We need to transform history into lessons relevant to our societies today
Today, 7 April 2021, we mark 27 years since the start of the genocide in Rwanda, a deliberate, intentional, and systematic mass-killing, which targeted the Tutsi population. The genocide lasted for about 100 days, and approximately one million Tutsis - as well as politically moderate Hutu and Twa - men, women and children were murdered.
On 27 April 1994, I had joined millions of South Africans in celebrating our country's first democratic elections and freedom from apartheid. Meanwhile in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis had already been murdered.
Although I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor - my father Moses Turner was saved by a German Nazi, Oskar Schindler - even I could not make the connection at that time between my personal history of genocide and the events unfolding in Rwanda, only three and a half hours' flight away.
As we reflect on 27 years of remembrance (Kwibuka27), it is clear that we not only need to learn from history, but we also need to urgently make faster links between the past and the present. We need to transform history into lessons for humanity that are relevant to our societies today.
The history of Rwanda and the inspiring and haunting stories of individuals, communities, and governments during the genocide, for example, can teach us so much about moral choices and their consequences.
The price of mass atrocities and genocide is always very high. After the genocide ended in July 1994, Rwanda was a devastated country. Its basic infrastructure was destroyed, millions of people were displaced, and many surviving Tutsis had lost their families. Many women suffered the consequences of rape and sexual violence. Thousands of children were orphaned and had to fend for themselves. Countless survivors developed long-term psychological problems.
However, over time Rwanda rebuilt itself and survivors played an important role in its development. Many showed great resilience; they remade their lives, formed survivor support groups, and even created and preserved memorial sites across the country, educating future generations about the dangers of extremism and hate.
Freddy Mutanguha, the executive director of Aegis Trust and a survivor himself, reflects that "for survivors, testimony is important for many reasons. We need to speak to release our anger; to process our experience, and reduce the trauma; to honour the memory of our murdered loved ones and community; to secure a measure of justice, and to begin the long road to peace and reconciliation."
He further explains that "testimony restores dignity and meaning to the lives of those murdered, and in doing so it is undoing the intent of genocide to deny the value of the lives destroyed and to erase their memory."
In honour of Kwibuka27, the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (in partnership with our association, the South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation) has launched the second volume of our digital publication, "Portraits of Survival". This volume showcases and honours the lives of survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, some of whom later settled in South Africa.
This collection of short vignettes will be valuable as an educational resource for students and educators. These stories highlight not only the diversity of experiences of genocide, but also many important lessons and insights into the consequences of discrimination, prejudice and 'othering', as well as the power of activism and speaking up. Read the "Portraits of Survival" online for free.
Our role in society is to pay attention and listen to the stories and warnings of these survivors.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said: "When you listen to a witness, you become a witness."
Learning about genocide and how it relates to contemporary human rights issues can help us see how prejudice, discrimination and 'othering' leads to mass atrocities and genocide. By emphasising the importance of empathy, critical thinking, and personal responsibility, we can also encourage students to be an active voice against hate speech and human rights violations, and to work towards preventing future genocides.
In 2017, the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre and Aegis Trust launched the Change Makers Programme (CMP). Already rolled out in 12 African countries, the CMP is a youth leadership initiative for student leaders and their teachers.
Working with partners such as UNESCO, the American University of Nigeria and different National Ministries and NGOs, the programme strives to build resilience and resistance to violence, helping to develop skills to challenge extremism and shape upstanders and change-makers. The programme utilises historical case studies, such as the Holocaust and the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, to explore complex and often emotional issues around prejudice, discrimination and 'othering' today.
After the Holocaust, and the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda the world declared 'Never again'. But is it really 'Never again'? Perhaps the best way to make these words a reality is to start learning from the past.
Ms. Nates is the founder and director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre and Chairperson of the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation
To learn more about the work of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre go to: https://www.jhbholocaust.co.za