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Trying to understand genocide

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  • Trying to understand genocide

    The Toronto Star
    Aug. 12, 2005. 01:00 AM

    Trying to understand genocide


    There could scarcely be a grimmer way to spend a summer vacation than to
    study the worst atrocities of which humanity is capable.

    Yet every August, top students from around the world come to the University
    of Toronto for a two-week course called Genocide and Human Rights. Its aim
    is to equip young scholars to do what no generation has yet achieved: turn
    the words "Never Again" into a reality.

    Since the world made that solemn vow in 1948, it has failed to prevent
    ethnically motivated slaughters in Cambodia, Burundi, Bosnia, Iraq and
    Rwanda. It is now watching impotently as thousands of Darfuris are murdered
    in western Sudan.

    This year's class, which holds its final session today, is a fascinating
    group. There are three Rwandans, two of whom lost parents in the genocide of
    1994. There is a Tanzanian lawyer who has set up a voluntary organization to
    train human rights monitors. There is an Iranian expatriate, struggling to
    understand how people can turn on their neighbours. There are grandchildren
    of Holocaust survivors and great-grandchildren of Armenians whose families
    were almost wiped out in the massacre of 1915. And there are Canadian and
    American students, searching for a way to reconcile what they've learned
    with the butchery they see in the world.

    What they share is a willingness to look squarely into the face of evil and
    an impatience with stock answers.

    Let me take you into their classroom earlier this week.

    Maj. Brent Beardsley, who served as personal staff officer to Maj.-Gen.
    Roméo Dallaire in Rwanda, has just delivered a harrowing account of the
    near-extermination of the nation's Tutsi minority. Eric Markusen, an
    American sociologist who served on a human rights panel interviewing Darfuri
    refugees, is comparing the two African tragedies.

    But the students are restless, troubled, tired of listening.

    Markusen points out that the West has paid more attention, devoted more
    resources and learned more about the atrocities occurring in Darfur than in
    any previous genocide. "The U.S. and U.N. have gone in and done
    investigations during the time of killing," he says.

    A hand shoots up. "What good is an investigation if there's no action?" asks
    Simon Maghakyan of Colorado.

    Markusen politely acknowledges the importance of the query and presses on,
    talking about the role Rwanda played in alerting the world to the crisis now
    unfolding in Sudan.

    But he is interrupted again. Lisa Ndejura, a Montrealer born in Rwanda,
    wants practical guidance. "When we talk among the youth, we feel terrible
    that we're not doing more," she said. "I want to know how we can do things
    at the community level."

    Markusen's presentation soon turns into a free-for-all, with students asking
    tough, unanswerable questions: Is a black life worth less than a white life
    in the eyes of the international community? Is it worse to ignore a genocide
    or to study it and not stop it? Is the use of deadly force justified in
    protecting innocent people?

    No one minces words. The debate is stimulating, unflinching and ultimately
    The lack of tidy solutions does not bother Greg Sarkissian, president of the
    International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, which
    launched the program in 2002.

    "It is designed primarily to raise awareness of the most gross violations of
    human rights," he says. "People thought there would never be another
    Holocaust, but the same thing keeps happening and the world is barely aware
    of it. More than 69 million people have been killed in various genocides.

    "It shouldn't just be the responsibility of the victims and their
    descendants to stop these heinous crimes," says Sarkissian, who lost many
    relatives in the Armenian genocide. "We want to produce a generation of
    scholars that will understand the warning signals of genocide, talk about
    the issue and convince governments that it is in our national interest to
    intervene before genocides take place."
    The students live together in a U of T dormitory. They form friendships
    across racial and geopolitical lines, talk about traumas most outsiders
    could barely imagine. "One of our goals is to turn that emotional energy
    into an intellectual force," Sarkissian says.

    Although Ndejura finds it draining to talk about death from 9 a.m. to 5
    p.m., she is glad she came. "These are questions that have haunted me for a
    long time," the Rwandan immigrant says. "It's a relief to talk about them."

    As the segment on Rwanda and Darfur ends, Roger Smith, director of the
    program, leaves the students with one last thought: "A genocide is not an
    accident. It is a choice. It occurs because human beings make it happen and
    let it happen."

    (Further information is available at

    Carol Goar's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. - 0599109774&col=Columnist969907622164&DPL=IvsNDS%2f 7ChAX&tacodalogin=yes
    [url][/url] - [COLOR="Red"]Armenian[/COLOR] [COLOR="Blue"]Genealogy[/COLOR] [COLOR="Orange"]Forum[/COLOR]