April 14, 2007 in Features


Virginia De Leon Staff writer
The Spokesman-Review photo

Immaculee Mukakalisa still suffers nightmares from the bloodshed that happened 13 years ago in Rwanda. She considers it a miracle that she lived.
(Full-size photo)

If you go

What: Making “Never Again a Reality”: the Spokane community observance of the Holocaust, Yom HaShoah.

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Temple Beth Shalom, 1322 E. 30th Ave.

Details: The gathering will include music and the lighting of six candles in memory of the 6 million who died in the Holocaust and in honor of the survivors and in memory of destroyed communities, murdered children, victims of contemporary genocide, ghetto fighters and partisans. It will also honor the state of Israel.

Guest: Katie Rolli, a freshman at University High School and winner of the temple’s creative writing contest, will read her essay and receive an award from Spokesman-Review editor Steve Smith. Her essay will also be published in Monday’s Today section.

Along with the 1 million people who were massacred in Rwanda 13 years ago, a memorial in the capital of Kigali also remembers the victims of another genocide: the 6 million Jews who died during the Holocaust.

“Whenever one group of people is targeted, it affects all of us,” said Immaculee Mukakalisa of Spokane, a survivor of the 100 days of slaughter in her native Rwanda.

Like the Jews during the Holocaust, Mukakalisa and other minority Tutsis became the victims of hate, violence and systematic killing – all because of their identity. Moderate Hutus who tried to help also lost their lives.

Half a century separates the genocide committed during World War II by the Nazis and the one raged in 1994 by an extremist Hutu government, but survivors of both atrocities share the same commitment: Never again.

Never again should the world allow these crimes against humanity.

Making “Never Again” a reality is the theme of this year’s community observance of Yom HaShoah, the international day of remembrance of the Holocaust. As part of the ceremony that will take place Sunday at Temple Beth Shalom, Mukakalisa will help light a candle in memory of the victims of contemporary genocide – not just in her own country but in Sudan, Cambodia, Bosnia and other places throughout the globe.

“That light will remind everyone that genocide has happened all over the world,” said Mukakalisa. “Hopefully, we can fight it so we can say ‘never again’ for sure.”

“Never again” was the vow of Holocaust survivors. Yet, despite the oath, genocide and other crimes against humanity are still committed against minority populations like the one in Darfur, said Mary Noble, a member of Temple Beth Shalom and one of the organizers of Sunday’s ceremony.

“We say ‘never again,’ but genocide continues to happen,” she said. “We wanted to acknowledge contemporary genocide not to minimize the Holocaust, but to bring attention to the fact that it didn’t stop in 1945.”

Thirteen years after the killings in Rwanda, Mukakalisa still has nightmares of being butchered by machetes. “I see people killing me in my dreams,” she said. “I see me running. It feels like yesterday.”

Mukakalisa was at home with her pregnant sister-in-law on April 6, 1994 – the night the Rwandan president, a Hutu, died when his plane was shot down. His assassination sparked a wave of violence that spread throughout the country and lasted for three months.

“Did you hear?” Mukakalisa’s servant asked after knocking frantically at her door the following morning. “The radio said the president is dead. … Stay in the house.”

Mukakalisa was paralyzed with fear. Her sister-in-law, whose baby was due any day, was experiencing contractions.

The women wanted to go to the hospital, but neighbors tried to stop them from leaving. The government ordered everyone to stay off the roads. Later that day, they were able to make it to the hospital with help from the Red Cross.

Her sister-in-law was in labor for two days. During that time, Mukakalisa tried to reach her brother, the woman’s husband, in Kigali. She learned from his neighbor that he had been killed.

Mukakalisa told her what happened after her sister-in-law gave birth via C-section. Before they could even grieve, the women discovered that their own lives were in danger – that armed men were coming to the hospital to take away Tutsis.

A Hutu family friend with connections and an armed vehicle offered to drive them to Mukakalisa’s parents’ home, located about 50 miles away. Mukakalisa refused to go – she didn’t think it was safe since there were roadblocks everywhere and the mob of killers demanded proof of identity from everyone they encountered. Their cards automatically indicated they were Tutsi and she feared they would be killed on the spot. But her sister-in-law wanted to leave with her baby, so Mukakalisa returned to her house alone. She would later find out that the woman and her newborn made it to her parents’ house, only to lose their lives the next day.

That night, the killings began. Orders were sent out from Kigali and Hutus with machetes went from house to house to slaughter every Tutsi they could find. According to the BBC and other news reports, the unofficial militia group called the Interahamwe was fueled by radio propaganda and eventually grew to 30,000 strong.

So Mukakalisa ran. Then she hid – in the bushes, in people’s homes, in abandoned buildings.

She kept moving from place to place, often without food, water or sleep. Every day, she prayed: “God, please let me live today.”

She remained in hiding for 100 days.

When the war ended in July, Mukakalisa and other survivors rose from the rubble to witness a country in complete ruin. All they could do at that point was bury the dead, she said.

She lost her father, her grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and countless other relatives and friends. In 1996, she moved to the Inland Northwest.

“You can never recover from something that horrible,” said Mukakalisa, who is a nurse. “People are still really destroyed. … It was a miracle I survived.”

She continues to wonder why she lived and why others didn’t. She remains devastated by what she witnessed and experienced in Rwanda – the fact that humans can actually inflict such violence and brutality against one another.

When Noble asked her to take part in the Yom HaShoah observance, Mukakalisa didn’t hesitate. April, the month when the observance takes place, is also same month when the genocide in Rwanda began, she noted. In her native country, people are taking part in memorial ceremonies and reflecting on what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon described as “one of humankind’s darkest chapters.”

During Sunday’s Yom HaShoah observance, Mukakalisa and two other survivors of contemporary genocide – one from Sudan and another from Bosnia – will light a candle. Their candle will stand next to other candles lit by Eva Lassman of Spokane, a Holocaust survivor, and the children and grandchildren of other people who made it out of the Nazi death camps alive.

“It isn’t enough to say we are the survivors and we are done,” said Noble, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “This whole notion of ‘never again’ means making the world a better place.”

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