By Cara Paley
On Monday, March 5th, Tufts Cummings/Hillel Program for Holocaust and Genocide hosted its second annual panel of genocide speakers. Their suffering and victimhood took place in different parts of the world—modern-day Turkey, Europe, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda respectively. The story of how political and ethnic rivalries transformed into lawless killing sprees, as well as the brutal methods of persecution, varied by region. But in each narrative, millions were deprived of their identities, categorized as less-than-human, and systematically executed in mass-murder campaigns. All five speakers told a story of mass genocide, the one ugly word that keeps haunting the international discourse.
I remember being struck by the youth of some survivors when I first arrived. At that moment, I realized that I had fallen victim to the assumption that genocide is a thing of the past. There’s this idea that the world has “learned its lesson,” and that certain precursors to genocide, such as a Nazi-clad Germany robotically bowing to Hitler’s insanity, just can’t happen anymore. Survivors are “supposed to be older” because they are voices from a distant past.
This panel reminds us that devastating genocide continues to shape and define today’s international landscape. The mass-murder campaign in Rwanda had its start in 1994. The Bosnian Civil War, during which 200,000 Muslims were hauled to concentration camps, tortured, and killed, occurred between 1992-1995. The panel’s introductory speaker summed it up perfectly: “We keep saying ‘never again,’ but genocide still happens, again and again.”
The anecdotes each speaker shared reduced the audience to a collective, chilling silence. Dennis Papazian, a progeny of Armenian victims, spoke about the Ottoman death marches, during which victims’ bodies were burnt and blackened by months of walking in the blistering sun. A survivor of the Cambodian genocide, Tooch Van’s voice shook as he recalled the day the Khmer Rouge stormed his house and murdered his entire family; he was just five years old.
Since the speakers had just twenty minutes to speak, the events and moments they retold were judiciously chosen for this particular context. Almost every speaker said they could speak for hours more, that there was so much left to tell. Max Michelson, a Latvian survivor of the Holocaust, mentioned his experience in the concentration camps only in passing, focusing instead on his experience in the Riga Ghetto and the transformation of his local community under Nazi-rule.
Along with their experiences of suffering, many speakers highlighted the remarkable trajectory their lives have taken ever since. Between moving from one foster-home to the next, Tooch Van found the means to an education and won a scholarship to study in America. He now holds a degree from Tufts very own Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Bosnian survivor Jasmina Cesic recalled her state-of living after a bus explosion near a refugee camp, which took her husband and cost her an arm. She recalls crawling on her hands and knees in a hospital room, reduced to a state of near-paralysis, overwhelmed by emotional and physical trauma. Now a businesswoman, author, and public speaker, Cesic said she is still stunned by her life’s 180-degree transformation.
All five speakers highlighted education as the key to their recovery and success. Despite having lost her husband, both parents, and two siblings in Rwanda, Chantal Kayitesi said she considers herself lucky, all because she had the chance to pursue an education in America. She said that education gave her the tools to connect with other survivors and openly reconcile her trauma. Her advocacy work, which includes the founding of the genocide widows organization Avega Agahozo, which won the 2011 Gruber Women’s Rights prize, was bred from invigorating discussions with other survivors.
Michelson, by contrast, said that he had kept his story hidden for 35 years, for the sake of starting a normal life. With the sharing of trauma comes the pain of opening unhealed wounds, of reliving this raw suffering. Papazian talked about an interview he conducted with an Armenian survivor, who broke her silence with the revelation that she had abandoned two children to escape to America. She had never admitted this aloud; to address it is to, of course, relive it.
But the painful reliving of these tragic histories is, in some ways, critical. While listening, I acknowledged the disconcerting fact that this was the first time I was hearing about some of these devastating mass genocides. There is no rhyme or reason why certain genocides become part of the international narrative, while others get blurred out or overshadowed. Open forums such as this one allow quasi-unspeakable memories to transform into tangible stories that could be retold across generations. It allows survivors with important, incredible histories to meaningfully impact the national discourse Likewise, it pushes us as listeners to deconstruct the popular historical narrative and give these stories the legacy they deserve. Open conversation about genocide—across cultures, regions, and generations—is the first step toward attaining a workable international solution to a story that keeps on repeating.