Twenty years ago this month, not very long ago at all, a murderous genocide started in a country in central Africa many Europeans had not heard of. Suspicions between the tribes of Hutus and Tutsis had a long history, stemming from colonial days, but the tinderbox was waiting for a catalyst to ignite it. That occurred on 6th April 1994 when a plane carrying the President of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, and the President of neighbouring Burundi, was shot down killing all on board.
The very next day in Rwanda the killing started, initially by soldiers, militia and police and then by civilians armed with machetes, knives and heavy blunt instruments. As has been recorded by survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and also those in 1990s Sarajevo, neighbour turned against neighbour, colleague against colleague, classmate against classmate. No-one was safe. Popular music radio stations broadcast vicious propaganda against enemy "cockroaches", much like in the 1930s when Der Sturmer likened Jews to "sewer rats". Normal life disintegrates very quickly in these times and hatred, fear and the fight for survival predominate.
On an ordinary Friday morning this January in our north London office, Julia Clarfield, the Anne Frank Trust's events co-ordinator, suggested we call Liliane Umubyeyi, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who had kindly agreed to light a memorial candle for the victims of the Rwandan genocide at our annual fundraising lunch later that month. Following this poignant memorial ceremony at the event, which also included candles lit by Lilian Levy, a Holocaust survivor who was one of the youngest orphans found in Bergen-Belsen, and Kristina Caesar, mother of murdered London schoolboy Adam Regis, Liliane Umubyeyi was also going to be interviewed on stage by the BBC's Jon Sopel. Julia and I needed to get a few lines from Liliane about her life story for our lunch brochure.
We dialled Liliane's number in Oxford, where we imagined as sunny a morning as it was in London, and after the normal introductory pleasantries, I started asking Liliane some pertinent questions to shape our few paragraphs in the brochure. In the next twenty minutes normal office life floated out of the window. It traversed continents and took us to a dark and deadly place.
As I gazed at my papers, files, my post it pad, coffee cup, photos of my smiling family, Liliane told Julia and I how as a fourteen year old teenager, her Tutsi family had fled Kigali, to take refuge in the countryside with her uncle, a teacher.
That was until the murderers came.
When they were seen approaching, Liliane, who was an athletic teenager, ran into the garden and climbed into a tree to hide. From there she witnessed her mother being hacked to death with machetes and the mutilated bodies of her uncle, father and three brothers (including an 8 year old) being thrown into the garden. When the militia finally left, the wild dogs came and Liliane came down from the tree so she could bury her family rather than see them eaten by the dogs. She realised she was in grave danger if she did this so ran away, knowing there would be nowhere to hide, no-one to trust and nothing to eat.
She was not familiar with the area, so hid in a pit, but the militia arrived. They summoned her out of the pit and one by one raped her until she lost consciousness. She woke up in a kind of small local authority commune where she was locked in a cell and forgotten. There was no food or water for several days. She heard one of her gaolers say, "She's nearly dead - you finish her". Someone did come to give her water, but her mouth was so dry they had to force it open by hand. She remembers begging him to help her by killing her.
One of her gaolers recognised her as he had been a teacher at the same school as her uncle. He freed her from the cell and took her to his home where he repeatedly raped her. He wanted to marry her but she refused again pleading for the mercy of being killed.
Eventually he bundled her into a sack in the back of a truck and drove her far away. He left her at a Catholic church where the priest, although a Hutu, was protecting 10,000 vulnerable Tutsis - this was in fact the largest group of people together during the genocide.
There were long-term legacies of those frenzied 100 days of the terror in Rwanda, economic, communal and individual. In two decades much has moved on and stabilised in Rwanda but the victims of the brutality and rape, and their children, the displaced refugees in neighbouring countries, all still bear the scars.
Liliane's life has moved on too. Barely out of childhood during those times, Liliane came to Britain in 2000 and is now a mother and is studying for a Masters degree in International Security Studies. She also works tirelessly for the Survivors Fund (SURF), a London based charity dedicated to supporting survivors of the Rwandan genocide, and has received numerous awards for her work, including Cosmopolitan's Woman of the Year 2007.
Over the twenty five years I have been working with the Anne Frank story, I have been privileged to meet many survivors of the Holocaust - those like Liliane who lost all their immediate family. Though I will never be party to their lonely night-time memories and terrors, I have been continually amazed by how they have rebuilt their lives in an astonishingly courageous way, and in many cases given so much back to this country, not only as citizens but as humanitarians themselves.
For the past twelve years the Anne Frank Trust has been taking Holocaust survivors to tell their story to prisoners alongside the Anne Frank exhibition, and prison officers have told us what a cathartic and positive this has had on those with grievances against society. As Holocaust survivors are getting more elderly and frail, we will increasingly use survivors of other genocides and persecutions in our educational work.
As we commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the three month Rwandan genocide, we realise that the capacity for greatness in a human being and its polar opposite, the capacity for evil, is something we should never underestimate.Suggest a correction