Decade after Rwandan Genocide, Canadian Jew Wants World to Reflect

Dancila Nyirabazungu, 50, cleans up the dirt, but not the remains of the dead, at Ntarama Church in Nyamata, located in a rural district of Kigali province. Scores of neatly-stacked skulls line the shelves at the back of the building, sharing space with hundreds of bones. The floor is a swamp of tattered clothes and skeletal remains. Nyirabazungu is bound to her work by memory and fate: This massacre site could have been her burial ground. At the outbreak of the Rwandan genocide in April 1994, Nyirabazungu, her husband and two daughters came to this church about 90 minutes from the capital of Kigali to seek shelter.

On April 15, Rwandan soldiers and militiamen, who had promised to protect those inside, stormed the church with grenades and machetes. “They broke down the church and threw in grenades as some also broke down the door to enter,” Nyirabazungu told JTA. “As people were being hacked, I decided to lie down. And as they were hacked, all the dead bodies fell over me.” Hutu extremists killed 5,000 people at Ntarama Church, including Nyirabazungu’s husband, two children and her inlaws’ family. Almost 50 years after the Holocaust and a promise from the international community that genocide would never again be tolerated, no one bothered to enforce that principle in Rwanda, a tiny central African nation.

In 100 days from April through early July of 1994, Hutu extremists killed at least 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, in perhaps the most efficient orgy of murder in history. That has led Gerald Caplan, a Canadian Jew and Africa expert, to establish an international project called “Remembering Rwanda” to ensure that the Rwandan genocide is never forgotten after the international community’s failure to act. The goals of the project include attracting international attention for the genocide on its 10th anniversary — which was marked April 7 — preserving its memory through documentation and education, and campaigning with like-minded groups against all genocides. “I take from the Holocaust a universalistic rather than particularistic lesson,” Caplan told JTA. “All that means is that I think that the Holocaust shows that ‘never again’ should be for the whole world.”

Declassified U.s. documents confirm that officials in the Clinton administration knew what was happening in Rwanda but didn’t intervene. “Hutu security elements from the presidential guard, gendarmerie, and military yesterday killed several government officials — including the prime minister — took at least two hostages, and killed numerous Tutsi civilians in Kigali,” the CIA’s April 8, 1994 National Intelligence Daily said. “What remains of Rwanda’s civilian leadership and moderate senior military officials appear unable to restore order.” A confidential State Department memo on the same day contained a similar message, indicating that the “Rwandan army is killing officials and Tutsis, and the U.N. is unable to control the situation.”

Caplan blames the United States for refusing to allow reinforcements to be sent to the U.N. mission in Rwanda, and he faults Britain for fully backing the United States in the U.N. Security Council. Meanwhile, France, according to Caplan, is worthy of scorn for its involvement — which included sympathy, support and military training — with the Hutu regime before and during the genocide. Caplan became immersed in the events of that period when he wrote a report called “Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide” for a panel of the now-defunct Organization of African Unity.

According to Caplan, the plan by a group of Rwanda’s majority Hutus to exterminate the Tutsi minority can be compared to the Nazis’ genocidal plan half a century before. “The most important parallel is that a small group of people wanted to wipe out an entire group because of who they were rather than what they did. And that parallel is exactly the same with Germany of the Nazis and the Jews,” he said. “This small group of Hutu extremists decided that their world would be a lot better off, would be cleansed, would be sanitized, if there were no Tutsis left in this country.” The genocide failed to expunge the Tutsis and their memories from Rwanda. The Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front, whose army put an end to the genocide when it overthrew the Hutu regime, now runs Rwanda, albeit repressively. The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s leader, Paul Kagame, overwhelmingly was elected president in August 2003 in an election that observers described as unfair.

In an effort to rebuild the country, Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front have preached reconciliation by allowing killers to apologize for their crimes in exchange for early prison releases; established village courts where victims and survivors can confront murderers; and pushed people to accept the idea of “Rwandaness,” an attempt to obliterate ethnic distinctions among the country’s tribes. Yet for all those efforts, Rwanda still is home to a population in extreme pain and suffering that may never heal. Rwandans, especially Tutsis who suffered, feel a kinship with the Jews, which extends to Israel and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Caplan said. Kagame’s government is probably the most pro-Israel in Africa, he noted.

“I’ve told Rwandans publicly that I was Jewish, and they suddenly thought they therefore understood why I was interested in them,” he said. “Before that they couldn’t understand __ ‘What was this white guy doing in our affairs? Why does he care?’ When they discovered I was Jewish, it’s suddenly as if a light went on for them.” Perhaps Rwandans are comforted by Caplan’s insistence that the 1994 genocide and the Holocaust must be the subject of comparison, though he said many Jews and Jewish scholars believe the Holocaust defies comparison. Michael Marrus of the University of Toronto, a Holocaust scholar, said Caplan is right to consider the Rwandan genocide from the perspective of the Holocaust — though he said Caplan overstated his case or perhaps misspoke about the beliefs of Jewish scholars. “I think I know the area of Holocaust studies reasonably well, and I think that people who are seriously involved in this enterprise do not eschew comparisons,” Marrus told JTA.

“Indeed, there are comparisons that are undertaken with other kinds of massacres during the Second World War,” he said. “To say that you do comparison doesn’t mean that you ignore elements of uniqueness. But in a sense, every historical event is unique.” Martin Lockshin, director of Toronto’s York University’s Centre for Jewish Studies, agreed with Marrus about the uniqueness of events, but said Holocaust education also should impart a universal lesson about genocide. Anyone who studied the Holocaust seriously should have taken action to try to stop the Rwandan genocide, he said.

Yet Lockshin said neither he nor many Jewish scholars could accept the view that the Holocaust is just one among many genocides in world history. “Unlike most genocides, the possibility of flight to other countries was not made possible to Jews. To the contrary, the Germans hunted down Jews in dozens of neighboring countries and killed them too,” he said. “The goal was not simply to make Germany ‘Judenrein,’ ” or free of Jews, “but to make the world ‘Judenrein.’ This has not been a common goal of genocides — and, if I am not mistaken, this was not the situation in Rwanda.”