‘Try to heal, try to forgive’
Tori Roeck | Thursday, April 24, 2014
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part series discussing two South Bend families’ experiences with the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in light of Notre Dame’s commemoration of the 20th anniversary of this tragedy, to take place April 26. Read the first installment here.
During the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis, in which more than one million people were killed in 100 days, South Bend residents Marie Rose Gatete and Gaetan Gatete, who both grew up in Rwanda, learned of the deaths of most of their close family members over the phone.
Gaetan Gatete said most Rwandans living in the United States during the genocide were plagued with uncertainty and relied on secondhand information about their loved ones back home.
“I had a sister who was living in Kigali, and that’s where the genocide started,” he said. “I don’t really know the exact time when she died, but I think it was in the first two days of the beginning of the genocide. I don’t remember how I heard the news of how she died, probably from a friend, but I know she died within a day because where she lived was very close to the military compound.
“My brother was living close to the airport, so he got killed. I don’t know the exact time but probably within two days.”
His parents, who lived in the south of the country, survived for longer than his siblings but could not escape the killers, Gaetan Gatete said.
“They tried a couple times to escape, but unfortunately they couldn’t,” he said. “They were stopped and returned to their home. But the whole village … protected them for three months because people loved them. The whole village loved them. Unfortunately, they didn’t protect them until the end.
“I don’t know who killed them. People were coming from some other areas, and it’s hard to know what happened because people don’t want to talk because they’re scared of being arrested because they probably participated.”
Marie Rose Gatete said she kept in touch with her sister over the phone until she died.
“I remember the last time I spoke with my sister before she died, before they killed her,” she said. “I was asking her why they can’t try to get out of the country because they called me on Easter. That was the last time. They called me to wish me a happy Easter. And I said, ‘Why can’t you please try to get out of the country?’
“And she said, ‘No. It’s hard. I guess we are ready to die, but we are afraid that they’re going to kill the children this time.’ They had the feeling already.”
Marie Rose Gatete’s young nieces and nephews were killed, and she said that was the hardest news to receive.
“Even though you’re seeing tears, I’m a very happy person,” she said. “I have no grudges against these people. It’s just the tears of those memories that I wish I had with my parents. I wish I had my nephews and my niece who died too young, at 10 years old, four years old, five years old. Now, they would’ve been like 20, graduating from college. Why were their lives cut short?”
Tutsis had been persecuted in Rwanda for decades before the 1994 genocide, and Marie Rose Gatete said she grew up in fear of ethnic-based violence.
“My father was killed in what I can call pre-genocide training [in 1990] because … the real genocide happened in 1994, but the killings of the Tutsis started way back,” she said. “In 1959, they killed people. I lost my grandparents in 1959. In 1973, they killed more Tutsis. In 1973, we tried to flee the country, and we were arrested at the border, beaten up.
“We came back. They threw my dad in jail. They left my mother with my siblings and my brother, and my younger brother was a year old. They beat him up, so we thought he was dead, and we got home. They had sold our house. The government took possession of all our belongings.”
Because of her family’s history, Marie Rose Gatete said her father encouraged her to study in the United States to avoid the dangers in Rwanda.
“I remember that [my father] was telling us that he would do anything to help us get out of the country, to help us get education and hopefully have a better life without fear of being killed, being tortured ⎯ what we went through when we were young kids,” she said. “When he passed away, I wanted to keep the legacy I told you about hard working and just keeping my faith. … It was during the hardest time in my life, during the genocide, when I was calling, and they were telling me, ‘This one died. Your sister died. Your aunts ⎯ they died. Your nephew died. Most of the family members.’
“But I keep hearing my parents, my mother and my father, echoing in my ears, ‘You can’t give up,’ because there were times when I felt that I was about to give up. But I kept telling myself, ‘You can’t give up, because if you give up, you will let your parents down.’ And I can’t do it. Basically people who are killing my family, they want all of us to die. So if I give up, I will really accomplish what they wanted us to be: dead people.”
Marie Rose Gatete and Gaetan Gatete met while studying at Indiana University South Bend, and in 1999, Marie Rose Gatete graduated from the executive MBA program at Notre Dame. Since then, the couple has been active in the local and national Rwandan community, and Gaetan Gatete said he serves as the president of the Rwandan Diaspora in the United States.
“Our role [at the Rwandan Diaspora] is to coordinate all those Rwandan areas [in the United States], to teach them to try to promote their activities so, in the end, we get a better Rwandan community … [to] promote the culture and promote peace and transformation in our country and to make the community better and to link our country to the U.S.A., which is a big role that the Diaspora plays.”
Part of their responsibility is to share their strength with others and to emphasize their faith, Marie Rose Gatete said.
“I came to the point where I truly believe that God will never tempt us beyond our limit,” she said. “He knows better than anybody else what we can handle. If He accepted that I go through this, that I have nightmares sometimes, flashbacks of things I saw on TV, of things I heard from my own sister, my own friends, my people, it’s because He knows that I have the strength to move on and also I have the strength to use that pain as a stepping stone to a better, hopeful life, to not use those as roadblocks to so many things, and also he knows that I have the passion of trying to make peace and trying to really love people.
“He allowed me to go through that so I can even be stronger so my sister, who lost everybody during the genocide, can lean on me, and she can cry on me, that my brother who lost parents when he was young can say, ‘I know that I have a strong sister.’ My other sister can say, ‘ I know I have a strong sister.’ My husband, who lost every single person, including parents, can lean on me.”
Gaetan Gatete said he is grateful to have survived the genocide and believes his life has a particular purpose.
“Fortunately God gave us a way to leave the country,” he said. “I’m sure if we were in Rwanda, we would’ve all been killed. So there’s a reason why we’re here, and there’s a reason why we survived.
“And I think once you come to terms with what happened and you accept it, then you try to make meaning out of it, and the meaning is to make this world better. And that’s why, whatever we do, we question ourselves why we exist.”
To help others heal, the Gatetes organized a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Washington D.C. on April 7 that featured survivor testimonies and a speech from someone whose parents survived the Holocaust, Marie Rose Gatete said.
As the world remembers the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Marie Rose Gatete said it is important to recognize how far the country has come since then.
“The bad leadership from before genocide had divided us,” she said. “We had those ID cards that were saying, ‘You are Tutsi,’ ‘You are Hutu,’ and those were like a guide to who should die, who should get school, who should be allowed to university.
“But now, the end of the leadership was the genocide, killing people. And now, the good leadership is the leadership that came in and said, ‘People died. People killed. But we are all Rwandans. Let’s put aside that division, what divides us, and embark on a journey where we are all Rwandans, where we can walk together and try to rebuild the country and move on with our lives, try to heal, try to forgive.’”