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A human rights activist has seen the horror up close


Washington -- If the world wants to put a human face on the horror taking place in the killing fields of a tiny, Central East African nation called Rwanda, it need look no further than the face of Rwandan human rights leader Monique Mujawamariya. The violence is etched there in the scars on her face, the result of an assassination attempt. The history of Rwanda is there, too: in the mixture of tribal blood that flows through her from her Hutu father and Tutsi mother.

And like hundreds of thousands of her fellow Rwandans, Monique Mujawamariya has had to flee her country and the massacres that began a month ago after a mysterious plane crash killed the presidents of Rwanda and neighboring Burundi. Those not fortunate enough to get out found themselves trapped in a small country filled with enormous horror: As many as 200,000 Rwandans may have been killed.

Now Ms. Mujawamariya, whose three children are still in Rwanda, has come to Washington on a cold, rainy spring day to meet with officials and to deliver a message to the world. She is not optimistic that her message will bring the results she wants.

"What I want, I don't think I can have," says Ms. Mujawamariya through an interpreter. "I want someone to stop the killing without killing. I want someone who will go into Rwanda and stop the militia from killing without using those same tactics. I don't know who I can find to do that."

But if anyone can move a watching world to intervene in Rwanda, it may be Ms. Mujawamariya. Which is why she is willing to recount, with great difficulty, the terrifying ordeal of her last week in Rwanda.

"She is using her own experience to bring attention to Rwanda," says Holly Burkhalter, Washington director of Human Rights Watch.

It is, to be sure, an extraordinary experience. But no more extraordinary than the 39-year-old woman who lived through it. Her role as a Rwandan human rights leader has earned her worldwide respect; she represented a group of human-rights monitors last December in a meeting with President Clinton at the White House. But her work has also placed her in a position of great personal danger, says the director of the African division of Human Rights Watch, Abdullahi An-Na'im.

"There have been a series of attacks in which she was targeted," says Mr. An-Na'im. "Even though she is Hutu, her own ethnic group will see her as a traitor. . . . They see all human rights monitors as traitors." And now that she is in this country, "naming names of those who are directing the operations," he says, there have been threats that "if she does not stop, her children will be targeted and killed."

At this point, he says, she cannot return to Rwanda. "It would mean immediate death."

In person, Monique Mujawamariya seems an unlikely candidate for such violent threats. Dressed in a tailored beige suit, she is a soft-spoken woman whose eyes, behind her glasses, are steady and gentle. Her determination and courage, however, leap out and transform her when she speaks of the personal danger she faces.

"Ever since I've been involved with human rights, I've been the target of attempts," she says. "There was a car accident, from which I bear the scars on my face. There were telephone threats, voices saying, 'We're going to kill you in your house. Dogs are going to eat you.'

"They've prepared me psychologically to die. Step by step, they've recounted to me how they're going to do it. The different ways they'll kill me. Normal death I'm not afraid of. We're all going to finish off by dying anyway. But torture . . . step by step . . ." Her voice trails off. "But that's what I'm faced with."

Almost a month ago to the day, Monique Mujawamariya was faced with the possibility that her worst fears were about to come true. Her nightmare ordeal began on Wednesday, April 6, the day the Rwandan president -- a member of the Hutu ethnic majority -- was killed in the plane crash. What ensued in the Rwandan capital of Kigali was an explosion of unimaginable violence.

Even Monique Mujawamariya who, only days before, had faxed the director of Human Rights Watch regarding the possibility of violence, had not imagined the massacre that followed. "You never could have expected that," she says now. "Even though we were expecting something bad to happen, we never, never thought the situation could have risen to such heights."

Many minority Tutsis and political opponents of the government had anticipated the situation and bought plane tickets to Kenya. Monique was not among them.

"I didn't have the means to buy a ticket and so I couldn't leave," she says. "What I did was send my children to the south where we thought it would be calm. But anyone who had the means HTC bought tickets. But many of my friends died with these tickets in their pockets."

It was early in the morning on April 7 that Kigali began its descent into the heart of darkness. Nervous and unable to sleep, Monique began hearing gunfire in the nearby military camps about 5 a.m. Then, an hour later, the presidential military guard arrived in her neighborhood.

She remembers it this way: "They began pulling out women, children, men from their houses. Then they shot them. We saw them getting killed. They were killed in the streets, they were killed in their houses . . . I was very scared while this was happening. I knew I couldn't escape." She began phoning agencies and embassies, asking for help. But none was available.

Finally, she got through to her friend Dr. Alison Des Forges, a Human Rights Watch board member based in Buffalo. "Alison told me to run away. But I have a problem with my foot. She then suggested I go to the Jesuits who live nearby, but any time there's danger the Jesuits are targeted and imprisoned. Finally she said, 'Go to your neighbors.' But everybody was in as much danger as I was."

By this time, the Presidential Guard was on a killing spree in Monique's neighborhood. "When they finished killing all my neighbors, they began shooting at my house," she says. "I was terrified. They were shooting at my house to see if there would be a response from within, to see whether those within had arms or not."

At that moment, the phone rang. It was her friend Alison Des Forges calling.

"Listen," Monique said, holding the phone in the direction of the shooting. "Do you hear them firing outside my house? They've killed my neighbors. And now they're here! Please, would you take care of my children?"

Monique hung up abruptly -- she did not want her friend to hear the sounds of her being murdered -- and ran out to hide in the bush.

So sure was Dr. Des Forges that Monique was dead that she sent out a message to her colleagues expressing her grave fears. It would be almost a week before Monique's friends and colleagues would learn that she had managed, in fact, to escape.

For almost four days Monique hid: First in the bushes and then in the rafters of her house. But finally, on Sunday, worried that her maid might be tortured into revealing her hiding place, Monique decided she had to take a chance and evacuate her house.

"I saw soldiers outside, but they seemed too young to recognize who I was, the things I'd done as an activist. I did not think they would torture me. Maybe they'd beat me but not torture me."

Monique, who had been married for 14 years to a very well-known Rwandan military official, quickly saw a way to use this to her advantage. She gathered together photos of her ex-husband with other well-known officers and approached the young soldiers.

"Look," she said, showing them the pictures, "I'm one of you. My husband is a member of the militia and you've got to help me get to a hotel."

The soldiers told her they had to wait for an order from their commander to do such a thing. Monique knew only too well who their commander was. "He is an extremely evil man who had been waiting to kill me," she says now.

At this point, a young corporal approached her, saying: "We can help you -- if you have money to give us."

"I do have money, but it isn't with me," she lied, knowing that if she gave the money to them right there on the spot, they would kill her. "I'm going to have to get it at whatever hotel we go to," she told them.

On Tuesday, the soldiers arrived with a vehicle. Monique had put her jewelry into a handbag and hidden her money in a container of hand lotion. "This was a suicide mission," she says now of her decision to take her chances with the soldiers. "I didn't know these people. I had no reason to trust them. But what other choice did I have?"

About 400 meters from the hotel, the soldiers robbed her of her jewels. But they did drop her off at the hotel. Using her wits once more, Monique managed to make her way from the hotel in time to catch the last plane taking civilians out of Kigali. She arrived in Brussels early on Wednesday, April 13 -- exactly one week after her ordeal began.

The ordeal, however, is not over for Monique Mujawamariya. She has not heard any news of her children, who are in an area of Rwanda where, recently, there has been an outbreak of killing.

And it is clear from her emotional recounting of the week's events that she is not free of the terrible sights she witnessed. The worst moment? "I saw military men kill a 1-year-old baby -- the child of my girlfriend," she says slowly, the pain carved into her voice, her hand reaching to lift her glasses and wipe away the tears.

For the time being she has no permanent residence. Since arriving from Brussels, she's been staying in Canada and various cities in the United States. Wherever she is, however, she continues to work with her colleagues, continues her attempts to help the world understand what's going on in Rwanda. It is a more complicated situation, she says, than is generally understood.

"It's very easy to characterize what's happening in Rwanda as simple ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis. This is the way it's being portrayed to Europe and the United States. But it's not true. It's a political conflict. I'm a Hutu. And those who are after me to kill me are Hutus. My grandfather was a Tutsi and he married a Hutu. People have always cohabited together. It's the political opposition who are being killed."

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