How the Jewish Community should Commemorate Rwanda’s Genocide

The twenty-six commemoration, Kwibuka 26, of Rwanda’s horrific genocide has begun. Rwandans around the world are remembering the loss of an estimated one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus slaughtered in only 100 days back in 1994. From the night of April 6 until July 18, extremists saturated with decades of hate and divisionist ideology took up machetes, clubs and other tools against their fellow neighbours. The genocide killings ceased with the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) pushing the extremist government into neighbouring countries, in particular Zaire or now named the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Starting on April 7 and lasting for a week, Rwanda shuts down to focus on remembering those who died and how the nation came to its breaking point. This year, Covid-19 creates logistical problems of how carry out community remembrance events. Nevertheless, the commemoration will not be delayed or cancelled as it is critical in the formation of Rwanda’s post-genocide identity. While genocide commemorations are rather consistent, this year is a bit different in terms of a Jewish connection. Beyond the challenges that Covid-19 has created in the preparation and conducting of the commemoration, this year is also unique for having a Rabbi, Chaim Bar Sela, residing in the country during this period. While Rabbis and other Jewish leaders have visited the country, the opening of a Chabad house last year has helped connect Rwanda and Judaism. He can help be our representative in Rwanda as we remember those who died in the genocide. However, there is more that we can do.

For over a decade, many within Rwanda expressed their positive perceptions of the Jewish community in Israel and around the world to me. Within the context of genocide, Rwandan genocide survivors look upon Jews with an identity of an ‘older brother’ who shares similar experiences of horrific persecution. While scholars such as Nigel Eltringham and René Lemarchand have questioned the similarities between the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide (also referred as the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi), many Rwandan survivors believe in the shared experience.

Additionally, many Rwandan survivors admire Jewish rebirth and continuation after great horrors and wish to incorporate that within their own development. Rwanda is a poor African state with its GDP per capita only US$ 750 with at least 85% of Rwandans working within the agricultural sector. The nation’s macroeconomic policy, Vision 2020, focuses on development as a key mechanism to prevent a repetition of the genocide. During my postgraduate research on Rwandan foreign affairs, many within the Rwandan government described their admiration of how Jews rebuilt themselves after the Holocaust and how they want to incorporate the same abilities. This is one of the key reasons for why the Rwandan government is growing its economic, political and security relationships with Israel.

But the geopolitics and development statistics mean very little for the common person. As Rwandans look towards the Jewish community, it is our responsibility to be brothers and sisters. While it might be financially difficult for many to just travel to Rwanda, especially with the Covid-19 outbreak, there are ways to engage in the relationship. We can provide support very simply by engaging with Rwanda’s diasporic communities. Many Rwandan embassies and High Commissions are holding online commemoration events that are available to the public. The Jewish community should try to engage in these activities to show to Rwandan survivors that they are not alone, and the memories of their lost ones will never be extinguished.

About the Author
Jonathan R. Beloff, PhD, is a researcher focusing on the regional politics and security of the African Great Lakes composing the nations of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have published several academic journal articles, book chapters, book reviews and editorials on issues facing central Africa. Since 2008, my travels to the region have led me to work and consult with numerous Rwandan and international government officials. Within these periods of foreign residence, with particular reference to my multiple extended stays in Rwanda, I developed unique skills to engage and consult with a range of different foreign officials as well as Rwandan elites and policymakers in the understanding and formation of public policy.
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