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Community commemorates anniversary of Rwandan genocide

| Sunday, April 27, 2014

Members of the South Bend Rwandan community gathered in McKenna Hall on Saturday afternoon to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi people as part of the worldwide commemoration called “kwibuka 20.”

The kwibuka 20 commemoration movement focuses on the themes of remembrance, unification and renewal. Kwibuka translates from Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda, as “remember.”

The keynote speaker for the event, Dr. James Waller, the Cohen Chair of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College in Keene, N.H., constructed his address around these three themes, both in Rwanda and in the world.

Waller said he struggles to conceive of the pain felt by children who survived the genocide, the vast majority of whom witnessed the violence firsthand, and how they have been able to build a new generation on the foundation of peace.

“One of the first times I went to Rwanda just a few years after the genocide, a good friend there … told me by his best estimate … 97 percent of the children who survived the genocide in 1994 saw murder,” he said. “They didn’t hear about, they didn’t read about it, they didn’t see it on television. Ninety-seven percent of children who survived the genocide saw someone killed in front of their eyes. The person they saw killed was most likely a family member, very probably a mother or father, very probably put to death by machete.”

Waller said the world must remember the events of 1994 in Rwanda as a collective failure because the international community failed to intervene in the slaughter of nearly an entire people.

“In the U.S. what we have to remember is that we watched while this happened,” Waller said. “It was a collective failure on the part of the international community as we all watched this unfold.

“It wasn’t like the Holocaust where we couldn’t see it on television, and it took months to get estimates or data on number of lives lost, years to tell the story after it happened. We watched Rwanda unfold on our televisions, … and we did nothing. We stood by, and we watched it happen again. Our government in the U.S. even was afraid to refer to what happened in Rwanda as genocide because to call it genocide might mean that we have some obligation, as we did, to actually do something about it.”

As a global community, Waller said the aim for unification should be to make the oft-quoted phrase “never again” a reality for atrocities such as genocide.

“The world, when it thinks about unification, has to think about do we unite as a world to make sure that ‘never again’ actually has some meaning to it,” he said.

Waller said the path to renewal, both for Rwanda and the world, must include reconciliation as well as reconstruction. He said this is something Rwandans have done in an admirable way.

“Reconciliation has begun, but I think what’s important for us to understand is that reconciliation is a journey without end,” he said.

“… I think what’s most striking today in this commemoration is how much loss is in this room, but how little you’ve talked about the other as the enemy, how much you understand that the other is a human being and the importance of facing that and recognizing that in terms of reconciliation.”

Waller said the road to making “never again” a reality starts now and gains excellent insight and motivation from American tennis star and AIDS victim Arthur Ashe, who said, “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”

“You start where you are,” Waller said. “You don’t have to have a certain degree. You don’t have to have certain experience. You don’t have to move somewhere else. You start where you are. You use what you have because each of you has some incredible gifts and points of leverage that can make a difference. And then finally, you do whatever you can.

“When I think about remembrance, about unification and renewal, I can think of no better blace to start than to heed Arthur Ashe’s words. Start where we are, use what we have and do what we can.”

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About Jack Rooney

Jack is a 2016 graduate of Notre Dame, and The Observer's former managing editor. He is currently spending a year living and working for the University in Ireland, and writing columns to keep him busy. For more random thoughts and plenty of news links, follow Jack on Twitter @RooneyReports.

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