It has been 12 years since the Rwandan genocide, but underlying tensions remain. Some won’t talk about the past. Others live near those who tried to kill them. Nightmares, court cases and blame-game tactics all are part of the legacy left by Rwanda’s genocide.
Those concerns resonate deeply with the Jewish people, whose own history has been marred by near-annihilation.
Two dozen Jewish students from around the world traveled to Rwanda earlier this month to deepen their understanding of genocide and its impact on the world.
The “Shared Memories — Collective Action” trip, sponsored by the World Jewish Congress and the Fondation pour le Memoire de Shoah, also included eight Rwandan students living in Belgium.
During a week in Rwanda, which coincided with an annual genocide commemoration held there, the students visited grave sites and memorials, learned about recovery efforts, heard survivor testimony and met with political leaders like President Paul Kagame.
Peleg Reshef, the WJC’s director of future generation programs, said the itinerary taught participants that the Holocaust is not something of the past. Despite the pledge of “never again” made after the genocide of the Jews, the world did little when Hutus went on a rampage in 1994, killing hundreds of thousands of Tutsis.
“Our survivors are 70 or 80 years old,” Reshef, who attended the trip, told JTA by telephone from Jerusalem. “In Rwanda, mass graves are still raw.”
Reshef said the Jewish participants empathized with their Rwandan peers, for whom the trip was a bitter homecoming. The Rwandan students included a mix of those whose parents fled before the genocide, and those who were victims of the atrocities themselves.
“When they saw the room filled with bodies, people were running out, crying, throwing up,” Reshef recalled. “For us to see that, it was like our experience in the camps in Poland.”
The structure of the program also aimed to breathe new life into the way Jews remember the Holocaust.
“The orthodox way of teaching the Holocaust is kind of pushing it down their throat,” Reshef explained, citing a certain level of Holocaust “fatigue.”
Reshef suggested that the Shoah be studied from a fresh vantage point.
“We have to learn about the unique place of the Holocaust in the context of genocide,” he continued. “We must understand we have a vital role to play, including what is happening today in Darfur and other dark corners of the world.”
Indeed, the American Jewish community has been at the forefront of efforts to push the U.S. government to do more to stop an ongoing genocide of black Africans in Darfur, Sudan, at the hands of government-sponsored Arab militias.
“Young Jewish people have an obligation to be knowledgeable and take action,” Peleg added.
To that end, the trip connected the dots between ethnic cleansing campaigns past and present. A survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp accompanied the students to the Murambi Memorial Site in Rwanda, and a professor from Cambodia told the group about her country’s killing fields under Pol Pot.
Other presentations drew on the near-annihilation of native peoples in North America and the situation in Darfur. This summer, trip participants will continue the conversation at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, where they will discuss how Israel has dealt with the trauma and memory of the Shoah.
Most of the Jewish students were from Europe; one was from Israel and one from South Africa.
Taylor Krauss, 26, the only student participant from the United States, said the universality of the message struck a chord with him. Krauss, who is working on documentaries about World War II and the genocide in Rwanda, said he was interested in the topic of genocide “not just because I’m Jewish, but because it’s a human issue.
“Looking at the Holocaust is important growing up as a Jew; it made its way into my psyche,” Krauss said. “But how can that be applied to our world today, learning about other genocides and recognizing that it still continues?”
The sojourn was not just important for the students: It provided a model of hope to a nation struggling to get back on its feet.
“We serve as an ideal for them,” Reshef said, referring to the Jewish people. “While we went on and have improved and rehabilitated our lives as people, we’ve also maintained and preserved the memory of the Holocaust.”
Krauss, who will return to Rwanda this fall to continue filming, agreed.
“Meeting Holocaust survivors who have gone on to found families is incredibly hopeful to those who feel alone,” he said.
“Remembering history is important for the healing process, for future generations, and it’s morally important for the rest of the world,” Krauss said. “There’s a need to remember the past, but there’s also a need to move forward.”