Tuesday, July 22, 2014 Tammuz 24, 5774

Just What Does 'Never Again' Mean?

December 15, 2005 By:
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A child is examined by a doctor at a Darfur-refugee clinic funded in part by the American Jewish World Service. Photo courtesy of the American Jewish World Service
Back in 1994, Eugenia Mukeshimana was eight months pregnant when waves of violence broke out in her native Rwanda. As a member of the minority Tutsi tribe, the expectant mother was forced to separate from her husband and go into hiding.

More than half a million people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were killed by militias comprised of the majority Hutus in what is now largely considered a government-sponsored genocide in the eastern African country. During this time, Mukeshimana, now 33, moved from place to place, hiding under beds, and not speaking or seeing daylight for weeks on end.

"We didn't think human beings could do this," Mukeshimana told an audience of about 125 at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington during a program designed to highlight the Jewish community's role in combating genocide throughout the world. The event was sponsored by several local Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and HIAS and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia.

Continuing with her story, Mukeshimana said that after giving birth to a daughter, she was discovered and kidnapped by a Hutu militia leader and forced to live in his home.

"I'm sorry, I can't go on," she said, weeping.

The only detail she later added was that her husband did not survive the killings, and is most likely buried in a mass grave.

Things have changed quite a bit in Rwanda. A member of the Tutsi tribe now leads the country, and some of the architects of the killings have faced charges in court. Still, Mukeshimana is hesitant to return.

"I just don't feel comfortable going there. The person sitting next to you on the bus might have killed 50 people, and you would have no idea," said Mukeshimana, who's currently doing research on Holocaust and genocide studies.

Organizers said the purpose of the program was to remind people that genocide did not end with the Holocaust, and that people still fear for their lives because of their ethnicity or religion.

"It does not matter if the victims of genocide are Muslim, Christians or Jews - you have an obligation to stand up and say, 'Enough,' " Burt Siegel, director of community relations at JCRC, said to the audience.

Several speakers focused on the ongoing violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, where international organizations estimate at least 200,000 people have been killed, and roughly 2 million people made homeless at the hands of Arab nomads known as the Janjaweed. The Sudanese government is widely believed to be supporting the militias.

A Darfur native had been scheduled to speak at the event, but did not appear.

But two other victims of recent examples of ethnic cleansing - one that took place in the west African nation of Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, the other in Bosnia during the Balkan conflict in the early part of the same decade - recounted harrowing tales of survival.

Tahija Vikalo, a Bosnian Muslim, told what it was like to live in Sarajevo while the city was under siege by Serbian forces from 1992 to 1995. She recalled at first running to find shelter at the sound of shelling, but then growing used to it. She also detailed how she burned her family's books in order to heat the apartment, and spoke of living with the daily threat of death.

"I was cold, hungry and hopeless. I did not want to survive," said Vikalo, now 33, and a program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee.

She explained that at times, she felt as though she no longer wanted to live in a world where human beings could behave in such a way.

Another speaker, Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski, religious leader of Congregation B'nai Jacob-Dershu Tov, made one point clear. The child of Holocaust survivors, he said that the Nazis' extermination of European Jewry was a unique event in history, and not just one link in an unfortunate chain of massive killings going back to ancient times.

"It was pure anti-Semitism that gave rise to the Jewish Holocaust" - not some political, economic or territorial conflict, explained Leizerowski.

He maintained, however, that his observation did not diminish the Jewish people's responsibility to try to prevent future genocide, wherever on the globe it may occur.

"What do we do? How do you stop it? Can you stop it?" Leizerowski asked rhetorically.

'A Lasting Impact'

Ivan Boothe, the program's keynote speaker and communications director of the Washington, D.C.-based Genocide Intervention Network, said that he had at least one answer.

Boothe, who sports a lip-piercing and earlier this year graduated from Swarthmore College, said the United States could avoid intervening in places like Darfur because "there is no political cost for inaction."

He said that his group hopes to change that, and is lobbying in favor of the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, which was passed by the Senate last month and is awaiting approval in the House of Representatives.

"We need to start a movement of concerned citizens," said Boothe. "Individuals can have a lasting impact on the situation."

After the program, several members of Akiba Hebrew Academy's Human Rights Club said that they were moved by the personal stories of terror, especially in light of their own recent trip to Poland to visit several Nazi-era concentration camps.

Ayelet Schieber, 18, said the group planned to show a documentary about the situation in Darfur to the entire school, and arrange to have a speaker from the Genocide Intervention Network address students.

Nevertheless, Schieber questioned how much power an individual had to affect events halfway around the planet.

"We're 12th-grade students," she said.

"Realistically, we are not going to save the world, but this is going to be a start."

 

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