By Henry Grunwald, Chairman, National Holocaust Centre
On 3 April I flew to Rwanda to represent Beth Shalom, the National Holocaust Centre to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.
When, in 1995, Stephen and James Smith, members of a devout Methodist family, founded Beth Shalom in Nottinghamshire, they also set up the Aegis Foundation to campaign against genocide generally, which has been very involved in Rwanda.
In 1994, in just 100 days, at least 800,000 Rwandans were murdered. There are academic arguments about whether what happened post-Shoah in Cambodia, Bosnia or Darfur were genocides.
There can be no such argument about Rwanda. My father, a refugee from Czechoslovakia, arrived here in August 1939. Almost all of his very large family were murdered by the Nazis purely because they were Jews.
The overwhelming majority of the Rwandans were brutally killed for no reason other than being Tutsi. I therefore have some understanding of what the many Rwandan survivors I met had experienced.
Feelings are, understandably, still raw, but the country has had phenomenal success in dealing with the aftermath of 1994. The title of the 20th anniversary is “Kwibuka20 – Remember – Unite – Renew” and there will be events taking place throughout Rwanda until 4 July, the date in 1994 when the genocide ended.
I was part of the Aegis delegation at the National Memorial event in Kigali on Monday, 7 April. It was incredibly moving and emotional. As one survivor started to recount his story of survival, shrieks rang out throughout the stadium, which was filled to its 30,000 capacity. Many were wailing for their lost loved ones and for the pains inflicted on them and, for some, it was all too much and they had to be carried from the stadium.
While the theme was reconciliation – and Rwanda has done a remarkable job in putting behind it the horrors of the genocide – tension was still felt throughout, as there was at all the events I attended. Each one involves the first-hand recounting of a survivor’s experiences, and hearing people telling how they witnessed their entire families being hacked to death by neighbours and colleagues was and remains harrowing for the survivor and the listener.
I visited several memorial sites, including a church compound in Ntarama, not far from Kigali, where in one day and one night, starting on 15 April, some 5,000 men, women and children were massacred. The church building still stands as it was. Skulls and other skeleton parts sit on shelves – the bloodstained and torn clothing rests on the benches where worshippers had sat – and bloodstains still mark the walls in the Sunday School room where, to save ammunition, children were simply smashed to death against them.
Only 20 people survived, and one of them told us how she survived, injured, under a pile of bodies, because one of the grenades thrown into the packed church killed her baby who was strapped on her back, lessening the impact of the explosive on her.
I also visited a World Jewish Relief project in Rwamagana, in the east of Rwanda. There, WJR helps survivors build a new life for themselves.
As Jews, we know the problems Shoah survivors faced, and WJR helps survivors of the Rwandan genocide in practical ways. The focus is to train people to move from subsistence farming to more small-scale profitable activities, and I saw real successes.
I visited the small farm of a now 32-year-old survivor, who saw the killing of his parents and many siblings when their home was attacked on 17 April – he, and two much younger brothers escaped. He now grows watermelons and onions to sell, as opposed to just maize and beans for personal consumption and supports his two brothers.
Not everyone has been able to forgive. I met one man who, showing me the machete mark left on his head when members of his family were killed, said he simply could not yet bring himself to forgive. He has married and now has children, for whom he wishes a better childhood than his own.
There is real hope in this very beautiful country. It’s the sort of hope that was ringing from the National Stadium stands when Rwandan President Paul Kagame said: “If the genocide reveals humanity’s shocking capacity for cruelty, then Rwanda’s choices…to stay together and to be accountable to each other…show its capacity for renewal.”
Let’s hope he is right.