A very different national commemoration

Posted: July 04, 2012

The Fourth of July is a day of mixed emotions for me as a Rwandan American. Not only is it Independence Day in this country, but it's Liberation Day in Rwanda: a time to remember our liberation from the abyss of mass murder, and the conclusion of 100 days of mourning for the more than one 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, who never had the opportunity to enjoy the true meaning of freedom.

Like those of many other Americans, my life story is a confluence of complex events that is 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 of Tutsis, 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 — a "cockroach" needing to be exterminated, as Rwanda's ethnic Tutsis were referred to during the 100 days of bloodshed that lasted from April to July 1994.

Like other genocides, the one in Rwanda reminds us of man's greatest inhumanity to man, as well as the precious meaning of freedom and independence. Today, whatever name we give to modern tragedies — genocides, war crimes, crimes against humanity, civilian massacres — we are reminded of the fragility and scarcity of basic rights and freedoms that we celebrate every July 4 here and in Rwanda. As long as governments anywhere are allowed to deny basic rights and fundamental freedoms to their people, our own independence and freedom remain threatened.

In April, President Obama stood with Holocaust survivors during a remembrance ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial Museum and highlighted today's greatest atrocities. The president said that "preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a national security interest, and a core moral responsibility" of the United States. "Sovereignty should never be a license to slaughter your own people," Obama added. He emphasized the country's commitment to freedom and security for all people, and he announced a newly formed Atrocities Prevention Board charged 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 that this country 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 Fourth of July, let's enjoy the day off and the festivities. But I hope that each of us will also 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.

Jacqueline Murekatete is a survivor of the Rwanda genocide, a human rights activist, and a program founder at Miracle Corners of the World. She lives in New York. She wrote this for the Washington Post.

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