News From Terre Haute, Indiana


May 17, 2014

KIEL MAJEWSKI: ‘We can do better’

Writer/advocate travels to Rwanda with colleague to observe 20th anniversary of genocide, searches for understanding

“When they said ‘never again’ after the Holocaust, was it meant for some people and not for others?”

So said Apollon Kabahizi, a survivor of the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi people in Rwanda 20 years ago. At that time, I was 10 years old and in the fourth grade at Dixie Bee Elementary School in Terre Haute. My brother Jordan was one year older, a fifth grader.

After school one day that spring in 1994, Jordan told me he had heard of a place called Rwanda, where some people called Hutus were killing some other people called Tutsis. I have no idea how he knew that, why he told me or why I remember him telling me. I don’t think I did anything about it, nor did we discuss it any further. I probably just went back to memorizing stats on the backs of baseball cards. Yet, strangely, I remember exactly where I was standing in our house when he told me this news.

I have a friend named Emmanuel. He spoke at CANDLES Holocaust Museum in March. Emmanuel is one year younger than me. If he had been born in Terre Haute, we might have gone to the same school. We might even have been on the same Boys Club basketball team.

But Emmanuel was born a Tutsi in Rwanda. He didn’t know why he was born a Tutsi; he didn’t ask to be one, and perhaps he didn’t even want to be one. But he was, and the government of Rwanda made sure everyone knew it. So at the same time I was a 10-year-old boy running bases at Dixie Bee Little League, Emmanuel was a 9-year-old boy running for his life.

Last month, I traveled to Rwanda with my colleague Danny Spungen. Danny is a board member for CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, and I am the executive director.

We were representing CANDLES among many other international delegations for Rwanda’s national commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide.

We were there to pay homage to the victims and to honor the survivors. We attended commemoration ceremonies and visited churches and school houses — now memorials — where men, women and children were massacred. But we were also there to learn, to try to understand: How could it have been that 49 years after the world said “never again,” a 9-year-old boy had to endure the death of his father, mother and six brothers and sisters? How could regular people participate in such brutal killings? Had the world learned anything? How had Rwanda recovered, and what would its future look like?

Rumors, myths

and hate

It was nighttime when my plane touched down in Kigali, on the same runway where Hutu President Habyarimana’s plane crashed 20 years earlier. Extremist Hutus blamed that crash on Tutsis and used it as a catalyst to launch the well-orchestrated genocide, which had been in the works since before 1959. That same night, killers went door to door murdering Tutsis whose names had been placed on lists. Emmanuel’s father was killed the next day. One hundred days later, more than 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been killed in the most rapid genocide the world had ever seen.

During our visit, we went to the village where Emmanuel lived before his family was forced to flee in 1992. We walked down the road with Emmanuel’s brother Boniface, who pointed out where the friendly people lived, where the planners of the genocide lived, and where those who personally terrorized their family lived.

Emmanuel’s family no longer lives there. The man who destroyed their house is now serving a 35-year prison sentence. But the five surviving siblings (out of 11), including Emmanuel, have reclaimed the land and started a small farm to generate income. A young man who tends the farm led us about 50 yards behind the property, slicing through tall grass and banana leaves with a machete, down to the Nyabarongo River.

As we stood on its bank, Boniface told us a story. When he and Emmanuel were younger, one of their chores was to take the cows to the river to drink. On one such occasion, they spotted something odd floating downstream. As the objects drifted closer, the horror washed over them — these were Tutsis murdered in the north of the country, their bodies skewered together and thrown into the river.

Every day in school, Boniface told us, teachers ordered all Tutsis to stand and be counted. The children endured harassment as their classmates expressed mock sympathy for their lowly status as “cockroaches” and “snakes.” A local legend held that Tutsis weren’t even Rwandan — they were the descendants of Ethiopian Jews, conceived when the Queen of Sheba paid a visit to King Solomon of Israel. It was perhaps a spinoff of the Hamitic myth, perpetuated by hubristic 19th-century European scientists, who hypothesized that some groups of Africans were actually a subgroup of Caucasians whose lineage could be traced back to Ham, the son of Noah (of flood fame). Naturally, as a subgroup of Caucasians, European intellectuals deemed Hamitic peoples superior to the “Negroid” populations of sub-Saharan Africa. Colonial powers thus did their best to identify the Hamitic peoples and establish them in privileged positions, which led others in the country to resent them.

These rumors, myths and degrading names were all part of the construction of a subhuman “internal enemy.” “They’re coming to take our jobs, our homes, our women.” “We have to get them before they get us.” Hate on the radio, hate in the newspapers, hate from the pulpit.

Roots of genocide and European involvement

We wonder how regular people could participate in such brutal killings, but the process seems straightforward to me. First, plant seeds of division in human hearts and minds. Then continually water those seeds with fear-based propaganda. Eventually, the fear will grow into hatred, and hatred will bear the fruit of violence.

Physical violence seems to be the final manifestation, but violence — the unjust and unwarranted use of force or power — can be perpetrated in many other ways: psychological, economic, sexual, emotional, spiritual and cultural.

Had we been paying attention to Rwanda in the 40 years prior to the 1994 genocide, we would have seen all these other forms. But we tend to start paying attention only once the physical violence breaks out. Since we didn’t see it coming, we simplify by shaking our heads and saying, “… and then one day people just picked up machetes and started hacking their neighbors to bits.” We don’t understand why, so we chalk it up to “tribalism.”

This is a way of ignoring the problem by saying the roots of the conflict are so ancient that we need not bother with them. No solution is possible because these people just can’t get their act together, we think.

In fact, the roots of the genocide against the Tutsi were modern and European. Until colonial powers arrived around 1900, the concepts of “Hutu” and “Tutsi” were vaguely socioeconomic, with mobility between groups. It was the Belgians who defined “Tutsi” as one who owned 10 or more cows and “Hutu” as one who owned fewer, then they ascribed particular racial characteristics to the groups after divisions were made. The racial classifications make no sense — they are pure fiction. Yet in 1932, Belgian powers assigned every Rwandan a racial identification card. 62 years later, it would be the key to life or death.

Ironically, the fuzziness of the racial characteristics may have been the key to survival for my friend Emmanuel. Separated from his family during the genocide, Emmanuel had somehow managed to survive a massacre of children who were hiding in a school. Paralyzed by fear and uncertain of where to run next, he stayed hidden among the bodies for days. When the killers returned to harvest clothes and other goods from the victims, one spotted Emmanuel’s new shoes – the ones his mother had given him as a first communion gift. The man pulled on the shoe, and found it connected to the body of a boy who was still very much alive. The looter yelled to his colleagues, “This one is alive!” But before they could kill him, Emmanuel pulled off the acting job of a lifetime. He convinced the killers that he was, in fact, a Hutu. He was one of them. Emmanuel’s lack of definitive Tutsi physical characteristics apparently wedged enough doubt into their minds that they spared his life.

The racial classifications were the seeds of genocide that were then watered and nurtured by so-called Christian missionaries and emissaries of the Catholic Church. The Hutu Ten Commandments, a cornerstone of genocide ideology published in the anti-Tutsi Kangura newspaper in 1990, was originally formed by Hutu intellectuals under the tutelage of Swiss Catholic priest Andre Perraudin. The chief editor of Kangura was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2003. Perraudin wasn’t tried for anything, and died in 2003 after publishing a memoir.

European involvement didn’t end there. The largest-ever Rwandan arms deal was signed in the run-up to the genocide between the Hutu president of Rwanda (the same one who died in the plane crash) and a French company for $12 million, with a loan backed by the French government. French troops helped train killers, then provided a pathway out of the country for them after the genocide.

“The people who planned and carried out this genocide were Rwandans, but the history and causes go beyond this country,” said President Paul Kagame in his speech at the national commemoration on April 7.

Kagame’s statement reveals two important conversations taking place in Rwanda today. On the one hand, Rwandans are rightly pursuing the facts and attempting to hold accountable those who played a role in the genocide. The diplomatic dust-up with France in the days before the national ceremony, in which France canceled its official delegation, are indicative of that. But on the other hand, Rwandans see the genocide as a Rwandan problem and the recovery as a distinctly Rwandan challenge. They have learned under the most tragic of circumstances that the international community cannot be counted on for protection or solutions.

Charting a course into the unknown

So Rwanda is charting its own course through territory no country has ever traversed. Its solutions are as unique as the challenges it faces.

How could a country with limited infrastructure deal with an influx of some 100,000 genocidaires in its penal system?

How could a country with killers and survivors living side by side learn to live in peace?

How could a country with an utterly shattered civil society foster dialogue and reconciliation?

Twenty years ago, experts believed Rwanda would be a failed state, to be plagued by unending cycles of ethnic violence and complete dependence on foreign aid. Today, it has stable leadership under Kagame. Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, is one of the cleanest and safest cities in the world. Life expectancy has doubled since 1990. The infant mortality rate has dropped 58 percent in the same time span. Poverty rates have dropped 37 percent since 1993. The country has universal health care, and the economy is growing steadily. Women make up 64 percent of parliament, the highest rate in the world.

Rwanda still faces massive challenges. Nearly 75 percent of the population is under the age of 30. Certain democratic freedoms are lagging, perhaps because the survivors fear the return of the killers, either in political form or in the form of ideologies circulated by the press. Everyone seems to be holding their breath to see what will happen at the end of Kagame’s second seven-year term in 2017.

Genocide denial is a substantial problem at home and abroad, and the struggle to accurately and fully recount the reality of the genocide is an ongoing challenge. Many survivors still carry festering physical and psychological wounds. And still, the people of Rwanda have hope. How? Why?

“The practical tasks of reviving a dead economy and rebuilding institutions were daunting, but they would have been impossible if we had not begun to remove the ethnic ideology that tore our country apart,” wrote an editorialist in the April 5 edition of Rwanda Today. “This was — and continues to be — our great national project. We have been guarding against bankrupt national politics that feed on ethnic prejudice.” Today, there are no more Tutsi, Hutu, Twa, or other racial distinctions in Rwanda. It is illegal to define someone in such terms.

When I talked to people in Rwanda, very often the phrase “genocide ideology” came up. Most seemed to understand the genocide as a product not of evil people, but of normal people under the influence of bad leadership and bad ideology. This distinction has influenced Rwanda’s approach to justice after the genocide. Initially, the government (made up of the Tutsi military force that liberated the country from the Hutu extremists) pursued a program of retributive justice. Some convicted perpetrators were publicly executed, and extralegal massacres of suspected killers seemed to have been carried out across the border in Congo as well. But the leadership of Rwanda realized the limitations of this approach, according to Christopher Kayumba, a columnist for Rwanda Today.

“After some soul searching, the leadership realized that healing the nation would take more than traditional justice, as taking this path not only meant that it would take 100 years to try more than 100,000 suspects then in prison — with many still at large — but it also wasn’t appropriate for rebuilding the nation,” Kayumba wrote on April 5.

The government then turned to a program of reconciliation, applicable to some perpetrators. These people could confess their crimes, then be released into a work program and eventually re-integrated into society. For example, many of the terrace farms built into Rwanda’s “thousand hills” were carved out by convicts through the work program.


and healing

Make no mistake: Forgiveness and reconciliation are anything but easy for people in Rwanda, and not everyone accepts it. In America, we love storybook endings, and we like to hear about forgiveness and reconciliation because it helps us to believe everything is better and we can close the book on that ugly chapter.

But forgiveness can be a complex, one-step-forward, two-steps-back process. It involves learning to trust again; learning to trust one’s neighbors; learning to trust in the basic goodness of people; and, indeed, learning to trust life as being fundamentally okay. I feel it takes immeasurable courage to move out of the shadows and re-open one’s heart to life after experiencing such deep trauma.

I think this is what I find so moving about people like Emmanuel and my friend Kizito Kalima (a Rwandan survivor in Indianapolis), as well as my colleague Eva Kor, who survived Auschwitz at the age of 10.

They have chosen to forgive or to explore the path of peace. By doing so, they have shown us it is possible to experience the worst kind of trauma and still be able to reclaim one’s heart. They have shown us, despite all evidence to the contrary and despite all efforts to destroy it, the human heart always carries the seeds of courage, peace, wisdom and love.

May we encourage them on their journey to healing. May we learn from them how to heal. In their honor, may we dedicate ourselves to cultivating the seeds of peace in our hearts and in our communities, with hope, with compassion and with a relentless sense of responsibility.

A plea to you …

Americans can learn from Rwanda. At the national commemoration in Kigali, Kagame told his Rwandan audience, “Remember the future to which we have committed ourselves.” Indeed, I believe this has been the key to Rwanda’s success since the genocide. People are hopeful and agree broadly on a peaceful vision for Rwanda’s future. Newspapers highlight positive stories and business developments. Politics are civilized and respectful, involving an exchange of ideas and analysis to determine the best policy. They are watering the seeds of mutuality and interdependence.

In America we have grown to believe that politics must be adversarial and confrontational, that one who bears the label of the opposite party must necessarily be wrong and targeted as the enemy.

We have visions for ourselves and perhaps our families, but no shared vision for a peaceful nation or a collective future. Our media and political leaders feed us conflict and pre-packaged ideologies, meant to be swallowed whole. It does not have to be this way. We are educated people. We are relatively wealthy people.

We can do better, and we can help the world by cultivating a more interdependent society. Not independent. Not dependent. Interdependent. We must realize, as that great American said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

In commemoration of 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda, my hope is that we as Americans would become world leaders in fostering peace, dialogue, interdependence and trust. This is a plea to you, dear reader. Not to that person of another political stripe you think really needs to hear this. I am writing to you.

Please, stop labeling (we all do it). Stop posting negative ideologies to Facebook. If you disagree with another person or are offended by that person, remember his or her essential goodness. Choose to believe the best about that person, instead of falling prey to your worst fears about him or her. Find one thing you have in common, and start the dialogue from there.

Kiel Majewski is an advocate for human rights and equality, and serves on the Indiana State University Diversity Council and Carl Wilkens Fellowship advisory board. He can be reached at and on Twitter @kielmajewski.

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