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Archive for April, 2009

The Last Survivor: What’s in a Name?

Undoubtedly, every time either of us presents the sneak preview of our film, The Last Survivor, we are asked about the title. “Who is the ‘Last Survivor’?” People often wonder. Sometimes the questioner has already narrowed down the options in his head, “Which one of those four is the ‘Last Survivor’?” It’d be a lie to say we are caught off guard by such questions – indeed, the film’s title has been a favorite point of inquisition since we began presenting the film in the idea form over two years ago. In fact, at one point we considered changing the title to allow audience members to focus on the stories being played out in front of them, instead of getting hung up on the name. In the end, however, cooler heads prevailed and we have chosen to stick with a title that, to us, has great meaning. The short answer to the question above is, of course, that we cannot name for you whom the ‘Last Survivor’ is. What can be extrapolated however, is the fact that when such a survivor can be named, it will be the culmination of generations of hope and hard work – a bloodline of activists that includes not only the survivors presented in our film, but those who came before them, those who perished at the hands of genocide, and those of us who have taken on this cause as a great struggle to preserve the rights of humanity.

We have already spoken about family trees and the particular fondness we have found for them among the Survivors we have known. For many of us, family trees are a means by which we can remember our roots – understand who came before us, what trials our family line has passed through, what history is written in the make up of our genes. However, when all of the branches from which one hangs have been systematically removed, the act of reviewing one’s roots – though important – can be quite painful. Perhaps it is for that reason, that we have noticed a trend in Survivors to take on a forward view in reviewing their family bloodlines – to view a family tree as an exercise in imagining what is to come. We are reminded again of the beautiful expression of comfort that Sasha Chanoff offered Justin Kimenyerwa as the sun set on a peaceful park in St. Louis, a city in the middle of a nation that Justin could only imagine months earlier. “You’ll have children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and they’ll all go on to do wonderful things. And you’re the start.”

There is an optimism provided by a family tree that is difficult to express in any other form: it is a visual expression of the act of continuation. And while many of us may take such a notion for granted, to Survivors it often represents their ultimate triumph in a world which sought to destroy them and those who would follow.

Hédi refers to such a revival of spirits as rebirth – the reawakening of life’s splendor in one who has passed through great horror. Tied up in such an awakening is more than the ability to attune oneself once again to life’s pleasures. It is the fulfillment of a deeper need to find meaning and purpose in one’s life. And while it may be difficult to see through the trauma that undoubtedly hinders one’s vision after such an atrocity, the branch upon which any survivor sits – a branch that serves as a lone connector between those of the past and those to be birthed in the future – is one of unparalleled meaning.

During the same scene referred to earlier, dusk in a park in St. Louis, Sasha told Justin of the pogroms that forced his own family to flee the Soviet Union over 100 years ago. This statement of history was followed by one of recognition – “I could be you very easily,” Sasha told Justin. This line has always stuck out to us as the most poignant we captured on film, for in it is the simple recognition that all of our family trees are connected by the sheer insistence with which they move forward.

Indeed, Sasha still recalls sitting with his Great Aunt as a child, hearing about when, as a child herself, she was hidden in a tree as hate-filled soldiers passed below, thundering through villages on horseback. Adam does not have a child with whom he can share such memories – memories that tell of his own flight from his village in Darfur as bombs fell from the sky and Janjaweed militias tore through the land on horseback. And if Justin and Hédi could sit together in the small park near Justin’s St. Louis home, they might speak of the common horror of being pulled from one’s parents, forced to etch an imprint of their faces into the permanence of memory in an instant. And if Jacqueline could join that conversation, she might speak of the utter silence she discovered to exist on the other side of the world, when she awoke from her nightmare. Indeed, each of the film’s subjects could speak to the feeling of loneliness that must come when it is realized that the world is deaf to your cries.

This ability to connect with an other – despite separations of generation, age, and oceans – is not specific to Survivors of terror. As each of us move through the branches of our family trees, not only do we tumble in the same direction, but if one were to remove the leaves, fruit and flowers blossoming from our trees – beautiful decorations of uniqueness that often cloud our vision – she might see that that which we believe to be a tree in itself is merely a large branch. The tree of which we are all apart is far more magnificent than those we dreamed of climbing in even the most ambitious of our childhood daydreams.

So, who is ‘The Last Survivor’?

Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that any of us will have the pleasure of meeting this elusive being in our lifetime. Even if we are to succeed in ending the genocide in Darfur – survivors are continually birthed in Congo, Burma, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and far too many other places in our world. A crime as old as genocide and fears as ancient as intolerance cannot be destroyed in a single generation. That is why we celebrate the continuation provided to each of us within our family trees – a forward movement that allows our work to be continued when we can no longer fight ourselves.

It is on this note of optimism that we wish to leave you as we move on from Genocide Prevention Month. There is much work still to be done. More work than can possibly be completed in a single lifetime. However, by recognizing that we are bound not by the time we are permitted in this world, but only by the legacies we can pass on to coming generations, we can be comforted by the fact that the work will one day be completed. And while it is not likely that any of us will be present when the notion of genocide is itself extinguished from this Earth, while we will not have the opportunity to meet the last to survive the horror of genocide, we can be certain that if we speak loud enough, our voices will be heard even then.

Visit righteouspictures.com to learn more about ‘The Last Survivor.’ Join our mailing list to stay up to date with news and updates about the film.


The Last Survivor: The Case for Prevention

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a multi-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

Lawrence Woocher speaking before the launch of Genocide Prevention Month at the 6th & I historic synagogue in Washington, D.C.

As we begin this final week of Genocide Prevention Month, we thought it was an important opportunity to pause and consider what it is we are advocating for – why we believe a policy of genocide prevention should be adapted both by our own national government as well as the international community at large.

Last week, our post began with a clip from Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, a leader of the Armenian community who has been a tremendous voice and advocate for the people of Darfur. Archbishop Aykazian referred to the 20th century as “the Century of Genocide.” It’s a troubling label to be sure, but one that is difficult to argue with. And now, with genocide raging through six of the first nine years of this new 21st century, we must wonder how much worse it needs to get before we consider a change in our reaction. It is time that we take a serious look at how we have responded to these atrocities in the past and why these responses have continuously failed.

In a word, our response to genocide throughout this unprecedented “Century of Genocide” has been reluctant. Among policy circles, debate tends to center less around what specific actions should be taken to end a genocide, focusing more on whether it is our role to be involved in the first place. The Genocide Convention, passed by the United Nations in 1948, not only outlawed genocide but declared that once recognized, the international community had an obligation to stop it. This seemingly straight-forward legislation has only upped the political ante involved in the word genocide itself – as leaders search lexicons of evil for less obligatory titles: “ethnic cleansing,” “civil war,” or “internal strife.” No matter what the chosen phrasing, the point is the same: despite the violence, as these crimes against humanity rarely pose direct threats to “American interests,” there is little reason to get involved.

Despite the current labeling of our international response policy to genocide as one of intervention, such intervention is rarely the end result. As we have seen all too clearly in the case of Darfur, intervention poses far too great of a political risk to our leaders. And as hundreds of thousands perish simply because of who they are, distant condemnation has proven a far safer reaction for international leaders weary of getting involved in a volatile conflict far from home.

Certainly, it is important to combat this familiar faltering on the part of American and international leaders, who offer great lip service to the need for intervention on the campaign trail, but find their agendas suddenly full once in office. Indeed, the lives of four million refugees in Darfur depend on our willingness to push our leaders to put actions behind their words. However, if we are serious about truly ending genocide in the 21st century, we must recognize that the reluctance associated with intervention in Darfur is nothing new – once a conflict reaches the level of genocide, the politics of the situation have proven far too complicated to render any sort of substantial reaction from the international community.

There is hope, however – hope born out of the fact that genocide is spawned out of years (if not centuries) of ethnic hatred and persecution, combined with political unrest. Genocidal killings are rarely the first action taken up by the groups in power, but are usually a “final solution” that comes at the end of a long path that systematically strips the oppressed party of their rights, liberties, and humanity. A policy of prevention would mean stepping in somewhere along this path of persecution, before the escalating conflict reached the level of genocide. It would mean an ability to take action, make demands, and negotiate with oppressive leaders on a political clock in which thousands were not yet being killed with every passing hour.

Jill Savitt, the director of the Genocide Prevention Project – the organization at the helm of Genocide Prevention Month – likes to draw comparisons between a preventative policy toward genocide and the preventative policy our doctors recommend we take toward our personal health. Fighting heart disease can be very difficult once it is fully manifested. In such cases, patients are faced with a number of non-ideal options for intervening with the disease’s course. These options are often risky and always expensive. But if one is conscious of the warning signs of such a disease – if one seeks to prevent such illness rather than intervene once it is fully spread – the options before him will be much more vast and amenable. Certainly, we’d all prefer to adjust our diets than undergo a risky heart bypass. The same holds true for genocide – when addressed early, the scales of political negotiation have not yet tipped in favor of the oppressor.

So what does that mean for those of us unlikely to be called upon by our President to begin steps toward the adoption of a national policy of prevention? As we move into the flowers of May, what is it that we should take with us as participants in the very first Genocide Prevention Month? Lawrence Woocher, who co-authored the Genocide Prevention Task Force Report alongside Madeleine Albright and William Cohen, points out that though our policies are often defined in their specifics by the leaders and policy makers at the top of the political totem pole, which policies these leaders will spend their time creating is determined by the voice of the people. Only when our leaders hear us call – loudly – for a policy of prevention in the face of genocide will they begin to take steps to create and adopt such a policy.

So as we move away from a month which has seen the implementation of six genocides over the past 100 years; as the situation in Darfur deteriorates; as Omar al-Bashir makes light of an international arrest warrant with little consequence from the international community, it is important that we do not lose hope. The lives of four million refugees in Darfur continue to depend on our ability to move forward – to push our leaders to finally intervene and stand up for those unable to stand for themselves. But when such intervention finally does occur, let us not forget how long and difficult the road toward action proved to be nor the over 400,000 lives we lost along that road. When the international community finally decides to intervene on behalf of the people of Darfur, let those of us who have come together to form this coalition of conscience set our sights on an even loftier goal: that this, the first genocide of the 21st century, also be the last. We do not believe that this is an unattainable goal – it simply requires a change in the way we view our response to genocidal conflict. A recognition that it is difficult to stop genocide from happening again when one waits for it to start before taking action.

You can learn more about Genocide Prevention by viewing the 20-minute version of our film, The Last Survivor and the panel discussion that followed its premiere in Washington, D.C. featuring Lawrence Woocher and other policy experts here. Please visit www.genocidepreventionmonth.org to learn how you can work to prevent genocide in the future.


The Last Survivor: Denial

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a multi-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

Archbishop Vicken Aykazian speaking at the “Honor the Past, Act Now for Darfur” commemoration event in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, April 19th. Despite, the world’s refusal to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the Armenian community acts as some of the strongest advocates for the Darfuri people.

In the 1980s, with her children grown, Hédi Fried, decided to dedicate her life to Stockholm’s community of Holocaust Survivors of which she is a part. Now, at 84 years old, she has dedicated her remaining years to ensuring that the stories of horror that she was made to witness and experience are passed on to future generations – allowing a new generation to take on the important responsibility of keeping and sharing such memories. In Hédi’s view, the degree to which we allow our memory to fade is tied to directly to the persistence with which the past will repeat itself. Voices such as Hédi’s are imperative at a time in which it has become all too common to deny that the Holocaust ever occurred.

“The first time I heard it, I laughed,” Hédi told us, speaking of her first encounter with such denial. “The second time I heard it, I realized that this was nothing to laugh at; and the third time, I realized I had to do something.”

Unfortunately, the trend of denial is not relegated to the Holocaust alone. While deniers in Iran hold conferences that seek to dispute the facts of the Holocaust, Hutus in Rwanda have insisted that tales of one million Tutsis slaughtered in 1994 are mere myths. In addition to the extreme pain such claims undoubtedly bring to Survivors like Jacqueline, who is reminded daily of the genocide’s reality by the extreme absence that remains in her life, denial has turned to acts of violence. In April, the day after a commemoration event in Kigali that honored the victims of the 1994 genocide, a grenade was thrown at the city’s genocide memorial – the same horrific incident occurred last year. And, even as genocide continues in Darfur, governments across Africa have already launched a widespread campaign of denial – insisting that claims of genocide are the stuff of Western propaganda.

Indeed, it is more important than ever that champions of truth speak up to ensure that our collective memory does not fade at the hands of those who seek to repeat the horrors of the past. However, in denouncing those who spread variations on history, deviations from the truth, and all out lies, we must remind ourselves that as a nation, we too are engaged in this evil movement of denial.

Tomorrow, Armenians around the world will commemorate the horrific genocide that was carried out against their people. On April 24, 1915, the Ottoman authorities arrested 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Istanbul. The execution and deportation of these Armenians launched a genocide that would claim nearly two million lives. 94 years later, the Armenian community still waits for the world to acknowledge this crime.

Nations around the world, including our own, continue to refuse this simple request.

In Darfur, four million refugees wait for the world to respond to their continued cries for help. In response, we tell them that there is little we can do – that it is far too complicated of a situation for us to get involved. Despite the indifference to evil that saturates such refusals of intervention, implicit within them is at least an acknowledgment of the suffering of the Darfuri people – an assertion that the horror they are experiencing is real and not a delusional figment of their nightmarish imaginations. While it is rightfully outweighed by the frustrations of our unwillingness to act, we must not forget that acknowledgement is indeed a powerful thing. For one will never seek to stop, what he does not believe to exist.

In Germany, the government is unable to take back their trespasses of the past. Such impossibilities are a fact of our limitations as mortals – the movement of history insists that we look forward. Understanding these restrictions all too well, the German people have done what they can to ensure that the horror that began in Germany in the 1930s, does not repeat itself there. They have adopted a firm policy of Holocaust education in their schools and a newly erected Holocaust Memorial in downtown Berlin serves as a daily reminder to the German people of both the atrocious actions undertaken by their nation and the inhumane silence with which they responded to such actions as citizens.

In comparison to the 11 million lives taken during the Holocaust, this may seem like a rather small step. Small as it may be, it is unlikely that the next genocide we witness as a people will be carried out in Germany.

In Turkey, these small, pertinent steps of acknowledgement are constantly refused. Such denial is not only a slap in the face of the Armenian community, it is an affront to all us – an attempt to rob us of the facts of our collective story of life; an insistent error in the history of our species; an attempt at tipping the balance of memory, compelling us to repeat the horrors of the past. As a nation that values freedom, peace, and truth, it is our responsibility to speak up to such atrocious lies.

Today, President Obama will speak at our National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Undoubtedly, just days following the annual commemoration of the Holocaust – Yom Hashoa – the President will honor the memory of those who perished during the Holocaust. What remains to be seen is whether, on the day preceding the 94th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, he will honor the two millions lives taken in 1915 with the simple action of acknowledgement.

In the aftermath of genocide those who survive are often left with very little. An indiscriminate killer, genocide claims mothers, fathers, children, siblings, teachers and friends as its victims. As it continues it kills a people’s history and traditions. What it cannot take is the memory of those who come out alive. It is us only us, the people of posterity, who can commit such an atrocious crime against those who have already lost so much.

Watch a 20-minute sneak preview our film now and commemorate the Armenian Genocide along with the five other genocides commemorated in April by participating in Genocide Prevention Month.


The Last Survivor: Tired Feet, Rested Souls

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a multi-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

Reverend Gloria White-Hammond speaks to the crowd at the Save Darfur Coalition’s ‘Honor the Past, Act NOW for Darfur’ Event.

Yesterday, hundreds gathered in front of the White House to ‘Honor the Past’ and to ‘Act NOW for Darfur.’ Survivors from past and current genocides and mass atrocities, including Darfur, South Sudan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, the Holocaust, and Armenia, joined together with faith leaders, leading anti-genocide advocates, and local activists; united. And as we stood there among those whose very lives speak to the world’s failure to uphold its sacred promise of never again, we couldn’t help but wonder how many more years we will have to gather to remind ourselves and others to ‘Act NOW for Darfur?’

A few months ago, we heard Ruth Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service, speak about the priorities of the anti-genocide movement in the year 2009. “What is our next cause to fight for in 2009?” she asked the audience rhetorically. “This year’s cause is Darfur” she exclaimed.

Yesterday as crowds emerged from buses onto the scene at Lafayette Park – conveniently situated across from the White House – young faces descended on the park armed with signs carrying the names of villages across Darfur that have been destroyed.

Dadinga. Tandosa B. Gorne. Dumi. Labandi. Margabaj. Burny Sakh. Anguri. Amar Gedit. People’s homes that now endure only in the memory of the survivors.

These are but a few of the names spread across the crowd. Side by side refugees from Darfur and inspired youth, banded together to declare that despite all that we’ve lost, there is still much which can still be saved – and indeed must be saved.

Among the many speakers was the Reverend Gloria White-Hammond. In a whisper, Reverend White-Hammond, offered a diagnosis of the movement’s morale, moving into the 7th year of the genocide: “Many of us, perhaps, are feeling tired,” she offered. “Genocides have come and genocides have gone. And you could perhaps be feeling discouraged,” she remarked.

As activists, it seems all too easy to fall victim to our own expectations – expectations to see tangible change, expectations to see an end to the Genocide in Darfur. It seems all too easy for fatigue to set in around us. As we enter into the seventh year of the Darfur conflict, how can one not be dispirited?

As the Reverend’s voice grew from a soft, gentle tone, she went on to declare that, “Even though we might feel tired, we cannot stop raising our voices. Now is not the time to get quiet!” And then went on to share a story that Martin Luther King Jr. once told when he felt people around him growing tired.

“Dr. King told the story of Mother Pollard. Mother Pollard was a 70 year-old woman who lived in Montgomery during the bus boycott. And like many of the older women, Mother Pollard was offered a ride but Mother Pollard refused to take a ride. And when Martin Luther King asked her why don’t you just get in the car so you can rest a little bit, she responded:

‘My feets are tired, but my soul is rested.’”

Indeed, now is not the time to be quiet.

The Reverend’s voice turned to one of fierce determination, “Today we’re here to say we’ve been on this road a little while and while our feets may be tired, our souls are rested.”

Although the conflict continues in Darfur, our work has made a difference. The activist movement has accomplished so much over the last several years, but as John Prendergast pointed out, “We have unfinished business.”

And so today, as we sit on the precipice between the 6th anniversary of the Genocide in Darfur and Yom Hashoa, let’s take time to celebrate the progress we have made in combating the horror that continues in Darfur. But in doing so, let’s never allow ourselves to forget that such horrors continue, that even as we sit and reflect, many die. Tomorrow, Yom Hashoa, will serve as a potent reminder of the atrocities that occur when the world turns a blind eye.

Observe Genocide Prevention Month and watch the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor NOW! Share with your friends and family, host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home, and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work to fight genocide. This is blog is part 12 of multi-part series. Cross-listed on change.org.


The Last Survivor: Rwanda 15 Years Later – A Survivor’s Reflections

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a multi-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

For the next several posts, we have asked the Survivors in our film to reflect on the month of April and the memories – both dark and hopeful – that they associate with it. Today’s post was written by Jacqueline Murekatete.

15 years ago, I was a young girl of nine living in Rwanda. I remember listening as a death sentence was pronounced on me, my family, many of our neighbors and our friends. The crime? Our ethnicity.

For approximately 100 days, I lived in state of extreme fear, never knowing whether I was going to live to see the next day. Every day I was exposed to horrors that no human being – especially a child of nine – should ever be exposed to. The things that I experienced between the months of April and June of 1994 are things that I will never forget.

How can I ever forget the day that I had to flee my home and everything I had ever known and loved if I had any chance of surviving? How can I ever forget my horror and lack of comprehension as I listened to a national radio station that encouraged my neighbors to pick up machetes and hunt my family and other Tutsis, calling us cockroaches that needed immediate extermination? How can I forget the days I spent watching men, women, and children being dragged to their death? How can I ever forget the nights I spent listening to the painful cries of children whose arms and legs had been chopped off – in most cases by those they had once called neighbors and friends?

And in the end, how can I ever forget that tragic day that I came to learn that while I was one of the few survivors of this Genocide, my entire immediate family and most of my extended family had been taken to a river and butchered as if they were animals. Their bodies were thrown into the passing water, never to be found, never to be buried in dignity and honor.

On Tuesday evening this week, at the Church Center for the United Nations, I joined a small of group of survivors and lit a candle for my parents, my six siblings, my uncles, aunts, cousins, teachers and friends, and the now estimated over one million innocent men, women, and children whose lives were tragically taken in Rwanda in 1994 .

Earlier that day, I was standing in front of an audience of more than 500 people, including the U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, where I had been invited to be the voice of survivors as the U.N marked the 15th Anniversary of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. In front of world diplomats, civil society leaders, and members of the Rwandan Diaspora, I asked myself what, if anything, the world had learned in the 15 years since the Rwandan tragedy. How close are we to fulfilling the vow of “Never Again” that was promised over 60 years ago?

On one hand, I am reminded of the many letters I have received over the past eight years since I began sharing my story with young people around the world. They are letters that express young people’s commitment to genocide prevention and tolerance – not only through words, but through actions. I think of the various STAND chapters that have created a haven in schools throughout this country, of the growing movement of young people calling for an immediate end to the current Genocide in Darfur, Sudan. In all of this I find hope.

But I am also reminded of the fact that the Genocide in Darfur continues. That while humanitarian aid may flow to Darfuri refugees, the killings and rapes continue. 15 years after the Genocide in my native country, I am reminded of the fact that the ideology of Genocide remains alive and well in Rwanda, expressing itself through the harassment and killing of survivors, in denial and attacks on Genocide memorials.

In the 21st century, hate, genocidal ideologies, and intolerance of all types remain realities we cannot afford to ignore.

This April, the world will commemorate the anniversaries of not only the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda but those of the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, and the Genocide presently wreaking havoc in Darfur. It is therefore appropriate that April has been deemed Genocide Prevention Month.

On Sunday, April 19th between the hours of 2 to 4pm at New York University, Miracle Corners of the World, a New York based nonprofit organization where I am currently a fellow and program director, will organize one of the many remembrance and educational programs occurring this month.

As I prepare for this commemoration, and as I honor the five other solemn anniversaries we recognize this month, I return to my original question: How close are we to fulfilling that vow of “Never Again”?

15 years after Rwanda, there is still a great deal that humanity needs to learn. More actions need to be taken if we are to make sure that future generations are spared the losses that I and many others experienced during those haunting 100 days of horror, desperation, and murder.

To learn more about Jacqueline Murekatete and her Genocide prevention efforts as well as well upcoming commemorative and educational programs, please visit www.miraclecorners.org.

You can also Jacqueline in the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor, available now. Share with your friends and family, host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home, and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work to fight genocide.


The Last Survivor: The Banyamulenge

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a multi-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

This post was written by Justin Semahoro Kimenyerwa – a Congolese refugee who was resettled to the United States in June.

I would like to tell you about my home and my people.

I was born in Minembwe in the Democratic Republic of Congo – over the mountains of the land, deep within the green fields of South Kivu. It is a land full of green vegetation, lush forests, and beautiful wildlife. Between the greenery, numerous rivers always flow among mountains and flat land. We have just two seasons – the rainy season and the sunny season – both marked by favorable temperatures. Throughout the year, a nice breeze offers comfort each morning. Within this peaceful land, there exists a community that struggles to survive. These are the members of the Banyamulenge tribe – they are my people.

The Banyamulenge have lived on the lands of South Kivu for five centuries. It is the home of our grandfathers, our ancestors – the only home we know, but one that is not acknowledged by our neighbors or our government. They believe we have no right to live in Congo, constantly insisting that we return to our “real” home far from the lands of South Kivu. This unprovoked hatred of the Banyamulenge people has been the cause of indescribable suffering and massive killings of my people.

In 1996 war began in Congo – a war which continues to this day and one in which a malicious group called the Mai Mai seeks to eliminate the entire Banyamulenge Tutsi tribe. The Mai Mai is a group of many tribes in the South Kivu region (Abafurero, Ababembe, Abanyintu, Abashi, Abarega) that joined together with Interahamwe (Hutu’s who fled from Rwanda after they carried out the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide in 1994). Together, they started attacking Banyamulenge villages – killing men, women, and children, taking our cattle and burning our homes. While they attacked our villages, those Banyamulenge who lived in other areas of Congo were captured, jailed, and in some cases, killed. My brother, Bizimana Mavugo, was one such Banyamulenge – he was arrested in the town of Kalemie and was killed by machete along with 81 others. They were buried together in a single grave.

In 1998, my own village was attacked. I remember the sound – shouts, the intensifying beating of drums, guns firing at those who tried to escape. Suddenly, the sound of my father’s voice: telling us to run, to each fend for our own life. There was no time to say goodbye.

I ran through the bullets, past the attackers who were shooting us, toward the forest we call Nyarubari. I thank God I was not shot. In the forest, I stood with my cousin, Bogabu, waiting in the darkness for the silence that would signal the end of the attack. I was content to wait there, alive. But Bogabu was less patient. After sitting in silence for several hours, he insisted on walking out to see if the attackers had left. I pleaded with him to stay put, but he was older and he insisted.

As soon as he emerged from the bush he was shot. He cried out for me, but I could not help him for fear of being killed myself.

After my cousin was killed, I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I remained in the bush alone, confused, waiting to be discovered and slaughtered like the others. But God protected me from the attackers and they did not come to the bush in which I hid – a bush that was surely shaking from the twitching of my nerves.

My life changed that night. It was the last time I saw my home in the green fields of South Kivu. I lost five of my best friends that night, friends with whom I did everything throughout my childhood. I loved them very much. It was also the last time that I saw my parents and my siblings – my father’s command to run the last I have heard of his voice.

There is no way that I can explain to you in words the troubles that I endured after that night. I have no words to tell you of the hunger I felt from having nothing to eat as I walked through the forest. I survived off the leaves and roots of trees. If I discovered a piece of fruit on the forest floor, it was indeed a good day. Nor can I explain to you the pain that I felt in my heart – the longing I felt for my family and my friends, the desire to return home.

Of course, I could not return home and so I moved through the forest – comforted by the protection of God’s great trees. I went to a town called Uvira. There were other Banyamulenge in Uvira and I thought I would be safe there. A group of children I encountered upon my arrival in the village, proved this thinking incorrect.

“What are you doing here?” They asked, already moving toward me with machetes. “Do you think this is your motherland?” Even young children are trained to hate the Banyamulenge.

I decided that it was better to be killed running than to stand still and wait for death. And so again, I ran. It was not until after I escaped that I realized I had been struck in the leg by a machete that had been thrown at me. I was lucky. Other Banymalunge who had approached Uvira, suffered a much worse fate – their bodies hacked apart while they were still alive or burned – simply because we are Banyamulenge and these others do not want us in their country.

From Uvira, I journeyed into Rwanda, which was not safe either. In Rwanda, I heard that there was a city in Kenya called Nairobi where I would be safe. I heard that Nairobi was a silent city – a place where I would not hear guns, where I would not hear the cry of women and children who screamed out as they were killed. I decided to go there.

I remained in Nairobi for five years. During that time I grew sick of my own struggle. I wished I had someone with whom I could share my days, but I was alone. I had a terrible infection in my sinus that kept me up at night. I missed my parents and my siblings. I missed my friends and our cattle back home. Each day I prayed to God, asking Him to bring me to a place where I could be in peace.

I thank the creator of Heavens and Earth who heard my prayer and sent his servant to come and save me.

Of course, I speak of Sasha Chanoff and the organization he founded, Mapendo International. Tirelessly, they worked beyond what was asked of them for me and my people. Mapendo found someone to pay for the operation I desperately needed on my sinus – allowing me to breath and sleep for the first time in five years. They helped me find shelter and helped me through the long and difficult resettlement process.

And so it is that suddenly, after ten longs years during which I traveled the forests of Africa, I find myself in St. Louis, Missouri. For the first time feeling safe. I still miss my home very much. I still miss my loved ones – my family who I have not seen in ten years. I thank God for I recently learned that one of my brothers and one my sisters are alive with their families. They now live in the silent city of Nairobi, hoping that one day God will find a way for them to join me here in St. Louis. So that we might live again as a family.

I thank God for keeping me alive and now, allowing my voice to be heard – allowing me to speak on behalf of my Banyamulenge people who have no one else to speak for them. We, Banyamulenge, do not have a place to call home. We are hated in our country, our people are displaced across neighboring countries and our attackers follow of us – killing us wherever we seek shelter. Many of you may have heard of the massacre of the Banyamulenge at the Gatumba Refugee Camp in Burundi in 2004 – a nightmare in which hundreds of men, women and children were slaughtered simply because of who they were. Banyamulenge.

As I said, my whole life changed that night in 1998 when the Mai Mai came to my village. Sometimes I wonder what it might have been to live in my home in peace – among family and friends, tending to our cattle and worshipping the Lord. Strangely, I find that the more I dream – the more I remember my old village – the more I believe. It remains a mystery to me how I survived the oppression and suffering I faced during the last twelve years of my life. But whether I understand it or not, I must accept both that I did survive and that there are others who continue to suffer as I once did.

To those out there who are struggling through a situation they feel unable to overcome, I encourage you to continue to move through your own forest – there is nothing in this life that is permanent. Your struggles too shall pass one day. And for those who have been fortunate enough not to suffer in this life, I ask you to consider my people and others that struggle around the world – think of them and consider how you might help.

My remaining wish – aside from that of one day being reunited with my family – is that no other child shall cross the difficult path that I passed through. I will dedicate my life to working toward that goal.

I must once again thank the good people at Mapendo International and my new brothers and sisters at the New City Fellowship in St. Louis – I thank them for welcoming me to their country and for caring for me as my family once did. Everywhere my voice is heard, I will thank God for keeping me alive, I will thank Mapendo, and I will thank the New City Fellowship.

You can learn more about Justin’s story in the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor. Share with your friends and family, host local screening at community centers, schools, universities, and your home and start a comversation in your community about how you can work to fight genocide. Visit www.genocidepreventionmonth.org for a list of 30 things you can do this April to work toward a more tolerant and peaceful future.


The Last Survivor: Survivor Networks

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a multi-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

At a recent screening of the 20-minute sneak preview of our film as part of Genocide Prevention Month, a rather telling question was asked. The audience was primarily, if not entirely Jewish, as the screening was held as part of a Passover Seder – a means of recognizing that the freedom from slavery and persecution that Jews celebrate during Passover very much continues for others around the world.

“Does the term ‘Genocide’ refer only to the Holocaust,” we were asked, “or is there another way the atrocities are distinguished?” It is an incredibly important question and one that should be answered with the delicate respect that comes with the understanding that just as we each mourn the loss of a family member in a manner that is deeply personal and in some ways isolated to the individual, so too each group mourns its own tragedy uniquely. Sympathy is an important human emotion, but it only goes so far; emotions of loss are much more pointed when they are born within our own soul.

The answer to the question is of course, “Yes – each is referred to as a genocide and, in terms of the lexicon of horror, there are no distinctions between the six genocides that are commemorated in April and the others that have pervaded human history.” That is the short answer. The long answer begins with the origin of the word ‘genocide’ itself.

As was mentioned in an earlier post, the term ‘genocide’ was coined in the 1940s by Raphael Lempkin, a Polish Jew whose studies of the Armenian Genocide had brought him from Poland to the United States before Hitler invaded his homeland. While Lempkin lived securely in the U.S., his family suffered the same, horrific fate of eleven million others. Despite Lempkin’s constant pleadings with his family to join him in the U.S., they were determined to remain in the land they called home until they were physically forced from it and taken to the gas chambers. Alive and lonely in the United States, Lempkin sought a word that might encompass the depths of his loss. After a long search, ‘genocide,’ the destruction of an entire group, was the word he settled on.

Most remarkably, in our eyes, Lempkin was able to separate himself from what was undoubtedly an overwhelming sense of personal loss, seeing the horror through the universal lens of history. In coming up with the term “genocide” and spending his life persuading the United Nations to adapt the Genocide Convention – an International law that would not only recognize genocide as a crime, but would require the International community to intervene once such a crime was acknowledged – Lempkin was well aware of the dangers of creating such a law in the aftermath of a crime as unfathomable in scale as the Holocaust. He understood that while the Holocaust was certainly an atrocious example of genocide, it need not be and must not be the rubric against which future crimes were measured.

It is true that the horrific death toll of 400,000 in Darfur pales in comparison to the 11 million lives lost under Hitler’s reign. Even five million lives taken in Congo does not halve that number. What is remarkable about Lempkin is that, under the incredible personal duress that must come with the loss of one’s entire family, he was able to see the dangers that lay in such comparisons. One cannot compare in the language of mathematics the value of human life nor the tragedy of its unnecessary loss.

However, in the same way that it is impossible to grasp all that is lost in a tragedy in a number, so too it is impossible for a single word to stand in for the suffering of all of those slaughtered at the hands of intolerance throughout history. We must therefore limit our expectations of the word “genocide” itself.

No word is precise enough to convey the depths of human suffering or human loss and because of this fact, mourning will always be a deeply personal and unique experience. Words do, however, offer incredible powers of unity. It is this unity that Lempkin sought in creating a name for the horror the world had witnessed – labeling the crime, he believed, was the first step toward defeating it.

The word “genocide” should never be used as a starting point for comparison; it is simply a common ground where we can meet. In April, six communities will commemorate the attempts at their destruction. Each will do so in a manner that acknowledges and mourns the uniqueness of the crimes perpetrated against them – distinctions in where and when they occurred, how they were brought about and, most importantly, distinctions in the names of those who were taken in the tragedies.

Afterwards, however, we must recognize that each crime was born out of the same evil ideology of intolerance and that such an ideology will only be defeated when its victims stand together – united in the commonalities they share as human beings.

In the panel discussion that followed the premiere of the sneak preview of our film in Washington, D.C., Jerry White the director of Survivor Corps – an organization dedicated to helping survivors of all tragedies, rebuild their lives in the face of trauma – made an important point about the need for Survivor networks. While he made the point in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner, the message of statement is quite clear:

Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, he reminded the audience. And along with them, Hitler targeted gays, disabled people, gypsies, Communists, anyone who did not fit into his singular notion of perfection. Around the world, Jews such as Lempkin spoke with outrage about the horrors being perpetrated against their people, while gays and gypsies each did the same. Imagine, Mr. White wondered, what would have happened if the many groups came together and spoke with one voice.

It is the search for this singular voice that marks the goal of this inaugural Genocide Prevention Month. Lead by a chorus of Survivors from each of the six genocides commemorated during the month, Genocide Prevention Month calls on all of us to come together to mourn the loss of human life and to recognize that while each tragedy is unique, they are all marked by the same perpetrating ideology of intolerance and share common warning signs that offer the International community hope for preventing such horrors in the future. To do so, however, we must celebrate the undeniable ties that bind each of us by standing firmly together.

You can watch Jerry White and the other speakers on this distinguished panel as well as the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor NOW! Share with your friends and family, host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home, and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work to fight genocide. This is blog is part 10 of multi-part series. Cross-listed on change.org.


The Last Survivor: A Genocide Happened Here

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a multi-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

Jill Savitt, executive director of the Genocide Prevention Project introduces Genocide Prevention Month at the national launch in Washington, D.C. Watch the film and subsequent panel discussion at www.righteouspictures.com/gpm.

It is officially Genocide Prevention Month – a month which is dedicated to honoring the memories of the six genocides that are commemorated throughout April by working to prevent future atrocities. In working on our film, The Last Survivor, over the course of the past two years, we have learned some incredible lessons. Lessons about hope, the power of human connection, and the void that is left in one’s heart when one is separated from his family, her people, and everything he holds dear.

We have also learned much about the power of democracy.

Indeed, as we enter Genocide Prevention Month, it has become our firm belief that the tools of democracy remain our best hope in combating genocide and mass atrocity crimes both as they currently exist in Darfur, Congo, and elsewhere in the world, as well as a way of preventing future horrors. With that in mind, we can enter April with a sense of optimism. Despite the slaughter in Darfur that rages into its seventh year and the violence in Congo that continues for over a decade, we have seen young people both here in the United States and abroad using the power of democracy to insist that their voices be heard.

In the United States, grassroots organizations have ensured that there is more awareness surrounding the issue of Darfur as it continues than there was around any previous genocide. The fact that it continues is not proof of failure, but simply a reminder that there is still much work to be done – more voices that need to be heard, more phone calls to make and letters to write to our representatives in government – but there is a sense of hope.

The story of Adam and his B’nai Darfur Community in Israel is yet another reason to hope. Adam and his people fled dictatorship in Sudan and persecution in Egypt and found democracy in Israel. There, they refused to be intimidated by their status as visitor, asylum seeker, refugee, or any other label that might be given to them. They see themselves only as participants in a democracy who share the responsibility to speak. Their ability to organize themselves, to hold rallies and protests in the front yards of government buildings is indeed proof that in a true democracy we each have a voice. We need only find the courage to use it.

But let us not grow complacent as keepers of the strongest democracy in the world. We must remember that with such status comes the responsibility to use that power to speak for those who do not enjoy the same powers of speech and action that are available to us here. And just as importantly, it is our responsibility to ensure that our democracy not only endures, but grows.

In discussing these blogs and democracy as it relates to combating genocide with a friend, we were struck by a telling comment he made. We were talking about the very ideas put forth above – that genocide can be combated by good people who use their rights and responsibilities as citizens in democracy to stand up to those who preach destruction. “Yes,” he said, “that’s why something like that could never happen in this country.”

Not only can genocide happen here, it has.

In her Pulitzer Prize winning book, “A Problem From Hell:” America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power considers the United States’ historically muted response to genocide. Perhaps, she puts forth, our failure to respond to genocide abroad relates directly to the fact that we are the only nation to successfully carry out a genocide.

Our nation, once home to a thriving population of Native Americans and their beautiful culture, is responsible for the slaughter of 19 million people between our arrival in this land and the mid-19th century. Not only were people killed, entire tribes were wiped out – removed forever from the forward movement of our collective human story. The riches and lessons of their magnificent history, culture, and values if not entirely erased, exist mostly between the borders of reservation land and the halls of museums.

Indeed there is great danger in the common notion that genocide is something that happens “over there.” Genocide has occurred on nearly every single continent on this Earth – from Africa to Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North America. It has affected Jews, Christians, Muslims, Native Americans – all of us.

Perhaps the most insightful comment we’ve heard about the Holocaust came from Hédi Fried during the magical day we spent with her at her country house. We sat with her in her pink bedroom looking out at her favorite tree and asked her what has become a staple question for us. Something we throw out to everyone we interview in hopes of gem like that which was given to us by Hédi.

“What message do you have for young people like ourselves? What can we take from your experiences?”

“Young people should try to understand what I went through,” Hédi told us, “because the Holocaust doesn’t mean only the death of so many people – this is important to remember, yes. But what’s also important to remember is how democracy dies if you don’t work for it.”

When good people stop living up to the responsibilities that come with the privileges of democracy, the silence is filled by voices of intolerance and hate. Such a failure of democracy has happened many times throughout our history in every corner of our planet.

Even here.

Watch the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor NOW! Share with your friends and family, host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home, and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work to fight genocide.


The Last Survivor: April 15th

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a multi-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

For the next several posts, we have asked the Survivors in our film to reflect on the month of April and the memories – both dark and hopeful – that they associate with it. Today’s post was written by Hédi Fried.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is

planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal: a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

As a child, April (Nissan according to the Jewish Calendar) has always been my favorite month. With spring on its way, Pesach, our Easter Holiday approaching, and the time to shed the heavy winter clothes, life seemed wonderful.

All of this changed in 1944, when April became a month of mourning. Life changed into a black hole, and nobody would believe that any light could ever break through.

And still, one year passed and in the morning of April 15, 1945 it all changed. With the British Army liberating Bergen-Belsen, a ray of sun penetrated our darkness.

It was a miracle.

Strangely enough, miracles happen. It was a miracle that once upon a time the Jews were taken out from the Egyptian slavery. It happened in Nissan – in April. And it was a miracle that we, the slaves of Hitler in Bergen-Belsen, were liberated in April.

And I will never be able to explain this other miracle that happened.

It all started New Years Eve 1945. The girls in the Labor Camp of Eidelstedt, tired after a long day of hard work, were sitting on their bunks, evoking old memories and talking about past happy days, gay celebrations, past New Years Eves, and the hard present.

“How will next New Years Eve be? Do you think we will be out of here?” one of us asked.

“We will never get out of here. Either we will be dead or back in Auschwitz” was the answer.

Suddenly I felt that I had to contradict them, their pessimism was disturbing:

“Don´t talk nonsense. Of course we´ll get out of here.” I said

“When?” my cousin asked.

Without a moment of thinking I burst out: “The 15th of April.”

The girls both doubted and wanted to believe, questions came thick and fast. “How do you know?” Are you sure?” “Will the war be over?”

“No, I said, but we will be free”.

Looking at me in doubt, though willing to believe, my cousin said:

“Let´s have a bet.”

So we did. I would give her my bread ration if I was wrong.

In the first weeks of April, in the Camp of Bergen-Belsen, there was hardly any food and scarcely any water. On the morning of April 15th, 1945, the famished, dried out girls were waiting for their death. My cousin noted that it was the 15th of April and I had lost the bet. I regretted not being able to pay her, “there will hardly be any bread today,” I said to her.

Time went by slowly, slowly, hour after hour, and the sun was already high up the sky, when suddenly the girl next to the window yelled out: “the British are here!”

Unbelieving, I also went to the window and looked.

And at that moment a tank with soldiers turned up in the yard, and I could see that they were not German soldiers.

We were free.

From

Hedi Fried:The Road to Auschwitz; Fragments of a Life

Nebraska University Press, 1996

Hedi Fried: Livet tillbaka

Natur & Kultur, Stockholm, 1995

Watch the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor NOW! Share with your friends and family, host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home, and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work to fight genocide.