Both women Vlora Çitaku from Kosovo and Mathilde Mukantabana from Rwanda represent their countries to U.S.A. They have been refugees on lower ages, but now diplomats. The two ambassadors tell their deeply personal stories about life after genocide, they discuss their paths to diplomacy on POLITICO’s Women Rule podcast.
When Vlora Çitaku was just 18 years old, she became a refugee in Macedonia, while Mathilde Mukantabana was expelled to Burundi.
“The magnitude of terror was just unseen, Thousands were killed, Thousands of women were raped”, Çitaku rembers the genocide of ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces.
Mukantabana, a member of the Tutsi ethnic group, was forced to leave school in Rwanda as a child and live as a refugee in Burundi. Reflecting back on that time, Mukantabana remembered: “People really didn’t trust any of the institutions that were in place. They didn’t trust the church. They didn’t trust the state. They didn’t trust even sometimes the family.”
In 1994, as she began a new life in the United States, several members of Mukantabana’s family were massacred in the genocide.
Back to Ambassador Çitaku, “the most painful period” in her childhood – just before the outbreak of the war in Kosovo – and how it played out as violence in the schoolyard.
“That was the most difficult part – seeing your teacher being beaten up by police in front of you, feeling powerless,” she says. “Your teacher is your hero and you see him being beaten up right there and you want to do something, but then you’re scared.”
She went on to describe how native Albanians in Kosovo, despite being targeted by the government, banded together during trying times and developed a “parallel system” of education when they were forced out of the formal education system.
“Our diaspora organized itself,” Çitaku said. “We have a very strong and powerful diaspora and then they would give a form of tax and they built up a fund and that’s how my parents, but for all other teachers, started to get some income.”
“I remember the day when Serbian forces came to kick us out, and it was chaos. Thousands of people, and we didn’t have a choice whether we want to go here or there. We were just driven out,” she said.
“I went to Macedonia. I remember we were separated also from our parents so it was me and my three sisters. I remember carrying the little one in my arms. We walked almost all day and I remember being exhausted. I remember being scared.”
Women are integral in rebuilding their societies after war
Mukantabana recounts how she first found out about the deaths of her extended family members during the Rwandan genocide. The ambassador, who was then a professor in California, detailed the ethnic cleansing of Rwanda’s Tutsi population and how she herself grew up as a refugee in neighboring Burundi.
“We stayed in [Rwanda] until 1973 and that was the year that I was kicked out as a kid; so we left the country, and I never went back,” Mukantabana said. “We went to Burundi. We lived in refugee camps. Our parents, they didn’t know whether we were dead or alive until later on.”
The Rwandan ambassador discussed the difficulties for girls in refugee camps and how the women often banded together.
“Most of my friends who went through the same experiences; as a matter of fact, they have done pretty well even after that,” she said.
The Kosovo ambassador weighs in on the “heartbreaking” Syrian refugee crisis.
“We always say, ‘Never again. Enough is enough. We will not let this happen,’” Çitaku said.
“But history keeps repeating itself on its worst forms.”
She called for a political response but also urged regular citizens to open their arms to refugees.
“Politicians will need their time to address problems. No one wants to be a refugee. No one chooses to be a refugee. And while we can have an argument on whether this political settlement is better than the rest, there should be no argument whether we should help.”
Mukantabana details the role women played after the Rwandan genocide. Women, after a quota system in their parliament was introduced, now make up 64 percent of the country’s governing body and have been instrumental in rebuilding efforts.
She says it changed many things, including a focus on expanding maternity leave and modifying the laws regarding inheritance and land acquisition.
Çitaku explains how Kosovo, after its war, also included a gender quota – at least 30% of women — in their new government.
“We made sure that women are represented in our state-building process and initiatives,” the ambassador said, but she cautions that sometimes “representation doesn’t mean empowerment.”
Jean Baptiste Karegeya