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December 2005/January 2006
The Responsibility to Protect

The Satya Interview with Grace Mukagabiro


Grace Mukagabiro.
Photo courtesy of Oxfam International

This past September, 151 heads of state from around the world convened in New York for the UN Summit to assess the progress of the Millennium Declaration and discuss major reforms in the UN. Many critics have been disappointed with the outcome of the summit, feeling there wasn’t the necessary political backing for poverty reduction commitments.

However, marking the UN’s 60th anniversary and in accordance with its original charter to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” a few positive outcomes came from these meetings, namely the establishment of a new peace building commission and the acceptance of collective responsibility to protect civilians against genocide and other crimes against humanity. This agreement means that governments can no longer use sovereignty and non-intervention to avoid protecting civilians from mass killings.

This outcome was particularly positive for Grace Mukagabiro, a genocide survivor who traveled from Rwanda to New York for the summit. As a program coordinator for Oxfam International, Mukagabiro works with three communities in Rwanda on conflict management, community building and poverty reduction. She traveled to New York to share her personal experience, hoping that world leaders will agree and act upon their responsibility to protect civilians and not stand by as they did in 1994 when nearly one million people died over the course of 100 days in her country.

During the UN Summit in September, Grace Mukagabiro talked with Sangamithra Iyerabout her experience during the Rwandan genocide, her hopes for the UN, and Rwanda today.

You have traveled to New York this week for the UN Summit. What are your hopes for this summit?
My hope for the summit is that all the leaders in the world will sign this agreement about responsibility to protect civilians. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, people were dying while the world was watching. Even the UN mission in Rwanda did not protect those people. That is why I am here to request that the leaders agree to their responsibility to protect civilians in the world from genocide and all crimes against humanity.

Would you be willing to share with our readers your personal story during the genocide?
I am a survivor of genocide. It was on April 7, 1994 when the government of Rwanda ordered the massacre of people because of ethnicity. The genocide started in Kigali and moved to other places day by day. My husband and I were both teachers in a small town called Nyanza. The war reached this town on April 24. They started to burn houses and destroy everything of people who were Tutsi. We fled from Nyanza to the village of my husband, but the genocide had already started happening there. On May 8, my husband was murdered by the armed militias. At the same time, his parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other people in his family were also killed. My name was on the list for the next day, and I was supposed to be killed with my children on May 9. On that night, I was very scared and escaped from that village. I was with my three children, the oldest four years, second three years, and the last was 11 months, and I was pregnant. I was also with two small children whose parents were already killed. I walked 18 kilometers back to Nyanza with my children and the two others—five very small children. When we arrived, there were two sisters from the other ethnicity who agreed to hide us in their home. After one week, the Rwandan Patriotic Army reached the town and the killers ran away. This is how we survived the genocide.

How are your children now?
Now they are okay. But of course there are problems to be without their father and to know that he was killed badly. He was beheaded. The children know how their father and other members of our family were killed. But they are okay. The two oldest are in high school; the others are in primary school now.

Can you talk about Rwanda today?
In the country, 11 years after genocide, there are many changes. The government has done a lot to help people start to live again. The first thing they did just after the genocide, was avoid revenge. They said that no one can revenge his family. After that, they tried to create some structures and commissions, like the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. This commission worked very well and has helped people to live together in a good relationship. Their approach is training people to work together and talk about their problems. There is also an approach for poverty reduction. When people from different ethnic groups work together, there is more trust between them. They trust each other and help each other. Those who were involved in genocide are free to talk and ask pardons and survivors of genocide are able to forgive.

There is also the gacaca, the traditional justice system where people sit together in their village and try to talk about their problems and decide on how to punish or to forgive. They decide what to do with those people involved in genocide. It is a good process and works well in the country. People feel free in their village. It helps them to understand each other and respect each other.

We also have good governance, good centralization. There are many things that have been done by the government, the ministry of gender, and women’s organizations who are working with widows, orphans and traumatized people.

You can say that we are living in peace now.

One thing that struck me when I was in Rwanda this summer was that nobody used ethnic identities anymore. Have the terms Hutu and Tutsi been eliminated?
There is no more ethnicity in our identity cards. We are all the same. We are Rwandese.

There have also been so many memorials created in Rwanda.
There are different memorial sites in the country. Each year in April, we remember. We visit the memorials, try to understand what happened during the genocide and think about how to not let it happen again.

Can you talk about your work with Oxfam and what some of your programs in Rwanda are?
Oxfam is doing peace building and development projects in Umatara, Ruhengeri and Gitarama. We try to identify conflict, poverty level, and different needs in the communities where we work. After the baseline study, we train men and women, literate and illiterate, on conflict management. We also work with former soldiers and help reintegrate them into the community. After the training we give them grants. They try to make projects and those projects help them to work together. When they work together, they trust each other and they use their decision-making to resolve the conflicts among them. This also creates a relationship between community and leaders.

What are your hopes for the future?
My hope for the future is that genocide does not happen again. I hope that the leaders will take seriously their responsibility to protect innocent civilians. Instead of discussing why people are dying, they will take quick collective action to stop the war or the genocide. If they have to discuss, they can discuss after.

This agreement signed by those world leaders gives me hope.

It is a good document that can prevent other conflicts if the leaders will be responsible.

When I was in Rwanda I was very impressed by the people and their ability to live together. It is a beautiful country and it is inspiring to see it so stable right now.
Thank you. The problem was bad governance, bad leaders. It was not a problem with the community. There is an improvement in our country. The government has done a lot after the genocide. Kagame is a good president, a very good man.

Rwanda is a country of mountains and there are many beautiful places. And there is no violence. No violence. You can walk in the night and no one will hurt you.

To learn more about Oxfam’s programs in Rwanda visit


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