Jacqueline Murekatete is a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, a human rights activist and program founder at Miracle Corners of the World. She currently lives in New York City.
July 4 is a day of mixed emotions for me as a Rwandan American. Not only is it Independence Day in this country, but it also is Liberation Day in Rwanda — a time to remember being liberated from the abyss of mass murder and the conclusion of the official mourning period for the more than 1 million innocent men, women and children murdered during the 1994 genocide. While others around me revel in parades and barbecues, I will celebrate my independence and liberation. But I’ll also be thinking of my relatives — my beloved parents and six brothers and sisters and others who were mercilessly killed, and never had the opportunity to enjoy the true meaning of freedom.
July 4 is a day to not only celebrate our independence but also to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going as individuals and as a nation. It is a day when we’re supposed to celebrate our rights to “ life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
As with many other Americans, my life story is a confluence of complex events, not obvious when we first meet. Almost 17 years ago, I came to this country because of a tragedy rather than a choice. After losing my family and many dear friends to the genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda, I was given asylum in a country that I knew only by name: America.
An orphan without a word of English, I spent most of my early years here trying to come to terms with how it was that a 9-year-old had, in a matter of months, been stripped of basic rights and freedoms and branded an enemy of the state and a “cockroach” needing to be exterminated, as Rwandan ethnic Tutsis were referred to during the 100 days of bloodshed between April and July 1994.
Like other genocides, this genocide in Rwanda reminds us of man’s greatest inhumanity to man, and the precious meaning of freedom and independence. Today, whatever name we place on modern-day tragedies — genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, civilian massacres — we are reminded of the fragility and scarcity of basic rights and freedoms we celebrate every July 4 here and in Rwanda. As long as ruthless governments anywhere are allowed to deny basic rights and fundamental freedoms to their people, our own independence and freedoms remain threatened.
In April, President Obama stood with Holocaust survivors during the remembrance ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial Museum and highlighted today’s greatest atrocities. Obama said that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a national security interest, and a core moral responsibility” of this country. “Sovereignty should never be a license to slaughter your own people,” he added. He emphasized our country’s commitment to freedom and security for all people and announced a newly formed Atrocities Prevention Board, tasked with developing strategies for preventing and intervening to stop mass atrocities. Right now, as I hear about alarming atrocities being committed in various parts of the world, most recently in Syria, I know firsthand that Obama’s words cannot turn into actions soon enough.
I am truly grateful to this country for having welcomed me with open arms when I needed a safe home. I am also keenly aware that not every persecuted person or genocide orphan gets to come here.
So this July 4, let us enjoy the much-deserved day off and festivities. But I hope that each of us will take a minute to reflect on the freedoms many of us enjoy and celebrate each Independence Day, and the fact that they remain only dreams for millions of people around the world.