On 20th Anniversary of Rwandan Genocide, Remembering Isn't Enough

300,000, 1.7 million, 5.9 million, 800,000.

What do these numbers have in common?

They represent the rough estimates of human lives lost in some of the most horrific ethnic genocides during my lifetime: the Ugandan genocide of Idi Amin, the Cambodian genocide of Pol Pot, the Nazi genocide of European Jews and the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis.

Embedded in these numbers are the lives of millions of innocent children. Taken as a whole we can estimate that more than one third of the almost 10,000,000 souls killed in these ethnic genocides were children. Adults hate, adults make war, adults murder and children are helpless victims.

Magnifying the crimes in all of these episodes was the consistent use of rape as a tool of war and a tool for genocide. No place was this more prominent than in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Virtually every young girl and woman of Tutsi heritage was subjected to rape and/or murder, and it is now estimated that approximately 2/3 of those who survived were infected with HIV. Thousands of children were born as a result of these rapes and many of them are HIV-positive as well.

I am on my way to Rwanda at the invitation of the government to participate in the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide there.

In many ways this is personally important to me and also frightening... an almost déjà vu experience.

Sixteen months ago, I visited Babi Yar, a ravine outside of Kiev, where in late September 1941 the Nazis murdered five members of my family in the single worst massacre of WWII -- spanning less than two days. Almost 34,000 Jews -- men, women and children -- were marched into the ravine and machine gunned in an orgy of annihilation described by the poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko in his master poem "Gabi Yar":

I'm thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of "Kill the Jews..."

And yet, more than a half century later, here we were again, only this time in Rwanda with hundreds of thousands mercilessly slaughtered in the name of ethnicity to cheering crowds and a world wearing blinders as 8,000 to 10,000 a day were hacked to death.

And so, we will gather to "commemorate" this slaughter just as we gather to commemorate others in Europe, Uganda, Cambodia, etc.

While it appears that no amount of remembrance can possibly stop the next genocide from occurring, and there are those who say it is happening right now in places like Syria, we must keep trying and we must remain ever vigilant to the signs of impending action such as those that have scarred our past. It is true that ethnic hatred and mistrust have been around as long as people have walked upright, but when that hate and mistrust morphs into genocide, we cannot stand back and let it occur in today's global age, where everything is seen and felt instantly thanks to technology.

There are those who will argue that we cannot be the world's policeman and we cannot go to war every time one of these ugly hatreds reaches their ultimate climax, but as people of conscience we must be heard and we must stand up for the underprivileged.

If we do not, the next genocide will certainly take us and all those we love and cherish.

Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, after that titanic battle that claimed the lives of over 50,000 men in just three days said, "...the world will little note nor long remember what we say here but it can never forget what they did here..."

I hope and pray that this "commemoration" in Rwanda, unlike so many others, will cause us all to "never forget what they did here."


Visit worldofchildren.org/rwanda to learn more about the 20th anniversary commemoration event.