THE BLOG
08/19/2014 12:10 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2014

Where Pogroms Go Unpunished, Even Celebrated

Uwase Noella was once an outgoing and cheerful teenager, admired by her peers for organizing theater activities, fashion competitions, and for her singing abilities in her native town of Uvira, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika in the east of war-torn Congo. Her family and others like them had long become accustomed to fleeing their homes during periods of "high tension." Since the war started in 1996, these periods came as often as "snow in America," as her friend put it.

In the summer of 2004, Noella came home from school with her friends, jumping rope and eating beignets. She arrived to find packed bags on the floor and her parents waiting for her so they could flee to neighboring Burundi.

Noella knew her sins: she was Banyamulenge, a Tutsi tribe long persecuted in their own country. Already, a dozen Banyamulenge civilians had been killed in Bukavu and a few in Uvira when fighting broke out over tensions within the Congolese military ranks. The conflict pitted Mbuza Mabe, the provincial head of the army, a 'Congolese', against his deputy Jules Mutebutsi, a "Congolese Tutsi." It would not be safe for Noella's family to stay.

They packed into an overcrowded car and headed for Burundi, evading the stones and insults thrown at them and navigating the military barricades erected to prevent them from leaving. They managed to make it to Burundi safely, and they promptly settled into a United Nations refugee camp in Gatumba, just across the border from Uvira.

Life in the refugee camp was slow and boring. Noella's family stuck together and stayed strong. Then came one night, at around 11 p.m., 10 years ago.

"What is happening, Papa?" she woke up asking her father that night, as tam tams roamed, gunshots rang, and grenades exploded.

"My daughter Noella, stay inside the tent. We will be fine," he comforted her. But that was the last time Noella heard his voice.

"Let's exterminate them. Don't leave a breathing thing alive," Noella heard a voice say outside the tent.

A group of attackers went into each UNHRC tent, searching for and shooting any human they could find. Noella was hugging her sister closely when they entered her tent and shot her sister dead in her arms. One of the attackers held a torch to Noella's face, covered in her sister's blood, and then left, confident that there was no breathing thing remaining in the tent.

For good measure, the attackers set the refugee tents on fire, just in case they may have missed someone. Noella ducked out as her tent collapsed on her. Bullets might be better than fire, she thought, as she ran and hid in a bush nearby. Noella survived the night but lost all her family in that tent: her father, her mother, her brother and her two sisters. Ten years on, she now lives and works in Abilene, Texas.

On that night of August 13, 2004, now known as the Gatumba Massacre, a total of 166 refugees were brutally killed, a majority of whom were women and children, and another 116 were gravely wounded. Thousands of lives were shattered.

In the absurdity of things in Africa's Great Lakes Region, Agathon Rwasa, head of The Forces for National Liberation (FNL), an extremist Hutu militia known best for their intense hatred of Tutsis, through his spokesman Pasteur Habimana, went on BBC Kinyarwanda service to claim responsibility for the attack. Further media interviews followed suit, including one to Radio France International the day after the attack, proudly admitting the attack.

In spite of overwhelming evidence supported by the very investigations they set up (not to mention Mr. Rwasa's own statement), the United Nations and regional political players trivialized the massacre and decided not to bring him to justice for his crimes. Consequently, the investigation reports have been shelved, and the matter has been forgotten. The reason? Preserving "political stability" in the region and accompanying the peace process in Burundi. Soon after the attack, in the spirit of the "peace process," Mr. Rwasa was nominated as director general of Burundi's Social Security agency while Mr. Habimana went on to become a Burundian diplomat.

Mr. Rwasa, whose organization has long been labelled a terrorist group by African leaders, recently announced that he will be running for President of Burundi in 2015. This will be his second attempt at the position, as he ran in 2010 and lost. In 2008, Mr. Rwasa transformed his militia into a political party, but by 2011 he was still carrying out armed attacks against civilians. Yes, there are countries where mass murderers can run for the highest office of the land.

And though the Gatumba Massacre was his biggest "accomplishment," there were other murders where Mr. Rwasa led his militia to pogrom and remained untouchable. Mr. Rwasa's militia killed the Vatican Ambassador to Burundi in 2003, Monsignor Michael Courtney, who was trying to broker peace accords between the government and Mr. Rwasa's rebel group. In 2000, he commanded his militia to ambush a bus in which 20 people died -- Tutsis and a British national.

The fact that someone like Agathon Rwasa is free and able to run for public office twice is beyond a mere sign of dysfunction and lawlessness in central African nations -- notably Burundi and Congo -- it is a failure of the international community, too. The international community, with its outsized influence in the region, has lost much of its credibility by standing idly by and letting monsters roam in the name of "regional stability."

"It is a shame on humanity," Noella says. She knows it best. Her world crumbled to ruins and her former self vanished when her father, mother, brother and two younger sisters were killed in their tent that night -- for no reason, except being born the way they were born which they didn't choose.

"The world is unfair," Noella has since concluded.

But she has not given up hope for justice. She joined with other survivors to start an online petition to get Mr. Rwasa arrested, and to get the world to pay attention. So far, of the billions of souls on the internet, just 389 people have signed it.

In the meantime, she finds some meaning in working two jobs in Texas, providing for two families still trapped in Burundi camps until the day they can safely return to Congo. With men like Mr. Rwasa still walking around freely, this seems perhaps even more unlikely than Noella's internet campaign.

Though proud of what she can do with the toil of her work, Noella knows that her former self is unlikely to recover.

"Such things no longer mean anything," she says when asked about movies and songs and games and fashion she once loved when the world still stood, before it fell off a cliff on that fateful night.