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Panelists condemn genocide denial in story sharing and discussion

Published: Thursday, April 22, 2010

Updated: Thursday, April 22, 2010 08:04

Teddy Mugabo

Dilys Ong / Tufts Daily

Teddy Mugabo shared her story of surviving the Rwandan Genocide.

Genocide survivors and experts last night gathered in Cabot Auditorium to discuss ways to remember, reflect on and respond to genocide.

Students from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and undergraduates jointly organized the event, which was intended as an examination of genocide across generations, continents and cultures.

The evening started with the stories of survivors of the Holocaust and the Armenian, Cambodian and Rwandan genocides, followed by a panel discussion with genocide experts.

Academic Dean of The Fletcher School Peter Uvin in his opening remarks stressed the importance of hearing genocide survivors' first−hand accounts.

"What defines genocide is the sheer size of the whole thing, but one must remember groups are composed of individuals," Uvin said. "It's important to remember and listen to specific individuals to make it all real again."

The first panelist, Lenna Garibian, is the granddaughter of an Armenian genocide survivor. Garibian shared the story of her grandmother's escape from Armenia in 1915 when she trekked across the Syrian Desert while her mother and younger brother perished.

"These are simple stories, but to me, in their simplicity they tell so much about the families and indeed the nation that was torn apart," she said. "No one was held accountable, and instead genocide was denied, and victims were blamed for their own fate."

Garibian emphasized the importance of accepting and acknowledging the past, and discussed the possible outcomes of genocide denial.

"Among the survivors I have known personally, most have left the world angry and sad," she said. "We need to remind each other that as long as genocide goes unpunished and as long as it denied by subsequent governments, it will embolden the future Hitlers."

The next panelist, Leon Rubinstein, a Polish Holocaust survivor, read a chapter aloud from his novel "Escape to Freedom" (2007) about his experience in Ukraine after being taken under the protection of a Russian captain.

Chhan Touch, who lived through the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s and '80s, showed the audience pictures depicting the years he spent in labor camps. Touch shared chilling stories about killing camps and the year he spent hiding in a hole in a Vietnamese refugee camp.

"Negative experiences are not necessarily bad," Touch said. "I learned to cope with it and learned to appreciate being alive and use it as a motivation. Whenever I face something I cannot solve in this country, I look back and … remember that I am one of the luckiest people to be alive today."

The last panelist, Teddy Mugabo, was seven years old during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. She discussed the senselessness of the genocide and the feeling of powerlessness she experienced during it.

"The genocide lasted for 100 days, and 1 million people were killed while the world watched," Mugabo said. "The people were not killed because they had done something wrong; they were killed because they were Tutsi."

Three genocide experts were then called on to discuss one of the three theme words of the evening: remember, reflect and respond.

Gerald Caplan, international expert on genocide prevention and the co−author of "Rwanda: the Preventable Genocide" (2000) shared his interpretation of remembrance, explaining that genocide survivors from different countries rarely work together, despite the possible benefits of cooperation.

"If these groups would ever work together and share each others' stories, it would not only be morally right and morally just, but it would offer a political leverage that they currently lack," he said.

Caplan described the important insights into human nature that studying genocide can provide.

"There is something terrible in the human condition that allows us to perpetrate the most horrible crimes against each other," he said.

Caplan explained that it is critical to remember that humans always have some motivation for their behavior and that understanding those motivations and outside influences may help prevent genocide.

"None of the genocides we know about are people killing each other for no reason — there are always reasons," he said.

Caplan echoed Garibian's point that genocide denial is unacceptable. "If there is genocide, there is genocide denial," he said. "There is a sickness in human beings that some of them seem to need to compound the hurt of the genocide by the hurt of denial."

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education and co−founder of the Aegis Trust for Genocide Prevention and the U.K. Holocaust Centre, discussed means of reflection. He discussed the inspirational life of Armin Wegner — a German photographer, author and human rights activist — whom he described as a lone voice against genocide.

The final panelist, John Norris, executive director of the Center for American Progress' Enough Project, which works to end genocide and crimes against humanity, talked about effective ways to respond to genocide. He said that the knowledge of how to end genocide is present, but what is often lacking is the will.

"The good news is that we already know how to combat genocide … yet the hard and sad fact is that we often don't, and we don't muster the political will and courage to do so," he said.

Norris highlighted the hopelessness most people feel in the face of genocide, and urged the audience to remember that collective action can put an end to possible destruction. "Crimes against humanity are not foreign things…and we collectively have the ability to instigate them and we collectively have the ability to avert them and to reverse them," he said.

The event was sponsored by the Fletcher U.N. Club, the Fletcher Human Rights Club, PRAXIS, STAND, Moral Voices and the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur.

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