April 15, 1994, nine days after the start of the Rwanda Genocide, more than 7000 Hutu militia marched down a narrow lane toward the Nyarubuye convent and cathedral — a sacred place known to be a place of refuge for the vulnerable and those in need, which on this day was an estimated 35,000 Tutsi Rwandans.
The mayor, Sylvestre Gacumbitsi, commanded the police to shoot all Tutsi and quickly the local Hutu followed suit — hacking, slashing and bludgeoning their neighbors and long-time friends to death.
Students of Southern Methodist University’s Embrey Human Rights program visited the Nyarubuye Genocide Memorial to learn about the massacre and pay respects to the more than 58,524 victims buried in two mass mausoleums. Our guide, Kagabo Antoine, shared insights from that day that challenge one’s ability to comprehend the human capacity for cruelty.
The Hutu militia invaded the convent, murdering thousands of innocent people who were powerless to defend themselves. During the massacre, the militia drained the blood into beer and milk vats and forced the victims to consume the blood. After the murders, they cut their bodies into pieces, cooked them in the small oven the nuns used for preparing meals and proceeded to consume the cooked meat and flesh of the victims.
Many of the bodies were disposed of in deep caverns under the nun’s bathhouse. One woman, who lives in the community to this day, survived. After the militia left, she slowly began the process of crawling out of the cavern over the broken and slashed remains of her murdered neighbors.
Their stories — of their lives, their deaths and the horror inflicted upon them — become the responsibility of all those who hear them. We are their memory keepers.
Students of genocide rally around the cry: Never again. And yet, genocide does happen again … and again and again.
We cried “never again” when the Nazis committed genocide against Jewish Europeans. We cried “never again” after the 1975 genocide in Cambodia, and again after the 1992 genocide in Bosnia, and again after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and again when the Sudan government carried out genocide against the people of Darfur.
When will “never again” mean never again?
Genocide memory keepers hold the knowledge of the victims. They are keepers of their stories, and advocates of their dignity. But education is not inoculation. Action is. To prevent genocide, memory keepers must become peace keepers. And the action of peacekeeping begins with recognizing the signs of genocide long before the first act of genocide is perpetrated against the victim.
The Eight Stages of Genocide
1. CLASSIFICATION: Distinguishing people in “us versus them” categories by ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality. The preventive intervention at this stage is to develop universalistic institutions that transcend ethnic divisions by promoting acceptance and understanding. Finding common ground that transcends categorical and divisive language is critical to the prevention of genocide.
2. SYMBOLIZATION: This is the act of giving names or other symbols to the classifications — i.e., referring to people as “Muslims,” “Jews” or “gays” or distinguishing them by how they dress or talk and then applying the symbols to members of groups. Classification and symbolization are common to human behavior and are not indicators of genocide in a “stand alone” scenario, but symbolization becomes a genocide indicator when it leads to dehumanization.
3. DEHUMANIZATION: This is when one group of people denies the humanity of another group of people. Dehumanization typically takes shape by comparing people to animals, insects or diseases. At this stage, hate propaganda emerges online, in print and in political rhetoric and commentary. An important intervention is for local and international leaders — political, religions and thought leaders, to condemn the use of hate speech and make it culturally unacceptable. Leaders who incite genocide should be shunned by prohibiting international travel, and their foreign finances should be frozen. They must be forced into inaction by the international community. Hate propaganda and hate crimes should be prosecuted and punished severely enough to be effectively prohibitive.
4. ORGANIZATION: Genocide is always planned and organized. Special military units and militias are often funded, formed and trained with strategic plans for genocidal killings. The key intervention at this stage is to outlaw membership in these militias groups. Leaders must not be provided visas for foreign travel, and the U.N. should impose arms embargoes on governments and citizens of countries involved in genocidal massacres.
5. POLARIZATION: Extremists drive division among the groups via hate groups that broadcast polarizing propaganda; laws that forbid intermarriage or social interaction; laws that prohibit entry into or out of the country; building walls to confine certain populations or prevent access to entry or exist; etc. Extremists target moderates within the “in group” via intimidation and silencing the majority population. Moderates are the first to be silenced because they are the population of people who have the power to stop the genocide in its early stages. An important intervention at this stage is the protection of moderate leaders and assistance to human rights groups. The assets of extremists should be seized, and their visas for international travel denied.
6. PREPARATION: During this stage, victims are identified and separated due to their ethnic or religious identity. Death lists may be drafted. Members of victim groups are typically forced to wear symbols that identify their group membership. Their property is usually seized. They are forced into separate living arrangements and deported into concentration camps, or confined to a region that is void of resources and starved to death. The intervention at this stage is to declare a Genocide Emergency. Nations, allies and the U.N. Security Council must be mobilized and armed international intervention should be prepared.
7. EXTERMINATION: This is the mass killing legally referred to as“genocide,” and known by the perpetrators as “extermination.” The only intervention at this stage is armed forced. Safe areas and refugee escape corridors must be established with significant armed international protection.
8. DENIAL: This is the final stage of genocide and an indicator that future genocides are on the horizon if proper intervention and peace building efforts are not implemented successfully. Perpetrators often dig up the mass graves, rebury the bodies, burn the bodies, and ultimately, attempt to hide the evidence while intimidating the witnesses. The perpetrators deny that crimes were committed and often blame the victims for their own suffering. They block investigations of the crimes, and attempt to govern by force until driven from power at which point the masterminds typically flee to exile.
Genocide is not something that happens to “other people,” it is something happens to people — people everywhere. Examine the stages of genocide and then reflect on your own country. Where do you recognize vulnerabilities? Are there populations of people in stage one, two, three — perhaps even the fourth stages?
What will you do today to move beyond being a memory keeper to becoming a peace keeper?
An international speaker, peace-building trainer and mediator, Robyn works with individuals, corporations and nonprofit organizations in discovering the root causes of their conflicts, so they may transform their relationships and create new and productive paths forward individually and as teams. She also works with community leaders and political and governmental leaders to develop grassroots efforts for building sustainable peace in areas of historic conflict. In this capacity, she has been featured in news outlets internationally.