Earlier this month, the 7th of April marked the 15th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. In almost 100 days, nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred by Hutus in an ethnically inspired genocide. We’ve often spoken about the close links between our own recent Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide and have often called for closer ties between Jews and Rwandans to be built around these joint horrors. It’s with this in mind that I was thrilled and exceptionally proud to hear that the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) was among the organisers of the 15th anniversary commemoration of the Rwandan genocide that took place in Newtown, Johannesburg.
Anthony, a friend of mine and member of SAUJS, was at the event and filed this guest blog of his experience.
It is a windy Tuesday afternoon in Mary Fitzgerald square, Newtown. The barren landscape of concrete slabs is interrupted briefly by a microphone stand and accompanying speakers. A young man walks to the microphone. In a halting voice he begins to read the harrowing account of Marcelline, a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide. It follows deaths of her family, the multiple rapes she endured and of the HIV that is her new life-long companion. After about 2 minutes he finishes the testimony and recites the following, “Today's reading of the testimonies marks the 15th Anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, in support of survivors like Marcelline”.
He is badly shaken after the reading. It is to be expected, he himself is a survivor. As he finishes a young girl from an elite private school gets up to read. This time it is from a survivor called Solange. At the end of this similarly horrifying reading she repeats the refrain of the young man before her. “Today's reading of the testimonies marks the 15th Anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, in support of survivors like, Solange”
For nearly four hours this ceaseless continuous monologue flowed out into the square washing over all in the vicinity. It was part of similar world-wide events to commemorate the horrors of the Rwandan genocide 15 years ago. In Johannesburg it was organised by the Rwandan Student Survivors of Genocide South Africa (RSSG-SA), the Johannesburg Holocaust centre and SAUJS.
The event was very egalitarian in nature, there were no speeches, no stages, no marching bands. Anyone who was interested simply came and read a testimony or stopped their day’s activities to listen. Readers included human rights NGO's, tourists, artists, corporates on their lunch break, school goers, students, Rwandans, Congolese, Americans, reporters, Rwandan embassy officials, event organisers and passers-by.
Perhaps the most surreal part of the event was the readings by the Nazi Holocaust survivors. One was a short, hunched lady with blue eyes. She quietly read the testimony of this, an African genocide, in a strong Yiddish accent. She looked and sounded out of place. Yet we all knew her presence was disturbingly appropriate.
As we engage in the process of our election, also 15 years ago, we should stop for a minute and remember where we have come from. At about the same time as people stood to cast their ballots, militia roamed the Rwandan countryside killing and raping at will. We could have gone down a similar road, thankfully we didn't. It strikes me that being this close to Pesach only reinforces the message of freedom and the vigilance that goes with it. We must do our part to keep the memory of these events alive and do our part that so that they stay just a memory.
Previously at IAS