Category Archives: genocide education

EIHR interview

On Friday, December 2, Drew Beiter and I gave an interview on genocide education and the work of the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights on WILI AM radio’s The Wayne Norman Show. To hear the interview, click on the link below (also posted to the right).


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Ramo the Baker

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One of the best aspects of attending Summer University Srebrenica was staying in the community.  Srebrenica is small.  Even a tourist staying for a week quickly runs into the same faces around town.  For us, this was made personal through our connection with Semso.

 Semso is a graduate student studying in Trieste.  His brother was killed during the genocide, and he and his parents refugeed to Italy when they were able to leave the UN camp in Tuzla.  Semso joined the Summer University Srebrenica program as a student, but it also constituted his first return to Srebrenica in sixteen years.  Spending any afternoon with him walking through town brought a barrage of warm greetings and open invitations.  A whole post devoted to Semso is in order, but let’s start with this one: 

 Early in the trip, my power converter blew.  Semso walked me through three different businesses in search of a replacement.  The first had nothing, the second included clerks who feigned ignorance as they didn’t want to help a Bosniak and an American, and the third honestly told us that the best place to look was up the road in Bratunac.  Semso promised we’d take care of it through his friends.  Once all avenues had been exhausted for the day, we sat down for coffee with Semso’s Imam, who returned to the Serb-dominated hamlet with his wife and small children to restore the mosque in 2005.  He invited us to services, as well as the dedication ceremony of the new mosque to take place in a few days.  We did attend service, but found ourselves in a workshop on the day of the dedication ceremony. 

 Later that evening, Semso introduced us to Ramo.  Known as the “Bread Man,” Ramo worked in a bakery just before the invasion in 1992.  He knew the back roads well from driving his delivery route, and managed to continue bringing bread to the Bosniak soldiers and civilians as the Serbs invaded.  He is best known for one particular event, though.  There was a point early in the war when peace appeared to have been achieved.  School children ran out on the playground to celebrate.  Serb soldiers picked them off with sniper fire from the nascent hills. Ramo begged the Canadian soldiers then in residence for a helmet, ran onto the black top, and carried injured children to the hospital. 

 Ramo joined us in the twilight for a trip just south of Srebrenica to a memorial being built to the Bosniak soldiers at the front line of the first assault.  On our way up the hill, we stopped to pay respects to the grave of the Dutch soldier lost in the conflict.  Our party included both Semso and Ramo, as well as Ynse, a former Dutch Batt UN soldier who’d been taken hostage by the Serbs.  After taking a moment at the gravesite to remember Ynse’s brother-in-arms, we stopped at the farm of one of Ramo’s friends…an impressively fertile piece of land with a tarp-greenhouse.  Nicholas welcomed Ramo with open arms, and brought us all into the green house to admire his abundance.  Outside once again, Ramo explained that they had fought against each other in the war.  They take pride in their friendship now.

 Ramo extended an invitation to stay on his farm, but we returned to the town of Srebrenica.  He told me he thought he might have an adaptor to fit my American plug, and if so, he would bring it to the hotel the next day.

 True to his word, Ramo arrived on the patio of the hotel at nine in the morning.   He didn’t find an adaptor, but would drive me to Bratunac to find one.  Semso encouraged me to jump into the van, and off we went…about ten miles to Bratunac.  We did not speak one word beyond “OK?” for Ramo and “Fala” (thank you) for me, in common.  Still, as he pointed out important sites along the way, we seemed to do fine. 

Our first stop was the cell phone store.  He needed to get a repair, and they might have the adaptor I was looking for….no luck.  We moved on to the marketplace.  It reminded me of the market in Morogoro, Tanzania, where my daughter served in the Peace Corps….but European.  Crowds parted before Ramo…glad handing, back slapping, patting the heads of small children…we stopped at a couple of vendors to enquire about my adaptor with no luck. 

 Finally, we came to a kiosk at the back of the market.  The men swarmed around my computer cable, murmuring and shaking their heads.  A woman at the cash register stopped, took one look, and pointed at a bin at floor level.  There they were.  A whole tray full.  Ramo gestured to buy two…I agreed, paid, and we left with much thanks to the woman at the register. 

Ah, but we were not done…

 Back to the cell phone shop…his phone was not yet repaired.  So we drove around a couple of blocks to a, um, restaurant.  Ramo introduced me to a friend of his seated at a table on the outdoor patio.  They both offered me a beer.  By this time, it still was not yet ten in the morning….the lamb was roasting on the spit, plenty of men were enjoying the fine weather, and I decided that the bottle of water I had with me would suffice for the moment.  Ramo loaded the van with small tables, presumably for some other bistro back in Srebrenica…and joined us, holding two beers in his hand.  Again, I opted for the spring water.  After a bit, Ramo gesture that the man I was sitting with had been an adversary during the war.  They both laughed, smiled, and indicated that they were now friends. 

Next, we stopped for gas…not just in the tank, but in a five gallon jerry-can tucked into the space between the café tables in the back.  I will own that the question of safety crossed my mind as we left the station…Last, we picked up Ramo’s repaired cell phone and headed back to Srebrenica.  All in all, a productive morning, free of incendiary incidnent.

More on Semso’s story to follow….

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Starting the notes from Vienna

I’m parked at a table with a power hook-up in the Vienna Airport, with pages of notes, my iPod, and a bottle of water.  Time to start filling in the gaps.

Inbound, I started reading Richard Holbrook’s book, To End A War and taking notes. I won’t go through the content here, but do recommend it.  An Amazon link is in the sidebar as a resource.

Sakiba and Bakir

Certainly everyone you meet in Bosnia brings a personal story.  Bakir and Sakiba were recommended as owner/operators of a reliable travel agency in Sarajevo (Sirius Travel, again, link in sidebar).  Their story is remarkable.  Bakir served as a tank commander in the Yugoslav military in the ‘80’s and in Central Command during the Balkan War.  Sakiba gave birth to their son in the midst of the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, during a black out as the hospital was being bombed.  Later, she worked as a translator and coordinated convoys for the UNHCR, steering negotiations between Serb, Bosniak, and Croat middlemen on a regular basis.  After the war, they moved to Florida for ten years, returning to Bosnia in 2005 to start their business. 

National Library under renovation

In the photo, the building covered in scaffolding shows the National Library under renovation. Targeted for destruction in an extensive bombing campaign early in the war, Sakiba vividly remembers this event.  Charred leaves wafted from their bindings into her yard for days afterward. 

All these years later, the travel business does well, and their son returns to the States to attend college this fall. Bakir guided my travel from Srebrenica to Sarajevo, where we met up with Sakiba for dinner on the last night.  As you can imagine, his perspective on the landscape, both political and geographic, was invaluable.  Together, they are impressive ambassadors.

Upon arrival in Srebrenica the first day of the trip, Bakir and I discovered Muhamed Durakovic, the director of the Summer University Srebrenica , on the hotel porch.  He brought me to a lecture in progress on the nature of multi-culturalism , for which I was unable to write coherent notes (apologies). 

Our presentations took place in the battery factory which served as the UN “Dutch Batt” barracks during the war. Some of the space is dedicated to museum exhibitions on public display; on a couple of occasions, we sat in the small film theater within the larger hall, sometimes in a meeting room in the area which housed the medical facility for the base. 

Dutch Batt base

The first full presentation after arrival came from an investigator for the Bosnian State Prosecutor’s Office, Team 6 Srebrenica (and once again, linked right).  Simon Farmer recently retired from the West Yorkshire Police in the UK and applies his experience as a detective to uncovering evidence of genocide and mass atrocities.  Unlike working on recent, individual crimes, investigating such large scale killing sixteen years later presents a unique set of challenges, as one might imagine.  For instance, the day before his presentation, he’d arrived in Srebrenica responding to a report from locals to recover human remains dragged to the earth’s surface by feral dogs. 

For those of us who have read James Waller’s work or heard him speak, several parallels appeared.  Investigator Farmer stated anecdotally that the difference, from his perspective, between military training in the democratized west, which allows some room for recognition of the limits of authority, and that from a Communist model, where, when orders are not followed, the potential for mortal consequences prevails, accounts to some degree for an ability to submit to becoming perpetrators of mass atrocities.  His office recognizes that the personnel they interrogate are often those same “rank and file” men we’ve learned about from both Waller and Christopher Browning.  While questioning, Team 6 tries to take into account the subtleties between those who “followed orders” and those who were “more than shooters”, although of course the analysis of that distinction is determined at a higher level.  Reviewing Waller’s “Model of How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing”, all three of the proximate influences he suggests clearly match Investigator Farmer’s experience.

Investigator Farmer fields questions post-presentation

Working with victims presents its own challenges.  The balance between the need to build a preponderance of evidence and to respect the trauma that recounting such evidence causes victims requires personal diplomacy and compassion. “To me as an investigator, it’s a frustration, but I can understand their position,” he told us.  Two weeks ago, for example, a primary witness received word that her husband’s remains had been found.  He and their oldest son died during the marches in Srebrenica.  She and their younger son, a special needs child, had remained at the compound.  In the chaos, a Serb soldier killed the younger son “in a particularly brutal manner” in front of her, in retaliation for a dispute with her husband 11 years before the war.  She just couldn’t talk about it, she told Investigator Farmer, because it was “too much to bear.”

Some victims still may be the target of threats, as well. On some occasions, witnesses testify to one set of events with the investigator, but then change the testimony once they are in court.  Evidence of intimidation is hard to come by, so this poses additional obstacles to holding perpetrators accountable.

When asked about the role of the state court in relation to the ICTY, he stated that lesser charges tend to come to the state court to avoid “double jeopardy”.  Even so, while of course the primary purpose is accountability for offenders, this office also gathers information that collectively contributes to a larger picture, such as the current case against Radko Mladic. For example, interviewing a witness who is a driver, the line of questions might start in response to a statement about a purchase of fuel:

            What was the fuel for?

            -an excavator

            Why did you need an excavator?

            -to dig a hole

            What was the hole for?

…and you can take it from there.

Investigator Farmer shared the power point presentation slides, including mapping details and staff structure within the office (number of teams, responsibilities, etc.).  Especially history teachers, please do touch base and I can pass along more specific detail from that material.


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Farewell to Bosnia

It has been a remarkable trip, on more levels than I can possibly recount. 

At this point, as I pack and prepare to leave, here are a few more photos…these of Sarajevo:

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More details on presentations and interactions once I’m home and re-open the notebook!


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Next destination: Bosnia-Herzegovina

I’m spending this Memorial Day weekend researching flights, accomodations, and destinations to study in Bosnia-Herzegovina during July.  This time I plan to travel solo, creating a program of study and being prepared to adjust on the ground.  Suggestions, connections, insight, words of wisdom, and other forms of advice and support are all welcomed!


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Yom Hashoah Speech

We visited Kigali Prison before we left.  I have been unable to write about the experience, due to a need to process what had occurred. 

My friends at the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut asked me to speak for the Yom Hashoah service about my trip to Rwanda.  The theme from the USHMM for this year is “Justice and Accountability:  What Have We Learned?”  A transcript is posted below.  If you have been following the blog, much of what is in the speech is repetition, and for that I apologize.  The account of the prison experience, however, is the best I’m going to do for now: 

What Have We Learned?

Justice in Rwanda

If you have been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, you probably remember the shoes. The first time I encounter them was in 1987.  A travelling exhibition from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum stood in a library of the University of Pittsburgh.  An actress at the time, I was part of the cast for a play about events during the Holocaust, and we’d gone to the exhibit together.  Self-possessed and young, I naively thought I’d seen enough films and read enough books to “understand” the Holocaust.  Of course, no one can “understand” the Holocaust.  Confronting victims’ shoes for the first time was a lesson in humility I won’t ever forget. 

My most recent encounter with shoes occurred at Ntarama. This past July, I travelled with a delegation of Canadian educators to Rwanda with the purpose of bearing witness to that genocide for fellow educators here in the US.  We visited memorials, walked through genocide sites, listened to survivors, and worked hard together to process all that we were experiencing.  And once again, the shoes humbled us.

The Rwandan genocide began in April of 1994, when the plane carrying then President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down at Kigali Airport.  Over the next 100 days, between 500,000 and 800,000 Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizers were murdered by their Hutu neighbors and fellow citizens.

In the decades leading up to the genocide, Hutus perpetrated localized, sporadic acts of violence and killing against Tutsis, similar to pogroms in Eastern Europe.  In Nyamata, Ntarama, and Nyarabuye, Tutsi sought shelter in the villages’ Catholic churches and learned that these institutions provided sanctuary and safety in times of crisis. In other villages, the local school provided a safe-haven. Such was the case in Murambi and at L’Ecole Polytechnique. After the destruction and violence subsided, Tutsis returned to the remains of their homes and farms to rebuild what they could of their lives. 

In 1994, however, that changed.  This time, when Tutsis fled to the churches and schools, their sanctuary became their tomb.  Time and again, Hutu perpetrators and members of the Interahamwe militia gained access to the schools and churches, murdering all inside. 

Elderly witnesses to the Einsatzgruppen shootings in western Ukraine, near Lviv, reported to researcher and humanitarian Father Patrick Desbois, “The ground moved for three days afterward,” with the motion of those who had been buried alive. We heard this testimony echoed in the words of Rwandan survivors. 

In the wake of this national horror, Rwandans searched for a model on which to seek justice.  They started with the lessons learned from the tribunals at Nuremberg.  The international community, who had failed to respond to the genocide as it took place, did provide a platform for holding the most egregious of the genocidaires accountable.  The UN established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, or ICTR, in Arusha, Tanzania, a neutral location still accessible to survivors and other witnesses who came to testify.  Rwanda’s Ambassador to Canada, Edda Mukabagwiza, explained the process to us prior to our departure, reflecting that while this solution provided an international forum that “forced the international community to witness that genocide had happened,” it was not a model that fit their culture and circumstances in a country comprised entirely of a population of either victims or perpetrators. 

125,000 suspects already sat awaiting trial in prisons built for less than half that number, and hundreds of thousands of other suspects were yet to be arrested.  Implementation of the death penalty, she argued, in conditions where the government used the people to commit genocide, thereby making everyone a collaborator, raised serious concerns.  Where would the execution of potentially over a million convicts leave the country?  Ambassador Mukabagwiza went on to point out, “If we turned Rwanda into a graveyard, the RPF resistance forces and the refugees will have nothing to come home to.”  Even long-term incarceration would prove detrimental to Rwanda in terms of the loss of labor and the imprisonment costs, and neither solution would help the victims in the form of restitution or reparations. Rwandans determined to create a new system: the gacaca courts, a hybrid of classic and traditional forms of justice. 

Traditional, tribal gacaca courts historically hold re-integration as their goal. Unequivocal responsibility for guilt and factual disclosure of the full truth must take place before any discussion of restitution to victims and re-integration begins.  Rwandans, according to the Ambassador, “have this collective knowledge of the genocide,” and “recognize that society must have harmony and tolerance to grow and be stable.” In this context, the gacaca courts allow Rwandans to self-determine their societal values. Perpetrators must fully confess, and then must complete community service for the victims, before they can be re-integrated into the community. It is not a panacea.  Concerns that the “greater good” supersedes the comfort of survivors are valid.  Rwandans take pride in telling visitors of the country’s stability, citing the economic growth and reduction of crime that has occurred recent years.  It was my experience, however, that tension lies just under the surface, and the heavy-handed governance of the former head of the RPF resistance forces, President Paul Kagame, keeps a lid on the potential for post-genocide violence. 

The day before our return trip home, we visited Kigali Prison.  30 perpetrators of the genocide, 20 men and 10 women, spent four hours answering our questions.  Among them: the former Mayor of Kigali, the president of Kigali’s Interahamwe unit, the Radio Mille Collines announcer who incited genocide on the air, a Kigali Airport official, and several farmers and trades-people.  The guards stood off in the corner, sometimes leaving the room entirely.  Our questions and their answers filtered through interpreters in both French and Kinyarwandan, giving us time to read their body language and facial expressions, and to take notes. 

Throughout the trip, the brutality against Tutsi women struck me.  Rape as a form of genocide, including deliberate infection of AIDS/HIV, dominated perpetrators treatment of females regardless of age.  Mukandoli Annonciata, a renowned beauty in Nyamata, refused an offer of marriage to a Hutu man as a means of salvation.  Hutu soldiers raped her and mutilated her body with metal spikes before killing her.  Mourners left her remains untouched until the tenth anniversary of the genocide, seven years ago, as a testament to the treatment of women.  Her remains now lay as if “in-state”, the memorial-flag draped coffin on view under glass. 

As we listened to the perpetrators give their testimony, we heard the rhythm of gacaca recitations.  Each would begin with an acknowledgement of guilt, proceed to a description of their crimes, and end by asking forgiveness from the survivors, from God, and from the community. Their accounts meandered between authentic and rehearsed.   I found myself hoping for accuracy in the adage that saying something often enough fosters belief in the statement as true. 

Finally, I could stand it no longer.  I had to ask about the women.  “Why wasn’t it enough just to kill them?” I asked.  “Why the brutality?”  The former mayor started to answer; it was a time of great chaos, no one really cared how they were killed as long as they were killed, and so on.  And then one woman broke ranks.  “He is giving you a man’s answer!” she sputtered, pointing accusingly, “I’ll tell you why!” We waited for what we hoped would be an unrehearsed response.

She persisted, “Tutsi women were exalted, noble.  We were told they were more beautiful, more desirable than Hutu women.  If a Hutu man wanted to advance in the world, he took a Tutsi wife. She was a ‘prize’.  The militia wanted them as possessions, and violated them out of payback.” This is how, she told us, Tutsi women became particular targets of vindictiveness. 

Before we could leave, both she and another woman, whom I now know to be Valerie Bamariki, the Radio Milles Collines announcer, insisted that we listen to something.  They asked us to tell Rwandan exiles, “Those of us accused have asked for forgiveness and have been well-treated.”    Ms. Bamariki demanded, “Who committed the worst crimes?  Who is most guilty?  The highest placed people are in exile. None have confessed.  The planners are outside of our country. Appeal to your governments to have them arrested.”

And so we are left to wonder, is there a Rwandan Adolf Eichmann living out his life in Belgium?  In Canada?  Here in the US?  One week ago, I read this online: 

“The United States government has implicated an elderly African man living in Kansas in the 1994 Rwandan genocide and accused him of concealing his role in the killings in order to win US citizenship. Lazare Kobagaya, 82, is charged with lying on immigration and citizenship forms, and the US justice department wants to revoke his citizenship. If convicted, Kobagaya faces up to 10 years in prison and deportation from the US.

The US government’s strategy in the case mirrors its prosecution of suspected Nazi guard John Demjanjuk, who settled in Ohio after the Second World War.”      

          Much work remains to be done.  Between the International Tribunal for Rwanda and the gacaca courts, Rwandans have taken the template for seeking justice offered at Nuremberg and tailored it to their own culture and values.  A perfect system of justice has yet to be found, but this one has, to a great extent, succeeded in meeting the goals Rwandans set out for themselves.  They have, in the words of Regina Spiegel, the Holocaust survivor at the opening of [this year’s Yom Hashoah film], lived up to the ideal for “Justice, yes.  Vengeance, no.”


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Some call Bisesero “Rwanda’s Warsaw Ghetto Uprising”, and it is known locally as the “Hill of Resistance.”  From the start of the genocide until late April, the Tutsi at Bisesero used stones and lances to protect themselves on the sides of this steep, rocky hill.  Over 50,000 came from around the region.  As the Hutu came to realize the strength of the Tutsi defense, they called for the Interahamwe to bring in troops trained by the French military, reputed to have the capacity to kill 1,000 people in twenty minutes. 

By May 13, 1994, the Interahamwe had arrived from surrounding areas.  Those planning the genocide told area villagers that the Tutsi were cockroaches and snakes, and they had come to “kill the animals.”  The defenses at Bisesero were broken down, and over the next two days, nearly all of the Tutsi at Bisesero were exterminated. 

When French troops arrived as part of Operation Turquoise, the approximately 3,000 survivors still protected by the hill and fighting off assaults came out of hiding, believing these soldiers to be “saviors.”  In fact, they’d been brought by the Interahamwe to assist in the attack.  The French soldiers told the Tutsi to go back into hiding, and they’d return in three days to provide support and assistance.  Having now revealed Tutsi positions to the Interahamwe, the French departed.  The Interahamwe double their attack, targeting the locations exposed by the French intervention.  By June 30, there were 1,000 survivors left. 

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The French evacuated the wounded survivors to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), while healthy survivors remained in French custody in place.  By this time, the Interahamwe forces were fleeing the RPF troops working their way south.

Our guides at Bisesero were survivors, young men who were adolescents at the time of the genocide.  They had been to the medical facilities in Zaire.  One of them, twelve at the time, suffered a gunshot wound in his leg.  He reported that the French were forcing amputation of arms and legs for the most minor of injuries.  He refused to have his leg amputated.  It has healed, and he walks unimpaired today.  His brother was one of those held in place by the French, and it is his testimony that the survivors were not fed during their time in captivity. 

On our way to and from Bisesero, we passed the entryway to a UN Refugee Camp for those escaping the violence currently taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  According to Charles, our guide from the Commission for the Fight Against Genocide, the camp currently serves over 19,000 people.

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