Last Saturday morning, 19-year-old Jacqueline Murekatete found herself sharing a dais at New York University with Richard Goldstone, the eminent South African jurist, and a former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Murekatete is Rwandan, the only survivor from her immediate family of the genocide that began its pitiless march through her country 10 years ago this week. In 1995, she was adopted by an uncle who lives on Long Island.
Before Goldstone gave the keynote address, Murekatete had the floor. “I told him that Rwandans feel disappointed with the way the tribunal is going,” she later said. The ICTR, established in November 1994, has so far convicted 18 people of crimes related to the genocide, at a cost of over $1 billion. The tribunal is not in Rwanda, but next door in Arusha, Tanzania, 471 miles from Kigali. Human rights groups say the ICTR has set important legal precedents—including the recognition that rape is a war crime—and will punish the architects of the genocide. But critics say that while the ICTR waits to try 81 suspects, tens of thousands sit in Rwanda’s abysmal jails, waiting for judgment from a legal system that is not only penniless, but also broken.
“Rwandans feel removed,” said Murekatete. “I also told him that many of the survivors of the genocide had been raped and have AIDS, and so a lot of them will not live long enough to see justice done, or be able to testify against the perpetrators.”
Murekatete is not the only person asking hard questions about Rwanda, but she is certainly well suited. Two years ago, she met Holocaust survivor David Gewirtzman and since then, the two have become a team, lecturing to schools and community groups around the country. She is also writing a book with Elie Wiesel about her experiences. Murekatete is impressive enough on her own, self-assured, gracious, and hopeful, with a forceful command of Rwanda’s most painful chapter. But as one observer puts it, “Africa doesn’t have a constituency in the U.S.” Elie Wiesel does, and that the two have met may serve the memory of the genocide.
The U.S. has still not answered for its refusal to intervene in the slaughter of more than 800,000 Rwandans, even as recently declassified documents show American officials were not only aware that genocide was under way, but actively pretended not to know. Here, the anniversary of that period has been a muted affair. Despite a very public apology from U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan two weeks ago, at press time, the highest-ranking Western official attending the commemoration in Kigali was the Belgian prime minister. A memorial service last Sunday drew a few New York City politicians, and a note from Mayor Bloomberg.
Murekatete insists she does not blame the U.S. Still, she said, she doesn’t believe claims by former president Bill Clinton and others that they just didn’t know. “I’m definitely angry,” she said. “Now people need to ask what they will do in the future. Have they looked into it? Have they acknowledged it?”
William Ferroggiaro points out that the U.S. is the only remaining major player in Rwanda’s crisis not to hold a public inquiry into what went wrong. Ferroggiaro, who works at the National Security Archive, an independent research institute, has examined the documentary evidence of the U.S. conduct regarding Rwanda.
“Africa is not viewed as part of the national strategy,” he said. “There are no traditional allies there. Trade is infinitesimal. It just doesn’t get the cold interest calculation from elites and policy makers. Were it not for religious conservatives, you wouldn’t hear anything about Sudan, either.”
Ferroggiaro and others have pieced together a chronology of inaction under Clinton, a record that is still not complete. It is well-known that Rwanda suffered from the failure of the intervention in Somalia, and from the then emerging, restrictive doctrine of peacekeeping eventually drafted by Richard Clarke. The crisis also collided with other disasters, including Haiti, Bosnia, and a trade dispute with China. Even half measures were beyond the capability of the bureaucracy, including the proposal to jam Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines, the Hutu-nationalist radio station that urged the Interahamwe (the Hutu militias) on. The State Department’s dance around the use of the word genocide tops off what should be an embarrassing period in Clinton’s presidency.
But no one seems to be embarrassed, and what remains a mystery is why the political leadership—Clinton, then secretary of state Warren Christopher, and others—never even spoke out.
“It’s not a question of not knowing. That’s factually inaccurate. People were identifying genocide in mid April,” said Ferroggiaro. “The fact that you were not creative enough to know what it meant says something about your orientation toward human rights.”
That was John Shattuck’s job. Shattuck, who was assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 1993 to 1998, also believes that the U.S. should hold a public inquiry into Rwanda, and he thinks he could have done more. “I would have pushed more aggressively at higher levels,” he said. “I would have pushed [then national security adviser] Tony Lake.” Shattuck said that his superiors at the State Department should have been more involved. “At one level, I regret that I didn’t resign. Instead, I chose to do what I did, and tried to challenge what I could from the inside.” Shattuck pointed out that he was the first U.S. official to fly to Rwanda, in early May, a move he believed helped to highlight the killing. “This tragic event was the perfect human rights storm,” he said.
Jacqueline Murekatete knew nothing of America’s policy debate in 1994. She was nine, and lived on her family’s farm in Masango, southwest of Kigali. “I remember cows and goats. We grew corn, pears, and yams.” And she remembers April 6, the day the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down, probably by Hutu extremists in his own government.
“My father woke me up and said, ‘Our president has been killed.’ He seemed sad. I didn’t realize that this was the end of the Tutsis.” The days blur together in her memory, but sometime soon after, she convinced her father to take her to her grandmother’s house in Gikongoro, where she attended school. Then the barricades began to appear on the roads. “We started to see smoke rising from neighboring villages. It became impossible to move,” she recalled. “We realized that there may be no school.” And then one morning, she and her grandmother saw residents of a neighboring village running toward their house. “They said their Hutu neighbors had started killing them. Some of them ran to the church. We joined a group that went to a nearby county office.”
Murekatete and her grandmother slept in that office for days, with hundreds of their neighbors. Every night, a gang assembled outside with torches and machetes, shouting threats and taunts. An uncle paid a Hutu to sneak the girl and her grandmother out in an ambulance one night. Soon after, Hutus stormed the office and killed everyone there.
The ambulance driver took them to a safe house in Nyabisindu, further south, farther from her family, where they stayed for a week. The host’s neighbors found out he was hiding the pair. “Seven or eight of them came to the house,” Murekatete recalled. “There was blood on their clubs and machetes.” This is the moment she remembers most vividly. “I was wearing a scarf, which I used to cover my face. I was shaking. I kept pleading to God. I kept trying to flatten my nose, my Tutsi nose.” She is not sure whether it was God who saved her, but her patron convinced the men to go away.
Murekatete’s grandmother sent her to an orphanage run by two Italian priests—an overcrowded place, rife with disease, with its own cemetery. “We were burying children every week,” she said. It was not till after the genocide ended, when a cousin found her at the orphanage, that she learned the rest of her family had been murdered, including her grandmother.
Murekatete, one of 100,000 children orphaned by the genocide, never lost her composure as she retold her story, and said she is still puzzled by the narrow view of national interest that allowed the world to watch. “Some things,” she said, “are intolerable.”