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Q & A: Odette Nyiramilimo

Odette Nyiramilimo has been a senator in Rwanda's parliament since 2003, but in the West she is best known as a character in the movie Hotel Rwanda. A medical doctor and friend of Paul Rusesabagina, Nyiramilimo was one of approximately 1,000 Rwandans who took refuge in the Hotel des Mille Collines during the 1994 genocide. Today, the world is once again standing by as genocide unfolds in Africa. Nyiramilimo recently spoke to from Kigali about her survival in Rwanda and the killing in Darfur.

How would you describe life in Rwanda before April 6, 1994, before the genocide began?

During the 1980s life was becoming normal in the country. However, the Tutsi people were always considered second class people. When, for example, I finished the university in 1981 as a medical doctor, I wanted to work in two different places. I wanted to work at the Kigali Central Hospital or work for the Office of the Population, to work in family planning. But they looked at me and said, "Oh no, 10 percent [quota] for the Tutsi is already taken. You can't have any of these places." I didn't even have a choice of where I wanted work and was forced to go work in Kibuye hospital, a very remote site. In the 1990s the Tutsi refugees who were in neighboring countries, many of them were having problems. For example in Uganda, the president of Uganda chased the Tutsi refugees and pushed them to Rwanda. In Rwanda they were put in camps in a natural reserve and pushed back to Uganda after a few months. Most Rwandans in countries of asylum said that they missed their own country and they wanted to go back home. The government at that time kept saying, "Rwanda is full, it's a small country, we don't have [space] for you, so please remain where you are. We don't have a place for you." That's how the refugees decided to come back to Rwanda fighting. And then from their attack in October 1990, every Tutsi was taken for an enemy and put in jail, even those who had never heard, neither of the refugees, nor of the attack. From 1991 to April 6, 1994, the political parties were very active, but at the same time there were a lot of killings because of the democratic movement of the parties which the then-government wanted to stop. But the people wanted change and one thing led to another, refusing the silence imposed by the government. It was a real change in the behavior of the Rwandans who, for the first time, demonstrated against the rulers.

After the genocide had begun, at what moment did you realize that no one was going to help the Tutsis?

We didn't know what would happen. I would say we decided to flee and go to another country--Burundi--when we heard in the radio that the presidential flight crashed. We didn't go because my sister refused to go. She was convinced that nothing would happen, that there would be a new government that would stop the killing. I think she believed that if the president who had planned the genocide died, then it would not happen anymore. The genocide had been prepared, and, during that time of the early 1990s, there were a lot of killings of Tutsis in different places of the country. In the north it happened and in the south it happened too. But once the president died, lots of people would think that there would not be killings anymore. But it was not true. On the contrary, the perpetrators went on a rampage and took genocide to its climax. Then we tried to hide as we could. On the 9th of April, when it was decided that Dr. Theodore Sindikubwabo, who was then the president of the parliament, was going to be swearing in as the president of the republic, I can tell you that I danced. I was convinced that he would not let anyone be killed. He was a medical doctor and had been my teacher of pediatrics. I knew him well and thought he had human feelings, and would stop the killings. But I heard him in the radio the following day; he did a hatred speech and I was like, "My God, how could I, and how could we, believe he would stop the killers?" He was inciting people to kill more and more Tutsi, saying, "You have to be active, you have to clean," and so on. But we still had some hope while calling our friends and workmates at Peace Corps. And on the 10th of April, the Peace Corps director, Michael, called me from Burundi after two days of silence. He said: "Sorry Odette, we left you behind--because the American government said we could not take any Rwandan with us." Then we realized nobody was going to help the Tutsi.

What kept you alive? Did you believe in God before the genocide?

Yes, I've always believed in God. We prayed, we prayed to the Lord. A lady who was a friend of us before the genocide told me she had written a prayer on her computer. She told me to say this prayer everyday: "Even when your enemy is going to kill you, he will never have enough force to do it when you say it," she said. And my husband did many copies of it, and gave to the kids. We were praying at home, and after at Hotel Mille Collines--that's all we could do. That same woman had said that we should put that prayer near the heart to be protected by Jesus's love. We believed that it would help us. I remember that when we heard the guns, the cries, and the machetes in front of our home, every child was saying that prayer in their head. My husband still has that prayer today. He's convinced that we were saved by that prayer. I'm not, because the woman who gave us the prayer was killed--she should have been the first one to be saved by that prayer. So we were just lucky to survive.

Do you still believe in God?

Yes I do. I'm convinced that I was saved by God. I have many nephews and nieces who survived. Maybe I survived so that I could take care of all those children. Also, to do what I'm doing today for the survivors, for the [disabled people], and for all Rwandans. I feel I survived for some reason, and it must have been God who decided that.

What do you think are similarities and differences between Rwanda and Darfur?

I can't pretend to know everything about Darfur. I've never been there. I can only listen to the news and read about Darfur. The similarities are that the government has not done enough to protect its people. It is the government who has supported the killers--the Janjaweed--and did not prevent people from being killed. Like it happened in Rwanda: The government was arming the perpetrators--Interahamwe. That's terrible to happen again in Darfur. That's why we can say what is happening in Darfur is a genocide. Something has to be done. The people need to be protected and be considered as human beings having rights. There are so many similarities between the two governments--Rwanda 1994 and Darfur--in failing at their role of protecting their people.

Many African leaders oppose Western military intervention in Darfur, saying that Africans should solve their own problems. But the African Union has proven unable to stop the genocide. Do you think Western countries should intervene in Darfur?

I can't really say that the African Union has failed because I think they've been trying. They sent troops, but it has been shown that they didn't have enough means to send enough soldiers to protect the population and stop the genocide. Also, their mandate was not very clear. If the AU had enough means to put in place enough troops and are given clear mandates to stop the genocide, they could stop it.

If the AU sends more troops and has a stronger mandate, do you think Western countries wouldn't have to intervene or should they still intervene?

[Western countries] can do two things. They can either support the African Union, [giving them] more troops, or they can decide to go in themselves, because they also have the possibility to intervene. Any troops who are able and capable of stopping the genocide [should intervene]. If there are Western troops or African troops, I don't mind. My only wish is that the genocide be stopped.

In 2003 President Kagame was reelected with 94 percent of the vote. Many say that the election was riddled with fraud. In light of all this, do you believe Rwanda today is a country where people have true political freedom?

There were several problems with the 2003 elections. First of all it was the very first time that we had more than one candidate. The people were not prepared for that. They used to have only one presidential candidate. And secondly there was our recent history of taught hatred and genocide. President Kagame was the president at the time of elections and he had done many things that could explain the big number of votes he had. He stopped the genocide. Many survivors thought that they could revenge, but the revenge was stopped immediately. This was something that also gave to President Kagame a lot of publicity and popularity. A lot of people could not understand how [the revenge would be stopped], but it has happened. Also, he brought back the refugees who were in the refugee camps of Congo and Tanzania. [He] brought them back and had them resettled in the country within a very short period of time. A few years later, the former soldiers who executed the genocide and who had fought the war were integrated in the winning army. Using that kind of active campaign with so many positives and almost miraculous actions, you can understand why [Kagame] had more than 90 percent of the votes. Today when you ask if there is freedom of politics, I can say yes and no. The genocide preparation had started from long ago, from 1959--that's the period when the Tutsis started to be killed. The Hutus were told that the Tutsis were not real Rwandans. Each group would behave in such way of understanding that this group is the real Rwandan and the other doesn't have any right. After the genocide, you can understand that today, only twelve years after genocide ... we can't say that way of thinking of Rwandans has changed. All those people who adopted that thinking from a young age and all those people who taught this in school can't change in such a short period. So there are safeguards which have been put in place. In the constitutional law and in many organic laws put in place after genocide, there are many don'ts. For example, you can't go in the radio and start talking about Hutus and Tutsis. Never. Any person who does this will be sent to jail for a few days because he will be accused of divisionism. [Rules are necessary] where you have had such a big division amongst the people. There are things in our laws which do not exist in other countries. That's why you hear people say there's no freedom and you can't say whatever you want. [Rules are made] normally according to the divisions that have been existing, the hatred, and anything that can bring back the genocide.

Do you think Rwanda is now moving towards true democracy?

I would say that. When you see all the newspapers created after genocide, they write freely. If they want, they criticize the government, they criticize the policy makers and nothing happens to them. To [see] how human rights are respected, not depending on who it is, where you are from, or what ethnic group you're from, those are things that have changed and had never happened before. Before independence, most children who went to school, maybe 95 percent, were Tutsis. After 1962, only the Hutus could go to school. You could have been at the top of the class and never continued to secondary school, never to the university, because you're Tutsi. So for the first time, after 1994, there's no ethnic grouping the state has--any child can succeed, go to school, and benefit from scholarships. They go to job interviews and they can go to any [employer]. ... These, for me, are already big signs of democracy because people have the same rights.

Lisette Bonilla is a senior at the University of Virginia and a TNR Online intern.

By Lisette Bonilla