We Are the Same
I met a Rwandan man a few weeks ago. Actually, he’s not technically from Rwanda. He was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and is a dual citizen of the DRC and Belgium. But in his heart, he feels Rwandan. And by the end of our conversation, I think I understood why.
He is a colleague of a friend who interns at the African Court on Human and People’s Rights, here in Arusha. He’s lived and worked all over the world and came to Arusha to help get the Court up and running—no small task in the most efficient of countries. Here, it was probably herculean.
My friend Demaris stayed at his place for a night before she could move into her new apartment, and we had gone to collect her things. He warmly welcomed us (Karibu Tanzania!) and before I knew it, we were all sitting in his living room chatting. He eventually asked me about my last name, which is complicated to explain because it’s hyphenated and not English. I off-handedly told him it was Hebrew, trying to avoid the details, but his next question caught me a little off-guard: Was I Jewish?
I generally think religion is a private and potentially (or extremely) touchy subject, so I tend to avoid it when I meet new people. But as I was asked the question directly, and I was in his house, I answered.
Yes, I’m Jewish.
His face changed. I didn’t know if this was going to go well or not. But then he looked at me in amazement and said “You and I, we are the same.”
I’ve heard that before so I assumed he meant that because we share the Old Testament, we are brethren. I started to say so, but he stopped me and said, “We have both experienced genocide, we are the same.” I was confused, but suddenly I understood – my host was Tutsi.
Though he has never lived in Rwanda, he feels the genocide keenly. While most of his immediate family lives in Europe, I don’t know how many relatives he lost in Rwanda (everyone lost someone), and I didn’t dare ask. I was overwhelmed and said nothing, but realized he was right. In a way, he and I really are the same.
Though he doesn’t think of himself this way, my father is a Holocaust survivor, at least according to the National Holocaust Museum’s definition. He was not in the camps, nor in hiding the way Anne Frank was, but during World War II, he and his family went into hiding in a small town in the south of France. His immediate family was spared, but his grandparents and relatives of that generation were killed in concentration camps. He lost his cousins to fighting in the war, and his cousins’ families lost their lives, left in unmarked, mass graves.
My dad eventually left France and moved to Israel. To this day, he considers himself Jewish and Israeli first, even though he’s lived longer in the US than in any other country. Like my dad, my friend identifies with a country, and a tribe, that is not the country of his birth. Because he sees Rwanda as the Tutsi homeland, he considers himself Tutsi and Rwandan first.
I think the atrocities that took place around them, with lives taken based on identity, made having a spiritual and physical homeland of paramount importance. In their eyes, a place that promises the next generations with the safety and security they did not have is priceless.
I was born in Queens, New York, in the 1980s, and grew up in a picturesque part of Washington DC. My very existence was never threatened the way my father’s was. I consider myself American first, and have led a fairly privileged American life. I’m grateful for my family, and for the physical and emotional shelter they provided me. But genocide is a part of my family’s history. I know my family’s stories; I’ve heard how their voices change when they tell them.
My friend and I grew up worlds apart, but we are the same. He’s dedicated his life to human rights and justice, and I hope to one day do the same. We both believe in a world of human dignity and mutual respect. And we believe that human rights are universal. I know it’s idealistic (some would say, naïve), especially considering the news these days. But that doesn’t make it wrong, only more challenging to achieve.
The establishment of the ICTR, and for that matter, the ICTY, the ECCC, the ICC, and other international criminal tribunals, is a testament of the world community’s commitment to safeguarding human rights, and promoting peace and justice. The international community may not be able to stop genocide—in Rwanda, it utterly failed—but it can and does hold genocidaires accountable for their crimes. Certainly more can be done, but at least it’s a start.