I was walking, half way around the world, trying to make sense of the shrieking and suffering that surrounded me, when suddenly I was transported back to the United States to a more mundane task by the ring of a phone.
I was in the Rwandan capitol of Kigali for the 20th anniversary commemorations of the genocide, where President Paul Kagame had asked me to speak at Amahoro National Stadium before 20,000 Rwandans.
Guests who joined the commemorations included UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, most of Africa’s presidents, Tony Blair, and my friend, the American UN ambassador, Samantha Power.
A speaker rose and recounted gruesome episodes from the slaughter of the country’s Tutsis at the hands of the Hutus. His grim, even recitation was interrupted by scores of people wailing at the top of their lungs, shaking and yelling uncontrollably.
We foreigners watched, harrowed, as they were shepherded one by one by a practiced team of medics and grief counselors. The piercing noise, unforgettable in its lamentation, persisted during the ceremony, somehow serving to sanctify rather than disrupt the commemoration.
I was startled by such monumental public grief. It was 20 years since the machetes stopped, but the trauma had diminished not at all.
At the Agohozo Shalom Youth Village, built by the late Jewish philanthropist Anne Heyman, I sat with a group of 20-year-old orphans, all of whom had had both parents murdered just weeks after their birth. One girl was saved by her 8-year-old brother, who watched his parents hacked to death while hiding behind a bush. When the murderers had departed, he strapped his infant sister to his back and kept her alive.
Then the phone rang. It was a journalist from New York calling about our May 18th Champions of Jewish Values Gala Awards dinner. Is it true, he asked, that Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is now coming as one of the featured speakers, what do you think of his “occupied territories” comment, and will it come up at the dinner, since Sheldon Adelson is a co-host? I replied that I was in Rwanda, trying my best to offer comfort to the mourners. The dinner is apolitical, I continued, highlighting universal Jewish values, and the honorees are from across the political spectrum, from Sean Penn to Michael Steinhardt to Senator Cory Booker and Ambassador Ron Dermer, both of whom served as my student presidents at Oxford. Values transcend politics. This is an evening of unity.
The political fighting in America has made us petty and unable to address monumental challenges like genocide. Syrian children are gassed and America does not even seek an indictment against Assad for war crimes. America is embarrassing itself with incessant political infighting and mutual candidate abuse.
I loved running for office in 2012 because it connected me to people I might never have met. But my passion for politics since has diminished. Who wants to waste their life talking about the latest he-said-something-nasty-about-Republicans and she-said-Democrats-hate America nonsense? It’s ephemeral. It’s beneath us. And it’s stupid.
This was my third visit to Rwanda. Unlike Judaism, which demands that we bury every last piece of bone and ash left in the crematoria of Auschwitz, which gives the death camps a feeling of emptiness denuded of horror, Rwanda is radically different.
The mass slaughter of 10,000 people each day, 400 per hour, and 7 per minute, has been stunningly preserved. At Ntarama Church, 5,000 men, women, and children who sought refuge but were betrayed by their pastors were axed, macheted, and speared, to the last child. The church is filled with their skulls, bloodied clothing, and dried blood.
Much worse is Murambe, where French soldiers promised protection to 45,000 people but soon disappeared, only to be replaced by the Interahamwe Hutu militias. They engaged in an orgy of mass murder, dumping the bodies into mass graves, which, to prevent the spread of disease, were covered with lime. The bodies later were exhumed and put on display. Many are still in a crouching position, protecting themselves from the fatal machete blows. Even in death they know no rest. Even in repose they know no peace.
In both places I struggled to breathe. They were the most horrible things I had ever seen.
President Kagame was a tender 36 at the time and led the rebel army to conquer the country and put an end to the genocide. Abandoned by the world, Rwandans learned they could rely only on themselves – a lesson Kagame is not shy about repeating today, and which, I believe, is one of the reasons that he has identified so readily with Israel and the Jewish people.
That was my message when I rose to speak in front of the president and First Lady, in a speech that was aired live on national TV.
I had come to Rwanda primarily through a sense of shame at being part of a world that did not intervene – despite the lip service so often paid to “never again” after the Holocaust and the genocides of Armenia, Cambodia, and the former Yugoslavia.
The international community did nothing to stop the Rwanda genocide 20 years ago. Were it to happen today they probably still would do nothing – as the gassed children of Syria, the murdered of the Central African Republic, and the millions who starved to death in North Korea have discovered.
I was part of a world that, like Cain after he slew his brother Abel, tried to evade responsibility by asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?” One day such moral cowardice by hypocritical organizations like the UN will no longer be accepted.
Until then, though, Rwanda will be my guide, as Israel has long been, for how to emerge from the ultimate of horrors, suffered desperately alone: with one hand poised in self-defense and the other offering renewed friendship, ready to rebuild without awaiting the approval of others, never apologizing for the righteous toil of survival.