Alice Karekezi Interview [English]: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Justice in Rwanda: The Rights of Women; Conversation with Alice Karekezi, human rights activist; 10/5/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Il y a aussi un interview d'Alice Karekezi en français interviewée par Nanou Matteson

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Once you'd completed your studies, working as a lawyer, history came to your doorstep, in a way, from your country. Did you know in advance of the events in your country that were about to lead to genocide? Did you keep informed about what was going on in your country?

Sure. The history didn't come on my door. I have been always with history. And sometimes I'm surprised not to have gone in this field. My mother's songs were evoking Rwanda every time. And actually I learned this country as well as I learned France, by books. I learned Rwanda by songs, and particularly my mother's songs.

And these songs told the story of the history of your country?

Some of them. But most of them were describing the place. So I knew them quite well in songs. I didn't know the places. The first time that I came to Rwanda after the genocide, once I was crossing a river and they told me, "This is Galarongo River." I said, "Wow!" And I sang this song.

So the stories and the pictures were in your head, even though you had never been there.

Yes. And I have been always involved in community work while I was at school. And at secondary school and the university ...

Do you mean with the Rwandan community?

Not only with the Rwandan community. In my secondary school I was in a Zairian school in a town called Kolowezi and we were playing theater, we were writing a revue for the school. And I've always mixed my interests but Rwanda has remained a leitmotif always. To say that I wasn't surprised that my country would experience genocide is too much. But I had some ... how do you say?

An inkling? A sense that something was going to happen? A foreboding?

Yes. A sense that something will happen. And this sense was incited also by the analysis of the facts. We could see that we are going to a major conflict. You know that the war started in '90, October '90. And I've been following it since the beginning. And when the Arusha agreement, the peace accord, was signed in August '93, I remember that I had a bad feeling. I said, during the war you can see what the picture is, but the Arusha agreement was just too nice to be true.

It appeared to be a settlement, but it wasn't.

Yes. And in '94, just two months before the genocide, I remember that I was trying to discuss with other Rwandese, to tell them that I think that ... because there were systematic killings, selected killings. And I remember once, Felix Gatabazi, one of the leaders of the political party in the opposition, was killed in front of his house. And I heard it and I got frightened. I went to see others and tell them, I think we should try to speak up. If they have killed Gatabazi, I don't know if they can be stopped again. I remember that they told me that (we were in Paris), they told me that, you know, people are not interested in our problems. One of the women I was proposing this to told me, "Alice, you want to put us in your problems." But she lost most of the members of her family later on. And the day the plane was shot, ...

The president of Rwanda was killed, which then precipitated all of the violence -- the immediate, apparent cause of the violence and leading to the genocide.

I remember that when I heard that I got definitely afraid. And the day after, the genocide started.

You were in France, and France was playing a military role in Rwanda, in terms of the provisions and the arms it was providing, and you became actively involved in trying to influence the French debate about France's policy toward Rwanda. Tell us a little about that. What were the difficulties in explaining what was going on in Rwanda?

First of all, I started with a wrong analysis, thinking that they didn't know.

"They" being the French.

Yes, other political leaders are not aware of what they are doing and that later on, maybe after explaining to them, they will [begin] to know. But later on we learned that it was deliberate support to the regime of Habyarimana. And we tried many things. First of all, to gather up the support of French in France, and others. We tried also to lobby the political leaders in the senate, in the parliament or elsewhere, in political parties. And there were some objective obstacles because the African Affairs were dealt with in the Office of the President in France, and it's all discretion. But there was also non-interest.

Apathy on the part of the French.

Yes, because at that time it had become so usual that in Africa countries [were] having a conflict again. And in the post Cold War era, they were more interested in what's happening in the East of Europe and also in Asia. This was trendy. But the empire, no longer. And Rwanda is a very poor country, not interesting for that. I remember when we used to tell them, to speak about Rwanda, they'd say, "Remind me, where is it again? Near which big country again?" So we'd have to explain that it's near Zaire and so on. And I remember, and I would like to salute the commitment of some of our French friends, and non-French friends living in France, but the blindness of most of the political leaders is just unacceptable.

Now, at about this time you had an occasion to meet with a Rwandan woman who had been brought to Brussels. Tell us a little about that experience, but also how it helped draw you back to Rwanda and to focus on the issues pertaining to the violation of women in your country.

When I met her I was really wondering about the need of trying something in France. And I was evaluating the impact of what we have tried to do and what we have succeeded to do. And also vis-à-vis of the need of our resources at home. And one day I happened to go to Brussels where I met a young survivor of sexual violence.

And her name was?

I can call her Clementine. Clementine has survived sexual violence and genocide and was in a hospital, [taken there by an NGO], and I went to meet her. A few times before, African Rights had documented, among others, the systematic and widespread sexual violence committed during the genocide, including as a tool of genocide, as a weapon of war. And I went to see this young woman. She was seventeen at that moment. And I remember feeling I'd met somebody who was just smiling, discussing with us. But when I happened to read her medical file and saw what she had experienced, I was totally shocked. I was totally shocked. This young person had been gang raped, I happen to know. She was explaining that during three months how they were taking them and leaving them, and so on. And also she needed some surgery, reconstruction. She was there for that. Because after having raped her, they poured acid in her womb. And this young person has also contracted HIV. This is somebody who was seventeen years old! And this issue wasn't mentioned.

Maybe genocide was just too huge to think about what were considered as details. And for me, it wasn't a detail. I went back to Paris and, at that time, we were celebrating International Women Day '95. And I went to see the leaders and tried to convince them to have a special discussion on that and to condemn it at least. But the Union des Femmes Française, which was the most important umbrella organization of French women organizations, was celebrating its 50th anniversary and had so many problems on their agenda that the time possible to allocate to this issue was one minute. They asked me to come and to speak among many others during one minute about the problem of Rwanda. Was I wrong or right? I don't know. But I considered this was just too little time for the problem. Not only because, as a Rwandese, I was feeling it, I cannot ignore this part, but also, except for Bosnia and Haiti, that was the first time you heard about this systematic sexual violence as a tool of genocide. And as women activists I would think that this was the time to sit down and to be given enough time. Because it was raining all [over] the capital [with] women [who] work in terms of women's rights and other defenses of women's rights. And for me it wasn't understandable to just allocate one minute. But maybe I was wrong.

What I decided is that it was not enough for me, and I was preferring not to mention it at all. And then we had an important colloquium at Paris Huit, which was one of the most progressive universities in Paris. And they have worked a lot to try to see what they can do with us to address some of our problems. But in this process, when I mentioned sexual violence, once again it appeared as a detail. Only one lecturer from Cameroon came to see me and asked me to come to his seminar in the anthropology of conflict, to speak about that. But the audience was saying, "fine, but ..." So afterward I started to tell to myself that maybe I was just wasting my time there. Because too much frustration, too much energy, too much time dedicated for hearing that these were details. And maybe I started to think that as an insider/outsider, maybe I can help in this matter.

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