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Interview

Visiting Israel, Netanyahu’s guide to the Rwandan genocide dreams of a better future

The director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a survivor himself, reflects on the Holocaust and Iran’s vow to annihilate Israel, agrees incitement drives killing

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

From left to right: Honore Gatera, the director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara, and Rwandan President Paul Kagama, in Kigali, Rwanda, July 6, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
From left to right: Honore Gatera, the director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara, and Rwandan President Paul Kagama, in Kigali, Rwanda, July 6, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Honore Gatera was 13 years old when the killers came to his village in the Rwandan countryside. “I can recall everything that happened to me,” he said.

A neighbor belonging to the Hutu tribe bent on annihilating the country’s Tutsi community — to which Gatera’s family belongs — hid him and his cousin for a few weeks, until May 1994. “But as the killers were intensifying the searches in the homes and killing everyone, he decided to send us away. He said, instead of seeing you killed in front of my eyes, I prefer you to leave and join the other refugees in public facilities.”

But Gatera and his cousin did not follow their neighbor’s advice. Instead, they returned to the ruins of their family home, part of which was still standing, until the Rwandan Patriotic Front came to their rescue and helped them reach a safer area where they stayed till the mass killings were over. Only his mother, two uncles and an aunt survived the genocide. “From a family of more than 60 people, 30 were gone,” he said, apparently referring to his extended family.

Today, Gatera is the director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in July during his historic visit to Rwanda’s capital. Last week, Gatera, 35, and two colleagues came to Israel for the first time for a three-day study tour organized by Israel’s Foreign Ministry and Yad Vashem.

Honore Gatera, the director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, visiting Jerusalem, July 2016 (screen grab Facebook)
Honore Gatera, the director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, visiting Jerusalem, July 2016 (Facebook)

Speaking to The Times of Israel in his Jerusalem hotel, Gatera, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered bachelor, reflected on human nature and ways to prevent future atrocities, and on similarities and differences between the Holocaust and the Rwandan experience. He also recalled his recent encounter with Netanyahu.

“Being an Israeli, he knows a lot about genocides. He knows about the genocide in Rwanda as well,” said Gatera, who holds a degree in social sciences from Kigali Independent University.

On July 6, Gatera guided Netanyahu, his wife Sara, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame through the three parts of the museum: the main section dealing with the Hutus’ slaughter of nearly one million Tutsis in 1994, and the two smaller exhibitions, one being dedicated to the child victims of the Rwandan genocide and one dealing with various other genocides that occurred throughout modern times across the globe.

Posted by Kigali Genocide Memorial on Wednesday, July 6, 2016

“It was an interesting tour. He had a lot to tell us,” Gatera, who started working as a guide at the memorial in 2004 and took over as director six years later, said about Netanyahu. “He shared a lot in the section about the Holocaust. When we got to the section about Rwanda, of course, we took the lead — we were there with the president of Rwanda. But it was sort of a conversation. We talked about various issues. It was educational and open.”

Visiting the Children’s Room was the most difficult part of the one-hour tour, Gatera recalled. “It is tough for everyone, to see how the genociders wanted to wipe out an ethnic group, a whole generation, by killing everyone, including children who are nine months old and two months old.”

Netanyahu, at a press conference later that day, said it had been “exceptionally moving, jolting even, I would say, to see the pictures of children, sometimes babies, their briefest life stories put before us.”

Writing in the memorial’s guestbook, Netanyahu called the Rwandan genocide “one of history’s greatest crimes” and noted “haunting similarities to the genocide of our own people.”

‘Has there been any Holocaust victim infected with HIV by rape? That’s the uniqueness of the genocide in Rwanda’

Gatera, who has been to Auschwitz and several Holocaust museums in Europe and the United States, said all genocides have similarities and differences. A genocide’s uniqueness, he added, lies in the way the mass killing is orchestrated. “Have any Holocaust victims been killed with a machete? Has there been any Holocaust victim infected with HIV by rape? That’s the uniqueness of the genocide in Rwanda.”

He added: “The unfortunate thing has been that we never learned. And the communities that have been through genocides or atrocities are the ones who really know, deeply, what it means to go through a genocide and survive a genocide. The outside world doesn’t really seem to be connected to it and see what they have to do for prevention.”

Gatera came to Israel to learn from the people “who really understand how a genocide occurs and how a genocide can be prevented,” he said. His visit last week to Yad Vashem was “unique and educational,” Gatera added, in that he not only learned about the Holocaust but also about the professionalism with which the genocide is commemorated in Israel, he added.

Though the Kigali memorial dedicated an entire wing to the genocides of other people — the exhibition, called “Wasted Lives,” deals with mass atrocities in Namibia, Armenia, Cambodia, the Balkans and, of course, the Holocaust — Gatera is not bothered that Yad Vashem focuses exclusively on the Nazis’ attempted annihilation of the Jews. “It’s up to the community in Israel to decide whether they talk about [other genocides] or whether they decide that Yad Vashem is dedicated to [the Jews’] own genocide only,” he said.

“You know how many requests I get from people, [saying] you don’t talk about our case? We can’t talk about each and every case. Yes, we’ve done our best to talk about other cases. And yes, Israel talking about other cases of mass atrocities and genocide can be important in this nation for the people who come to visit to Jerusalem. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be in Yad Vashem. It can be somewhere else.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lays a wreath at the memorial for the Rwandan genocide in Kigali on Wednesday, July 6, 2016 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lays a wreath at the memorial for the Rwandan genocide in Kigali on Wednesday, July 6, 2016 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

In his Kigali press conference, Netanyahu not only compared the Rwandan genocide with the Holocaust, he also evoked contemporary examples of what he considers harbingers of future genocide.

“So today, when we see leaders in Gaza calling for the murder of every Jew around the world, we all have a duty to speak out. When we hear the Supreme Leader of Iran calling for the annihilation of Israel, we have a duty to speak out,” he said.

Gatera again fully concurred with the prime minister: Iranian leaders’ threats clearly constitute “incitement to genocide,” he said. While admitting not to fully understanding the roots of Israeli-Iranian enmity, he said the UN should request an explanation from Tehran. “Wiping someone off the map — that’s eradicating all the people from that country. And those speeches enter the minds of the young people as they grow up and may end up committing genocide.”

Despite all he has learned about genocides, including his own dreadful experiences, Gatera still believes a future without genocide is possible. There is nothing innate in human nature that forces people to kill each other, he asserted. “If there is no propaganda, if there is no education to hate, genocide would not happen at all.”

A young Rwandan girl walks through Nyaza cemetery outside Kigali, Rwanda, on Monday November 25, 1996, where thousands of victims of the 1994 genocide are buried (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
A young Rwandan girl walks through Nyaza cemetery outside Kigali, Rwanda, on Monday November 25, 1996, where thousands of victims of the 1994 genocide are buried (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

Citing his own experience growing up in Rwanda, he said he could see how people were “forged into genociders” by incitement and propaganda. “No one has in his blood to commit violence against his community or his friends. No, people are educated to that. People are forged to become a weapon.”

Education and fostering independent thinking are thus key in preventing future mass atrocities. After a genocide has been committed, perpetrators realize that “they fell into a trap,” that politicians turned them into mindless killing machines, Gatera posited. Society thus needs to make sure that children grow up “with their own critical thinking,” he demanded.

After the Rwandan genocide, Hutus and Tutsis quickly reconciled and today live harmoniously in the same country. What lessons can Jews and Arabs learn from Rwanda?

“I don’t have an answer for you now,” Gatera replied. “There is one belief I have in my life: there is a solution to any problem. I can’t see the solution now to this conflict that has been going on for a long time. It may not be in my lifetime, but there will be a solution to it.”

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