The following post is from something I wrote in 2012. Though dated, it’s still apropo for reflection today.
Eighteen years ago this month, the Hutu genocide against the Tutsis began in Rwanda. In just 3 months nearly 1 million elders, adults, children and infants were brutally slaughtered.
Earlier this month leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York City to commemorate the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated “…the only way to prevent such atrocities from occurring again is to learn from history.” http://allafrica.com/stories/201204130120.html (the post associated with this link has since been rewritten.)
While somewhat reassuring to hear a statement like this from an individual in power, I’m skeptical as to whether it can influence positive change in the future. Here is why. Of course we should learn from history so as not to repeat it. I’m sure if I surveyed 100 people outside my door on the street, most would claim they believe that. But if we want to be really honest with ourselves then the more clarifying question is: If it were 1994 again would we have done anything differently than what we did, as citizens, as a country? Would this have changed with the benefit of hindsight? And if we believe that knowing ahead of time the tragic events that were about to unfold would be enough to move us from bystander to actor, then the next question is: How do we know for certain?
I was traveling to South East Asia at the time of the Genocide. For April and June, I don’t think that I watched television or the news even once. I’m certain that I didn’t read a paper or listen to the news on the radio during this time. I was completely wrapped up in my own world. I was leaving my boyfriend of 8 years and our shared apartment. The first afternoon in my new flat in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, I got an invitation to be part of an international venture. I leapt at the chance and after a week of frenetic shopping, packing of luggage and unpacking of moving boxes, I found myself in a first class cabin bound for Singapore.
The plane took off, I reclined in the cushy first-class seat and pressed the “on” button of the mini-screen t.v. to see the news for the first time in months. That’s when I learned about what was happening in Rwanda. There were scenes of masses of people walking down dirt roads, refugees fleeing for the border. There were other scenes of streets strewn with corpses. There were headlines with quotes from government officials and there was a number, an estimated death toll.
I sat, stone silent while watching. My mind raced with what to do. I had no idea. Nor did anyone around me who had just become aware of the news as I had. I dived into my overseas assignment moving my impression and shock from the news to the back of my mind but not forgetting. In three months I was back home in San Francisco. And that’s when I let fade the news of what I’d heard in early April. Life got busy, I had more responsibilities – shock morphed into memory and nothing changed. And there was nothing to remind me of what was happening in Rwanda in my beautiful neighborhood.
I’ve felt woefully complicit ever since. Not just personally but as an American. There is no question that our country, amoung many others demonstrated a clear and intended lack of leadership and humanity. I’ve asked myself what would I have done differently, had I known? Would I have written my Congressman, and Government Representatives? Would I have started a petition and gathered signatures to try and urge action? Is there anything else I could have done? None of this is enough, of course, but is it better than nothing?
Now, every year in April I make it a point to remember, not just what happened, but also what did not, namely, any form of action by me, as well as any form of intervention on behalf of the Rwandan victims, by one of the worlds most powerful countries, the United States.
Perhaps the most humane act any of us can do is to admit that we, in fact, do not know how we would behave. What we can have is an intention and a commitment to staying awake in front of that commitment. Maybe someday more of the worlds leaders will follow suit, and in so doing, start to build a plan to respond to future threats based on co-responsibility instead of co-denial.