The government of Rwanda has approached a leading Holocaust survivors group for advice on the long-term effects of genocide.
“We can’t turn our backs on them,” said John Lemberger, director of AMCHA, an organization in Israel that provides psychosocial services for Holocaust survivors and their families.
Lemberger responded to the Rwandan appeal by attending the government-sponsored “Conference on Genocide, Impunity and Accountability,” held earlier this month in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.
Legal experts and human-rights advocates from a number of countries also participated.
More than 500,000 people were killed in Rwanda in the months of brutal violence that erupted in April 1994, after the country’s Hutu president died in a plane crash.
Most of the victims were members of the minority Tutsi tribe, though some Hutus also died in the ruthless clashes between the two groups that dominate this African nation.
The Tutsi now control the government, and in trying to rebuild their nation, they have been seeking to deal with the pain and suffering of the country’s population, particularly those who survived massacres or lost family. In addition, the government is dealing with a massive refugee population. Currently, 2 million Rwandan refugees are outside the country’s borders, said Lemberger, while within Rwanda, there are hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of them widows and orphans.
Many parallels exist between the survivor populations of the Holocaust and the civil war in Rwanda, Lemberger said in a recent interview.
However, one has to be careful in comparing the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda, he said, adding, “We were very careful in Rwanda that the two situations were not compared in a historical sense.”
The Holocaust, in terms of intensity, length and method, was “different than conflict in a country between two groups,” Lemberger said. For the Rwandans, the “`Germans’ aren’t somewhere else,” the AMCHA director said. “They’re within them.”
AMCHA’s mission remains in Israel, but Lemberger said his group wants to help the Rwandans “move from frustration and despair to hope.”
Based on the experience of Holocaust survivors, Lemberger made the following Rwandans “move from frustration and despair to hope.” * The problems that Rwandan survivors face are ones that will “last 20, 30, 40, maybe 50 years.” The Holocaust not only had an impact on the survivors, but on their children as well. * As in the case of the Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust, “Rwandans are not aware of what happened to love ones,” he said, stressing the importance of victims being “brought to proper burial,” an issue with which the Jewish community still struggles. * Rwandans have already formed survivors associations, whose members are from a certain town or are dealing with a particular issue. In the case of the Jews, people formed groups – even in the camps for displaced persons – according to place of origin. * The stories and trauma itself are similar. One survivor told him about how when she was eight months pregnant, her husband and two children were willed in front of her. She was severely injured, and miscarried. “All you had to do was close your eyes and see 50 years ago,” Lemberger said. * Issues of compensation, education and remembrance are being discussed among Rwandans, as they have in the Jewish population, even today.
“For Rwandans, it’s important for people to know what they have experienced,” Lemberger said, adding that “legitimization justifies their survival.” “One of the worst feelings – for either a Rwandan or Holocaust Survivor – is for people to think that it was their fault, that there was no way to get around it, that it was act of God,” he said.
AMCHA is the Hebrew codeword – meaning “your people” – that once helped survivors identify other Jews in war-ravaged Europe.
Other Jewish groups – such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – have been active in providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees of the Rwandan civil war.