Sunday, May 20, 2007

Survivors tell horrors of genocide

May 18, 2007
Medill Reports Chicago
by Deanna Hartley

Cold-blooded murder, starvation and disease were part of their daily lives. They may be from different age groups, ethnicities and religions, but they will always be bound by their experiences.

They have survived the world’s greatest atrocities and are speaking out in the hope of preventing future genocides.

The most recent accounts of horrific acts of genocide are coming out of Darfur, a region of Sudan where militias and rebel groups are waging a war that began in 2003. But genocide has occurred in other places, also on a huge scale.

This week Northwestern University convened a panel on genocide throughout history including Armenia, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur.

The panel was titled "Silenced Voices"--the poignant accounts of those who suffered silently during the genocide but now are being heard. . Here are their stories:

Atrocities in Armenia

Greg Bedian told the panel his grandmother was 10 when she survived the Armenian genocide of 1915. Her family was forced to march from their hometown of Bursa across what is now Turkey, but her father didn’t want her pregnant mother to travel. She watched in horror as her father and pregnant mother were shot and killed.

During the march, she woke up to find her youngest sister dead from exposure, starvation and thirst, but she was forced to desert the corpse and continue the journey.

On a regular basis she witnessed as people were raped, looted and sold into slavery. She managed to run away and work as a servant for an Arab family. She worked hard and didn’t get paid, so she ran away again and was put in an orphanage.

After the genocide, she traveled to Constantinople and later to the United States. It was not uncommon to place advertisements in ethnic Armenian newspapers to search for missing relatives—that’s how she found her long-lost sister in France.

“We’ve lost so much of our Armenian culture,” Bedian said. “I still feel like I’m a victim of the genocide; they’re stealing my culture, my life.”

The Horrors of the Holocaust

Dave Gewirtzman was one of just 16 out of 8,000 Jews to survive the Holocaust from the Polish town of Losice. He was 14 when the town was bombed during World War II because it housed a renowned synagogue.

Gewirtzman recalled watching as the Nazis covered people’s heads with bags, hit them until they collapsed and tossed them out of windows.

Once, he narrowly escaped death at his school. An armed man stormed in and demanded to know if there were any Jewish children in the classroom. He almost beat and kicked the teacher to death because she remained silent. One frightened student pointed to Gewirtzman, who ran out the back door.

He then spent two years hidden under a pig sty on a Polish farm with his family.

“I saw some things that no human being should ever witness,” Gewirtzman said. “I would wake up some mornings, look around and see corpses sometimes covered with newspapers … some people went crazy and drank their own urine because there was no water.”

One morning, armed men informed Gewirtzman that he would be executed that evening, but two other youngsters who were mistaken for Gewirtzman and his friend were accidentally shot instead.

He later worked in a labor camp. After the Holocaust, he went to Italy and later to the United States. “We found freedom in this country and started a life with dignity,” he said.

Captivity in Cambodia

Leon Lim was a medical student in Phnom Penh at the time the genocide began. In early 1975, he was forced from his home and into a labor camp, where he stayed until 1979.

Lim said he was forced to work in a rice field from early morning to late night. On the brink of collapsing from starvation and exhaustion, he would only get a handful of rice to eat everyday. He often watched helplessly as people around him died.

“They killed people for complaining, working too slowly, often for no reason at all,” he said.

He watched as they hammered nails in the back of people’s heads, hung children upside down, smashed people’s heads against trees and used the sharp edges of palm trees to behead people. People would construct makeshift tombs for their loved ones in ditches and cover the corpses with leaves.

When the Khmer Rouge regime ended, Lim walked for six weeks to the border of Thailand where he spent three years in refugee camps working as a medic. He moved to the United States in 1981 and now teaches at Northside College Preparatory High School in Chicago and is co-founder of the Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago.

Riots in Rwanda

Jacqueline Murekatete was a 9-year-old carefree child when her parents and six siblings were killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994

Growing up, she said she was aware that Tutsis—her ethnic group—were discriminated against and sometimes persecuted, but she never imagined the massacre that would follow.

Even churches weren’t havens anymore as people were burned alive in them. “Who thought that they would kill people in a house of God?”

Murekatete was on vacation at her grandmother’s when the genocide began. Both escaped in an ambulance at night thanks to a Hutu man her uncle bribed. It was a risky move considering there were roadblocks guarded by armed men who would butcher Tutsis with machetes upon sight.

A Hutu family agreed to hide them temporarily, but one morning Murekatete woke up to screams of “I know there are cockroaches in there; let us exterminate them.”

“I thought it was the end,” Murekatete said. “Even though I wanted to scream, I couldn’t utter a single sound.”

Because of the imminent danger, Murekatete’s grandmother put her in an orphanage run by Italian priests—that was the last time she saw her grandmother.

“Despite hearing of people being killed around me, I always thought that my [family] was safe and that hope kept me going,” she said. Murekatete later found out that her Hutu neighbors—family friends who came over to her house for food—slaughtered her family and relatives with machetes.

“We were living a nightmare and our only crime was our ethnicity,” she said.

Slayings in Sudan

Abrahim Adam’s family was scattered by the militias backed by the Sudanese government and his 15 siblings were divided among six refugee camps.

“It’s too painful to talk about the genocide,” he told the panel. “The most painful thing is the rape of women.”

He said that young girls were raped in front of their families and killings were a common occurrence.

“Genocide is not only ethnic cleansing, it’s also destroying 800 years of our history and culture,” he said.

Adam wants to know why the international community isn’t rising up to stop the injustice. “Are the numbers [of those being killed] not big enough for them?”

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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