Tufts Against Genocide and the Cummings/Hillel Program for Holocaust and Genocide Education hosted their annual Survivors Speak panel last night, in which genocide survivors shared their stories with members of the Tufts community.
The panel was moderated by University Chaplain Reverend Gregory McGonigle, who thanked the five panelists for their courage.
“I think we can all agree that genocide is one of the most difficult issues for us to talk about, which also makes it one of the most important,” McGonigle said.
Isaac Jack Trompetter spoke first, describing his family’s history with the Holocaust. Following the German invasion, his parents, a Jewish couple living in the Netherlands, sensed that the situation in their country was growing dire. In 1942, his parents decided to send their three-month-old son to live on a farm with a Protestant family, while they went into hiding in southern Holland. The family was not reunited until the country was liberated at the war’s end.
“At the end of the war, when [my father] found me, I looked like a poster boy for starvation,” Trompetter said. “I had lived in hiding for three years.”
Trompetter said that it was important for today’s generation to hear from survivors of the Holocaust, a dwindling community of which he is one of the youngest members. He expressed hope that their stories will continue to be passed along in the years to come.
“For people like myself, it’s important to tell the story in all its fullness,” Trompetter said. “Good people perished, bad people perished. Good people survived, bad people survived. It was such a strange, existential experience.”
Seng Ty followed, recounting his experiences as a child in rural Cambodia as the Communist regime in power, best known as the Khmer Rouge, carried out a socialist agrarian reform program that resulted in forced relocation and labor, mass executions and over two million civilian deaths.
Ty announced that he recently completed a memoir entitled “The Years of Zero,” after a 20-year writing process. He said he hoped that this memoir would help his stories reach a large audience.
Jasmina Cesic of Bosnia described her upbringing in the Yugoslavian town of Visegrad as relatively peaceful, until a three-sided civil war broke out in the early 1990s. Afterward, her town became a scene of civilian massacre and ethnic cleansing carried out by Bosnian Serb forces against Bosniak civilians.
“We really had a happy life,” she said. “But when I graduated high school in 1991, the war had already begun in Serbia, and it soon spilled over into Bosnia.”
Cesic lost several family members, as well as her first husband, during this series of atrocities. She escaped across several European countries and finally arrived in Boston, where she has since remarried and started a new family and career.
El-Fadel Arbab, a Sudanese man from Darfur, described how he was only 12 years old when his village was hit with a wave of violent attacks orchestrated by Omar al-Bashir’s government and the Janjaweed militia. Thankfully, Arbab was able to escape and rejoin his brothers in Portland, Maine; however, he still feels a strong obligation to raise awareness and encourage counteraction against the ongoing genocide in Darfur.
“Our leaders may feel like it’s far away and that there’s nothing we can do about it, but we are citizens of the world,” he said. “We have to stand up to end this genocide.”
The final speaker of the evening was Chantal Kayitesi, a Rwandan Tutsi, most of whose family was killed when the Hutu extremist government ordered the nationwide extermination of the other dominant ethnic group in 1994.
“It was the most brutal, fastest genocide in history,” she said. “It wasn’t spontaneous – a genocide doesn’t just happen like that. It was a carefully planned genocide, orchestrated by the Hutu government. When [Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana’s] plane was shot down in 1994, it was the perfect moment to implement a genocide that had been planned for probably three years.”
Kayitesi said that rather than resort to further violence, Rwanda has since rebounded from the tragedy and become one of Africa’s most promising developing nations.
“As the 20th anniversary of the genocide approaches, we’re going to talk about our losses, but also about what we’ve accomplished since then,” she said. “We didn’t become monsters – we created organizations to help one another and to listen to our stories. Hopefully, we will be able to raise our children to become better people.”
Following the event, senior Liat Litwin, a co-chair of Tufts Against Genocide, said the event will hopefully help future action.
“I think the event went really well,” Litwin said. “Hearing these stories is important [for learning] about the connections across multiple genocides … so we can consider how to prevent genocide from recurring.”