, which the UN chief hailed as “a key element in the maintenance of international peace and security”. He also noted the UN’s “essential system-wide effort” to enhance women’s representation at all levels and in all arenas, through his Strategy on Gender Parity.

United Nations Secretary-General briefs the Security Council on women in peacekeeping operations, 11 April 2019., by UN Photo/Manuel Elias

“This is not just a question of numbers, but also of our effectiveness in fulfilling our mandates”, he stated, citing evidence that more women peacekeepers lead to more credible protection responses that meet the needs of all.

In patrol units women can better access intelligence to provide a holistic view of security challenges, and at checkpoints they promote a less confrontational atmosphere, he said.

Within troop contingents they lower incidences of sexual exploitation and abuse; yield greater reporting of sexual and gender-based violence; and can access local women’s networks, leading to more inclusive peace processes.

‘Step towards parity’

The Secretary-General thanked the more than 150 Member States who have signed on to his Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative, which calls for women’s participation in every stage of peace operations, and integrates a gender perspective into all analysis, planning, implementation and reporting.

And he was grateful to the States who, at last week’s Ministerial on Peacekeeping, launched the Elsie Initiative to break down barriers to increasing women’s participation in peace operations.

In support of the UN’s commitments in these areas, Mr. Guterres noted a range of actions, including the Gender-Responsive Peacekeeping Operations Policy, which “commits us to promoting leadership and accountability both for gender equality and for the women, peace and security agenda”.

Flagging that since December 2015, the number of women in uniform has increased by only around one per cent, he spelled out that “this is clearly not enough”.

“This year”, he informed the Chamber, “we rolled out the Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy”, which, among other things, targets by 2028 a range of 15 to 35 per cent of women’s representation, including military, police and justice and corrections personnel.

While acknowledging that it “has been more challenging”, Mr. Guterres vowed “to press ahead”, adding that “keep on track, we need assistance from you, the Member States”.

He asked for a greater focus on women in battalions and formed police units and for the sustained recruitment and deployment of women within national services.

Noting that for the first time in UN history the senior leadership is close to achieving gender parity, Mr. Guterres reiterated his commitment to sustaining that progress: “We need to bring the same spirit to our peace operations”, he stressed. “This is crucial for our effectiveness, credibility and reputation”. 

‘Pushing gender equality’

The first female Force Commander and current Head of the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) mission, Major General Kristin Lund told the Council that the “momentum of pushing gender equality must be kept”.

As Force Commander of the UN mission in Cyprus, she teamed up with Lisa Buttenheim, the Special Representative at the time. “For once I did not need to convince my boss that gender was important” she said. “Both of us had gender equality in our spine”.

The Major General enumerated some examples of her work in increasing the number of women, helping them in missions and reaching out to local communities.

Noting many reasons why the armed forces have a difficulty keeping women in the ranks, she outlined frequent obstacles thrown up by male culture in military settings, giving the example of how “posters with half naked women” hang in mission gyms.

“How many women do gym in bikinis?” Ms. Lund asked rhetorically, saying that under her command in Cyprus “womanized posters vanished”.

Troops at the Peace Mission Training Center in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, undergoing training provided courtesy of the United States ahead of their deployment to CAR., by UNIC Lusaka

She also mandated that the all-male teams in military skills competitions had to have females.

“Gender is on the top of my agenda”, she said, adding that she initiated a female military network, engaged women to become more visible and increased the number of female observers.

Troop and police contributing countries “must do more” she said.

“We, out in the field, need to be able to reach out to the whole society. Only you can make that happen”, the Force Commander concluded.

Diversity is a strength

Chairing the meeting, German Federal Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen said: “Women are no better peacekeepers than men, but they are different. And this diversity is a strength”.

Pointing out that Resolution 1325 has been in effect for almost 20 years, she maintained that it is “still far from full, effective and meaningful participation of women in peace operations”.

To change that, Ms. von der Leyen suggested, among other things, to have successful female mentors to share their stories to younger women; have more women in national forces for deployment to international peacekeeping missions; and assess national barriers that keeps more women from joining peace operations.

“The peacekeeper’s blue helmet symbolizes protection and security”, she said. “Let us make this helmet be worn by more women. For the sake of peace”.

‘Democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people’ must be met urges Guterres, following military removal of al-Bashir from power

UN chief António Guterres said on Thursday that the “democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people” need to be realized through “an appropriate and inclusive transition process”, following the overthrow and arrest of President Omar al-Bashir by order of the country’s new military governing council.

UN Sudan/Ayman SulimanProtesters demonstrate outside the Sudanese Armed Forces headquarters in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

In a statement issued in New York by his Spokesperson, the Secretary-General said he would continue to follow development “very closely” and reiterated his call for calm and “utmost restraint by all”.

In announcing the end of Mr. Bashir’s rule via State television, Sudan’s defence minister said that he was being held “in a secure place”, and the army would now oversee a two-year period of transition back to full civilian rule.

But on Thursday night, according to news reports, thousands of Sudanese in the capital Khartoum defied a military curfew which was supposed to keep citizens off the streets from 10pm until 4am, raising fears of fresh violence between security forces and protesters, as well as possible clashes between militia and army units.

An official message carried on State-run media stated that “the armed forces and security council will carry out its duty to uphold peace”, protect citizens’ security, and “citizens’ livelihoods”.

Mr. Guterres said in his statement that the UN “stands ready to support the Sudanese people as they chart a new way forward.” Earlier in the day, a group of UN human rights experts condemned reports of “excessive use of force against peaceful protesters in Sudan” during the past six days of heightened protest leading up to the overthrow of President Bashir, when tens-of-thousands took to the streets, holding a sit-in outside army headquarters in central Khartoum.

“While taking note of the latest reports that a military council is being formed”, the experts called on the authorities to respond to “the legitimate grievances of the people.” 

More than 20 killed, 100 injured in protests

More than 20 people have been killed and over 100 injured since 6 April, the experts said, adding they had also received reports of widespread arrests and attacks on journalists by the security forces.      

At the sit-in prior to the military takeover, the National Intelligence and Security Services used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse protesters, prompting the army to move in to protect them.

“In this moment of crisis, the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly needs to be protected and guaranteed,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, and the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye

Protests erupted nearly four months ago when the Government attempted to raise the prices of bread and basic commodities.   

“I urge the authorities to lift the national state of emergency and respond to the legitimate grievances of the Sudanese people through inclusive peaceful political process,” Mr. Voule said. “The Sudanese people, including human rights defenders, have the right to express their views and concerns through peaceful means, in particular on issues concerning fundamental rights,” added Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

The UN Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan, Aristide Nononsi, said the State’s institutions are obliged to protect civilians and respect the people’s legitimate demands and constitutional rights.

“I call on State authorities to uphold their primary responsibility to protect the civilian population in Sudan, and I strongly urge the Sudanese military and security forces to exercise the utmost restraint to avoid further escalation of violence and to take immediate measures to protect the constitutional rights of the Sudanese”, Mr. Nononsi said.

Rapid-response aid, from UN’s emergency fund

Also on Thursday, Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock released a $26.5 million Rapid Response allocation from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund to provide life-saving food, livelihood, nutrition, health, water and sanitation assistance to over 800,000 people affected by a worsening economic crisis and food insecurity across seven states in Sudan, over the next six months.

“The economic crisis has had knock-on effects on the wider humanitarian situation that go beyond food insecurity. Higher food prices, mean that families are eating less nutritious food and more young children and pregnant women are getting sick. Families struggle to afford even limited medical treatment,” said Mr. Lowcock.

The CERF allocation will target internally displaced people, refugees, host communities, and vulnerable residents in areas with some of the largest increases in food insecurity, including in East, North, South and West Darfur, Red Sea, West Kordofan and White Nile states.

‘Still time’ to stop a ‘bloody battle’ for Libya’s capital, insists Guterres

Speaking to reporters outside the Security Council in New York on Wednesday night, UN chief António Guterres said there was still time for a “bloody battle for Tripoli” to be avoided, despite the continuing fighting in and around the Libyan capital. 

Mohamed AlalemSecretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres listening to migrants and refugees during his visit to Ain Zara Detention center in Tripoli, Libya. 4 April, 2019.

The offensive directed towards the capital, and troops loyal to the internationally-recognized Government led by Faiez Serraj, began on Monday. UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric briefed reporters earlier in the day that clashes were “reportedly intensifying, with increased use of artillery and airstrikes”. 

The self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) which controls much of eastern and southern Libya under the command of Khalifa Haftar, is attempting to advance into the capital, meeting resistance from pro-Government fighters. 

Mr. Guterres said that following his mission to the Middle East last week, which included a three-day visit to Libya in support of the UN Mission UNSMIL and the efforts led by Prime Minister Serraj to forge a political consensus to end years of instability and division, he had left a meeting with Commander Haftar in Benghazi on Friday, with a “heavy heart”, and his concerns had been “until now…entirely confirmed.” 

“But there was “still time to stop…still time for a ceasefire to take place – for a cessation of hostilities to take place and to avoid the worse which would be a dramatic, bloody battle for Tripoli.” 

There was still time “to recognize there is no military solution”, he continued. “Only political solutions can apply to situations like the one in Libya”.  

He reiterated his hope that the political process which was due to kickstart once more this coming weekend with a national conference on the way forward, could still resume, and earlier in the day, UN Special Representative for Libya and UNSMIL chief, Ghassan Salamé, met Mr. Serraj, trying to de-escalate the situation. 

“I want to express my enormous admiration for the work that is courageously being done on the ground by my Special Representative”, said Mr. Guterres. “On my side, and using our good offices, we will do everything to support his efforts.” 

“At the same time, I am particularly worried with migrants and refugees that were caught in this terrible situation”, he added, saying he was glad that UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, had managed to evacuate detention camps around the capital. “But there are terrible concerns in relation to, not only the lives of the Libyans, but also the migrants and refugees in the city and other foreigners in the city and one reason more for us to believe that we absolutely need to stop this fighting”, he told correspondents in New York. 

Asked about his view on what the Security Council should do at this point, he said: “It is very clear for me that we need to restart a serious political dialogue and a serious political negotiation, but it is obvious that that cannot take place without fully stopping hostilities.”