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The anniversaries of the Rwandan and Armenian genocides and the Jewish Holocaust all occur in April, writes Gerald Caplan, but last month’s memorial service at Tufts University in Boston was unusual in bringing together survivors from all three affected communities to bear witness together.

April is the cruellest month for genocide survivors. When Canada’s Governor-General Michaëlle Jean was in Rwanda acknowledging the country’s feeble efforts during the 1994 genocide, she found herself in the middle of the country's annual period of commemorative mourning. I've been there several Aprils and it's a grim, trying, often traumatic time for victims and perpetrators alike.

Why April? By some weird fluke, both the Armenian genocide and the Jewish Holocaust also have anniversaries in April. So the memorialisation of the three indisputably classic genocides of the 20th century, those that fit every criterion of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, all occur within the same 30-day period.

Last week I spoke at a memorial service at Tufts University in Boston. Jewish and Rwandan survivors and the granddaughter of Armenian survivors were joined by a survivor of the Cambodian killing fields for a deeply affecting evening. We first remember the past to honour the victims, and every one of the speakers lost a mind-numbing number of family in his or her respective apocalypse.

We also hope to learn lessons for the future, since everyone who commemorates genocides is also by definition committed to genocide prevention. Despite all the experience of this past century of genocide, how well humankind is doing in preventing such atrocities is by no means clear.

All across the world, memorial ceremonies during April are more common than many know. But Tufts was unusual for this unexpected fact: Rarely do the various survivors' communities attend the same memorials. In general, each bears witness in isolation from the others.

Five years ago, I was asked by the Toronto Armenian community to be the keynote speaker at their commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. I had only just closed down a virtual international organisation, Remembering Rwanda, that I had founded and that I ran with my Rwandan partner Louise Mushikiwabo, whose family had suffered unimaginable losses in 1994. Louise, then a private citizen living in Washington, returned to Rwanda and is now minister of foreign affairs. Our initiative sought to ensure that the world would not forget Rwanda, above all the key role of the international community in enabling its genocide.

But as I pointed out frankly to my Armenian audience, around the world only a handful of Armenians or Jews bothered with Remembering Rwanda. Most were too preoccupied by their own tragedy to have room for or interest in the others. (Many North American Jews attempted to atone for their dereliction by spearheading the Darfur solidarity movement.) Few wanted their own suffering to be diminished, as they saw it, by the suffering of others. Professor Peter Novick, a Jewish American historian, in his superb book ‘The Holocaust In American Life’, called this the Olympics of victimisation. Instead of a competition among victims, I challenged my audience to embrace the solidarity of among them. Who should be more sympathetic to the plight of genocide survivors than other genocide survivors?

That's what the hushed and attentive crowd got at Tufts University. What was remarkable about the four testimonies was, on the one hand, the uniqueness of each experience, yet on the other the extraordinary similarities of each of them. They demonstrated that no one wins the race of the victims. There is no continuum of horror, with some atrocities more heinous than others. There is just the same ultimate goal: The total annihilation of an entire species of humanity for what it is rather than anything it might have done.

Time after time the survivors told virtually identical tales: Being classified as some kind of filthy insect that needs to be eliminated in order to cleanse society, to make it pure. The sudden transformation of neighbour, friend or teacher into mortal enemy. Your physical separation from the larger whole. Losing track of other members of your family. Witnessing a beloved relative murdered before your eyes. The peculiarly gruesome, sadistic nature of the killings.

The desperate escape to anywhere else. Hiding in the marsh, the forest, the hills. Living in holes in the ground like an animal. Taking refuge in disgusting outhouses. The numbing of the senses. The disappearance of everyone else of your kind. The terror. The isolation.

The interminable wait for the victors – the RPF, the Viet Cong, the Soviet or American armies. The miraculous appearance of one of the mob as a furtive protector. Being saved just when you were sure it was over. The complete disorientation of rescue. The search for family. The confirmation of the most terrible fears. Being saved yet being the living dead. The search for justice. The need to survive. The shock of grotesque genocide denial. The realisation that the world moves on, with or without you.

These were the common themes that played themselves out in Boston last week, as they do wherever and whenever survivors gather to tell their stories. They remind us that human nature knows no distinctions based on race or colour or nationality or ethnicity or religion. When there are humans there is the capacity for evil. That's the first lesson re-learned from genocide survivors every April. Prevention begins with the knowledge that it has happened before and, if we let it, it can happen again.


* Gerald Caplan has a PhD in African history. He recently published The Betrayal of Africa.
* This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.