Writings on Genocide, Oppression and Hope

It’s unfortunate but instructive that the body of literature on genocide and oppression is growing. Writers from Afghanistan, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone and other places are finding their voices, and their writing is powerful. Each in their own way gives us insight into the cost that exploitation, war and poverty exacts on the human spirit, individually and collectively.

Their first person accounts cut through the political rhetoric that obfuscates and minimizes the personal trauma. The novels reveal truth. Policy debates in capital buildings near and far seem irrelevant if you’re forced out of your home with nothing but the few possessions you can carry, hiding in forests, drinking parasite-laden water, eating whatever foraged edible plants you can scavenge.

Hate speech disguised as political rhetoric (and sometimes not) isn’t mere entertainment, as it is often rationalized in the U.S. These writers show us it has direct consequences in the form of rape and murder among other indignities. From “cockroach” Tutsis in Rwanda or Burundi to economic refugees left to die in the Arizona desert, hateful characterizations of human beings open the door to unspeakable suffering.

Once, long ago, I actually thought the world could learn from these horrific experiences and prevent them. They are bred in economic inequity, racism, class exploitation and injustice; in fact, injustice is a word that merely adds redundancy to this list. I was overly optimistic. The world is better at cleaning up after the mess has erupted, blood has flowed and lives lost. And sometimes we’re not especially good at that.

This is the stuff about which religious faith could be an ethical guide, and to which it should be especially attentive and relevant. Some writers of the more recent popular literature on genocide and war have been moved to find religious meaning in their experiences, but not all. Religion is too often employed as if it blesses oppression, if not genocide. Some religious leaders see the connection, but not all. Religion is about our individual relationship to the Creator but it is also about our responsibility as global citizens and as people who seek to bring the Kingdom of God into perspective in practical, down-to-earth ways.

There is hope in this dismal reality. It’s the strength of the voices being published. Their outlooks, as varied as their experiences, reveal a common theme, triumph over forces that could have robbed them of their humanity. Too often we fall into cliches about the triumph of the human spirit and real victories become trivialized behind this facade. It’s true the human spirit does triumph, but the phrase is a vessel far too superficial to hold the depth of experience and meaning that individuals pass through in these depraved conditions.

What strikes me is a couple of traits. The first is the magnanimity of some survivors to forgive and attempt to move on. And if they can’t forgive, they adapt. They adapt to the reality of living with such terrible history, and in some instances, with neighbors who have participated in violence and death against them and their families. It’s an amazing ability.

Writers are telling this deeper story and it’s gripping, depressing, inspiring and hopeful in its breadth. Here’s an eclectic list of readings that lead me to this reflection. Not all are about genocide. Some are about political and economic oppression, the greed of elites, racism and tribalism, and a couple are about the dislocation of emigres in a new land.

Strength in What Remains , Tracey Kidder. The story of Deo Gracias, a third-year medical student in Burundi displaced by Hutu-Tutsi conflict that led to genocide in Burundi and Rwanda. Captures the cultural, internal and interpersonal conflicts that result from oppression. The Burundi genocide is not as widely known as Rwanda, but it was as deadly and socially destructive. Gracias has returned to run a hospital in his homeland. An inspiration.

The Kite Runner , Khalid Hosseini. The first novel of Hosseini that reads like biography.  The experience of an Afghan immigrant in the U.S. who returns to his homeland to attend to the son of his childhood friend and discovers much more about himself, his family and the political consequences of Taliban rule.

A Thousand Splendid Suns , Khalid Hosseini. Hosseini’s splendid narrative of generations of Afghan families through the resistance to Soviet occupation, the rise of the Taliban and the U.S. war. Reveals the cultural and economic practices that oppress women. Remarkably well written.

Children of the Revolution , Dinaw Mengestu. A novel about the experiences of an Ethiopian immigrant adapting to life in Washington, D.C. It reads like a first person account about cultural adaptation and its limits.

A Long Way Gone , Ishmael Beah. The horrifying story of a 12-year-old in Sierra Leone displaced from his family, recruited into the army and drug-induced soldiering, and eventually brought to a UNICEF facility for traumatized children. Beah is a young writer with unusual skill.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda , Peter Gourevitch. First person accounts of the genocide in Rwanda. These are deeply affecting stories. Among the many  important lessons to be learned from these stories is to not take hate radio lightly. Rwanda’s radio stations were tools for mobilizing mass killing.

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust , Immaculee Ilibagiza. Sometimes we find God in the places we’d least likely expect. Ilibagiza’s first person narrative is one of the most emotionally moving accounts of one person finding a deep connection to God, and forgiveness, after enduring loss that could otherwise rob her not only of her compassion, but her humanity.

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