The Last Survivor: A Genocide Happened Here
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.
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.