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Speaker gives presentation on Rwandan genocide

By Sara Van Cleve
On April 16, 2012

  • Speaker talks genocide. Melanie Vasquez


When many Americans think of the popular headlines in 1994, they probably think of O.J. Simpson sending police on a chase down a Los Angeles freeway, or figure skater Tonya Harding hiring a hit man to break Nancy Kerrigan's legs.
Few Americans probably think of the 800,000 Rwandans killed in genocide between April and June 1994. The country was focused on what could be called trivial news as Tutsis half a world away were being killed by their Hutu neighbors.
During his presentation "When Never Again Becomes Ever Again: Breaking the Pattern of Genocide" Thursday in the University Center at UNC, Peter Fredlake, the director of national outreach for teacher initiatives for the National Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., told the story of Rwandan genocide and how both it and the Holocaust can help people prevent anything like it from happening in the future.
In April 1994, the Rwandan president's plane was shot down shortly after takeoff, and the Tutsi, one of the two major racial groups in the country, were blamed and every Tutsi suddenly became a victim, Fredlake said.
Once the killings began, Americans were told to leave the country and the international community turned its back on the nation and the Tutsi people, he said.
The shooting plane was a catalyst for genocide, but it was not the cause. Fredlake said conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis began at the end of the 19th century.
"Genocide isn't a thing that just happens," Fredlake said. "It takes place in a historical context and decisions have consequences."
Fredlake discussed how the warning signs and patterns of genocide, how others respond and survivors' legacies, can stop future atrocities.
Several signs have become patterns of genocide, Fredlake said, including an entrenched ruling elite with genocidal ideology, scapegoating and preparations.
Just as Jews were required to wear a yellow Star of David during Adolf Hitler's reign in the 1930s and '40s, the Tutsi were required to carry around an identification card that stated their ethnicity. If they found themselves stopped at one of the many roadblocks set up by Hutus, they were often killed on the spot.
Fredlake said the Rwandan government greatly admired Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda under Hitler, and used the propaganda machine to rewrite their history and promoted the idea of keeping the race pure.
Although atrocities were performed, the reactions of the people at that time and now are important in recovering and preventing any future violence.
Fredlake told the story of Carl Wilkens, his personal friend and a missionary who was in Rwanda with his wife and three kids, and Damas Gasimba, the second-generation owner of an orphanage with more than 300 children.
Wilkens, the only American to stay in the country, sent his family to Tanzania and helped Gasimba defend the orphanage when Hutu soldiers came looking for Tutsi children and workers.
The orphanage is still around today, and one of the young men who lived there as a child during the genocide is now studying to become a lawyer.
Fredlake said the young man knows he could become extremely wealthy through being a general lawyer, but instead of pursuing a degree for the money, he opted to use his degree to help women and children and work to prevent the things he saw from ever happening again.
This young man's decision to protect others after the atrocities he saw is just one of the many legacies left behind after the genocide.
"Two men made a series of decisions and created a legacy," Fredlake said.
After the genocide, the Hutu and Tutsi went back to living side by side, and the trials for the Hutu men who served as killers will end this year.
"The day the genocide ends, it's not over," Fredlake said. "Ripples go on for many, many years."
Fredlake said President Barack Obama has created a task force to monitor situations in various countries that could progress into genocides. Fredlake said most people say they think if genocide were to occur, it would be in Rwanda again, but the international community is watching for warning signs now.
Elena Townsend, a senior English major, came to the presentation for her husband, who is doing his own research on the Holocaust and what causes people to start a genocide, but she left the presentation affected in her own way.
"I feel like I can do something," Townsend said. "Instead of standing on the sidelines, I can get involved in this. I'm also sad. It was a lot of information that was really sad; I thought I was going to cry a couple times. But was great information. It was nothing like I expected it."
Jackie Moody, an English and German major, said Fredlake helped her make connections she never realized before.
"I thought it was a really good eye-opening experience," Moody said. "There were a lot of things about the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust that I didn't really put together, like the warning signs he was talking about. I think just for basic overview for students and stuff, it was a real eye-opening experience."
Fredlake's presentation was the first in a week-long series of events remembering the Holocaust.
For a complete list of events, visit
Greeley and the University of Northern Colorado's Holocaust remembrance events are sponsored by the United States Holocaust Museum, the University of Northern Colorado English Language and Literature Department, the Neal Cross Fund, the International Film Series and Michener Library.

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