Dark Continent

The Jerusalem Report
February 7, 2005


by Paula Slier

As the world recalls Auschwitz, a museum in Rwanda looks to the
Holocaust’s themes of grief and hope

Paula Slier Kigali, Rwanda

The air is hot and sticky. Unpaved, red-earth streets wind past tiny
stone houses with corrugated-tin roofs that peep out from behind
one-room shops selling everything from raw meat to imported
chocolates. An occasional modern-looking two- or three-story building
punctuates the poverty. This is Kigali, capital of Rwanda, population

A decade after the genocide in which close to a million people – over
a tenth of the population – were killed in a hundred days, Rwanda is
still struggling to rebuild itself. Most of the dead were members of
the Tutsi ethnic group and moderate members of the rival Hutu group;
most of the murderers were Hutus.

As the world prepares to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation
of Auschwitz on January 27, a Jew visiting this sprawling city is
almost automatically drawn to a hilltop overlooking it, where the
Kigali Genocide Memorial serves as a reminder. Opened in April 2003,
it is situated next to mass graves in which more than a quarter of a
million victims are buried. Its pale pink walls and modern two-floor
structure are surrounded by memorial gardens where visitors are
invited to sit and reflect.

The ground floor of the museum documents the genocide and includes a
large chamber in which glass cabinets exhibit skulls, bones, clothing
remains and photographs of victims. Signs in French, English and the
local language, Kinyarwanda, cater to the hundreds of local and
foreign visitors each day. Upstairs, an exhibition entitled “Wasted
Lives” tells the story of other genocides, among them the murder of
the Hereros in Namibia in 1904, the Armenians in 1915-18, the
Cambodians in 1975-79 and most recently, Muslims and Christians in
the Balkans. Two rooms are devoted to Nazi Germany and the
extermination of the Jews, with special reference to the Treblinka
death camp, where almost the same number died as in Rwanda.

The themes of the museum resonate deeply for any Jew, including the
brutal horror of the murders, the inaction of the international
community, the need for education, reconciliation and rebuilding, the
mandate to care for survivors, the desire to honor the heroes who
saved innocent lives and, perhaps, the difficulty of dealing with the
genocide except as a nearly endless series of separate,
heart-wrenching details.

Two British brothers, Stephen and James Smith, are largely
responsible, through their organization, Aegis, the Genocide
Prevention Research Initiative, for the museum’s final configuration.
Hired by the Rwandan government to create and operate it for three
years (when it is expected to be self-sustaining and will be run by
the Kigali municipality), the Smiths were asked to base the
institution on the Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Center they created
near Nottingham in northern England. And that museum, in turn, was
inspired by the brothers’ visit 10 years ago to Yad Vashem in

In their early 20s at the time, they returned home and converted
their parents’ small non-denominational Christian conference center
in the Nottinghamshire countryside into a historical museum that
houses a permanent exhibition on the Holocaust, along with seminar
and film rooms, a library and bookshop. “We realized that the
Holocaust is not just a Jewish problem,” says younger brother James
Smith, Aegis executive director, now 35 and married to a Rwandan
genocide survivor he met while working in Rwanda. “It has
consequences for us all.”

Ironically, as the Nottingham Holocaust center was preparing to open
in 1994, the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia
highlighted the failure of the international community to either
predict or respond effectively to these new tragedies. “Our responses
to genocidal threats are characteristically reactive and too late,”
Smith notes.

Julien Apollon Kabahizi, the Aegis country manager in Rwanda, lost
four members of his immediate family and most of his extended family
in the genocide. He, too, criticizes the international community for
its inaction 10 years ago and is anguished over his country’s
difficulty in coming to terms with its past. He points out that many
of the schoolchildren coming through the museum – a large number of
them children of survivors or perpetrators – know little about the
genocide beyond what their parents have been willing to say. Although
every year, during the three months in which the genocide occurred,
media focus becomes intense, the genocide is not yet part of the
school curriculum, largely because educators are uncertain how to
present the material.

Emmanuel Mugenzira, 48, lost his entire family during the genocide.
Slightly hunched over and almost emaciated, Mugenzira stares across
the vacant school yard in the southern town of Murambi, where 50,000
people were killed. Left for dead himself by the killers, he still
has a deep bullet scar on his forehead. The government told Tutsis to
go to the schools for safety – but the government was Hutu, and
thousands of Tutsis were killed while hiding in classrooms.

“Most of the killers were my neighbors,” Mugenzira recalls. “They
burned my house, they looted everything I had. I am the only Tutsi
living in Murambi now, and I am scared. But they can’t kill me, I’m
already dead. I come here every day to look after my family.” In a
reaction that echoes that of many Holocaust survivors, particularly
right after the war, he adds, “I wish I had died with them.”

As in other genocides, there are not only victims and perpetrators
but also “righteous gentiles.” Marck Msabimana, a Hutu married to a
Tutsi and a former soldier in the Rwandan army, risked his life to
save his wife and her family. “I kept on telling Tutsis to come and
hide in my house, especially the ones who were my wife’s friends. I
hid them under the bed, in the ceiling, in the cupboard. The first
time the Hutus came looking, there were 40 people in my house. I was
very scared hiding them, especially when I found out that outside,
people were collecting money to pay someone to kill me because they
suspected me.” They had collected 26,000 Rwandan francs (about $ 50),
he recalls, but the killer wanted 30,000.

National reconciliation remains a crucial issue in Rwanda. Unlike
Jews, who could leave Europe after the Holocaust, Tutsi survivors
must live with their former killers, including neighbors and even
family members. They know that not all the Hutus regret what occurred
and that some may still dream of a world without Tutsis, as the Nazis
dreamed of a world without Jews. Except for the hope that the
brutality will not erupt again, many survivors in Rwanda would find
it difficult to go on with their lives. Msabimana says he is
convinced that another genocide could never again happen in Rwanda,
that the lessons of the past have been learned – but he offers no
reasons for his hope.

For Emmanuel Muvunyi, the 33-year-old director of the department of
education’s student financing agency, his department’s efforts to
include genocide in the required school curriculum are part of
ensuring a peaceful future for Rwanda. Fluent in English and
passionate in his speech, Muvunyi, who participated in a month-long
educational program in Israel in 2002, insists that the lessons of
the Rwandan genocide are the same as those of the Holocaust: that
racism must be fought and that the intervention of international
organizations is crucial.

But he sees important differences between the Rwandan experience and
the Holocaust. “In Rwanda, the genocide was faster and there was the
deliberate negligence of the United Nations,” he says. After World
War II, the Allied powers mounted the Nuremberg trials, but the era
of public tribunals to deal with war criminals was short, and many
murderers were never prosecuted. In Rwanda, “gacaca” (literally,
“sit-on-the-grass”) village courts are being held all around the
country to try the more than 80,000 alleged killers still in the
country’s prisons.

An estimated 2 million Hutus fled to the Democratic Republic of
Congo. While many may merely fear Tutsi reprisals should they return,
others are armed members of Hutu militias who dream of returning to
Rwanda to continue the killing.

Ezra Birinjira is a Hutu pastor who infiltrated back into the
country, after four years in a Congolese refugee camp, in a group
caught by Rwandan troops. He denies having killed anyone and insists
that he fled the country only out of fear of Tutsi revenge. “I came
back so that I could reach my home. Then I surrendered,” he says.

After his capture, he was required, as are all Hutu returnees, to
take part in a course, organized by the National Unity and
Reconciliation Commission (NURC), to learn “how to follow the rules
of the new Rwandan government and not to start segregating” Hutus
from Tutsis. Established in March 1999 by an act of parliament, the
NURC hopes that national unity and reconciliation can be developed
through social and economic projects. Among its initiatives are
programs throughout the country that bring together survivors with
perpetrators who have served time in jail.

Just under 8 million people live in Rwanda now, 90 percent of them
engaged in subsistence agriculture. A fledgling democracy with few
natural resources, landlocked and with only tea and coffee as
important exports, it is a nation that was constructed by Western
powers. Before colonization by Belgium began in 1916, Hutus and
Tutsis lived side by side in peace. But the dynamics of colonization,
with Europeans manipulating and using the tribes to entrench their
own power, created festering inequalities and jealousies that erupted
when the country’s Hutu president was killed, his plane shot down,
presumably by Tutsi conspirators, in April 1994. Within hours, Hutus
avenging his death began killing both Tutsis and moderate Hutus, who
represented political opposition.

Jews coined the phrase “Never Again!” as a refusal, after the
Holocaust, ever to submit again to the centuries of persecutions and
pogroms that had led to it. But in Rwanda the phrase is commonly used
in a more universalistic sense. For example, survivor Kabahizi, the
Aegis representative, asks, “When they said ‘Never Again!’ after the
Holocaust, was it meant for some people and not for others?” His is
both a cry of grief for what happened to his own people and an
accusation against those who could have helped but did not.

James Smith, too, understands the phrase to refer to a commitment
undertaken long ago by the international community that genocide will
never occur again. “The genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in
Bosnia threw into relief the failure of the international community
to either predict or respond effectively to these unfolding
tragedies,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “We have no model to
prevent genocide,” he muses, “just principles about our
responsibility to protect.”

It is estimated that 200 million people were murdered by
state-sponsored targeting of civilians in the last century. Another
million lives are at risk today in Sudan. A hillside overlooking the
poverty-stricken city of Kilgari holds the most recent testimony to
both human ferociousness and human hope.


Making the Choice to Heal

Tali Nates’s father was a Schindler survivor; her mother fled Warsaw
in the early 1930s. From childhood, says the Tel Aviv-born mother of
two, she felt a calling to pursue a profession that taught the
consequences of intolerance. Now 43 and living in South Africa, where
she lectures and facilitates anti-prejudice and human-rights
workshops, Nates, blue eyes flashing as she speaks and one hand
continuously flicking back curls of reddish-orange hair that keep
falling into her face, remains passionate about the mission she set
for herself long ago.

“I felt a connection between the genocide in Rwanda and the
Holocaust,” she says. “I hoped that by exploring and understanding
man’s immense cruelty to his neighbors, I would perhaps find the key
to educating future generations not to harm one another.” For seven
years she headed the education department at the privately funded
Foundation for Tolerance Education in Johannesburg, a project that
used the experiences of apartheid, the Holocaust and the Rwandan
genocide to teach universal lessons of tolerance, acceptance and
human rights. She has trained hundreds of teachers and thousands of
students in South Africa and now assists with teacher-training
programs in Rwanda; she expects to run seminars this year for the
Rwandan Ministry of Education and the Kigali Memorial Center.

“Rwanda was a Holocaust,” she says. “It was a Holocaust in Africa, in
a place the world didn’t know or care about. It happened to people
who were different and ‘less important’ than ‘us.’ For me, the
Ntarama church (where some 4,000 Tutsis were murdered with grenades
and machetes) felt like Auschwitz. But do we need to compare the two
genocides? They both ended in the silence of millions who could still
have been with us. And after every genocide the world says, ‘Never
Again!’ Until the next time, that is.”

Nates moved to South Africa in 1985 to marry a South African she met
while he was visiting Israel. In 1994, when the genocide was
happening in Rwanda, she recalls watching it “helplessly” on the news
in suburban comfort. “When I lectured about the Holocaust to
students, I always devoted a few lessons to the world’s reaction – to
how little was done. And here I was, living in a world that was doing
nothing about another mass murder. I felt that I betrayed my
grandmother and aunts who were murdered in Belzec if I stayed
silent.” At the Foundation for Tolerance Education in 1998, she
decided to create a “tolerance program” about Rwanda. Rwandan
survivors and refugees in South Africa helped her put together a
program “about people’s choices – the perpetrators, bystanders,
victims and rescuers – and the consequences of those choices,” she

Last year, she visited Rwanda at last. “I am alive because another
man in another time made a choice and rescued my father. This was a
different country, a different time, different circumstances – but so
many things were familiar and similar. Holding hands with one of the
survivors who lost all her family in the genocide, I felt we were