Janice Kamenir-Reznik is co-founder and president of Jewish World Watch (JWW), a leading organization in the fight against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW's work is currently focused on the crises in Sudan and Congo. Janice and five other delegates traveled to Congo's eastern provinces to work with survivors of the country’s decades-long conflict, which has claimed nearly six millions lives. They will meet with JWW's partners on the ground, with whom JWW works to create innovative programs and projects that change lives and transform communities. To learn more, please visit: jewishworldwatch.org
Yesterday, our plane touched down in Rwanda. We will spend some time here before departing for Congo. By all measures, Kigali has undergone a clear and dramatic economic reconstruction. Its residents live a relatively western lifestyle in a city full of high-rise buildings, beautiful neighborhoods, gorgeous vistas, and trendy restaurants. Yet, the truth is that Rwanda makes me sad.
I have been here many times over the past several years. Each time, I am caught off guard by the renewed sense of horror I feel upon visiting the memorials and the museum – and hearing accounts from the survivors of the 1994 genocide. On each trip, we make a pilgrimage to the Rwanda Genocide Memorial and Museum, and to one of the many Catholic churches where Tutsis seeking refuge from the violence were massacred. Instead of providing refuge, these churches were turned into killing fields – places where thousands were butchered during the hundred days of horror in 1994. The skulls and bones of the dead are neatly stacked on the edges of the "sanctuary." The decomposing clothes of the victims remain sitting on the blood-soaked floors, offering a stark reminder of the astounding depths of depravity to which man can descend. Today at one such church we listened to detailed accounts from survivors of one such massacre. Their stories are not for the faint of heart. I repeat them to show respect for the survivors and honor the memories of the loved ones taken from them.
This is what we heard:
They used machetes, bats, tools, and implements of any kind to slaughter the Tutsis, one by one. They especially targeted the babies. They pulled babies off the backs of mothers, who at first were naively relieved, thinking that their babies would be spared. But that is not what happened. Instead, in a mother's final moments of life she watched as the militia threw her baby against a brick wall. Angelique sought refuge at the church with her two small children, one of whom was murdered within seconds of their arrival at the church. Angelique's harrowing and complicated story of survival during those hundred days was gut wrenching; twice she was left for dead in a pile of mutilated bodies at the church, and more than twice she met the angel of death who refused to welcome her. But, in the end, her second child – a small baby – was also murdered, stabbed to death while tied onto Angelique's back. Jean Batiste's story was equally horrific. He hid in the swamps, thirsty and starving, and danced with death on a daily basis. His two grown sons were both killed during the hundred days of horror. He lost everything and everyone.
Our guide, Solange, is the granddaughter of a genocide victim. She told us a chilling account as well after showing us examples of the weapons used in the church massacre, some of which were found amongst the corpses. There were machetes, bats, metal hooks – all types of crude tools. But, Solange explained, if a Tutsi had money he could pay his soon-to-be murderer a fortune to be killed quickly with a bullet, so as to avoid what otherwise would likely be a slow and agonizing death. Her grandfather paid his entire fortune to be shot, only to suffer a final betrayal. He was robbed of the bullet for which he had paid due consideration, and was killed by machete.
At the Kigali Genocide Memorial and Museum – brilliantly developed by the amazing Aegis Trust for whom Solange works – one of the exhibits is entitled "Wasted Lives." I had a visceral reaction to those words, as I cannot bear to think that the millions killed in Rwanda, in the Holocaust, or in any of the other 47 genocides since 1945 have been "wasted lives." Then, I realized that we have the power to ensure that the lives so brutally taken continue to speak to us. The stories we heard today and the retelling of those stories to you constitute the legacy of those whose voices were muted. Their precious lives will only be wasted if we fail to tend to, nurture and honor their memories, bringing them to life and sustaining them over time. Much like the bones and the clothes and the blood-soaked floors of the church, these stories are a poor substitute, but a substitute nevertheless, for the lives of those brutally murdered. Their lives are not wasted, but only if we choose to bear witness. Indeed, their lives are a constant and painful siren, reminding us of the grave consequences of apathy, deadly silence and paralyzed inaction when confronted with the face of prevailing evil.
We have the power to make their lives a resounding and powerful blessing. Rwanda: a stark and sobering first day of this journey.
(clockwise) Solange, Jean Baptiste, Angelique, Ntarama Genocide Memorial