Archive for category Genocide

8 Decades of Refugees

RW-Twitter-Cover-photo-2We may be preoccupied at present with the refugee crisis that has brought so many thousands across the Mediterranean and across Europe, displaced by war in Africa and the Middle East.  But looking back over the decades, this is really nothing new.

In 1936, refugees were escaping from flooding in Shantung, in China, and were fed and housed by the provisional government in Tsinan.


In the USA, the Dust Bowl and resulting drought forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms. Many migrated to California in the hope of finding better conditions. Meanwhile in Europe, the Spanish Civil War led many to flee, often heading across the border into France, which proved only a temporary haven, and in Germany Jews who had been subjected to anti-semitic legislation were taking whatever opportunities they could to leave before things got worse.  CARA (under the name of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning) was working to find posts in British universities for academics thrown out of their posts at institutions in Germany.

1946 saw displacement on a massive scale, across most of Europe.  Germans were forcibly expelled from the territories that had been occupied during the war and now fell under the Soviet remit.

Many citizens of Eastern European countries were desperately trying to stay in the West.  And the survivors of the concentration camps were making their way to the homes they had once known, or waiting for the possibility of passage to Palestine, or the US.

In 1956 the brutal Soviet suppression of the uprising in Hungary led to around 200,000 people fleeing the country, initially to Austria and West Germany.


In 1966 Vietnamese were fleeing ahead of the Vietcong advance.  The New York Times reported that nearly half of the 10,000 inhabitants of the An Lao valley had chosen to leave, pleading desperately with withdrawing US troops for help.

vietnam 1966

In 1976 in Lebanon the civil war created a wave of refugees, around 900,000, or about one-fifth of the population.   On 12 August 1976, supported by Syria, Maronite forces managed to overwhelm the Palestinian and leftist militias defending the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in East Beirut, and  1,000-1,500 civilians were massacred.

In 1986 the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka generated thousands of internally displaced people as well as refugees, mostly Tamils. Many fled to neighbouring India and western countries such as Canada, France, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

In 1996, the refugee crisis in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide became increasingly unstable.  Hutu militants in the camps were now well organised, and led attacks into Rwanda and eastern Zaire.  In what became known as the First Congo War, around half a million people were herded by the militants into the border areas, and subsequently fled back into Rwanda, or further into Zaire. Tens of thousands were killed, or died of exposure or starvation.


great lakes

Ten years ago, refugees came primarily from Sudan, DRC, Somalia and CAR, as they do currently. In addition,  Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia generated significant numbers of refugees following their civil wars, and the ongoing crisis in the Great Lakes area added Burundi and Rwanda to the list.

2016more than 1,200 people have died of starvation and illness at an aid camp in north-east Nigeria that houses people fleeing the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, according to the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières.

It goes on, and it always will.  There will always be wars, and rumours of wars.  There will be, increasingly, natural disasters as a result of climate change.  There will be persecution and oppression and terrorism.  People will leave because they have to, because home is the mouth of a shark.  And we will have to find better ways of helping them, we must be braver, more generous, more open.  Today of all days that seems a forlorn hope.  But we must hang on to it,  nonetheless.


Migration Matters Festival

Friday 24th June

To Walk in Your Shoes, by Rachael Munro-Fawcett


The Scar Test, by Untold

“I came to England, scarred for life.”

Deaths by Rescue, by SYMAAG with Dr Simon Parker

Film & discussion on the refugee crisis.

Iftar with Open Kitchen

Food and conversation!




Leave a comment

One in 113

RW-Twitter-Cover-photo-2One person in 113 worldwide is displaced from home due to conflict or persecution.  That’s the highest it’s ever been.  We’re talking about forced displacement, not people choosing to leave home because they fancy a better life somewhere else.  Warsan Shire’s poem expresses this with immense power:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.

The UNHCR says that Syria at 4.9 million, Afghanistan at 2.7 million and Somalia at 1.1 million together accounted for more than half the refugees under its mandate worldwide. Colombia at 6.9 million, Syria at 6.6 million and Iraq at 4.4 million had the largest numbers of internally displaced people.

Commentators have often shown an uncanny ability to scan the faces of the people in the boats or waiting at border posts and determine where they have come from, and then to use these conclusions to argue that they are not ‘genuine’ refugees but economic migrants.   Better to turn to the data gathered by UNHCR.

These tell us that the countries producing the highest number of refugees are, in order,

  1. Syria
  2. Afghanistan
  3. Somalia
  4. South Sudan
  5. Sudan
  6. DRC
  7. CAR
  8. Myanmar
  9. Eritrea
  10. Colombia

One does not have to be an expert on world affairs to be aware that the majority of these countries are, and in some cases have been for many years, riven by vicious civil wars, often spilling over into neighbouring countries.  The accusation that the young males amongst the refugees should be fighting for their country is nonsensical in these chaotic and volatile situations – who should they be fighting with, or against?  An oppressive government or an extremist rebel force?   Often both official and unofficial forces bolster their fighting strength by forcing boys and young men to join them.  In Sudan and CAR there has been at least the threat of genocide, in DRC disease and famine as well horrific violence and rape on an unthinkable scale.  In addition, IS and its affiliates are active in many of these areas.

Given all that, why do we even wonder about the motivations of those who flee?

The other accusation that is often made is that ‘they’ should have sought refuge in neighbouring countries – the nearest safe place – rather than heading to Europe.  Most do.   In all, 86 per cent of the refugees under UNHCR’s mandate in 2015 were in low- and middle-income countries close to situations of conflict. Worldwide, Turkey was the biggest host country, with 2.5 million refugees. With nearly one refugee for every five citizens, Lebanon hosted more refugees compared to its population than any other country.

Peace Talk Hopes Raised By Cease-fireBut in these countries, those who have fled genocide, famine, war and persecution find themselves in refugee camps.  These are, by definition if not in practice, temporary holding spaces, transitory, a stop along the road to a place to call home.  They are likely to be desperately short of food and medical supplies, sanitation is often rudimentary at best, and there is little prospect of education for the children.  Many of the countries that host most of the world’s refugees are barely able to support their own citizens.  When we say we are full or that we do not have the resources to support a pitifully tiny percentage of the desperate displaced people who need our help, we are demonstrating our own complacency and ignorance.

Here in Europe we can afford to feed, clothe, house and heal our own AND more.  The statistics tell us that we are not doing our bit, nowhere near.


cropped-cropped-Poster-2Migration Matters Festival – Thursday 23 June

Verse Matters – a Feminist Arts Event (19.30 pm) An inclusive, supportive space for poetry, spoken word, storytelling, music and comedy.  Performers include Khadijah Ibrahim, Rae Burgess and Chijioke Ojukwu.



, , ,

Leave a comment

Don’t Stand By

What makes someone give a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn? Giving a damn when it’s not their job, or when it’s a stranger who needs help rather than a friend or a neighbour, someone to whom they owe nothing?

The website of Yad Vashem includes the names and many stories of those who have been designated ‘Righteous amongst the Nations’.

These are people who sheltered Jews or helped them to escape during the Holocaust, often taking huge risks themselves to do so.

Most rescuers started off as bystanders. In many cases this happened when they were confronted with the deportation or the killing of the Jews. Some had stood by in the early stages of persecution … but there was a point when they decided to act, a boundary they were not willing to cross.


Importantly, these are the people we know about. We know what they did because the people they helped to save told their stories.  But there were many, many more whose stories have not been told. Many of those who survived the Holocaust have never talked about what they experienced, and those who were children at the time may not have known who did what, who took what risks to keep them safe. The rescuers themselves have often been silent about what they did – in parts of Eastern Europe it was hardly wise to make a noise about it after the war, and others were too modest to promote themselves as heroes. It is also worth noting that some of those who chose not to stand by were themselves murdered, and some had to endure the knowledge of the fate that befell those who they had tried to save – in either case it is likely that their acts are and will remain unknown.

Nicholas Winton did not, as is sometimes reported, keep entirely silent about his work in organising transports of children out of Czechoslovakia, but he certainly wasn’t well-known for it, and it took a television programme in 1988 to bring it to worldwide attention. He is not recorded amongst the Righteous – but only because he himself was of partly Jewish ancestry. He was scrupulous in recognising that the achievement was not his alone, and his reticence may also have in part been prompted by the painful knowledge that many more children could have been saved, had the US and other nations been willing to take more of them in.

winton ID

As the number of survivors dwindles year on year, we may never know how many more of the Righteous there were.

In Poland, the epicentre of the Holocaust, over 6,500 people are recorded on  Yad Vashem’s database. This is the largest number for any of the countries listed – all the more remarkable since in Poland alone the act of saving or trying to save a Jew was punishable by death for the rescuer and their family.

Stefan Szablewski may have been one of the unknown Righteous. His grandson, Marek, has spent the last few years trying to piece together a remarkable story of life in Warsaw, of survival and resistance.   This has been a significant challenge:

I realised that not only did I have a unique tale to tell, but that as an only child I was the sole keeper. My knowledge, however, was incomplete. I needed to find the missing parts of the jigsaw puzzle to verify the facts that I had, and to learn more about the bigger picture. All I had to go on were my memories of conversations, several boxes of documents, a handful of photographs and medals, a bookshelf of books about Poland, a few contacts, and three precious tapes recorded for me by my father, which told some, but not all, of the story.


What these fragments show is that Stefan’s third wife, Anna, was Jewish and that she and her daughter were kept safe during the occupation of Warsaw, living under a false identity. In addition, there are records which state that ‘he organised safe houses or accommodation for people who were hiding along with the fabrication of identity papers, and also hid resistance literature and medical supplies.’ But there’s no hard evidence – just handwritten testimonies, and the recollections of Witold, Stefan’s son. Witold himself went into the Ghetto before its destruction, smuggling messages to the Jewish Council, and did what he could to help his stepmother’s family. Both the necessary habit of secrecy about such activities, and the level of destruction in Warsaw make it very difficult to find out more, or to know with certainty what happened.  The efforts of a second or third generation now are to gather the fragments that do exist, and build as much of a story as possible.  However incomplete, however many question marks remain, these stories are vital and compelling, and a reminder that the worst of times can bring out the best in people as well as the worst.

In Rwanda, the speed and intensity of the genocide meant that the kind of acts commemorated at Yad Vashem are even less likely to be recorded, and the narratives may be disputed. We have the account of Carl Wilkens, the only American who stayed in Rwanda, against all advice, and did what he could to protect the lives of Tutsi friends, and by talking his way through roadblocks and negotiating with senior army figures (people who were heavily implicated or actively involved in orchestrating the genocide) to get supplies through and then to arrange the safety of the children in an orphanage.

Of course, the story of Rwanda is the story of a world of bystanders, and those who did stay, and did what they could, are haunted, tormented by the lives they couldn’t save and the knowledge that had the US and other nations responded to the warnings and the increasingly desperate pleas from those who were witnessing the slaughter, so many more lives could have been saved. Whilst the targets of the killing were clearly Tutsi and Hutus suspected of helping them, the murder of Belgian peacekeepers early in the genocide meant that Wilkens and others could not be certain that they would be safe, and as the militia at the roadblocks were frequently drunk and out of control, there is no doubt that they took huge risks. Hutu Rwandans who hid friends, neighbours and colleagues rather than joining in the killing, or handing them over to the mobs, were however taking much greater risks, and if discovered they were certainly killed.

The ending of the film Shooting Dogs has always bothered me.  The film shows a young Briton who was evacuated on a UN transport, leaving around 2,000 Tutsi in the compound of the Ecole Technique Officiel in Kigali, surrounded by Interahamwe militia, almost all of whom were killed as soon as the UN trucks left. In the final scenes, he is asked by a survivor why he left and he says that he left because he was afraid to die.  This is disingenuous (and not challenged by the film) – everyone in that compound was afraid to die.  He left because he could.  Wilkens’ fellow Americans, and the majority of the Europeans in Rwanda when the genocide began, left because they could. They had a choice, and – for reasons that any of us can understand – they chose to take the escape route offered to them. Reading these stories, most of us will ask ourselves, would I have left when I could? Would I have stayed and tried to help? If I’d lived in Occupied Paris, or Warsaw, would I have kept my head down, or tried to help?

If you were a gendarme, or a civil servant, or even a Wehrmacht officer, you could do your job, as defined by the occupying forces, and compile lists of Jews to be rounded up, or round them up and transport them to transit camps, and then on to cattle trucks, or carry out the murders yourself. Or you could use that position to get a warning out about an impending round-up, or produce false papers to enable Jews to escape, or take direct action to get people to safety.

It came down, as it always does, to individuals, to their ability to empathise, to see not the vilified ‘Other’ but someone like themselves, and to their sense of what is fair and right. Fear can overwhelm both, but somehow, wherever and whenever the forces of hatred are unleashed, there will be some who will refuse to stand by.

Think of Lassana Bathily, a Malian Muslim who worked in the kosher supermarket in Paris which was attacked after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. He took some of the customers to the cold store to hide, whilst the killers shot and killed Jewish customers in the shop.

salah farahThink of Salah Farah. When al-Shabab attacked the bus he was travelling on in Mandera in Kenya, the attackers tried to separate Muslims and Christians. Passengers were offered safety if they identified themselves as Muslim.  The response from many was to ask the attackers to kill all of them or leave all of them alone. Muslim women on the bus gave Christian women scarves to use as hijabs. Farah was one of those who refused the offer of safety, and he was shot. He died in hospital almost a month after the attack.

There are always some who refuse to stand by.




, , , , , ,

1 Comment

Stumbling over the past in Berlin

Reblogged from Gerry’s always excellent ‘That’s How the Light Gets In’ blog –

That's How The Light Gets In


Just around the corner from the hotel where we stayed in Berlin, in cobbled and tree-lined Fasanenstrasse, I found outside number 42 eight small brass plaques embedded in the pavement. They record the deportation from this town house of eight Jewish Berliners to their deaths in the east.

The Stolpersteine at 42 Fasanenstrasse The stolpersteine at 42 Fasanenstrasse

These small brass memorials are called stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) and there are now more than 5000 of them in Berlin (plus another 38,000 in 800 towns and cities across  Europe), each one commemorating a victim of the Holocaust: whether Jew or Roma, dissident or homosexual, an individual consigned by the Nazis to prison, concentration camp or extermination camp, as well as those who responded to persecution by emigrating or committing suicide.

Stolpersteine are the creation of the Berlin artist Gunter Demnig, their name recalling the old custom in Germany for non-Jews to say, when they stumbled over a protruding stone, ‘There must…

View original post 4,377 more words


Leave a comment

Night will fall – Holocaust Memorial Day 2015

Grainy, blurry black and white footage, shot by soldiers newly equipped with cameras and told to record everything they see.  Long, panning shots, taking in the corpses, barely recognisable as human, in the ditch, and the dignitaries on the bank, impassive.   Negative footage from Dachau turning the unimaginable into something even further beyond our reach.   All of this went into the documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, made by Sidney Bernstein in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of the camps by Allied troops (and using some of the footage from Russian units at Majdanek and Auschwitz).  The title tells us a great deal about why this film was made, its purpose to give us irrefutable evidence of what happened, anticipating both the denials of the German population, including the camps’ near neighbours, and the denials of subsequent generations.

Night will Fall is a film about this film.   Sections of the original are interspersed with interviews with those who made it – Bernstein, Hitchcock, some of the soldiers – and with survivors who found their own faces amongst the images of the gaunt, desperate yet joyous throng.   The survivors speak more easily than the soldiers of the scenes that were recorded there.  Their experience of horror was complete, the moment of filming for them was a moment of almost unbelievable hope, of life when all that they had expected was death.  As for the soldiers, their experience of war did not prepare them, not in the least.  These men try to tell their story, but again and again, words fail.  Sorry, sorry, they say, I just can’t…

The original film has languished in the archives since it was completed. The mood changed so quickly – if Bernstein had completed his work just a little earlier, then maybe it would have had the audiences it was intended for, and deserved.  But by the time this huge task was done the need to confront the German people with the actions of their leaders, the need to tell the world what could happen when a civilised nation abandoned civilisation, were seen not only as less pressing, but as potentially counter-productive.   Not only did we need the Germans as our allies against the strength of the Soviet Union, but we did not want public sympathy for the Jews to force our hand in terms of giving sanctuary to large numbers of refugees.

Bernstein and his collaborators wanted to take a stand against those who would deny or minimise the genocide.  What they had recorded was almost impossible to comprehend, and so easy to disbelieve.   There had been reports of the process of extermination of the Jews in occupied Europe, as early as 1942. Szmul Zygielbojm, Jan Karski and others risked so much to tell the Allies what was happening.  But somehow, even when published in the Daily Telegraph (25 June 1942), people seemed not to grasp it.


Was this failure to respond down to prejudice, or simply that the facts were unbelievable and so people chose not to believe?  To look away and hope that when they looked back, the nightmare vision would have vanished?  At the end of the war, again, the news from the Russian troops who were liberating the extermination camps in the East was treated with scepticism, until the Allied troops entered the German concentration camps themselves and knew.

If it was only human to baulk at that reality, to not want to accept that other humans could do this, not just a handful of monsters but many, many people, the revisionists who came later were of a different stripe, and unperturbed by personal testimony, documentary footage or other evidence.   Somehow they manage to say both that Hitler did not plan and order genocide of the Jews and that the Jews deserved their treatment, brought it, indeed, upon themselves.  They both immerse themselves in technical details to ‘prove’ that what was described and shown could not have happened, and dismiss or treat as mendacious all evidence that it did.  Bernstein’s film would probably not have changed the minds of any of those – nothing else has.

The documentary, a unique record not only of the scenes from hell that the liberating troops encountered, but of the efforts thereafter to help and to heal, will only ever be seen by small numbers.  The Imperial War Museum believes that its images, without the contextual commentary and interviews provided by Night will Fall, are too stark in their portrayal of the dehumanised state not only of the dead but of the (barely) living.  This baffles me, particularly because the film does also show the liberated prisoners talking animatedly to their saviours, being treated for disease, trying on clothes and shoes.  It shows them, in other words, taking on their humanity again.  As if it had never been stolen from them entirely, merely put to one side as hindrance rather than help in that brutal world.  And of course, it is not as if we cannot see, if we choose, such images on YouTube or in other documentaries, often using this very footage.

As Jean Cayrol wrote, in the script used by Alain Resnais for his film Night and Fog:

There are those reluctant to believe

Or believing from time to time.

There are those who look at these ruins today

As though the monster were dead and buried beneath them.

Those who take hope again as the image fades

As though there were a cure for the scourge of these camps.

Those who pretend all this happened only once,

At a certain time and in a certain place.

Those who refuse to look around them,

Deaf to the endless cry.

Bernstein’s documentary ends with the words: “Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall. But, by God’s grace, we who live will learn.” We haven’t.  And night has fallen for so many.   It’s to be hoped that the film will have the wider audience it deserved and still deserves today.  The lesson still needs to be taught and we have to hope it’s not too late to learn.

Jean Cayrol, Nuit et brouillard (Mille et une nuit, 1997)

, , , ,

Leave a comment

The Heaviest Weight of All – Holocaust Memorial Day 2015

The heaviest weight of all: to see
that no one needs me,
to know, to think,
I’ll fade into nothingness like smoke

The young woman who wrote these words was seventeen. So it would be easy to read their intensity as being a teenage thing, a bit over dramatic. But this was December 1941, in Czernowitz, now in the Ukraine.   Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger was writing for her boyfriend, Leiser Fichman, who had been taken to a forced labour camp. Three months after she wrote this poem, she was interned with her parents in the ghetto and then deported to Transnistria and forced on an exhausting march to the Michailowka labour camp, where Selma died of typhus on 16 December 1942.   Leiser kept the poems with him, and then sent them to Selma’s friend Else in 1944. He died when the clandestine immigrant vessel he had boarded, heading for Israel, sank in the Black Sea – he never knew that Selma had died.


Those words – to fade into nothingness like smoke – take on a terrible symbolism in the post-Auschwitz world. And of course, they describe very well the intent. Not enough to drive the undesirables from your territory, not enough to render them powerless and penniless. The last traces of them have to be eradicated, it has to become as if they never were.

As the last survivors of the Nazi holocaust leave us, the need to keep their memory alive becomes ever more pressing, and the difficulty of doing so ever greater.   The machine that devoured so many left such chaos behind that there are those whose fate will never be definitively known, and where whole families perished there was perhaps no one to remember. Whilst there was a flurry of survivor memoirs immediately after the end of the war, there was then a reaction against it, born from the overwhelming desire to forget, to say, ‘that was a nightmare, but we’ve woken up now and everything is back to normal’, but also from fear. For many who survived, there was a strong instinct, reinforced in some cases by advice by Jewish organisations, to keep a low profile, to do nothing to reawaken the hatred. And the trauma of what they had seen and experienced left many unable to speak, ever, or for many years.

But, as Walter Benjamin said, to live means to leave traces. Selma’s poems, Hélène Berr’s journal, Gideon Klein’s chamber music, the children’s paintings from Terezin – all of these speak to us down the decades, and deny the Nazis their ultimate goal. And more and more, those ordinary people, who kept no journals, who composed no sonatas, who wrote no poetry, are being given back their names.


Serge Klarsfeld has painstakingly documented the child occupants of the trains that left France for destinations in the East. Not all of them can be identified with certainty – some, separated from their parents and too young to give their names and addresses, remain nameless. Some have photographs, capturing them in solemn family portraits or holiday snapshots:

klarsfeld children

These three sisters were all deported from Paris in August 1942. The oldest sister, Esther Adamowicz, was born in Poland, her younger sisters, Myriam and Sarah-Cécile, in Paris. They lived at 46 rue Notre-Dame de Nazareth in Paris (3rd arr.).They were 12, 6 and 4 respectively when they were killed.

The Jewish Traces project, Plus qu’un nom dans une liste, tells us of Marianne Epstein, a little younger than Selma, whose family fled Germany after Kristallnacht, initially for the Netherlands and then for France.


After the fall of France they headed south, and settled in St Léonard de Noblat in the Haute Vienne department, until they were rounded up with thousands of other foreign Jews in August 1942. They were taken to Nexon, then to Drancy, and from there to Auschwitz.

The Solpersteine project (literally, ‘stumbling stones’), is commemorating Holocaust victims with the installation of a brass plaque in the pavement, in front of their last home.   Artist Gunter Demnig has now placed such stones in over 610 locations in Germany, and in many other countries occupied by the Nazis.  He quotes the Talmud: “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten” and so the stones each tell us of one name, one person, beginning with ‘Here lived…’.


These projects are not just about saying ‘Never again’. They are about keeping the memories alive. We may not have known Selma, or Marianne, Anna, Helene or Esther. We know their names, where they lived, and so we can piece together something of their story. We may know what they looked like, we may hear their voices through their words, treasured by friends or family and shared with the world.

This matters, it really does. When serial killers strike, we remember their names, but the names of those whose lives they took soon fade – we can’t remember all of them, the teenagers shot down at Utøya, the children of Dunblane. When thousands, or millions are killed we can only grasp the enormity through the detail. The horror is not in the total numbers, it is in these entries in the logs for Convoy 23 and 26, August 1942:

(UN ENFANT) BEAUNE Sans identité n° 122 –
(UN ENFANT) BEAUNE Sans identité n° 146
(Petit Garçon) 01.01.39 CAMPS-LOIRET
(Petite Fille) CAMPS-LOIRET Portant plaque n° 237 –
(Petite Fille) CAMPS-LOIRET Portant plaque n° 36 –

Just ponder on this for a moment. These small children had already known fear and abandonment. And on their last journey they had no one with them who knew their name. We can hope there was someone to hold their hand, to cuddle them, to sing to them. But they had no one who knew their name.

Ponder on this too. Human beings, like us, took them from their homes, separated them from their parents and older siblings, pushed them into the railway trucks. And then, perhaps, went home to their own children, bathed them and told them a story, tucked them into bed, kissed them on the forehead and said goodnight.

Genocide doesn’t start with killing. It starts by taking away the things that make you who you are, and reducing you to Jew, Tutsi, Moslem, Igbo. It tells everyone you lived next door to, went to school with, worked for or with, that Jew/Tutsi/Moslem/Igbo is less than they are, not just inferior but dangerous. And when you’re isolated, displaced and friendless, then you can be eradicated, no trace left behind.

It’s up to us to find the traces. To remember the people we never knew, to ensure that they do not ‘fade into nothingness like smoke’. Children

Berr, Hélène, Journal, 1942-1944 (Paris: Tallandier, 2008)

, ,

Leave a comment

Rwanda: remember – unite – renew

It’s twenty years since we all blinked and failed to notice that hundreds of thousands of people were being hacked to death in a small country in Africa.  Twenty years since we decided that the appropriate response to machete-wielding mobs on the streets, targeting anyone whose ID card gave the wrong ethnic origin, was to withdraw almost all the peace-keeping forces stationed there, and tell the rest they could not intervene.  Twenty years since we waffled and fudged about ‘acts of genocide’ and muddled up Hutus and Tutsis, and showered emergency aid on killers, and muttered about tribalism, and ‘six of one…’.

There are all sorts of excuses.  The failed intervention in Somalia, the joyous distraction of the South African elections (for once, a good news story from Africa), and the general reluctance to commit troops and risk ‘our’ people’s lives in such a messy, chaotic and volatile situation.  But it is inescapable that part of the reason that we didn’t stop it happening was because of where it was happening.  Because, as Francois Mitterand actually said, more or less, in Africa massacres aren’t such a big deal.

In many ways, genocides resemble one another more than they differ from each other. If we discount scale, as we must, since it is the intention to wipe out a race/group/community rather than the numbers involved, or the degree of success in that endeavour that defines genocide, there is a common trajectory that we can trace.  The group marked for destruction must be isolated, vilified, made objects of fear as well as hatred.  They may be identified as less than human – vermin, lice, cockroaches – since no one baulks at the death of such creatures.  They must be classified, marked, labelled, listed, so that they can be tracked down.  And once the killing starts, for the group marked for destruction there is the desperate search for safety, for shelter and protection, the knowledge that each person you encounter may denounce or protect you.   Not only that, but the threat to those who did try to help that they too, and their families, would die if they were exposed.   In fact, merely refraining from murder may be an act of resistance likely to be punished with death.

There are things about Rwanda however, that are different.  Firstly, the sheer speed of the events that engulfed that small country in Africa is staggering. There had been decades of sporadic massacres, which is why a Tutsi rebel army, composed mainly of refugees and children of refugees, was in the process of invading the country.  And preparations had certainly been laid well in advance, lists drawn up and machetes stockpiled.  But still, from the trigger of the shooting down of the President’s plane to the RPF victory only four months elapsed.  Four months, and 800,000 people dead.  Many more maimed, raped, traumatised, orphaned.  So much destruction in such a short time.  A tsunami of brutality, when everything was irrevocably changed in moments.

There was no great machinery of bureaucracy to process the destruction of the Tutsi, who were killed, for the most part, by their own neighbours, or by the militia on the roadblocks who simply needed to ask for their ID to know whether they should die.  There were no camps set up to process those captured and marked for death, just places where people sought refuge and instead found that their hoped-for sanctuary was in fact a trap where the killers waited until they were gathered together, before sweeping in to destroy.  There was not even the pretence of any fate for the Tutsi other than death.

And because of the speed, and because the victims, like their murderers, were in many cases rural people, not highly educated and literate, and if they hid it was in the bush, there is no Anne Frank, no Helene Berr from Rwanda, both murdered, but who left records of what it was like to have to hide, to live in fear, to be marked for death.  The narratives of Rwanda are those of the survivors.  Whole clans were wiped out, so that now it is as if, as a survivor put it, a page in the album of humanity has been torn out, and of many of those families and individuals there may be virtually no trace remaining.  After all, that’s what genocide aims to do. It’s never enough to kill all the people, you have to kill their history, their culture.

But that’s one of the odd things about the Rwandan genocide.  The Hutu and Tutsi peoples were not distinguishable from each other by a language – even an accent – or a religion.  They were – supposedly – different in physique, but in reality decades of intermarriage meant that one could not actually identify anyone reliably in this way.   The mythology of their enmity was fostered by successive colonial governments, who favoured first one group and then the other, exploiting the tensions that this created.  The different names existed, certainly, but the identities were not fixed.  Because Hutu and Tutsi were associated with different modes of life, if your circumstances or occupation changed, your ‘ethnic’ identity could change too.  It was the colonial governments who put in place the system of identity cards that stated which group one belonged to, and made that identity fixed and inescapable.

Many, many ordinary people did extraordinary things to protect friends, neighbours or total strangers.  And many of those who were there in an official capacity broke ranks to do what they could.  Major Stefan Stec, with the UN Peacekeepers, faced down militia at the Hotel Mille Collines, attempting to evacuate some of the many Tutsi and moderate Hutu who had taken refuge there.  He was so tormented by the events he witnessed, by his own sense of failure, and by the harsh judgement of many who weren’t there and had no choices to make, on the inadequacy of the UNAMIR response, that he died eleven years later, as a result of PTSD. Romeo Dallaire, who commanded those forces, suffers similarly, and attempted suicide six years after the genocide.  And Mbaye Diagne, a Senegalese UN military observer, ferried people through roadblocks to the Mille Collines, bluffing and bribing his way past the militia until he was killed in a mortar attack in May 1994.

Yolande Mukagasana’s world changed on 6 April 1994.  Within days she had seen her husband killed.  She had lost contact with her children.  She had come close to death, and had seen people who she, as a nurse, had healed, ready to kill her or hand her over to be killed.  She also encountered people who owed her nothing and yet who kept her safe, just because it was the right thing to do.  She was tormented first by not knowing her children’s fate, and then by knowing it.   Once safe, she threw herself into her old role of healer, but her own healing took a long time – to the simple guilt of having survived when so many didn’t, she added the guilt of having survived when her own children didn’t, and of knowing that others had died for refusing to hand her over, or because they were mistaken for her.   She drew orphaned and lost children to her, and started an organisation called Nyamirambo Point d’appui, named after the area of Kigali where she lived with her family, and where she saw her neighbours become murderers.  She started to rebuild, there, where she’d lost everything.

Yolande writes ‘contre l’oubli’, so that the dead aren’t entirely lost, so that the truth isn’t buried with them.  And that includes uncomfortable truths about the role of international bodies, and most particularly of the French government, both actively and passively enabling the genocide.

But this duty of memory is not just for the past, but for the future.  Surely if we remember what happened twenty years ago in that small African country, as we remember what happened over seventy years ago in Nazi occupied Europe, what happened almost forty years ago in Cambodia, we will see the signs next time before it’s too late?  We will make the right choice about whether and when to intervene?


Yolande Mukagasana – N’aie pas peur de savoir (Robert Laffont, 1999)

Rwanda pour memoire, Samba Felix N’Diaye (L’Afrique se filme, DVD, 2001-2003)

, , ,

1 Comment