Yesterday evening, at Mary Seacole Hall on the University of the West Indies campus, these words resonated:
The Rwanda Genocide…highlighted the danger of indifference and the consequences of inaction. The Rwanda genocide occurred not only because of the state-sanctioned culture of hate, but because of crimes of indifference and conspiracies of silence.
Yesterday evening, a group of young people came together for a candlelight remembrance of the genocide in Rwanda. The words above were spoken by Rochelle McFee of WE-Change, the affiliate of J-FLAG that advocates for the rights of lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBT) women, with the support of UN Women and Mary Seacole Hall. This was far more than a symbolic gesture of commemoration. It was an examination of the nature of hatred and discrimination.
The participants wore white. White is the color of memory, and understanding.
The genocide began suddenly, the very day after a plane carrying President Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu, and neighboring Burundi’s President was shot down. The Hutu tribe then comprised about 85 per cent of the Rwandan population. But as Ms. McFee suggested, although the horror began almost without warning on April 8, it was the result of a steadily growing and orchestrated campaign of hatred and fear directed at the small minority of Tutsis (around 14 per cent of the population). The moderate Hutu Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and her ten Belgian bodyguards were killed on the first day.The Hutu extremists broadcast hate propaganda through the media, ordering people to “weed out the cockroaches” (the Tutsis). According to the BBC, “The names of those to be killed were read out on radio. Even priests and nuns have been convicted of killing people, including some who sought shelter in churches.” 100 days later, when the genocide ended in early July, it is estimated that close to one million Rwandans were killed and between 250,000 and 500,000 women raped; 75,000 children were orphaned.
Those are the stark facts. But numbers are always difficult when we talk about genocide. Each one, adding up to hundreds of thousands, is a life, a death, a rape, a ruin of a life, a loss. The horror did not end on July 15th, 1994. The physical and spiritual devastation continued; there were thousands of revenge killings, and around 40 per cent of the population was either dead or had fled the country. Rwanda was reeling. Compounding this was the disturbing lack of interest and unforgivable inaction of the international community, which reacted only when the worst had already happened.
How does hatred develop? Where does this evil come from? In Rwanda (as in Bosnia, in Nazi Germany and Pol Pot’s Cambodia) neighbors turned on neighbors. Ms. McFee noted that you first have to turn the group that you hate into non-humans, and to create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. Then it becomes easier to kill them. So Tutsis became cockroaches. Evil feeds on itself. But prior to all this happening – this is the disturbing part – there is the indifference. The cold, uncaring indifference. This makes extreme actions – violence, even genocide – so much easier. At first, people will turn away, shrugging their shoulders, even laughing; they will. As Holocaust survivor and activist Elie Wiesel said: “Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies.” Yes. The stage is set.
So, Ms. McFee reminded us of the Pyramid of Hate:
Hate begins with actions of bias such as jokes or stereotyping. If left unchecked, hate escalates to actions of prejudice such as social avoidance or ridicule. Prejudice escalates to actions of discrimination such as education and employment discrimination. And discrimination escalates to actions of violence such as terrorism, rape, threats, and murder. When unimpeded, actions of violence turn to genocide – purposeful attempts to eliminate an entire group of people. This is precisely what happened in Rwanda – fear and hate turned into actions of discrimination.
And so, we arrive at the way many Jamaicans regard the most marginalized and vulnerable in society – specifically the LGBT community. I will never forget how shocked I was to see cartoons in a national newspaper depicting LGBT Jamaicans as freaks that frightened children (and preyed on them). Not just one cartoon, mind you – quite a few, each one seemingly more bizarre than the next. The pyramid of hate begins right there, in the first two levels. These people are to be feared, dangerous – inhuman, even. Things are improving, slightly – but it’s not enough. We have a ways to go.
We must see the warning signs in our society, and take action. This means speaking out against discrimination and apathy. It also means supporting organizations such as WE-Change, Respect Jamaica and others that promote tolerance, respect and non-discrimination. It means adding your own voice to individual voices, too: those voices calling for kindness and compassion (whatever their class, religion, race etc. – just support them). It will often mean standing up in specific cases of injustice, prejudice and discrimination and saying, simply: “No.”
There is hope, there is always hope; but it requires hard work. Rwanda has made remarkable progress since the genocide – not only economically, but also, in a sense, spiritually. Last November, a Rwandan Member of Parliament, Juliana Kantengwa, visited for a series of discussions with Jamaican women. I wrote about her visit here: http://gleanerblogs.com/socialimpact/?p=3034 I remember Ms. Kantengwa’s vivid description of a country in shock after the genocide: dead bodies in the streets, wandering children trying to find their families, starving animals. The women were the first to take steps towards forgiveness, and the first to start rebuilding. The wounds have to start healing.
The renowned Nigerian author, poet and playwright Professor Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka observed:
Given the scale of trauma caused by the genocide, Rwanda has indicated that however thin the hope of a community can be, a hero always emerges. Although no one can dare claim that it is now a perfect state, and that no more work is needed, Rwanda has risen from the ashes as a model of truth and reconciliation.
Jamaicans, be vigilant. And is it so hard – is it really so hard – to celebrate our differences?
Postscript: I wrote a piece, The Danger of Indifference, two years ago: https://petchary.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/the-danger-of-indifference-some-thoughts-for-the-week/