By MICHAEL NUNES
EDISON — Jacqueline Murekatete was not like other children growing up.
“Most of my classmates and friends did not know anything about me beyond being an orphan from Africa,” she said.
One day when a Holocaust survivor named David Gewirtzman came to her high school class in Queens, New York, she felt a special connection with the story he told.
“Besides being one of the students that cried as he told his story, I also began to see similarities between what had happened to him and what had happened to me,” Murekatete said, recalling her life during the Rwandan genocide that claimed much of her family.
“Both of us had been children on a different continent, in a different time, but both of us had goals, dreams, and families … but that life had been brought to a tragic end because of our identity,” she said, adding that it was that event that made her want to share what had happened to her.
Murekatete, the founder of the Genocide Survivors Foundation, visited Middlesex County College on April 21 to tell students about the most traumatic event of her life in hopes that they can learn from it. Her discussion was the first in a series of events sponsored by the college’s Center for the Study of Genocide, Prejudice and the Holocaust.
The genocide in Rwanda started April 7, 1994, and ended in July of that year. In a four-month span an estimated one million people, primarily from the Tutsi ethnic minority, were murdered by the country’s Hutu majority, who were supported by the government. According to Murekatete, about 84 percent of the population belonged to the Hutu ethnic group, 15 percent to the Tutsi, and the rest were from the Twa ethnic group.
The lead-up to the genocide saw the Tutsi dehumanized and the government perpetrating a narrative that the group were foreigners who did not deserve the same rights as the Hutu majority, Murekatete said.
At the start of the genocide, Murekatete, then 9, was visiting her grandmother’s house. Little did she know at the time she would never see her parents again.
When the killings began, Murekatete, along with her cousin and grandmother, fled to a county government building with other Tutsi from around the area. However, the building provided little protection.
“Radio was the main mechanism of communication in Rwanda at that time, and the Hutu government used it as a way to mobilize people to participate [in the killings]. Government officials would come on the radio and say, ‘In this county office there are hundreds of Tutsi there,’ and people would know where [the Tutsi] were and target them,” she said.
It was not long until the county office that Murekatete and her family were hiding in would be the next target.
“When the county office was attacked, they began to kill men, women and children indiscriminately. I witnessed a number of deaths. It was very difficult for me,” she said.
Luckily, according to Murekatete, the family was able to leave the county office when a sympathetic Hutu, a friend of her uncle, smuggled them in an ambulance in the middle of the night.
After being rescued, the family had arranged to hide in the home of another sympathizer until the violence ceased.
Their hiding place did not remain a secret for long.
“We stayed for about a week until we were discovered. To this day we are not sure how they found out we were there, but I remember one morning being woken up by a very loud banging on the door,” she recalled, adding that she heard people outside the house screaming, ‘We know you have Tutsi cockroaches inside your house.'”
According to Murekatete, a group of Hutu men had surrounded the home with bloodied machetes, a sign they had spent the night slaughtering.
“At that point we thought we were going to be killed. We thought that this is it,” she said, adding she was still to this day unsure how the family survived. “The men who had come to kill us, perhaps they had some mercy, but they told the man who was hiding us that he had to kick us out and if he did not, they would come back.”
Before leaving, the man who was hiding the family informed them of Italian missionaries who ran an orphanage nearby.
“When my grandmother heard about this orphanage, she knew that if there was any place [my cousin and I] would have a chance to survive, it would be there,” Murekatete said. The orphanage, however, would not take in adults, fearing that marauding Hutu would start to target them.
“When my grandmother told me that the genocide would end soon and she would come to the orphanage and get us out, I believed it. As it turns out, the day that my cousin and I left for the orphanage ended up being the last day we would ever see her,” she said. After the genocide ended, she learned that her grandmother had been killed shortly after she went to the orphanage.
Despite being in relative safety, every day still brought with it the fear that it could be their last.
“Every day when we went to bed, we never knew if we were going to survive to see the next day. The orphanage was surrounded by fences, but every day we heard screams of people being killed outside the orphanage,” she said of the condition she and hundreds of other children had to live in.
The genocide ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a militia made of Tutsi and moderate Hutu, managed to overthrow the Hutu government.
After the genocide Murekatete and her cousin were released from the orphanage by surviving family members, but there was one question on her mind.
“The first thing that I asked him was when he was going to take me back to my parents’ village. I was somehow convinced that they would be there and they would be alive,” she said, adding that her uncle did not tell her initially, but after a while of asking he finally told her her parents’ fate.
“I would come to learn that one day during the genocide my Hutu neighbors — whose children I grew up going to school with, went to church with, who used to come to my home — had taken my parents, my four brothers, two sisters, paternal uncle and grandmother, and took them to a nearby river … where they had proceeded to murder them with machetes and with clubs for no other reason than their ethnicity,” she said.
Murekatete was later adopted in 1995 by an uncle who lived in the United States.
Despite her traumatic life story, Murekatete talks about the events that unfolded in Rwanda in order to educate people about the dangers of ignoring the outside world.
“Genocide is not a crime that happens overnight. People don’t get up one day wanting to pick up machetes and clubs and go about killing their neighbors or their friends. This is something that is a process,” she told the room full of students and teachers.
“People always ask me why do I keep talking about these things, and I always tell them I certainly do not enjoy it. Nobody enjoys having to constantly go back and remember the horrors and the suffering and the loss,” she said. “[Those who survive], we want the stories of what happened to our families to be known and we want people to know what happened in Rwanda in 1994,” she said.
“It is our hope that by sharing our stories we can inspire people to educate people about genocide and hopefully get them to join us in spreading awareness about it.”
Contact Michael Nunes at email@example.com.