Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Holocaust vs. Rwanda: Perceptions of Genocide

It's a sad reality that the phrase "Never Again," which rose from the ashes of six million lives lost during the Holocaust, is, in many ways, an empty one. Although there has not been such an industrial, systematic attempt at wiping out an entire group of people since WWII, there have been many genocides that followed and, in some instances, are still continuing.

So, it needs to be asked: What makes Cambodia, Rwanda and currently, Darfur, so much different than WWII? Why, despite all of the lessons learned and policies passed, has the world been so slow to react to other acts of genocide?

In July I finished reading an extremely intense book that really got me pondering that very question along with the different perceptions of genocide. "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families" is an in-depth examination of the 1994 Rwandan genocide that delves into the personal stories of survivors in addition to peeling away the many layers of political red tape and cultural unrest that led up to the genocide and hindered the recovery process after its devastation. But it also puts the reader face to face with the complete lack of response from the rest of the world.

Written by Philip Gourevitch, the book covers a lot of ground and I have to admit it may take a second read to truly grasp a better understanding of Rwanda. But, nonetheless, it opened my eyes to some of the problems surrounding international aid as well as perceptions of genocide in general.

The most noticeable factor when examining these mass killings, at least to me, is the developed Western world versus the underdeveloped third world. The Holocaust was so shocking and appalling to the world not only because we had never seen anything like it, but also in a sense because the Western world views itself as such a civilized society. The Holocaust was barbaric, repulsive and inhumane--surely something a cultured and refined people would never even dream of, never mind actually carry through.

Then there is Africa. A place where tribal and ethnic groups span across the massive continent living a very different way of life than many Westerners. Unfortunately, these tribal lives can sometimes be viewed as barbaric or uncivilized to our culture when really, it is simply just another way of life--neither better or worse--than our own.

But it may be that very mindset that changes how people perceive the Holocaust versus Rwanda or even present day Darfur. When ethnic or tribal clashes lead to something as devastating as 800,000 murdered in only 100 days in Rwanda, it is sometimes seen as just another day in Africa. A lack of understanding on the Western end leads to a dismissal of human life. It is viewed as just one tribe killing another tribe which then brings retaliation and a vicious cycle ensues. There is no rationalizing with such savagery so it is best is to leave them to their own devices:
"Except for the names and the landscape, it reads like the same story from anywhere in the world: a tribe in power slaughters a disempowered tribe, another cycle in those ancient hatreds, the more things change the more they stay the same...The generic massacre story speaks of 'endemic' or 'epidemic' violence and of places where people kill 'each other,' and the ubiquity of the blight seems to cancel out any appeal to think about the single instance. These stories flash up from the void and, just as abruptly, return there. The anonymous dead and their anonymous killers become their own context. The horror becomes absurd."
Hitler's "Final Solution" was no less absurd so it is distressing to see complete indifference to the other attempts at ethnic cleansing. Gourevitch notes that despite the stark contrast between the Holocaust and Rwanda, they both tell disconcerting tales about the capabilities of human behavior, which should raise a red flag for all of humanity:
"It has become a commonplace in the past fifty years to say that the industrialized killing of the Holocaust calls into question the notion of human progress, since art and science can lead straight through the famous gate--stamped with the words "Work Makes You Free"--to Auschwitz. Without all that technology, the argument goes, the Germans couldn't have killed all those Jews. Yet it was the Germans, not the machinery, who did the killing. Rwanda's Hutu Power leaders understood that perfectly. If you could swing the people who would swing the machetes, technological underdevelopment was no obstacle to genocide. The people were the weapon, and that meant everybody."
Gourevitch's observations came years before Darfur's crisis erupted but they are still just as relevant today as they were in 1998 when the book was published. The mantra "Never Again" still rings loud after over sixty years and efforts such as the Genocide Convention that have sprung forth from the total devastation of the Holocaust have served more as a nice piece of decor in the house of politics than as a functional tool. Its idealistic premise to protect humanity has turned a blind eye to many human lives, leaving blood on the hands of many nations and Gourevitch boldly asks, "Whose world were the drafters of the Genocide Convention--and the refugee conventions, which soon followed--thinking of?"

It certainly has not been victims of genocide.

Speaking of Darfur, be sure to read this editorial in today's Boston Globe, written by Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College who has devoted years to research and advocacy about the genocide.

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