How Could this Happen, Again?

Jane Goodall invited me as her guest at the United Nations on International Peace Day. She had been named a U.N. Messenger of Peace, along with Muhammad Ali, Michael Douglas, and Elie Wiesel. “Let’s see if you can meet Kofi,” referring to Kofi Annan, the Secretary General.

I got my chance to meet Mr. Annan, but the power of that day did not lay in quick encounters with global luminaries. That moment came during the question and answer period for the notables on the panel.

At one point, Jacqueline Murekatete raised her hand. She looked directly at Elie Wiesel and said that, in 1994, she was 9 years old and living in an orphanage in Rwanda. Her family had been killed. She told the Nobel Peace Prize winner that she had read his books, especially “Night,” several times.

And she asked: “How could this happen? Why did this happen?”

Hundreds of us held our breath. For some reason, even the crush photographers ceased jostling for position. It was impossible to capture this moment.

Mr. Wiesel sat up in his seat and shielded his eyes in order to scan the audience for the source of the voice. He sat down again and the silence continued. Never once looking away from her, he talked about how many world leaders thought such unmitigated fury was inconceivable, a thing of the past. Their collective sin of omission once it began, he said, was unforgivable. He said he warned every world leader he could to act, but the genocide continued.

He talked about his several trips to Rwanda since the massacres, his belief that global leadership had betrayed the notion of “never again.” About how even he, six years after the Rwandan genocide, was caught up in the hope of a new millennium. “Fireworks and speeches about world peace.” He talked about the prospect of finally closing the chapter on the bloodshed characterizing the 20th century. But alas, he said, his hope was short- lived.

“And it continues today in Darfur,” a chapter in a history book in which we tear the pages out one by one, until we have nothing left.

He stopped. “That’s one answer to your question,” he said. “There is another answer, too: In the end, I don’t know. I don’t know, really, why or how it happened. But I have dedicated my life to preventing it from happening again.”

“I know this, though: we cannot hate in return. There’s even something worse, he said, than hate. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

And there we were – an entire audience in a tiered conference hall at the United Nations now in tears. Elie Wiesel then told her that he wished he could reach across generations, across time, across race, across religion, just to hold her.

There was no more to be said. The meeting was brought to a halt. Elie Wiesel was the first to rise, crossing the stage, walking down the stairs directly toward Jacqueline. He placed his arm on her back as they walked by me. I managed to snap this picture:

I knew right then that I had to connect teachers from regions in conflict. Over a year later, I landed at the Bujumbura, Burundi airport ready to meet with Burundian and Rwandan teachers.

Jacqueline went on to work with Miracle Corners of the World, a non-profit devoted to empowering “youth to become positive agents of change in their communities.”

Elie Wiesel has continued his campaign to fight against indifference. In a 2011 commencement speech at Washington University in St. Louis, he peered out at the crowd and talked about his visits to Bosnia, sent by President Clinton as a Presidential Envoy:

And I would go there, really, to those places in Bosnia, to speak with the victims. My interest is in the victims. And I would go literally from person to person, from family to family, from barrack to barrack, from tent to tent, asking them to tell me their stories. And they always began, but they stopped in the middle. Not one of the people I interviewed or interrogated ended the story. The story was usually about rape in the family, and murder, they were tortured, there was humiliation — no one finished the story! Because they all burst into tears.

And then I realized. Maybe that is my mission, as a teacher, as a witness: to finish the story for them.”

At last, affirmation of what I had known all along: stories are the glue that bind us, restore our purpose, and make us human.

 

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