Every president has vowed to stop genocide, but not one has ever made it a priority to stop it. What will it take for us to demand that they do?
I knew this woman’s face and her tired gaze. She had deep, dark eyes and short bobbed hair. The baby she cradled seemed to sleep in peace, in the crook of her arm. But mother and child would soon die, shortly after this photo was taken.
I knew nothing of this Cambodian woman’s life, only the inevitability of her death. I didn’t know her name, or the name of her baby; just the date on which they were photographed—May 5, 1978—and the mother’s prison number, 462, on a label across her chest. She and her baby were two among thousands incarcerated in that country’s most infamous prison, known as S-21. This place was a school before the communist Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia. On April 17, 1975, soldiers marched into Phnom Penh, evacuating the capital and herding all residents to the countryside. In the following four years, the regime attempted to create an agrarian utopia, forcing all Cambodians to work like slaves. “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.” That was the mantra instilled in Pol Pot’s comrades, conditioned to kill anyone for just about any reason.
When the Vietnamese invaded in early 1979, roughly 1.7 million Cambodians were dead. Of the thousands at S-21, only seven lived. The woman and baby in the photo were not among them.
Every time I have visited S-21, I have seen her face in a black-and-white image hanging among dozens of others. And then, in February, I saw her again—this time in the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda, an East African country known for its own nationwide bloodbath, which began in April 1994. Deep divisions between the ethnic Hutu majority and Tutsi minority escalated when then-President Juvénal Habyarimana—a Hutu—was assassinated on April 6, 1994. His airplane was shot down, and the next day, mass slaughter began. Neighbors killed neighbors with machetes and clubs. The violence lasted 100 days, and when it ended, an estimated 800,000 people were dead.
Both Cambodia and Rwanda have turned several of their mass graves and killing sites into museums. The Kigali memorial, in the heart of Rwanda’s now-thriving capital, commemorates not only the Rwandans who died, but all who have perished in systematic and state-sponsored killings worldwide.
In both countries, this is the hardest month. Here in North America, April heralds spring and growth, warmer days and longer light. But it also marks the longest shadows of the 20th century. Every year, Rwandans mark the 100 days of genocide with a memorial period that lasts the same. And on every April 17, Cambodians commemorate the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh—a vibrant city today that shows few signs of the terror that began there, 40 years ago this month. This month marks two other genocides as well: April 16 is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and April 24 marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian massacres, which left an estimated 1.5 million dead at the hands of Ottoman Turks. (Turkish leaders today, who dispute the numbers and refuse to call those killings a genocide, lashed out at Pope Francis last week when he used the g-word during a commemorative Mass at the Vatican.)
As a reporter, I have spent much time in places of wreckage and death. I lived in Cambodia during the last stages of the Khmer Rouge war, which lasted in the countryside nearly two decades beyond the Vietnamese invasion in 1979. For survivors, tragedy cuts twice. Not only must the living bind the deep wounds of loss—but they also must live with the scars and stigmas of their country’s history. When the world hears of Cambodia or Rwanda today, do we think first of those living now? Or do we think first of those who died in the past?
Yet, I see a collective resolve to move ahead, to leave the war-torn past behind. This is especially so among the younger generations. In Rwanda, I see youngsters studying, growing, building, creating. I see survivors who do not forget the past but confront it head-on. The streets are clean, the gardens are growing. Citizens have access to health care and community programs. The country has an environment and climate change fund in preparation for future needs. “Rwanda is a country which is striving for the best. We are working hard,” Gerardine Mukeshimana, the country’s minister of agriculture and animal resources, told me in a February interview at her office. “We have a vision of being a middle-income country in 2020.”
Women spearhead much of this recovery. When the genocide ended, “the majority of Rwandan men were dead, incarcerated or living in refugee camps outside the country,” writes Cameron Macauley of the Center for International Stabilization and Recovery. “In some parts of the country, up to 80 percent of the population was female.” Suddenly, a broken nation came to depend on women to break with tradition, heading households and leading the country into a new era. “Women were now in charge of agriculture, commerce, transportation and even construction,” according to Macauley. Today, Rwanda tops all nations for its proportion of women in elected government.
“Things have changed a lot,” a villager named Mutumwinka Jackline (pictured in the marquee) told me. Since the end of genocide, she has volunteered as a village adviser, counseling HIV+ women and monitoring her neighbors’ health. It’s not easy work, Jackline told me. Reports show that 250,000 to 500,000 Rwandan women were raped during the violence between April and July 1994, and as many as 175,000 contracted HIV. Still, Jacqueline conveys compassion and strength. And she has one unwavering message for the women she counsels: “Don’t lose hope.” When I asked what drives her to do this work, she said, “the love in my heart.”
I thought about how the world can forget: in places scarred by horror, people still love.
And the next generation continues living. In Cambodia, I have met many young adults who know of the heavy memories their parents carry—but the past does not cloud their aspirations. I’m thinking of young women like Long Kimheang. A few years ago, at the age of 23, she took a job with the Housing Rights Task Force, working with a group of feisty women known as the Boeung Kak 13. They began an ongoing, years-long struggle to keep their family lands amid government attempts to evict them in an area slated for development. In the past decade, property disputes have displaced and disrupted the lives of more than 500,000 Cambodians. The problem stretches back to the Khmer Rouge years, when families were disrupted and households upended. Documents were destroyed, and many Cambodians had no legal titles to their property. Now, as the population expands, developers and farmers wrangle for land—and the government often sides with corporations. “We want to protest, but we want peace,” Kimheang told me. Historically, men dominate protests in Cambodia, and violence often results. That is not the women’s aim. “Women are like the left hand, men like the right. The two must work together,” she said.
Kimheang has big plans for her future: a couple of advanced degrees, followed by law school, then a run for office when she reaches her 40s.
Jackline and Kimheang are just two examples of the ambition that abounds in both countries. So why, then, does genocide so often still frame the world’s image of Cambodia and Rwanda today?
Perhaps because that is the image we are fed.
I think of the travel writer Paul Theroux, and his critique of authors like Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway, who failed to write about culture and daily life in Africa. They turned locals into “insubstantial figures in a landscape,” according to Theroux. “As for Africans themselves, they were like a well-kept secret: no one had really written about them …”
I quoted Theroux in the preface to my 2005 book on Cambodia, which I wrote for similar reasons. At the time, I could find no books on Cambodian people and life; only history, war, and the memories of genocide. Consequently, audiences were—and often still are—stuck with stereotypes that the people themselves do not want. Forgetting is hard, but no one wants to dwell in the past. “Who wants to remember the horrible things in their lives?” Youk Chhang, director of Cambodia’s Documentation Center, said to me several years ago. His organization aims to research and document the details of the Khmer Rouge period as a way to help Cambodians heal. “It’s not about living with the past,” he told me, “but moving forward and understanding.”
Yet many of our perceptions haven’t moved forward—especially in Africa.
On March 25, Columbia Journalism School associate professor Howard French sent a letter to CBS’s 60 Minutes accusing the show of rendering “people of black African ancestry voiceless and all but invisible.” The show’s narrative of Africa typically falls under three categories, French told the Columbia Journalism Review: “Immense Catastrophe, White Protagonists, or Wildlife.” His letter is co-signed by 150 writers and academics across the United States and Africa. This followed a segment on a multimillionaire who released ten gorillas from a British zoo to the wilds of Gabon, and a report on Ebola in Liberia that focused on foreign aid workers, not locals. “Africans were reduced to the role of silent victims,” the letter states, adding to mainstream reports that leave Americans “badly misinformed” about “a continent of 1.1 billion people, which is experiencing rapid change on an immense scale.”
How can any of us understand these changes if we don’t know the culture, the context, the people? How can we understand, with stereotypes and stigmas as our guides?
The word genocide only came to be in 1944, invented by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe systematic murder (specifically, at the time, the systematic murder of European Jews). It is a word fraught with political weight. To speak of genocide, officially, is to speak of responsibility. The 1948 UN Genocide Convention requires party states to prevent and punish this crime under international law.
This February in Kigali, 67 years after the Genocide Convention, I photographed a bundle of bright red roses in a white mesh basket sitting atop a concrete slab marking a mass grave. Big white bows cinched the bouquet, and a stapled note proclaimed: NEVER AGAIN.
“Never again will the world stand silent,” Jimmy Carter said in 1979. “I say in a forthright voice, ‘Never again!” Ronald Reagan said in 1984. “And never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence,” Bill Clinton said in 1998. They spoke in different contexts about different conflicts, but their words failed just the same.
Words are easier than action. This month, Foreign Policy reports on newly declassified State Department documents that show Clinton knew extremists were planning the Rwandan slaughter more than a year before it began—a clear contradiction to his 1998 statement of regret over the country’s “unimaginable terror.” But Clinton was preoccupied with a mid-term election at the time of the killings, Foreign Policy reports. And the Defense Department did not want to spend money to intervene, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Prudence Bushnell told the magazine. “It was an unfortunate period in my government’s history. I regret it greatly, as I think all of us do,” Foreign Policy quotes her.
“Citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil,” Samantha Power, the current U.S. ambassador to the UN, writes in her 2002 book, A Problem From Hell. “It is in the realm of domestic politics that the battle to stop genocide is lost.”
In fact, genocide occurs so often that the epithet “again and again” is more accurate than “never again,” according to Power. This is a problem both the public and leaders have. “No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence,” she writes.
Perhaps that is because we are so distant from the people involved. We don’t know them. The people are foreign, exotic, other. Their lands are troubled, and we know only enough to fear them. We read of their tragedies but learn little of their lives. In essence: We don’t know enough to demand intervention.
We don’t know enough to care more.
I will never know more about the life of prisoner 462, the woman in the photo at S-21. But I know some of the living today, and the hopes they share.
Ironically, I also find hope surrounding the genocide memorials scattered across Rwanda and Cambodia. When I first visited S-21 years ago, I was struck by the noise outside the compound’s gates: motorbikes and children’s voices forming a constant, welcome background drone. It was the sound of life.
And I heard that, too, at a Rwandan site called Nyamata. It was a Catholic Church where thousands hid when the killings began. As many as 10,000 people were massacred in and around that church in April 1994. Today, the bones of the dead are displayed in stacks and rows; their clothes are heaped on pews with 21 years of dust.
But next door is a school. I stood outside the church doorway and listened: a dinging bicycle bell, a radio, the rumble of a school bus and the jostle of kids climbing aboard. The universal song of children shouting and playing. Joy.
The ambient sounds of youth surrounded me. The sounds of life, going on.
This story was made possible in part by the International Women’s Media Foundation, which funded the author’s reporting trip to Rwanda through the IWMF African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.
We urgently need your help!
Covid-19 has dramatically impacted our ability to keep publishing. DAME is 100% reader funded and without additional support, we can’t keep publishing. Become a member at DAME today to help us continue reporting and shining a light on the stories that need to be told, from perspectives that aren’t heard enough. Every dollar we receive from readers goes directly into funding our journalism. Please become a member today!
(And if you liked this article and just want to leave us tip of as little as $1.00 or make a one-time donation, you can do that here)
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps us continue to cover the policies, social issues, and cultural trends that matter, bringing the diversity of thought so needed in these times.