The Rwandan Genocide Survivor Who Fights anti-Semitism

Yolande Mukagasana, whose entire family was massacred in Kigali, was in Israel for the International Conference on the Study of the Shoah and Genocide to discuss lessons of the Holocaust and her bond with the Jewish people.

Avshalom Halutz

“I’m going to tell you a story that really happened,” said Israel Prize winner and renowned Holocaust researcher Prof. Yehuda Bauer, as he straightened his thick glasses and looked out at the audience seated before him in the small lecture hall in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana.

It was early evening and a 13-year-old girl was sitting in her family’s living room reading a book, while her parents and older sister were drinking tea in the front yard, recounted Bauer. When the girl looked up from her book and out the window, she saw four men coming into the yard. Before her eyes the men killed her relatives one after the other, and began walking toward the front door. Terrified, the girl ran into the room where her grandmother was sleeping, got into her bed and hid under the thick blanket. The strangers entered the house, found the grandmother and killed her, too, but did not notice the girl under the blanket.

She ran to her neighbors’ house, where her best friend from school lived. Her friend’s father stood at the front door and saw the frightened girl running toward him with the men chasing after her. ‘Quick, jump into the well,’ her friend’s father told her. ‘It’s very deep and they won’t see you there.’ When the men got there seconds later, he pointed to the fence that divided his house from the next neighbors,’ and told them the girl had jumped over it and fled west. “In essence, he saved her life,” said Bauer, speaking in Hebrew.

Bauer, who headed the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority from 1995 until 2000,  paused for a moment and said, “It sounds like a classic Holocaust story, doesn’t it? But it’s the story of a black Tutsi girl, and the man who saved her was a Muslim man, a Hutu. And all this happened in Rwanda, during the genocide of 1994.”

Harrowing story of a Rwandan survivor

Bauer told this story during a lecture he gave at the International Conference on the Study of the Shoah and Genocide that was held in November at the Dorothy de Rothschild Campus of the Open University, the first time an event like this one has been held at an academic institute in Israel. During 100 days in 1994, some one million people were murdered when the country’s Hutu majority turned on its Tutsi population.

Photographs of people who were killed during the 1994 genocide are seen inside the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum. Photo by Reuters

Yolande Mukagasana, a special guest at the conference, stood out – a thin, smiling black woman wearing a short and colorful African dress, and a golden Magen David pendant on her chest. Mukagasana, 60, had come to Israel from her home in Rwanda two days earlier especially for the conference, to hear scholars of the Holocaust and genocide and to tell her own story as a genocide survivor.

Mukagasana, a nurse and midwife by profession, lived with her husband, Joseph, and their children, Christian, Sandrine and Nadine, in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, where she ran a clinic that provided medical care to the poor. Her previous life, she said, had been full of love -- for her country, for the natural landscapes that surrounded the city, for her work, and for her husband and children. During the genocide she lost all of them.

Joseph sacrificed himself first and was killed in an effort to save his family, by identifying himself as a Tutsi at a checkpoint and distracting the guards while his family slipped away. Mukagasana hid her children with a niece who was of Hutu origin. It didn’t help them; all those living in the niece’s home, including Mukagasana’s children, were taken naked to a ditch that had been prepared for Tutsi victims, and were brutally murdered with machetes. Only the niece, who was identified as a Hutu woman, was saved.

Mukagasana hid in the homes of clergymen, and later in the apartment of a colonel in the Rwandan army, who helped perpetrate the genocide and who tried, unsuccessfully, to rape her. At the end of the mass slaughter, Mukagasana met up with her niece, who told her of her children’s deaths. That’s how she learned that she had been hiding under a sink less than 100 meters away from the place where they were executed.

Shelves of skulls are seen at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. Photo by AP

Left with no family or friends in Rwanda, the French-speaking Mukagasana moved to Belgium in 1995. “When they returned the car they had stolen from me, I drove through the streets and wanted to run over Hutu people. I understood that I had to heal myself,” she said.

She adopted three Rwandan orphans, who lived with her in Brussels, and turned her former home in Kigali into an orphanage. In Belgium she wrote three books about the genocide, one of which, “La mort ne veut pas de moi” (“Death Does Not Want Me”) was translated into Hebrew in 2005. After 16 years in Belgium, Mukagasana moved back to Rwanda to rebuild her life there, and today she works to assist survivors through the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide. She is still caring for 3 orphans in her home.

Fighting anti-Semitism in Africa

The first thing Mukagasana did upon landing in Israel, having traveled here especially for the conference, was to remove the necklace with the Magen David pendant, which she says she wears every day to remind her of the bond she says she feels with the Jewish people. She said she was afraid people would laugh at her and think she had bought the necklace especially for her visit. It was Prof. Yair Auron, a former head of the university’s sociology, political science and communications department, and the organizer of the conference, who urged her not to take it off. Wearing the necklace symbolized the great importance the Jews and their fate have for Mukagasana; when she was a child, schoolmates would call her “Jew,” a derogatory name that Tutsis were often called.

Students from a nearby secondary school come to see the recently discovered bodies of victims of the genocide brought to the Church of Nyamata. Photo by AP

Mukagasana says she has known about the Holocaust since she was a child, that she even read the works of Primo Levi, and that after the horrors she experienced, she came to feel an especially strong bond with the Jewish people, whom she sees as victims with much in common with the Rwandan people.

“I asked myself repeatedly whether what happened to us is like the Holocaust, or whether I’m confused,” she said. “I’ve tried to understand what is similar and what’s different between the two events. I believe that we have a responsibility as Jews and Rwandans, to battle genocide in the world together, and to prevent a repeat of such things in the future. All nations that have suffered genocide must unite as victims, and defend one another from another genocide.”

Mukagasana says that every time she speaks to children in Rwanda about genocide she tells them about the Holocaust with the aim of fighting anti-Semitism in her country. “Because most of the country is Catholic, they teach the children that the Jews killed Jesus, and I want to show them another side of the Jews,” she said. In Europe, too, she says she was astonished at the level of anti-Semitism. “It was in Europe that I heard for the first time that the Jews run the world, she said.”

But to her great dismay, Mukagasana says she discovered that the Jews aren’t eager to share their pain with other people who have been through similar experiences — or even acknowledge the similarity of those experiences.

“We, the Tutsi survivors, did not get the help we were expecting from Jewish Holocaust survivors,” she continued. “But there aren’t that many Holocaust survivors left; they’re getting older and we, the young people, have to remember the Holocaust and carry it with us as survivors of a different genocide.

“I feel that I must carry the Jewish Holocaust with me,” she said. “I hope that the Jews understand that they must also bear the memory of the Tutsi genocide survivors. Israelis have to ask themselves if they are open to sharing their problems with people from other nations, or if you want to close yourselves off with your problems.”

“I’m sorry to say that Israel is involved primarily with its political interests as a state, and uses those political interests just like other countries.

“Just as today we are living together with our murderers in Rwanda so that we can build a country together,” she added, “I don’t want to go back to the past when Israel had good relations with the murderous Rwandan regime. I want to be Israel’s partner, as a Rwandan.”