A human rights activist has seen the horror up close

May 09, 1994|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

Washington -- If the world wants to put a human face on the horror taking place in the killing fields of a tiny, Central East African nation called Rwanda, it need look no further than the face of Rwandan human rights leader Monique Mujawamariya. The violence is etched there in the scars on her face, the result of an assassination attempt. The history of Rwanda is there, too: in the mixture of tribal blood that flows through her from her Hutu father and Tutsi mother.

And like hundreds of thousands of her fellow Rwandans, Monique Mujawamariya has had to flee her country and the massacres that began a month ago after a mysterious plane crash killed the presidents of Rwanda and neighboring Burundi. Those not fortunate enough to get out found themselves trapped in a small country filled with enormous horror: As many as 200,000 Rwandans may have been killed.

Now Ms. Mujawamariya, whose three children are still in Rwanda, has come to Washington on a cold, rainy spring day to meet with officials and to deliver a message to the world. She is not optimistic that her message will bring the results she wants.

"What I want, I don't think I can have," says Ms. Mujawamariya through an interpreter. "I want someone to stop the killing without killing. I want someone who will go into Rwanda and stop the militia from killing without using those same tactics. I don't know who I can find to do that."

But if anyone can move a watching world to intervene in Rwanda, it may be Ms. Mujawamariya. Which is why she is willing to recount, with great difficulty, the terrifying ordeal of her last week in Rwanda.

"She is using her own experience to bring attention to Rwanda," says Holly Burkhalter, Washington director of Human Rights Watch.

It is, to be sure, an extraordinary experience. But no more extraordinary than the 39-year-old woman who lived through it. Her role as a Rwandan human rights leader has earned her worldwide respect; she represented a group of human-rights monitors last December in a meeting with President Clinton at the White House. But her work has also placed her in a position of great personal danger, says the director of the African division of Human Rights Watch, Abdullahi An-Na'im.

"There have been a series of attacks in which she was targeted," says Mr. An-Na'im. "Even though she is Hutu, her own ethnic group will see her as a traitor. . . . They see all human rights monitors as traitors." And now that she is in this country, "naming names of those who are directing the operations," he says, there have been threats that "if she does not stop, her children will be targeted and killed."

At this point, he says, she cannot return to Rwanda. "It would mean immediate death."

In person, Monique Mujawamariya seems an unlikely candidate for such violent threats. Dressed in a tailored beige suit, she is a soft-spoken woman whose eyes, behind her glasses, are steady and gentle. Her determination and courage, however, leap out and transform her when she speaks of the personal danger she faces.

"Ever since I've been involved with human rights, I've been the target of attempts," she says. "There was a car accident, from which I bear the scars on my face. There were telephone threats, voices saying, 'We're going to kill you in your house. Dogs are going to eat you.'

"They've prepared me psychologically to die. Step by step, they've recounted to me how they're going to do it. The different ways they'll kill me. Normal death I'm not afraid of. We're all going to finish off by dying anyway. But torture . . . step by step . . ." Her voice trails off. "But that's what I'm faced with."

Almost a month ago to the day, Monique Mujawamariya was faced with the possibility that her worst fears were about to come true. Her nightmare ordeal began on Wednesday, April 6, the day the Rwandan president -- a member of the Hutu ethnic majority -- was killed in the plane crash. What ensued in the Rwandan capital of Kigali was an explosion of unimaginable violence.

Even Monique Mujawamariya who, only days before, had faxed the director of Human Rights Watch regarding the possibility of violence, had not imagined the massacre that followed. "You never could have expected that," she says now. "Even though we were expecting something bad to happen, we never, never thought the situation could have risen to such heights."

Many minority Tutsis and political opponents of the government had anticipated the situation and bought plane tickets to Kenya. Monique was not among them.

"I didn't have the means to buy a ticket and so I couldn't leave," she says. "What I did was send my children to the south where we thought it would be calm. But anyone who had the means HTC bought tickets. But many of my friends died with these tickets in their pockets."

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