Rwanda: Peacekeepers in Juba remember genocide 25 years later with words of hope for South Sudan
Twenty-five years ago, in 1994, Celine Kalingirwa was just being born in Rwanda, fondly known as the land of a thousand hills.
She was just three months old when a bloody conflict consumed her country, leaving about 800,000 people dead in 100 days. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were also fleeing to neighbouring countries.
Chances of her survival were almost nil, but she is alive today, and proudly wears her country’s flag and a blue helmet – working as a medical doctor and peacekeeper in South Sudan, now still emerging from a protracted conflict.
“As I grow up, I get to understand what happened,” says Dr Kalingirwa. “It’s a really sad history to have – having some parts of the family not being able to know them or see them – just seeing them in pictures, is sad,” she says.
“As we go forward our hearts are strong … I would really like to appreciate and thank my parents for whatever they did to protect me and my siblings,” she says, as she stares into space as if imagining what could have otherwise befallen her family.
Lieutenant Desire Mukunzi was also born that same year, in May. The conflict was at its height then.
“My parents survived, and they helped me go to school. Not everyone had that chance. Many died, but I thank those that survived for the work they have done,” says the helicopter pilot, who flies MI17 choppers across the heartland of South Sudan, often ferrying troops and supplies.
“I feel sad, I feel unhappy – for my homeland to have that bad history, but from it, we got the strength to move forward. It’s a chance to start a new,” he says.
Both Dr Kalingirwa and Lieutenant Mukunzi are a generation that grew up under harsh circumstances but found their bearings from their surviving parents.
They now work in conflict-affected South Sudan as peacekeepers, and they say they are fortunate to have this opportunity.
“I would like to give hope to the people of South Sudan, and as we have a theme in Rwanda of remembering, uniting and renewing, it should really help them and give them a picture of what can come out of such a time – and of being united as people of South Sudan so that they can build their country for the future,” says Dr Kalingirwa.
With South Sudan and Rwanda on their minds, Dr Kalingirwa and Lieutenant Mukunzi, both joined in a big procession called “A walk to Remember” to commemorate 25 years after the genocide against the Tutsi that grabbed world headlines.
Together with hundreds of other Rwandan peacekeepers, Rwandan civilians, and other nationalities, they walked as music played from speakers, some holding hands, while others sang or walked in silence side by side or catching up with colleagues and friends.
Among those walking in the crowd was Janet Mutamuliza, a Rwandan businesswoman who joined in the ceremony, walking silently, and pensively. She was 17 when the conflict happened. Her parents did not survive the genocide and most of her friends also perished.
Her name Mutamuliza means “don’t make her cry”, and she is almost in tears as she remembers 25 years ago, unable to speak about what happened to her parents.
Through a translator she said: “During the genocide, no one imagined they could survive. Death was everywhere. People were dying everywhere,” said the mother of one.
“If my parents were alive today, I would tell them to continue to love and not to hate,” she continued. “[People] have to tell their children the message of love.”
Janet’s message of love was echoed by South Sudanese Emeritus Bishop Paride Taban who is famed for the South Sudan’s Peace Village. He was involved in mediating peace in Rwanda years ago.
“I was sent in 1994 to console the people of Rwanda,” he said, adding that through the blood that the country had shed, the “seed of good things, the seed of unity, the seed of reconciliation and forgiveness,” was able to germinate, and be an example to the rest of the world.
“The scripture says again, unless the seed falls to the ground, it cannot produce fruit. The seeds of the blood of Rwanda produced fruit, which now is an example for the whole world, especially for Rwanda, Sudan and South Sudan,” said the Bishop, while praising Rwanda for the progress it has made since its dark history.
Reminding Rwandans on the need to continue with national building, the Rwandan High Commissioner spoke to the diaspora urging them to be good examples of each other to South Sudanese.
“It’s a moment to pay tribute to those who perished in the genocide. We also stand in solidarity with the survivors as we step up the fight against the genocide ideology. It is a cause which all humanity should associate with. It is a moral imperative to fight the genocide ideology,” said Colonel James Burabyo, who is accredited to South Sudan with Residence in Kampala.
Speaking at the occasion, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan Deputy Force Commander, said there were lessons for all to learn.
“We stand in solidarity with the Rwandan people as we continue to forge a common future in the spirit of reconciliation and unity, said Deputy Force Commander, Major General Bayarsaikhan Dashdondog. “Rwanda today has seen massive transformation in terms of political stability, economic growth perhaps most importantly in social healing,” he said. “We can take example as to what may arise from such a situation as we continue to protect civilians and build durable peace in South Sudan,” he added.
At the ceremony, a large torch and several candles were lit – with light being passed from colleague to colleague – a symbol of life and hope, and a new spirit for the future of Rwanda.
“We have to unite as Rwandese, and renew as we build our country,” said Dr Kalingirwa, in her role of Master of Ceremony, to the hundreds present, who wore symbolic grey and white ribbons and scarfs.