Gilbert Mwenedata survived the Genocide. His story should inspire us all, writes. Thirteen years ago began one of the worst episodes of Genocide in the 20th century. During the “hundred days of madness” nearly 1 million Rwandans were slaughtered, the fastest Genocide in recorded history.
The massacre of Tutsi people by Hutu-dominated government forces was not a random act but the consequence of deep-rooted conflict dating back to colonisation.
Although sharing many similarities, ethnic differences were fostered by the colonial masters, who promoted one social grouping at the expense of another. These are the divisions Rwandans are trying to erase today.
You may recall the horrific pictures we saw on TV.
It was a war we Australians did not understand. Later we understood that the United Nations forces stationed in Rwanda stood aside while the slaughter continued, because they were forbidden to intervene.
The UN has now declared Wednesday, April 7, the International Day of Remembrance for Rwanda. This marks the beginning of 10 days of commemoration, during which a special memorial will be opened in Rwanda.
On Wednesday a young Rwandan, Gilbert Mwenedata, will join me in Federation Square as we remember lives that were lost and honour the peace Rwanda has bravely maintained since 1994.
I met Gilbert over a cup of tea a last week. He sat and talked calmly about the horrific and painful deaths of his sister, mother and several relatives. Gilbert, 19 at the time, survived by hiding with others in a swamp for several weeks. He is one of 800 survivors from his district of 59,000 people.
Like most survivors, Gilbert saw his community racked by the civil war, lives ended or ruined, buildings destroyed.
Listening to his story, I was amazed at how Gilbert represents the meaning of hope in Rwanda. Gilbert is a survivor who dedicates his life to assisting others like himself who have suffered so much.
Why would a young man, entering the prime of his life, choose to continue dealing with the aftermath of events with such personal resonance?
He answers that continuing stability in Rwanda needs all parts of the community to work together for peace, healing and reconciliation. He sees this as his personal contribution to a brighter future.
Gilbert no longer speaks of being judged by his family background. He describes Rwandans sharing what they have across tribal boundaries - not just Hutu and Tutsi, but all social groupings. This, he says, gives him hope for a more peaceful future.
There is much more to Rwanda than its Genocide. A vibrant culture is developing and emerging again, as we have seen in the recent children’s choir visiting Australia. The youth of today speak optimistically about the future as access to education, health care and opportunities increases.
Integration and tolerance are their building blocks for future prosperity.
Rebuilding a shattered nation such as Rwanda is about developing this spirit as much as rebuilding schools and hospitals. And that is the vital work that people like Gilbert undertake.
Rwanda has made significant progress towards healing and reconciliation since 1994. The job is far from complete, but the steps taken so far must be applauded and encouraged.
Rebuilding is a slow, painful and fragile process. South Africa, Cambodia, Kosovo and Rwanda have shown us that the scars of society do not heal overnight and a conflict’s legacy lingers for generations.
In Rwanda, for example, 300,000 children were orphaned and caring for them is a lifelong responsibility. Some are cared for by generous Australians.
Ten years on it is easy for the developed world to forget Rwanda and its devastating past. The war tribunals continue to bring some justice to Rwandans, but here in Australia we are far removed from the struggle to restore a broken nation.
But, as we have seen in Kosovo recently, underlying ethnic tensions can easily erupt again.
Long-term peace takes time, patience, tolerance as well as international support and assistance. Just as we ask Australians to pause and remember Rwanda, we ask Australian Government ministers to remember Rwanda as they finalise the overseas aid budget.
Stability throughout the world, even in places as remote as Central Africa is in everyone’s interests. Investing in Rwanda’s continuing peace is investing in a more stable, secure world, something all citizens value.
After this week Rwanda will once again fade from the news, but I ask you not to forget genocide survivors like Gilbert.
They come to speak of hope and we must continue supporting them and their communities as they try to build a better future.
The writer is the chief executive of World Vision Australia