I wore a strip of twisted gray bandanna around my wrist to commemorate a strange time when approximately one million people were killed by their friends and neighbors in approximately 100 days in one small country.
Purple was originally used as the color of remembrance for the Rwandan genocide, which began 20 years ago this month. But the color was recently changed to gray — the color of ashes.
Speaking of the color of ashes, April 27 is the date of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. So our thoughts of genocide will always collide with our thoughts of spring.
The big question about genocide is why, if all right-thinking people consider it to be morally repulsive, does it keep on happening?
In recent memory, besides the attempted complete extermination of Jews, gays, and Roma people by the Nazis, we have seen the killing fields of Cambodia, the Bosnian war, Rwanda, the leadership of Joseph Kony in Uganda, Darfur, and whatever else is happening in the Sudan right now — and that’s just off the top of my head.
World War II was a particularly vile time for murder, but Germans were not the only ones who committed genocide. I recently read Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 story about Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner and war hero who survived for 47 days on a raft after his fighter plane was shot down in the Pacific and who then survived years of brutal, sadistic, and insane treatment in a series of Japanese prison camps.
The Japanese also had a thing about race — they were the pure race, the superior race, and therefore all the land and people in Asia belonged to them.
While the Aryan race (the word derives from the Sanskrit word for “noble”) was gobbling up Europe, the Japanese were gobbling up everything from Korea to China to the fringes of India.
Once, when I was living in the jungle, I tried an experiment: I put two tarantulas in a large glass bottle and watched how they got along. No matter how many times I tried it, one tarantula almost immediately killed the other.
After reading Hillenbrand’s book, I remembered the experiment and wondered what the end game would have looked like if the Japanese had won in the Pacific and the Germans had won in the West.
Imagine both cultures convinced of their racial superiority, armed to the teeth, standing alone, unopposed, facing each other.
* * *
In March, in search of insight, I attended Rwandan Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Mathilde Mukantabana’s speech at the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College.
The center is a remarkable public resource as well as one of the oldest Holocaust resources centers in the United States. It was founded in 1983 by the owners of the local blockbuster grocery distribution company C&S Wholesale Grocers; its library and lectures are open to the public. Its motto is “To remember... and to teach.”
Mukantabana had to deliver her lecture via Skype because of bad weather, but the 200 people packed into the auditorium there were warmed by this round-faced and attractive ambassador’s bright, lively, and good-humored personality — even while she was talking about an experience so horrible that it defies the imagination.
* * *
The background of the Rwandan genocide is complicated and political. Briefly, in the early 1990s, there was Hutu-against-Tutsi violence, which ended in a peace brokered after international pressure.
A government agreement between the two ethnic groups to share power did not entirely quell the conflict. On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the Hutu president of the country (and the president of Burundi as well) was shot down. The genocide began the next day.
“When genocide occurs, victims are selected because they are members of a group or population that the dominant group excludes from its universe of moral obligation,” said Henry F. Knight, the Cohen Center’s director, in his written introduction to Mukantabana’s speech.
“Cockroaches.” That’s what Mukantabana said the Hutu majority called Tutsis as they murdered them wholesale during that raging frenzy of violence that went from April 7, 1994 to mid-July of the same year.
If people are cockroaches, then extermination is the only answer.
Mukantabana — a Tutsi — lost an unimaginable 70 members of her family during the genocide, including her parents and four brothers and sisters. (She was studying in the United States at the time.) That means, she said, that 70 people she knows and loves are buried close to her Rwandan home.
Ninety-seven percent of the children in Rwanda saw someone hacked to death or killed in some other brutal way, she told us. And often, those people were family members.
Rape, as it so often is, was used as a weapon of war. About 60 percent of the women raped were infected with HIV by their rapists.
“Rape was used in Bosnia to produce children who were not Muslims,” Mukantabana said. “In Rwanda, rape was used to pass on AIDS.”
As hard as it is to understand the mindset of people who would deliberately rape a woman to ensure that both she and her child have a deadly disease, the issues get even harder.
“How do you love children whose existence derives from the worst experience of your life?” Mukantabana asked.
As an aside, however, she mentioned that the stigma in her country attached to rape and HIV has been almost completely eliminated.
It might be easier to think of men doing the raping and killing but, no, women did it, too. They killed, they raped with objects, and sometimes they forced men to rape.
And the Rwanda conflict is not entirely over.
On March 6, 2014, for example, there was a third failed assassination attempt on the life of an exiled former Rwandan general who claims that the country’s current president, Paul Kagame, ordered that fateful plane to be shot down. This general’s friend and colleague was assassinated in a Johannesburg hotel in December 2013.
* * *
But Mukantabana, who adores Kagame, wanted to talk about forgiveness and the peace that the president’s regime has brought to Rwanda.
“Forgiveness — is it necessary for reconciliation?” she asked. “Is it possible? Is it a luxury? Can we see a road even without forgiveness? Not religious forgiveness, but a willingness to move forward toward one society.”
She talked about Rwanda today as a developing, progressing nation, this country of 270,000 perpetrators that was left with only seven living judges after the genocide was over.
She talked about a country trying to “create governance,” a country trying to heal on a community level, a country where 64 percent of the members of Parliament are women, a country trying to “redefine reality.”
And she talked about how much she loves her country. She called it a “beautiful country, almost a fairy tale. If I was God I would crash here.”
* * *
Why didn’t the world stop the Holocaust? Ask Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Why didn’t it stop the Rwandan genocide? Ask Bill Clinton.
One of the interesting things about genocide is that even though there are international laws against it, if you can give it another name, then the international community doesn’t have to get involved.
Ask Bill Clinton about Bosnia. And Barack Obama about Libya or Syria.
If there is any moral here, it is that we must all be watchful about the dehumanization of a people — any people.
That includes Jews in Europe, gays everywhere, Palestinians in the Middle East, and even immigrants in the United States.
“To interrupt genocide, we must disrupt our complacent acceptance of the status quo to focus on the realities of those who live beyond our immediate concern,” Knight, the center’s director, wrote. “All human beings count in our moral universe.”