Tell people what happened here, teacher.

They lifted the fence and paused. It was hopeless. Nevertheless, driven to the brink and searching agonizingly for as much inner strength and courage as they could muster, the helpless and terrified refugees were evidently beyond hope. In their eyes the only solution being to run, and run fast. They made it about fifty metres before being cut down by the machete wielding mob of the Hutu Interahamwe.

It was at this moment around ten of my students bolted for the door. Their eyes had seen too much. As a mother huddled in the long grass clutching her days old baby, willing it to remain silent for just a few more seconds, the room was weighed down with a stillness, but almost overwhelming anxiety. The baby let out a wail. The scene that followed sent further students fleeing for the safety of the door.

At this point I wondered gravely if I’d pushed my students too far. In an attempt to educate them about the inhumanity of civilization and the devastating effects of ignorance, I was deeply concerned that maybe I’d forced them across a threshold that was beyond my right. Was it my place to expose them to these types of scenes and images?

The third and final term of the academic year has, in many ways, been the highlight of my teaching career thus far. Instructing a course entitled Interpreting Literatures, the core aim is to combine the study of various literary sources with the teaching of the key historical moments of the 20th century. It has proved to be heavy. Heavy in terms of the subject matter and the emotional challenges presented by the content.

Week one began with WWII and particular emphasis placed upon the Holocaust. Having provided the basics, I decided to enhance the shocking statistics with visual evidence. This began with photos, and I chose a striking scene from the WWII adaption Band of Brothers to further demonstrate the madness that engulfed Europe during that period.

The following week was spent learning about how from the Holocaust came the term ‘genocide,’ and more importantly how upon discovering exactly what the Nazis had managed to accomplish right under the noses of the world, the words ‘Never Again’ would somehow safeguard us all from a repeat performance. The UN even passed a resolution in 1948 promising to intervene if it ever did.

This turned out of course to be an empty promise as the students researched Cambodia, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sudan. All nations abandoned by the rest of the world as they faced their darkest hours and genocide reared its ugly head once again.

It turns out the powers that be at UN HQ had forgotten the two very simple words that could’ve prevented the needless slaughter of millions. Or they were cunningly aware that if they simply avoided using the term genocide they’d have no obligation to honor their earlier promise.

I was able to pass on my knowledge of events in Rwanda to my students at AUW, and it was for this reason the week culminated with a screening of Shooting Dogs, a film adaption based on true events. It tells the story of a school in Kigali that became a UN base during the genocide and hence a magnet for terrified Tutsis who turned up at the school in great numbers hoping the UN protected fence would save their lives. It didn’t. 2,500 people were killed at the site.

It was during the screening that a number of my students felt they’d seen enough and rushed for the door unable to cope (understandably) with the horror of what was before their eyes. As I thought about it though later that evening, whilst considering if I had made an error of judgement in showing the film, the words of my former students in Rwanda went round and round in my head. “Tell people what happened here teacher.” “When you go back to England tell people what you saw at the memorial sites. Tell them that you saw skulls and huge burial sites. You must tell them what happened here in Rwanda”.

I remember the evening I was invited into the home of one of my students. His mother welcomed me with such warmth and affection. She lost her husband, three sons and two daughters during the genocide in 1994. However, blessed with one remaining son (my student) she formed a support group for other widows and bereaved families in the community and eighteen years on this group still serves a pivotal role.

As I thought about this incredible woman and the pleas of my Rwandan students, my decision to show the film to my AUW students rested a little easier in my mind. I think it had a profound effect on many of them, and as they wrote blog posts in response to the events raised in class, I was impressed to learn that many of them had really taken on board many of the issues that had arisen during that week.

“For us, genocide was the gas chamber – what happened in Germany. We were not able to realize that with the machete you can create a genocide.” 

Boutros Boutos-Ghali – Secretary General of the UN (1992-1996)

3 thoughts on “Tell people what happened here, teacher.

  1. You did what you were asked to do by those people in Rwanda, which was ‘tell the world’. Good writing as always John.

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