As we release the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2017, How can life go on? HMDT's Education Officer Andy Fearn reflects on what this important topic means to him.
During my first few months at HMDT I have been lucky enough to help with the research and writing of the 2017 theme vision. This year’s is such an interesting theme asking us to consider complicated issues of trauma, justice, rebuilding, displacement and forgiveness. But for me there is one part of the theme that has resonated particularly strongly - the last six words of the Elie Wiesel quote that opens the theme vision – ‘you must teach us about living’.
In July 2013 I moved to Rwanda where I spent 12 months implementing youth focussed peace-building programmes. In the weeks before the move, the country became a major topic of conversation whenever I met with friends or family. Some told me I was brave to move ‘somewhere like Rwanda’, ‘is it safe?’ they asked, ‘are people still being killed?’, ‘do they have internet?’, ‘electricity?’, ‘clean water?’ It was clear many imagined I was moving to a war zone.
Of course, like any country, Rwanda has problems. Understandably, just 22 years after the genocide there are still a great number of people living with the trauma of what happened and there remains mistrust between communities. People are often guarded in what they say and many argue that freedoms of press and political expression are being eroded. There are large numbers of people living in poverty and the majority of households – particularly outside of urban areas - are not connected to electricity or running water.
However the perceptions of many of those I spoke with before I moved were so different to the reality. Rwanda is an amazing country. Not much bigger than Wales, situated in the heart of Africa, it boasts mountain rain forests (home to the world famous mountain Gorillas), beautiful lakes, relaxing beaches and classic African savannah. The streets of the capital, Kigali, are kept completely spotless and are safe to walk alone at any time of the day or night. There is peace and development beyond anything that could have been imagined in the years immediately after the genocide and there has been a startling improvement on key health indicators. Female parliamentarians outnumber male. There are bars, restaurants, clubs, cinemas, beautiful hotels, shopping centres, supermarkets, banks, swimming pools, tennis courts, museums and much more. Rwandans are friendly, educated, and proud of their country. Their traditional dances are mesmerising. Nearly everybody owns a mobile phone and yes, there is internet.
So why is it that the only thing so many people know about Rwanda is that there was a genocide? The worst 100 days in that country’s history continues to be how it is defined today. We know more about how up to a million people died than we do about how they lived. This has very real implications, Rwanda is a wonderful tourist destination and tourism could play a much biggger part in increasing national income and supporting development – but how many people would ever consider a holiday to Rwanda if all they imagine is war and death? Indeed who would start a business or invest in such a place?
That one line form Elie Wiesel has made me question how is it that I know so much about the Holocaust but so little about Jewish festivals, food or beliefs? Why do I know so many details about how people were murdered in Cambodia 40 years ago but don’t know anything about how the country has re-built since? Why can I explain to somebody the history of the ongoing genocide in Darfur but can’t tell them what the victims ate or about their music or their language?
This year I aim to put this right. Let’s use HMD as an opportunity to celebrate the lives of those whose deaths we commemorate. Let’s learn about the cultures and practices of those who were murdered and about the nations where genocide has happened – or continues to happen. Let’s find out how survivors and their children live today and teach others everything we learn.
Learning about other cultures and people isn’t just about trying to better understand those who have died, or who have survived genocide, it also humanises those who are different, it inoculates against prejudice and hate. At the Kigali Genocide Memorial there is a quote from genocide survivor Felicien Ntagengwa ‘If you knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.’
This year, rather than focus on death, I’m going to learn and teach about living.