Genocide in Rwanda: Could it happen here?
April 20, 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 ethnic hatred.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.
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