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What in my life had ever prepared me for such a moment? Strong skepticism, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetry. And poetry, a great enthusiasm since I was a teenager, helped me through the reign of terror. The strength of the poetic images gave me solace during those hard days in Rwanda.


-Philippe Gaillard, "Surviving Genocide," in Another Day in Paradise; Frontline Stories From International Aid Workers




This week marks the 30th anniversary of the onset of the Rwandan genocide, a low-tech massacre of 800,000 men, women and children. Low-tech because the "tools" of the genocide were machetes and screwdrivers. No aerial bombardment, no tanks, no cell phones or GPS, just humans at their most bestial carrying weapons from village fields.


Rwanda is at peace today thanks to its National Unity and Reconciliation Commission which began its work in 2002. It was the most ambitious transitional justice process ever attempted until then. Nearly one-fifth of the surviving adult population testified before these courts, including some high-ranking officers who were eventually re-integrated into the new military. In 1999, an international court sentenced George Rutaganda, one of the most prominent leaders of the genocide, to life in prison. Across the nation, there has been accountability, testimony, even "reconciliation villages." Internationally there have been mea culpas for not stepping in to stop the genocide as it began; France and the US were well informed. But that is another long story.


Transitional justice, also known as truth and reconciliation, is a complex process, and a promising one, though what it might offer Israel and Palestine in their present iterations is questionable. The Rwandan tribal conflict took place within a nation-state, not between a nation-state and a terrorist organization intent on abolishing that nation-state. Once the killing fields of Gaza are cleared and rebuilt, the Jewish settlers on the West Bank are pushed back, and reformed Israeli and Palestinian governments are in place, a Palestinian state established, well maybe. But it's hard to say from the vantage of a still active brutal and brutalizing war zone what could happen. The future for now is in the conditional tense, certainly after so much collateral damage, the almost certain death of the remaining hostages, and the so-called mistaken targeting of the World Central Kitchen humanitarian convoy.


Rwanda remains a lesson. Its history is a reminder that it doesn't take much to kill, just a few tools: a history of racism and colonialism, incendiary language, fear, mob hysteria, the decimation of the rule of law, and simple or sophisticated weapons supplied by arms dealers, including the United States. Indeed, this beloved country of mine is so awash in arms manufacture, citizen-owned assault rifles, racial hatred and domestic divisiveness, that international students are becoming wary of studying here.


Every year, the International Committee of the Red Cross warns in its annual report that the human consequences of local wars and forced immigrations are becoming more and more serious. At any one time more than fifty conflicts are raging around the world and some 21 million people are being forced to leave their homes as a result; 17 million become refugees. Another 300 million people are affected by disasters unrelated to war, such as earthquakes, floods and famine. Always, children are most at risk, especially those under five, and their mothers who are trying to protect them. Of the remaining population in Gaza, how many women and children have survived? We know approximately how many are dead—but how many have survived to seed the next generation and work for peace? The sad procession of Gazans walking from south to north through the pulverized landscape they once called home will retain their near-death experiences in a collective memory for generations.



This post is dedicated to all humanitarian workers, past, present, and future in celebration of their altruism, and courage.


To learn more about transitional justice, watch this video: https://www.ictj.org/media/5424

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