Rwanda: April – Remembering Genocide

by Gerald Caplan
May 6 2010

April is the cruellest month for genocide survivors. When Canada’s
Governor-General Michaelle Jean was in Rwanda acknowledging the
country’s feeble efforts during the 1994 genocide, she found herself
in the middle of the country’s annual period of commemorative mourning.

I’ve been there several Aprils and it’s a grim, trying, often traumatic
time for victims and perpetrators alike.

Why April? By some weird fluke, both the Armenian genocide and
the Jewish Holocaust also have anniversaries in April. So the
memorialisation of the three indisputably classic genocides of the
20th century, those that fit every criterion of the UN Convention
on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, all occur
within the same 30-day period.

Last week I spoke at a memorial service at Tufts University in Boston.

Jewish and Rwandan survivors and the granddaughter of Armenian
survivors were joined by a survivor of the Cambodian killing fields
for a deeply affecting evening. We first remember the past to honour
the victims, and every one of the speakers lost a mind-numbing number
of family in his or her respective apocalypse.

We also hope to learn lessons for the future, since everyone who
commemorates genocides is also by definition committed to genocide
prevention. Despite all the experience of this past century of
genocide, how well humankind is doing in preventing such atrocities
is by no means clear.

All across the world, memorial ceremonies during April are more common
than many know. But Tufts was unusual for this unexpected fact: Rarely
do the various survivors’ communities attend the same memorials. In
general, each bears witness in isolation from the others.

Five years ago, I was asked by the Toronto Armenian community to be the
keynote speaker at their commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the
Armenian genocide. I had only just closed down a virtual international
organisation, Remembering Rwanda, that I had founded and that I ran
with my Rwandan partner Louise Mushikiwabo, whose family had suffered
unimaginable losses in 1994. Louise, then a private citizen living
in Washington, returned to Rwanda and is now minister of foreign
affairs. Our initiative sought to ensure that the world would not
forget Rwanda, above all the key role of the international community
in enabling its genocide.

But as I pointed out frankly to my Armenian audience, around the world
only a handful of Armenians or Jews bothered with Remembering Rwanda.

Most were too preoccupied by their own tragedy to have room for or
interest in the others. (Many North American Jews attempted to atone
for their dereliction by spearheading the Darfur solidarity movement.)
Few wanted their own suffering to be diminished, as they saw it, by
the suffering of others. Professor Peter Novick, a Jewish American
historian, in his superb book ‘The Holocaust In American Life’,
called this the Olympics of victimisation. Instead of a competition
among victims, I challenged my audience to embrace the solidarity of
among them. Who should be more sympathetic to the plight of genocide
survivors than other genocide survivors?

That’s what the hushed and attentive crowd got at Tufts University.

What was remarkable about the four testimonies was, on the one hand,
the uniqueness of each experience, yet on the other the extraordinary
similarities of each of them. They demonstrated that no one wins
the race of the victims. There is no continuum of horror, with some
atrocities more heinous than others. There is just the same ultimate
goal: The total annihilation of an entire species of humanity for
what it is rather than anything it might have done.

Time after time the survivors told virtually identical tales: Being
classified as some kind of filthy insect that needs to be eliminated in
order to cleanse society, to make it pure. The sudden transformation
of neighbour, friend or teacher into mortal enemy. Your physical
separation from the larger whole. Losing track of other members
of your family. Witnessing a beloved relative murdered before your
eyes. The peculiarly gruesome, sadistic nature of the killings.

The desperate escape to anywhere else. Hiding in the marsh, the forest,
the hills. Living in holes in the ground like an animal.

Taking refuge in disgusting outhouses. The numbing of the senses. The
disappearance of everyone else of your kind. The terror. The isolation.

The interminable wait for the victors – the RPF, the Viet Cong, the
Soviet or American armies. The miraculous appearance of one of the
mob as a furtive protector. Being saved just when you were sure it
was over. The complete disorientation of rescue. The search for family.

The confirmation of the most terrible fears. Being saved yet being
the living dead. The search for justice. The need to survive. The
shock of grotesque genocide denial. The realisation that the world
moves on, with or without you.

These were the common themes that played themselves out in Boston last
week, as they do wherever and whenever survivors gather to tell their
stories. They remind us that human nature knows no distinctions based
on race or colour or nationality or ethnicity or religion. When there
are humans there is the capacity for evil. That’s the first lesson
re-learned from genocide survivors every April. Prevention begins
with the knowledge that it has happened before and, if we let it,
it can happen again.

Gerald Caplan has a PhD in African history. He recently published The
Betrayal of Africa. This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.