25 January 2013

Rwanda: Celebrating the Legacy of Raoul Wallenberg and Rwandan Rescuers

YESTERDAY, WE celebrated in Kigali the life of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who chose not to be indifferent when faced with great evil, by inaugurating the exhibition "To me there's no other choice - Raoul Wallenberg 1912-2012" at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

Raoul Wallenberg was born 100 years ago into a family of great wealth and influence. He could have remained safely in neutral Sweden during World War II. Instead, as first secretary at the Swedish Legation in Budapest in the summer of 1944, Wallenberg acted. Without concern for his own safety, he worked tirelessly to save thousands from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

In Hungary in March 1944 a massive deportation of Jews took place. Wallenberg began issuing Swedish "protective passports" to the remaining population of Jewish Hungarians. His inventiveness and determination to provide protection to as many Jews as possible are credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of people. Raoul Wallenberg's mission was an example of American-Swedish cooperation for the common good: His work in Budapest was partly financed by the United States.

Of course, Wallenberg was not alone in taking such action. Others chose to risk their careers, and their lives, to defy official protocols and repressive laws to rescue Jews. Many were censured, punished or killed for their acts of courage.

This was also true in Rwanda during the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. Some people chose to put their own life at risk to save others, refusing to stand aside in silence before the violent currents of hatred.

One of them is Sula Karuhimbi. For many weeks, she was able to hide seventeen Tutsis in her small home and feed them from her field. When the Interahamwe came, she relied on her reputation as a witch. She warned the soldiers that if they took one step inside her house evil spirits would swallow them up. It worked. The soldiers backed off and those in hiding were safe.

The experiences of the past teach us that indifference, the false belief that one need not worry about injustice against someone else, is actually injustice's greatest ally. The legacy of Raoul Wallenberg and of Rwandan rescuers such as Sula Karuhimbi is that each of us now knows we have the power to hold back the tide of injustice, instead of standing in silent witness until it engulfs us.

Raoul Wallenberg and Sula Karuhimbi seem to have shared the sentiment of the martyred Lutheran pastor and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote: "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. ... Not to act is to act."

Perhaps the most important part of Wallenberg's and Karuhimbi's legacy lies in its lessons for the generations to come.

It is incumbent upon us to pass on their story not as part of a distant heroic myth, but as an example of the values that should inform the way we live our lives - in the pursuit of an open and tolerant society where fundamental rights of all human beings are respected, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion or other belief, disability or sexual orientation.

Maria Hakansson is Chargé d'Affaires, Embassy of Sweden in Kigali.

Donald Koran is the United States Ambassador to Rwanda.

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