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Lessons from Rwanda: Talking about genocide in church

From my time in Rwanda, I saw that people don't like to talk about the genocide in their recent past. Then I heard a church sermon there whose universal message of 'life after mass death' seemed perfectly fitted for a country full of one-time perpetrators and families of the murdered.

Christine Uwimana stands inside the home that she shares with her mother, Madamu Theresa (seated), in Kigali, Rwanda, March 21, 2009. Uwimana is a survivor of the 1994 genocide. Op-ed contributor William Collins Donahue worked at the Shoah Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the stories of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators. He asks: 'Why is no such project underway in Rwanda now, while the memory is still fresh?’

Mary Knox Merril/The Christian Science Monitor

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Officially, I’m here to study genocide memorials. Unofficially, I’m here to visit my wife, who is on a one-year assignment with a USAID-funded project run by the Rwandan Ministry of Health. She, along with dozens of other nurses, doctors, and health-care educators, is valiantly attempting to raise the level of health care in a country that largely lacks the infrastructure necessary to make good use of their high-level skills. But they all keep trying. Every day my wife makes her way to one of the many under-served hospitals in this beautiful “land of a thousand hills,” each with a murderous past.

I’ve spent a lot of my scholarly career examining how Germans have come to terms with the Holocaust. In “Germany Confronts the Holocaust,” a course I teach at Duke University, I always tell my students it is important to know what is to be commemorated before thinking about the how. Moving too quickly to aesthetic or ideological considerations of remembrance can distract from the underlying crime against humanity. So I always take them first to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. I want them to get the “what” straight first.


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