On 7 April 2021, we marked the sad anniversary of 27 years since the start of the genocide in Rwanda, a deliberate, intentional and systematic mass murder of the Tutsi population. The genocide lasted about 100 days and about one million Tutsis – as well as politically moderate Hutus and Twas – were murdered.
We must turn history into relevant lessons for our societies today
On 27 April 1994, I joined millions of South Africans in celebrating our country’s first democratic elections and freedom from apartheid. Meanwhile, in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis had already been murdered.
Although I am a second generation Holocaust survivor – my father Moses Turner was saved by a German Nazi, Oskar Schindler – even I could not make the connection at that time between my personal story of genocide and the events unfolding in Rwanda, only three and a half hours away.
As we reflect on 27 years of memory (Kwibuka27), it is clear that we must not only learn from history, but also urgently make faster links between the past and the present. We need to transform history into lessons for humanity that are relevant to our societies today.
The history of Rwanda and the inspiring and haunting stories of individuals, communities and governments during the genocide, for example, can teach us much about moral choices and their consequences.
The price of mass atrocities and genocide is still very high. After the genocide ended in July 1994, Rwanda was a devastated country. Its basic infrastructure was destroyed, millions of people were displaced and many surviving Tutsis lost their families. Many women suffered the consequences of rape and sexual violence. Thousands of children were orphaned and left to fend for themselves. Countless survivors developed long-term psychological problems.
However, over time, Rwanda has rebuilt itself and the survivors have played an important role in its development. Many have shown great resilience; they have rebuilt their lives, formed survivor support groups and even created and preserved memorial sites across the country, raising awareness of the dangers of extremism and hatred among future generations.
Freddy Mutanguha, Executive Director of the Aegis Trust and a survivor himself, believes that « for survivors, testimony is important for many reasons. We need to speak to release our anger; to process our experience and reduce the trauma; to honour the memory of our murdered loved ones and community; to ensure a measure of justice and to begin the long road to peace and reconciliation. «
He further explains that « bearing witness restores dignity and meaning to the lives of the murdered and in so doing negates the genocide’s intent to deny the value of the lives destroyed and to erase their memory. »
In honour of Kwibuka27, the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Center (in partnership with our organisation, the South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation) has launched the second volume of our digital publication, « Portraits of Survival ». This volume presents and honours the lives of survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, some of whom later settled in South Africa.
This collection of short vignettes will be invaluable as a teaching resource for students and teachers. These stories highlight not only the diversity of experiences of genocide, but also many important lessons and insights into the consequences of discrimination, prejudice and the ‘other’, as well as the power of activism and speaking out. Read Portraits of Survival online for free.
Our role in society is to pay attention and listen to the stories and warnings of these survivors.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, « When you listen to a witness, you become a witness. »
Studying genocide and its link to contemporary human rights issues can help us to see how prejudice, discrimination and ‘tainting’ lead to mass atrocities and genocide. By emphasising the importance of empathy, critical thinking and personal responsibility, we can also encourage students to be an active voice against hate speech and human rights abuses, and to work to prevent future genocide.
In 2017, the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre and Aegis Trust launched the Change Makers Programme (CMP). Already rolled out in 12 African countries, CMP is a youth leadership initiative for student leaders and their teachers.
In collaboration with partners such as UNESCO, the American University of Nigeria and various national ministries and NGOs, the programme strives to build resilience and resistance to violence, helping to develop skills to counter extremism and shape advocates and change agents. The programme uses historical case studies, such as the Holocaust and the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, to explore complex and often emotional issues around prejudice, discrimination and the ‘other’ today.
After the Holocaust and the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, the world declared ‘never again’. But is it really « never again »? Perhaps the best way to put these words into practice is to start learning from the past.
Ms Nates is the founder and director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Center and chair of the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation
To learn more about the work of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Center, visit: https://www.jhbholocaust.co.za