Shmuley Boteach

The brutal truth from Rwanda

Whenever I visit Rwanda, I feel like I’m home. This week, when I came at President Kagame’s invitation to deliver a speech at national commemorations for the 20th anniversary of the Tutsi genocide, it was an even deeper communion – with a nation of wounded souls but unbent resolve to recover, rebuild, and find reconciliation.

What a profound place Rwanda is.

Just two decades after it was ravaged by civil war, it is suffused with a spirit of affirmative hope. The streets are kept pristine while buzzing with construction. The police are orderly, the people easy-going and welcoming. Schoolchildren – half the population – shine with intelligence, seriousness and optimism. The hilly vistas are beautiful, inviting rather than menacing after nightfall.

But the mark of a darker time lingers in survivors. As I gathered among scores of international dignitaries at the Kigali stadium on Monday morning, the official launch of the commemorations under the banner of “Kwibuka” (“Remember”, or our Hebrew “Yizkor”), I watched tens of thousands of Rwandans solemnly filled the seats, their ranks speckled with deceptively merry parasols. In the audience was UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, my friend U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, and former British prime minister turned Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair.

A master of ceremonies took the microphone and, in a slow bass voice, recounted episodes from the slaughter of the country’s minority Tutsis at the hands of Hutu compatriots. His grim, even recitation was interrupted by what, at first surrounded like the cry of a seagull. But Rwanda is a landlocked country, and the noise was that of grief – a woman in the stadium who was suddenly overwhelmed by memories of the horror.

We foreigners watched, harrowed, as she was shepherded out by a practiced team of medics and grief counselors. These had been deployed around the stadium in advance. Their large numbers soon proved necessary. Another woman shrieked, then another, then a man, the numbers reaching dozens, their keening cutting through what might have been a dry ceremonial mood. Some Rwandans sobbed quietly in the audience, and many of the foreigners followed suit. The noise persisted during the minute’s silence called to honor the one million dead – somehow serving to sanctify, rather than disrupt, the gesture.

The innocent blood, it seemed, was crying out from the ground through those relatives, friends and colleagues who lived on. But Kagame and the other Rwandan leaders looked on stoically at the public display of anguish. The President later told me that this took place at commemorations every year – a response to recalling atrocities that happened barely a generation ago, when the Tutsis were turned upon, often by their own Hutu neighbors, with the most brutal and personal of weapons – machetes, clubs, guns.

With Rwandan President Paul Kagame and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power

He was 36 at the time, general of the rebel army that would liberate Rwanda and put an end to the genocide. Abandoned by the world, Rwandans learned they could rely only on themselves – a lesson Kagame is not shy of repeating today, and which, I believe, is one of the reasons that he has identified so readily with Israel and the Jewish people as symbols of human endurance.

That was my message when I rose to speak in front of the President, First Lady, and Rwanda’s leaders at the Amphora National stadium on Monday night in a speech that was aired live on national television and radio.


I said I had come to Rwanda primarily through a sense of shame at being part of a world that did not intervene – despite the lip service so often paid to the principle of “Never Again” after the Holocaust and the genocides of Cambodia, Armenia and the former Yugoslavia. I paid homage to the accommodation and forgiveness championed by President Kagame as his country worked to reintegrate Tutsis and Hutus – including some, among the latter, who confessed to taking part in the mass-murder.

But I argued that overriding this must be the example he and his people have set in achieving the true dignity that comes from self-reliance.

The international community did nothing to stop the Rwanda genocide twenty years ago. Were it to happen today, God forbid, they probably would still do nothing – as the murdered and gassed children of Syria, and the millions who have starved to death in North Korea, have discovered.

I was part of a world that, like Cain after he slew his brother Abel, tried to evade responsibility by asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?” One day – and I pray this be soon – such moral cowardice will no longer be accepted, and international representatives like the UN will truly shoulder their responsibility to keep, to guard, and to protect their fellow humans.

Until then, though, Rwanda will be my guide, as Israel has long been, for how to emerge from the ultimate of horrors, suffered desperately alone: with one hand poised in self-defense and the other offering renewed friendship, ready to rebuild without awaiting the approval of others, never apologizing for the righteous toil of survival.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He is the author of Judaism for Everyone and 30 other books, including his most recent, Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.