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A young boy's bicycle; slats of stale light in a railway car; a flower growing through debris and ashes: These simple images take on a new life when refracted by murder. They are the recollections of three genocide survivors, and it is on these mental artifacts that memory hangs.
On April 7, survivors from Rwanda, Cambodia and the Holocaust came to McGill to explain what had happened to them at a forum called "Speaking the Unspeakable: A Conversation with Survivors of Three Genocides."
Hédi Fried was a young girl in Romania during the 1940s when Hungarians came to take her family to the cattle cars. She remembers the train going and stopping, going and stopping, with nothing but a thin shaft of light to tell her whether it was morning or evening. She remembers the smells in the heavy air, the door opening to reveal Auschwitz.
In the camp, her family was separated. She never saw her parents again. She was at Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen when British soldiers arrived. She finds it difficult to make sense of what happened to her.
"How to begin? What does it mean to lose your childhood? What does it mean to be in hell, day after day?"
Hédi Fried became a successful psychiatrist, through which she learned that speaking can be healing. Although she believes in the spirit behind the new International Criminal Court, she is unsure how much the Court and others like it will accomplish justice and prevent future atrocities. Nonetheless, "It shows that people try to do justice even if they don't succeed all the time."
There was silence when the Khmer Rouge arrived in Youk Chhang's village. At 14, he did not understand anything other the fact that it was time to go. It is hard for him to remember much of that time but he recalls that he brought his bicycle, a fairy tale book and a pair of jeans. On the long march towards the killing fields, he was preoccupied with a single, repeated question. Where is my mother? Where is my mother?
His mother reappeared months later, watched him being tortured, and did nothing. In a crazed regime where everything —even grass — belonged to the revolution, everyone betrayed everyone.
Chhang escaped Cambodia and began a new life as a scholar in Texas. Years after the horror, he finally returned to his village to look for the man who had killed his sister. He found him, but the encounter did not bring Chhang the sense of peace and justice he had been seeking.
"I went back to confront the man who had killed my sister but that man was now old and just as poor as he was during the revolution. I felt cheated. I wanted the man to be the same so that I could get revenge."
Today, he directs a genocide documentation centre at Yale University, helping Cambodians to compile evidence of human rights violations committed by Pol Pot's regime. But the members of the regime are now old or gone, and so Chhang is unsure whether international law can achieve any redress.
Esther Mujawayo lived through the Rwanda massacres of 1994, even though her parents and hundreds of her extended family were killed. Mujawayo escaped with her three children by using a small amount of money to bribe a soldier who brought her to a secure place.
Speaking in the McGill law faculty twelve years to the day after genocide began, Mujawayo says she still cannot sleep at night when she thinks of her beloved sister Stéphanie, macheteed to death then deposited with other bodies into a latrine. Mujawayo will never stop wanting to bury her, though she knows she can't. And what unfolded on the ground, she says, was so barbaric, "It was a privilege to be shot."
She knows the futility of rage but feels it anyways when she thinks of the 2500 U.N. soldiers who could have protected the Tutsis had they stayed. She is still angry at the hypocrisy of the United Nations. The reconciliation tribunals sting as well. Why do the murderers on trial receive HIV medication from international agencies when many of the women who they raped do not?
"Justice is a very, very difficult thing. Before forgive and forget, there must be justice. When I think of justice, I get very angry."
Mujawayo has replied to her own anger by writing a book for her sister called La Fleur de Stéphanie. The title describes a wild flower she saw amid the destruction of Stéphanie's house that continued to grow despite the fire and ruin and death. Like her sister, the flower was beautiful and "moqueuse" in its defiance of evil.
"Sometimes the beauty is stronger than the horror. Every survivor must find your beauty and your strength — to punish them. No punishment will do them justice … We're broken like a glass … To a survivor, justice means nothing."
"Speaking the Unspeakable: A Conservation with Survivors of Three Genocides" was organized by Payam Akhavan, professor of the Faculty of Law. The event received support from the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism and from Canada's Swedish embassy. The three survivors are promoting a book called Beyond the 'Never Agains', produced and distributed for free by the government of Sweden.