GENOCIDE IN RWANDA: COULD IT HAPPEN HERE?
By Lee Bycel
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen Times, CO –
April 24, 2006
I recently returned from Kigali, where the people of Rwanda observed
the 12th commemoration of that nation’s haunting genocide. On April
7, 1994, the nightmare began. Eight hundred thousand Rwandans were
killed in 100 days. That event seems unfathomable now, but the pain
in Kigali is still raw. At various memorial ceremonies, adults and
children wailed at the loss of loved ones, devastated families and
man’s inhumanity to man. The agony of their mourning is palpable.
Kigali has been rebuilt; it is a beautiful city yet haunted by its
past. It is beyond my understanding how, just a short while ago,
neighbor killed neighbor, relative killed relative, friend killed
friend with machetes, guns and knives. The slaughter took place
while most of the world stood by as dispassionate observers. I came
to Kigali to learn more about the legacy of genocide and grapple with
why we have repeated it so frequently in the last century, including
Armenia, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda and now Darfur. Why is our
indifference so profound?
This week, Armenians, Jews and concerned human beings all over
the world commemorate the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust that
collectively took the lives of nearly 12 million people. For the
most part, the world stood by and watched or claimed we were not
aware of the situation. I know that we have advanced in so many
areas, but have we advanced in human terms – measured by compassion,
peace, ability to realize that every one in this world deserves to
be treated with dignity and protected by universal rights? I think of
the world in which these two horrific and incomprehensible genocidal
catastrophes took place. Why were we and why do still fundamentally
remain so indifferent? No longer can we claim lack of knowledge. Has
the modern world, complete with information overload and escapist
technology, led to our collective numbness to the growing storms of
trouble around the world? Are we incapable of learning from the past?
Indifference is like an untreated cancer, spreading through our hearts,
minds and souls. Indifference seriously affects all of us. As Martin
Luther King wrote, “The day we see the truth and cease to speak is
the day we begin to die.” We must fight indifference and cultivate
a society where people act courageously, speak out and pursue justice.
How do we do that? Rwanda offers a timely example. I met with the
dynamic president of Rwanda, Paul Kagami. He is fully committed to
building a society based on civility and justice – his vision and
energy are resolute. He has witnessed the devastating consequences
of a society where ethnic conflict and cruelty run rampant. He lives
with the pain of genocide, it continues on in the lives that have
been torn apart.
Kagami’s vision for his country’s future is based not on rebuilding
what was, but in shaping something that has not been. His vision will
become a reality based on forgiveness, reconciliation, understanding
and a deep resolve to creating a viable society out of the ashes of
Could genocide happen here? I don’t know, but the question keeps
me up at night. I have great faith in our democratic processes and
the safeguards that mark our society. I have deep confidence in the
American people and the reasons we shaped and maintain the principles
of this country. Yet I wonder what moved the Rwandan people from living
together, often with difficulty and amidst the problems that affect
many African countries to murdering one another. I am troubled by our
intolerance of others, our inability to respect other viewpoints and
our willingness to silently witness the small but important injustices
that occur each day. I worry about a society where there are so many
social, educational, economic and health disparities. Yet I am certain
that we have the resources to resolve these issues.
The connection between indifference and genocide is significant.
Perhaps genocide cannot occur without societal or global
indifference. Rwanda reminds me of the importance of never taking
our rights and privileges for granted – and the need to make a deeper
personal commitment to shaping a society where all are protected.
This requires actively addressing our social problems and making a
commitment to civil and respectful discourse with each other.
I left Kigali wondering how to cure the plague of indifference that
has enveloped our world. I remain deeply hopeful about America and our
ability to wrestle with difficult issues. Rwanda informs us, troubles
us – and, hopefully, stirs us to reevaluate and strengthen the ethical
and social framework of our society. We must act: nurturing our own
humanity and taking responsibility. Our personal actions and our
collective deeds are the antidote to indifference.
Rabbi Lee Bycel is senior advisor, Global Strategy of International
Medical Corps and a senior moderator at the Aspen Institute.