The Genocide Problem: “Never Again” All Over Again

For almost a year, I immersed myself in the topic totally. I thought of nothing else. Weekends and evenings disappeared. Somehow, I absorbed a wealth of knowledge as if by osmosis. In the end, however, the work was done and approved – even though some panel members were rather less enthusiastic than others in accepting some of my harsh, unforgiving, and thoroughly documented assessments of the French and U.S. governments, the Catholic Church, the UN Secretariat, the oau itself, the post-genocide government in Rwanda, and just about everyone else involved in this terrible tragedy except Canadian General Romeo Dallaire. Dallaire, almost alone, emerged with his honour intact.

Howard Adelman, a Rwandan expert at York University in Toronto, once wrote that Rwanda’s was “the most easily preventable genocide imaginable,” and the panel unhesitatingly accepted my suggestion that we call the three-hundred-page report “Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide.”

What can never be forgiven is that none of those with the capacity to prevent it cared enough to try.

The report was released in mid-2000. I don’t mind saying the oau had never seen anything like it – independent, outspoken, undiplomatic, and easily read, it was the very antithesis of the turgid bureaucratic documents the oau normally spewed out. It was also largely ignored. Not because it pulled no punches, I’m afraid, but out of plain lack of interest. Africa’s heads of state, who had authorized the report two years earlier, never bothered to discuss it at all.

I was deeply disappointed by the unceremonious burial of the report, suffering from the inevitable anticlimax after such an intense experience, and finding it hard to come to grips with what I had learned. Not only was the assignment over, so, it appeared, was my time with Rwanda. Wrong again.

About a year later, it dawned on me that outside Rwanda itself, the genocide was already being forgotten. I became extremely agitated. The survivors were living as traumatized, maimed paupers. Most of the perpetrators were getting away with murder, often mass murder. The sins of commission of the French government and the Catholic Church, and the sins of omission of the American and British governments, were being completely ignored: the “globalization of impunity” I had called it in the report.

Carol, once again seeing things far more clearly than I could, suggested that the tenth anniversary of the genocide in 2004, two-and-a-half years away, could be a natural occasion to renew interest in the tragedy. The result was “Remembering Rwanda,” an international voluntary movement organized with no funding, largely on my Mac, with the assistance of Louise Mushikiwabo in Washington and Carole Ann Reed in Toronto, with adherents around the globe, all dedicated to ensuring that the memory of the genocide and its victims would not be buried, and that those responsible for it would not es-cape accountability.

I had already befriended some Diaspora Rwandans who signed up immediately. They included a group of remarkable widows, particularly Esther Mujawayo in Germany and Chantal Kayetisi in New Hampshire, who had lost their husbands, among dozens of other relatives, to the genocide while they and their children miraculously survived, and who are dedicated to making sure the genocide would not be swept under history’s table. Leo Kabalisa, one of life’s natural gentlemen, was another; Leo, who now teaches French in a Toronto high school, counts by name fifteen members of his immediate family and eighty-two of his extended family who were murdered during the one hundred days.

Other Rwandans, though, were inevitably suspicious. In Johannesburg one night, I met with a group of Rwandan expatriates attached to the Rwandan Diaspora Global Network. I knew them through e-mail correspondence and, finding I had to be in Johannesburg on other UN business, I had asked to meet them. We had a good couple of hours, got along well, and agreed to work together. But it was obvious they couldn’t quite figure out why I was doing this. What did I want? What could I get out of this? Rwandans, who have been betrayed by the outside world as much as any people on earth, are entitled to their suspicions of all outsiders.

In trying to explain my interest, I found myself, to my own surprise, telling them that I was Jewish. My family had fled Poland before the Hitler era, I said, and, probably as a result, I had great empathy with their own genocide. It was all true. Although I’m a convinced atheist, deeply at odds with those who represent themselves as the voice of Canadian Jewry, and a passionate foe of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, I’ve always felt my Jewishness deeply. I’ve been fascinated with the Nazis and the Holocaust since my teen years. For decades now I’ve read, almost as a matter of principle, at least one book related to the Holocaust every year. Although many Jews disagree, for me the self-evident lesson of the Holocaust is a universal, not a particular, one; it is not merely that anti-Semitism must be opposed with all of our might, but that all injustice, racism, and discrimination is unacceptable and has to be combated.

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1 comment(s)

AnonymousJuly 04, 2010 20:59 EST

Waiting for the flight back to Toronto, where I would do all my reading and writing, I went for a long and dusty walk with Dr. Berharnou Abebe, the panel’s research I dont know :(

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