Rwandan genocide survivor says Rohingya persecution a repeat of history

A group of Rohingya refugee people walk in the water after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf. Photo: Reuters
A group of Rohingya refugee people walk in the water after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf. Photo: Reuters

A nurse who survived the Rwandan genocide and wrote the first civilian testimony of the massacre said Myanmar's persecution of its Rohingya Muslim minority amounts to genocide and is a "shame on the world's conscience".

Yolande Mukagasana, 65, lost her entire family during the genocide, a three-month killing spree of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus that began 25 years ago.

After fleeing to Belgium, Mukagasana wrote "Not My Time To Die", a book documenting her escape and the murder of her husband and three children, to try to prevent ethnic persecution from happening again.

But a military campaign in Myanmar which drove about 730,000 ethnic Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh in 2017 showed "genocide is still happening," Mukagasana told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in London on Thursday.

"I myself saw the first signs of genocide in Rwanda when I was five years old. Because I was a Tutsi, I was called a snake and a cockroach," she said.

"Now I am 65 years old and I still see genocide happening. It makes me furious. It shames us all."

During the Rwandan genocide, extremist Hutu propaganda on radio and in magazines referred to the minority Tutsis as cockroaches and a mortal threat.

Similar language, Mukagasana noted, is being used today in Myanmar, where extremists have called the Rohingya or other Muslims dogs, maggots and rapists on social media and urged that they be shot, a Reuters investigation found.

The United Nations has said Myanmar's crackdown was executed with "genocidal intent" and included mass killings, gang rapes and widespread arson.

"I feel so disappointed. How can the world still allow people to hate others for their differences?" said Mukagasana.

Her book recounts how her life running a health clinic in the capital Kigali was shattered in April 1994 when a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down and the genocide began.

Government soldiers and allied extremist militia started trying to exterminate the Tutsi minority in villages across the densely populated country. Men, women and children were shot, clubbed to death and burned alive.

Mukagasana, a relatively wealthy Tutsi woman, feared she was a target and hid her three children with a relative who had a Hutu identity card.

"I was walking towards death in order to protect my children and I hoped they would survive," she said.

"But months later I said goodbye to them again at the mass grave and it tore me apart. I still have a piece of the earth where they were buried," she said.

In all, 800,000 people were murdered over 100 days of slaughter that wiped out 70 percent of the minority Tutsi population.

Among the genocide's legacies is the International Criminal Court, which grew out of tribunals to investigate and prosecute those responsible for atrocities committed in Rwanda and during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

While Mukagasana praised her own country for improving the rights of women, many of whom were raped during the genocide, she says powerful states and international bodies like the United Nations are failing those in need.

"The UN and other great powers have tools to protect humanity, but they have failed us. How many times must I hear the words 'never again?'"

The English translation of "Not My Time To Die" by Zoe Norridge of King's College London was published in April during a week of solemn ceremonies in Rwanda commemorating the lives of those murdered during the genocide.