Address by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, on the occasion of the 25th commemoration of all those who died during the genocide against the Tutsi, 7 April 2019, The Hague.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I’m honoured to be here with you today on this most solemn of occasions: the 25th commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda.
Let me start by emphasising how much I admire the courage of survivors like Beata Mukarubuga, and her willingness to share her story with us - haunting yet hopeful, and more powerful than any history book or academic study.
At the time of the genocide, I was a young man watching the horror unfold on television. Out of all the accounts, each more harrowing than the last, I was also touched by the story of 13-year-old Valentina Iribagiza who features in the two-hour ‘Frontline’ chronicle ‘Ghosts of Rwanda’, broadcast in 2014.
Valentina was a young girl who noticed that the people in her village had changed. Then, one day, she saw houses across the valley burning. And people fleeing their homes. She and her parents took refuge in the Catholic church in Nyarubuye, where they waited, along with 500 others – men, women and children. Then the soldiers came in, along with the local governor who ordered that there should be no survivors.
‘Then they started killing,’ Valentina said.
‘Hacking with their machetes.’
‘They kept doing it, and I was hiding under dead people.’
‘One of them stepped on my head.’
‘He was shaking me with his foot to see if I was alive.’
‘Then he said “This thing is dead”. And so they left.’
Ladies and gentlemen,
Valentina survived. The people who share their stories with us today survived. But close to one million others did not. Men, women and children, slaughtered by their own countrymen, as the world stood by.
It’s a chapter of history almost too appalling to comprehend.
Too painful – and too horrific – to remember. Yet we must remember.
And reunite and renew. To ensure that those hundreds of thousands of people did not die in vain. To ensure that what happened to them will not happen to others. And to ensure that justice is done.
That’s why we recall the action they took, the courage they showed, and the sacrifice they made in the face of genocide. The countless cases of extreme bravery by Rwandans themselves. But also by those few foreigners who stayed, showing the world what it means to stand up for what is right.
People like Roméo Dallaire, the UN Force Commander in Rwanda, who refused to give up the mission. Like Captain Mbaye Diagne an unarmed UN military observer, who gave away his military food rations, and other belongings. And Carl Wilkens, an American Adventist missionary who chose to stay. He ventured out each day with his Rwandan colleagues – amid mortars and gunfire – to take food, water and medicine to children trapped in orphanages in the city.
These people showed the whole world what it is to have courage.
What it is to make sacrifices to save others. And what it is to maintain a sense of decency, principle and humanity in one of humankind’s most brutal hours.
And this is something to hold on to. Along with the spirit of reconciliation that we see in Rwanda today. A spirit that is incredibly hopeful and inspiring.
After all, how does a nation find reconciliation, after genocide kills more than around one million people? How do you preserve the memory without harbouring vengeance? And without allowing the past to make you bitter? These are questions that could have haunted Rwanda for many years. But they didn’t.
This is thanks in part to the fact that the perpetrators of the genocide faced justice and are making restitution. Some of them in the community, others in prison. It is thanks to the reconciliation villages; small clusters of homes where those convicted of violence live side by side with the people who suffered at their hands.
And I hope – in some small part – it is also thanks to the cooperation between the Netherlands and Rwanda, and to our support in the post-war period, at a time when other donors were reluctant to get involved.
Our countries are still working together, for example on improving access to the justice system.
But I believe the spirit we see in Rwanda today, is mainly down to the Rwandan people themselves. Who – despite suffering horrors they will never forget – decided not to take revenge, but instead embraced life and built their own families.
This shows tremendous resilience and strength. And it shows the world that a shared future is possible after unthinkable evil.
Although the reconciliation process is still fragile, there is hope for the comparably smaller rifts that plague our relationships, our communities and our nations.
Ladies and gentlemen,
When 13-year-old schoolgirl Valentina was found near the church after 43 days, she was barely alive. Today, she is married and has two lovely children. She lives in the United States, from where she shared her story.
So if there is one word that comes to mind when describing Valentina… or the other genocide survivors here today…. it is resilience.
Despite their traumatic experiences, they have carried on. They, their children – and one day their grandchildren – represent victory over hate and death.
I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge all the ordinary Rwandan people who acted with the courage and humanity that so many others lacked.
They have shown us what it means to stand up for what is right.