Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Emory's Beyond Hollywood's Rwanda

This evening I attended "Beyond Hollywood's Rwanda: Truth and Justice, Security and Development," a panel discussion held at Emory University. As I sat in a little Emory church listening to several eye-witness accounts of genocide, one from a Tutsi survivor whose entire family was killed during the genocide, I could not help but feel shaken by the knowledge that such things can happen - have happened over and over again. Each of the panelists spoke passionately for the need for awareness and justice. Each mentioned the evil that comes from denying the horrors of the past. All spoke as though addressing one man, Paul Rusesabagina, who was not even present.

Rusesabagina, whose story was the basis for the movie Hotel Rwanda, "...used his influence and connections as temporary manager of the Mille Collines to shelter 1,268 Tutsis and moderate Hutus from being slaughtered by the Interahamwe militia" during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. His bravery in the face of such atrocities is astounding. He saved many lives during that time of unspeakable depravity. Yet, as the panelists spoke, it was clear that they had Rusesabagina in their thoughts as they tried to define for the audience what form the denial of the Rwandan genocide has taken, for, as Deborah Lipstadt of Emory's Religious Studies Department explains, Rusesabagina has been advocating a form of denial lately. Lipstadt clarifies:
...deniers cannot, of course, deny that the killings took place but they try to depict them as the "normal" course of business in Rwanda.

The mantra of these deniers is: Tutsis have been killing Hutus for years. This was an example of the Hutus striking back.

Other than simply being incorrect, this mantra essentially blames the victims for their own brutal deaths.
Deborah Lipstadt spoke with great passion about how important it is not to deny the terrors of the past, for that denial allows for the continued dehumanization of the victimized group. She explained three tacts that denialists of any atrocity often take - putting blame on the victims, arguing that there is no morality in war, or arguing that the violence was a legitimate outburst of anger. She made it clear that a genocide is neither a war of two armed groups, nor is it the consequence of chaos, but rather an organized and systematic attempt to slaughter an entire race of people. When asked why people believe the arguments of the deniers, she pointed out that we would all rather believe that we live in a world where that sort of calculated evil simply does not exist. Lipstadt spoke with great insight and eloquence, and without fear of difficult truths. She definitely makes my list of most admired women.

I was also impressed by the presentation given by Egide Karuranga, a Tutsi who survived the genocide. Karuranga stayed in the Hotel des Milles Collines under the protection of Rusesabagina himself. Karuranga also spoke of denial as the evil at the core of the genocide - the denial of a group's humanity, the denial of the past, and the denial of justice. Rather than focusing on the pain of his past, Karuranga spoke of the awareness that is needed in order to prevent such atrocities in the future. The American media received much of his criticism. He insists that no help came to Rwanda because the public was ill-informed and distracted. While I see this distractability as the very mark of callousness, I agree whole-heartedly that the media has, and continues to fail us.

Yet, while Rusesabagina was at the center of Karuranga's personal story, and although Lipstadt names him as a denier of the genocide on her blog, none of the panelists evoked his name when discussing denialism. Nor did they presume to define how he or any other survivor should view their own history. While the very title of the discussion prompts some consideration of Rusesabagina (for he is at the center of the only Hollywood movie to discuss the genocide), and while it was clear that the panel felt that it was responding to ideas that he has promoted, the purpose was to inform and warn the general public. And I must admit that I was relieved that no one attempted to chastise a survivor of genocide for what he is saying in the aftermath. The point was clearly that all nations must understand that such things are possible, because if we deny the possibility of genocide, we open the door for it to happen again.


Casmall said...

Lipstat was pretty good. She mentioned that common tactics used by all denialists and thats a good start.
I don't understand why people invest in denialist ideas.

MarkH said...

I'm glad you guys went, it looked pretty interesting.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Yeah, it was interesting. Thanks for recommending it to us.

I was actually under the impression that Paul Rusesabagina himself was going to be there, so on the walk over I was preparing to feel really conflicted. As it was, the panel was clearly preaching to the choir. Don't get me wrong, it was still a kick in the gut. But, everyone was really in agreement about the need for justice and about the magnitude of the atrocity.