I attended a moving and powerful Holocaust Memorial Day Ceremony yesterday. This annual event provides a focal point around the world to remember the horrors of Auschwitz, Kristallnacht and the March of Death.
Holocaust Memorial Day events also recall the genocides since: Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. Survivors spoke of their losses, and of their journeys, provoking in me emotions ranging from anger to sadness to hope. And HMD2014 partly remembered the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, as this year, through Kwibuka20, Rwanda commemorates the 20th Anniversary of that genocide.
In the UK the year began with a Commonwealth event on 7 January at which I had the honour of speaking. I was humbled to share a platform with survivors and their testimonies and songs . A flame of remembrance is now touring the country, and Rwandans will gather in Birmingham in April to mark the start of the genocide 20 years ago.
In spring 1994 at least 800,000 Rwandan men, women and children were killed in 100 days. Most were killed by hand – clubs and machetes – in an organised orgy of violence that was shamefully ignored by the global community and its institutions. Official and unofficial security services and gangs drew up lists and hunted down their victims. Neighbour killed neighbour. Workmate murdered workmate. And Hutu families who assisted Tutsi targets to hide or defend themselves were killed as traitors too.
I have visited some of the sites of mass murder. Churches where priests promised protection and then gave the keys to the thugs who then slaughtered those who were trapped. Today these buildings are memorials, with blood on the walls and skulls in the basement, a permanent reminder of the depravity that is possible when human beings become obsessed with fear and hatred.
At the national memorial centre in Kigali, 250,000 remains are buried together. It is a place of real reflection and a place it is impossible to leave without feeling the impact of this horror on the country. The Aegis Trust, who manage the centre, are currently working with the Rwandan Education Department to take the lessons learned from the genocide out into schools all over the country.
Kwibuka is the Kinyarwanda word for ‘remember’ – and we remember to learn, to understand and to move forward.
Peacebuilding requires many things: justice and reconciliation, investment and economic growth, social improvements to reduce inequalities, demobilisation of former combatants, and governance that holds decision makers accountable and builds a new relationship between citizens and the national state.
We know from our own experience in Northern Ireland how difficult such a challenge can be. And we can see from Israel and Palestine, South East Asia, the Caucuses, and the Balkans how identity based conflicts can remain frozen for decades or more.
Yet in Rwanda the people are trying harder than ever before, after a killing spree that was worse than ever before, to rebuild, to unite, to put future generations before the horrors of the past. The genocide is not ignored. But the country also recognises that development is the best insurance policy for the future.
Today Rwanda has more women in Parliament than any other country on the planet. It has built an international reputation for intolerance of corruption. Growth and development rates are amongst the highest in the world. In education, health, transportation and technology they have come further than anyone could have dreamed, and they are ambitious to go further, faster.
Rwanda has challenges, particularly in maintaining peace and unity while developing democracy. But it does have the potential to become a beacon of hope for beleaguered citizens the world over who want their political and religious leaders to extend a hand to peace and development rather than mistrust, fear, violence and destruction.
And in remembering the modern world’s worst genocide, the United Nations, its leading member states and other international institutions must pay more than lip service and act decisively to prevent and end ethnic conflicts and violence elsewhere. Twenty years on we may be better at feeding and sometimes protecting those who are suffering from conflict and violence, but on too many occasions it is still too little too late.
That is why we must never forget.