LEWISTON – Mireille Ikirezi was 9 years old when she watched most of her family and neighbors butchered during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
While the world watched, Hutu militias overthrew the government and soon began a systematic extinction of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. One million people perished in 100 days in the central African nation after the United States and United Nations pulled their peacekeepers, diplomats and citizens to safety.
Former President Bill Clinton later described his administration’s failure to intercede as the biggest regret of his 8-year tenure.
“Seeing them alive one moment and then scattered around (dead) is something that will never leave my mind,” Ikirezi told a crowd of 150 at the Multi-Purpose Center Sunday during a protest rally against today’s genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
“I remember his face when he looked back at us,” Ikirezi said of a cousin who was captured just a few feet from safety. “He was probably saying goodbye.”
Protesters listened to speakers and watched slides Sunday of the Rwanda blood bath, holding their chins in their hands and staring in bleak intensity at the images of baby skeletons still clinging to their parents; long leg bones stacked like firewood; a church where bodies filled the pews instead of worshipers.
Rabbi Hellel Katzir of Auburn, who helped organize the rally, and others warned that if the American public does not rise up and demand that President Bush and Congress take more action to end the suffering in Darfur, then they will be as guilty as their political leaders and diplomats.
Katzir said Americans and other westerners were well aware of the 1915 genocide of the Armenians during World War I and the extermination of the Jews during World War II and “intentionally took no action.” Then there were Cambodia, Bosnia and others.
And then Rwanda.
“In a free country, some are guilty, but all are responsible,” Katzir said, urging people to write to Congress and Bush, donate money and help raise awareness of the ongoing genocide in Darfur.
Bates College Professor Alexandre Dauge-Roth showed slides from the Rwanda holocaust and also photos of a mass grave being unearthed earlier this month. Dauge-Roth, who teaches French, was visibly shaken at times as he recalled some of the horrors from the Rwanda destruction. Sometimes he had to stop so he wouldn’t weep.
“Schools, churches, rivers and marshes were filled with bodies,” he told the crowd. Rwanda had become “a country of widows and orphans still searching for the remains of their loved ones 12 years later.”
“We refuse to let this go on,” Aliza Luft of Montreal, Quebec, a Bates College student, told the rally in Lewiston that coincided with massive protest rallies in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and other major cities.
Luft and other organizers repeated President George Bush’s promise that another Rwanda would not happen “on my watch.” While giving the embattled president credit for doing more for Darfur than Clinton did 12 years ago for Rwanda, rally-goers demanded that Bush and Congress move swiftly to end the genocide in Darfur.
“Not on my watch” became the theme for the rally.
U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, a Democrat, was the only member of the Maine congressional delegation to attend the rally. U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, sent a representative and letter of support.
“It doesn’t seem fair we’re so lucky and there are people who are dying every day,” said Melissa Brown of Auburn. The 13-year-old middle school student joined some of her friends to watch the dark slides and hear firsthand accounts of both the Rwanda and Darfur genocide.
“I was horrified and disturbed” by the slides, said Natalie Bornstein, 14, of Auburn. “I feel like we have the power to change this, but I worry that they’re not going to listen to us.”