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Genocide victims share experiences

Madeline Buckley | Monday, April 7, 2008

As part of a two-day conference called “Witnessing Genocide: Truth, Reconciliation and the Media,” Aaron Elster told of his victimization by the Nazis during the Holocaust, and Egide Karuranga discussed the Tutsi persecution in the Rwandan genocide during his talk Sunday.

Elster focused on his intense fear of death and strong desire to survive after the Nazis invaded the ghetto occupied by Elster and his family. He was 10 years old in 1942 when he awoke from sleep and shepherded into a hidden room, a means to escape transportation to a concentration camp.

“Three dozen souls tried to squeeze into an average-sized bedroom,” Elster said. “I was shaking and trying to hold back tears. I didn’t want to die.”

The survival of the occupants of the room, he said, depended on the ability to be absolutely silent. Elster remembered hearing an outburst from an infant. The people in the room warned the woman to quiet the child, Elster said, and he watched as the mother exerted pressure on the baby’s mouth.

“I saw the legs of the baby flailing until they moved no more,” Elster said. “I instantly wondered if my mother would do that to me.”

Despite these desperate measures, the Nazi guards discovered the Jews in hiding.

“Demonic faces appeared, and gunshots shattered the silence,” Elster said.

“Total chaos” ensued and dead bodies lined the streets outside, marring the beauty of a sunny autumn day, Elster said.

“The fear of death and the pain of dying were terrifying me,” he said.

While the Gestapo busied themselves with the task of rounding up prisoners, Elster’s father crouched and whispered instructions to escape. Elster moved through the damp ground, slid into the muddy sewer, and crawled through a barbed wire fence to escape.

“[My sister Sarah’s] eyes haunted me. How could I have left my family?” he said.

While on the run, he hid in the forest and dug up raw potatoes for food, Elster said.

Elster discovered the whereabouts of his mother, who was working in a Nazi labor camp. After the Nazis exterminated the majority of the Jews in the camp, they kept about 50 prisoners to clean up the remains of the dead, Elster said. His mother was among the survivors.

Upon reuniting with her, Elster received instructions to seek refuge with an old neighbor in the town, while the mother stayed behind, hiding in a barn.

“I felt abandoned. Mothers are supposed to protect their children,” he said.

Elster then returned to his town, where he begged an old neighbor to help him. The woman reluctantly gave him her attic to hide in, Elster said. He lived there for two years.

“My days in attic were spent in fear of being thrown out and being killed by Germans,” Elster said.

He described a vivid memory of looking out the window and seeing a young girl eating a strawberry in the neighboring yard.

“My heart was aching from pain and envy. Her life seemed so normal,” Elster said. “I wished I hadn’t been born Jewish.”

While Elster lived contained in the attic, the Germans were defeated. He found his mother, who had survived in hiding as well. He later found that one of his sisters survived, while his father and younger sister died in the gas chambers.

“[My sister] was a beautiful little girl,” Elster said. “I carry the tormented image for all my days.”

Karuranga gave another account of genocide that occurred more than fifty years later in Rwanda. He described the events leading up to his refuge at Hotel Des Miles Collines, more popularly known as “Hotel Rwanda”.

Karuranga cited 1959 as the start of Tutsi-Hutu conflict.

“In 1959 we were forced from our homes. I remember people coming to put our house on fire,” he said.

The families in his village were forced to hide in the jungle where there was little food, and the men had to protect their families against wild animals as well as the killers, Karuranga said. He was advised to leave the country because, it was said, it did not belong to the Tutsis, he said.

“This was the first wave of refugees to the Congo, Burundi, and Tanzania,” Karuranga said.

Despite the warnings, Karuranga’s family decided to remain in Rwanda. He said in 1973, people began looking for power, and “used Tutsis as a scapegoat.”

“I started noticing hate propaganda,” he said.

As a result, Karuranga decided to leave Rwanda. He attended a university, and lived in several African countries before he decided to return to Rwanda to see his parents. It was then that the peak of the genocide occurred in 1994.

“I lived in a state of terror and fear,” he said.

The houses of the Tutsis were looted and destroyed, Karuranga said.

“I heard people deny being Tutsi and say that they would never be Tutsi again before they were killed,” he said.

When the Hutus came to his home, Karuranga hid his children under the bed.

“I was powerless in front of my children,” he said.

As the violence escalated, Karuranga received a ride to Hotel Rwanda, a safe haven for Tutsis, and paid for a spot for his family, where they lived in hiding until the genocide stopped.

Karuranga stressed that during the Rwandan genocide, the majority of the killings were not made by an army, but rather by ordinary citizens.

“One of main questions of genocide is ‘how can ordinary citizens kill 100,000 people a day?'” Karuranga said.