The Holocaust (of which I speak so much) is simultaneously a contemporary event and history. I was not alive when it happened but since I know Holocaust survivors, it is an event I feel I know. This makes sense because the whole goal of Holocaust education is to become a witness to the witnesses, the real ones. This was put well by my friend and a Holocaust survivor Eliezer Ayalon (may his memory be a blessing). A few years ago, knowing that I would be for the first time visiting Auschwitz, he said: “The difference between us is that you never enter and I never left“. It is true in so many ways; we never enter. But we do gain some understanding, as we listen to the survivors so that it can be part of us.
With Rwanda it is a different story. Admittedly I was still young but very much alive when it took place. In 1994, the world media was already reporting these kind of things real-time and I do remember. There is not a possibility to say that one did not witness the Rwandan Genocide one way or another. Later, I had the chance to meet Rwandan survivors and hear their personal stories. It was different, yes, but it was also the same. Lately, I have spoken a lot about the Holocaust but also about Genocide. So no wonder, as I was just now invited to speak at a conference in Rwanda, I immediately accepted but also made sure that the Genocide Memorial and people connected with that mission, would be part of my program.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.
First, the Memorial itself is situated next to a mass grave where according to various estimates around 250,000 victims’ bodies are buried. Second, inside the Memorial everything changes in terms of what you learnt and thought about the Genocide. There is Belgium with its spotty human rights record; a nation that had a huge role in racially dividing and discriminating in Rwanda. There is the role of France – huge in terms of a loan to the Hutu government enabling them to buy weapons. France is said to have been involved in different ways. And then there is the UN. Romeo Dallaire was the French-Canadian Commander of the UN peace-keeping forces in Rwanda at the time of the Genocide. After several years had passed from the event he wrote a book about his experiences. In the book one senses and sees him trying to persuade the UN head-quarters in New York to allow him to stop the Genocide. He gets a negative response. In the end he concludes that only 5000 men would have been enough for him to stop the Genocide. But he did not get them. On the contrary, the UN is so guilty in this Genocide.
One of the things I always say (and learnt) about the Holocaust is that the silence of its onlookers made it possible.
Inside the Memorial in Kigali there is a room with dim lights and glass-cases. There are skulls and bones of various sizes to see. Suddenly, as I entered the room, I realized that I had never seen these before. I thought about the story; the nations that had signed the UN Convention of Genocide but did not wish to intervene; the crude weapons and the real-time reporting. Through my tears I felt so much rage and anger.
I then remembered a Holocaust scholar saying that sometimes anger is the only appropriate response.