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Krakow, Poland is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. Today steph and I will take a walk through the many parts of the city eating kilebasa, smoked cheese and stuffed cabbage in the old Jewish section of Kazimierz, but yesterday….

we spent the day in silence as we toured the site of one of humanity’s most unspeakably horrifying tragedies a hour and a half away; The site where the Nazi’s murdered 1,100,000 people; Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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It is a person’s duty after visiting this site to tell the world what happened here. So for readers that have not made this visit, I know this may not be easy  but I ask you, in honor of the victims and genocide awareness month, to read on or look up your own information on this and other Nazi extermination camps.

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Jews were not the only victims of the Nazi’s plan to rid the world of “undesirables”, homosexuals, disabled, gypsies and resistors to the regime were among the victims of their extermination plan.

Auschwitz is broken into three camp areas. We first visited Auschwitz I.

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To enter you must walk under the iron sign bearing the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei”, “work sets you free”. An ironic message as the only way to gain freedom in the camps was through the chimneys of the crematoriums. Prisoners selected to weld the sign, in a small act of defiance, placed the ‘B” upside-down.

There was nothing more surreal than standing on the dirt path next to the train tracks that were the arrival site of Jews at their final destination at Birkenau. I had seen the picture of the guard tower dozens of times and learned about it my entire life but to be there hit me deep in my soul.

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I felt the fingertips of my daughter reach out and grab for mine. I felt her compassionate hand throughout the rest of the tour on my back. At Auschwitz II, prisoners were separated upon arrival, mothers from their children, husbands from wives. The strong would go to Auschwitz I and live for approximately 2 months until the work, torture or starvation killed them. The others, less strong children, women, disabled would go directly to the gas chambers. To avoid panic, the Nazi’s told their victims to remember where they had hung their clothes so they could retrieve them afterwards.

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Shoes left behind by victims who entered gas chambers

At Auschwitz I camp we toured the barracks where prisoners were crammed in groups to sleep on wooden slats, the execution wall where those who committed crimes such as stealing some bread were shot and starvation cells for prisoners and those who tried to escape.  We learned about everyday life; 12 hours of severe work conditions with a dish of liquid food and without proper clothes.  twenty percent 20% of the victims in the prison were children. We saw how the people went from deported to dehumanized, each step of the way reducing them from a person to an object with a number  thus making it possible for SS soldiers to carry out their “final Solution”.   Prisoners also carried out acts such as removing teeth and hair from bodies after the gassing and shoveling excrement. In fact, taking one of these jobs was possibly the only way to survive in the camps.

After the Nazis realized that Auschwitz I was not big enough to handle the amount of prisoners or the amount of killings they needed to achieve in an hour (4,500 deaths in 3 hours was not sufficient speed), they built Auschwitz II,  a more efficient death camp.

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Entrance to gas chamber at Auschwitz II

Birkenau made Auschwitz I look like a 3 star hotel. The Nazi’s plan was to grow Birkenua to an even larger capacity as it ws still under construction and expansion in 1945 during the liberation of the camp.

Steph and I returned to Krakow in silence. As we started to speak about what we experienced and how we felt, We asked each other so many unanswerable questions. What brings a human being to follow such commands and act so monstrously? How is it possible to survive the conditions we witnessed even for a short time? We both agreed we could not have been strong enough. What does it mean to say “never again’?  Isn’t it the responsibility of nations to protect civilians from human rights abuses?  Isn’t that what the world was supposed to have learned?  Isn’t that the purpose of the memorials we see, the films we watch, the books we read? Does “never again”  only have meaning for a white person, a European, a Jew? Why do we know that monsters who kill innocent people for power and resources still carry out their operations as we speak? We cannot forget those who suffer in displaced persons camps around the world today, those who have been taken into lives of slavery and abuse or who suffer at the hands of violence, discrimination and monstrous leaders. The only way to make “never again” a reality is to coninue to speak about the abuses we see.

Today I heard that my friend and Carl Wilkens Fellow, Mealnie Nelkin, will be receiving The Humanitarian Award  by the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust. This award is given to individuals or groups that have “demonstrated the spirit of humanity through volunteer work, advocacy, leadership and/or philanthropy in their community, thereby fighting indifference, intolerance and injustice.”  Melanie has ben an advocate for genocide prevention for years. A nonstoppable force in Washingon DC and an inspiration to many. I dedicate this post to her for her continued commitment to genocide prevention.

Our Journey took us one hour from the center of Prague to Terezin, the concentration work camp and ghetto.

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 Terezin was originally a fortress prison established in the late 18th century as a prison for military and political convicts. In 1941 it was used by the Nazi’s as a prison for Jews. Jews that were brought to Terezin from Prague, some 83,000, with the exception of a handful of survivors, were never seen again.

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They were all deported to extermination camps in the East.

What is most poignant about visiting Terezin is not the cold stone cells, cramped ghetto barracks or crematorium, all chillingly horrifying but the multitude of artists, composers, musicians, writers and actors that left behind the real, untold story of Terezin. You see, the Nazi’s wanted the world to think they had set up a beautiful home for the Jews at Terezin and they knew they had captured some of Prague’s most talented people in the small space of the ghetto to tell that false story. As part of their grand scheme, the Nazi’s used this talent to create drawings and films, poems and songs of propaganda.

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Viewing the films and paintings created under Nazi instruction, one would think that life was wonderful in Terezin. Jewish soccer matches, knitting clubs, art exhibits, plays and operas were occurring at all times. What was really going on here was beyond the brain’s capability to comprehend.

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Bedrich Fritta, Leo Hass, Otto Unger, Karel Fleischmann, Peter Klein….. Do these names ring a bell? Probably not like Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and Henri Matisse do, because these Terezin artists were exterminated along with their families by the Nazi’s long before they reached the age of 25.

 Terezin artists were given materials by the SS to create propaganda pieces but many brave prisoners, once given these materials, used them to depict the real, untold story of life in the ghetto.

Steph and I spent hours sifting through books of drawings, inks, pastels and paintings created by hundreds of courageous Terezin artists, risking their lives each day but knowing that someday their work would be found and would set the record straight about the treatment of the Jews at Terezin.

ImageReading the biographies of hundreds of prisones who had graduated from some of the best art and architectural schools in Europe brought each artist to life.  These weren’t prisoners, they were lives filled with hope, talent, intelligence, families and love. In Terezin they turned into  historians, teachers, and activists for peace.

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The Nazis continued their propaganda work in Terezin making it appear as a beautiful Jewish settlement. Building a spa and fake store fronts so visitors to Terezin would think it was a town filled with shops and cafes. They even distributed worthless “camp” money to be used when visitors came from the outside.

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On June 23th, 1944 as thousands of prisoners were being deported to Auschwitz and other Eastern death camps, Terezin was presented, films and all, to the international delegation as a self-administered Jewish settlement, the inhabitants of which has the opportunity to survive the war without any worries.

Visiting Prague with my daughter is a dream. The narrow cobblestoned streets, ancient castles, gardens, cappuccinos and …let’s not forget the hot wine!  Colorful photos in front of John Lennon’s peace wall and decorative  beautiful doors abound.

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In the Jewish Quarter The spanish synagogue in Moorish style is magnificently ornate. Arabesque designs fashioned after Spain’s, Alhambra fill the interior and

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colorful light pours in through the stained the 19th century stained glass.

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But one cannot come here and only enjoy the beauty this city has to offer. We are too close to the places where so much horror occurred. Enter deep into the Jewish quarter and history is steeped in the darkness and memory of the hundreds of thousands Jews murdered by the nazis.  It was difficult to focus on the tiny letters of the 80,000 names of the Bohemian and Moravian Jewish holocaust victims  hand written on the walls of the Pinka Syngogue .


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Even more haunting was the exhibit of children’s drawings from the ghetto of Terezin concentration camp recovered from the suitcase of a deportee. The vast majority of these tiny artists were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz shortly after the pictures were drawn.

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The drawings are filled with hopes and dreams of freedom. Teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis helped the children to forget their fears by giving them the creative outlet of drawing.

“Drawing opened the way for the children of Terezin to memories to the world from which they were torn. It enabled them to see and describe a sadness and the appalling reality but above all it carried them away to a world of fantasy and pure imagination where good triumphs over evil, where free will and abundance reign, where there is paradise on earth…. The children constantly expressed in their drawings the hope of the happy return home, often drawing roads and crossroads with sign posts pointing to Prague. Only a small fraction of the small children who passed through Terezin saw this hope fulfilled.”

Quoted from the wall of The Pinkas Synagogue memorial, Prague

April is genocide awareness month and an opportunity to remember those who perished. We cannot forget the victims of countless genocides in history.  We cannot forget that the Rwandan Genocide happened 20 years ago this month and we cannot forget those that suffer human rights abuses of death, slavery and torture, today in many places in the world.

I write this week in memory and in honor of the victims of genocide and the brave survivors, some of whom I have had the honor to know in my life and for the artists who offer space for healing expression for themselves and others.

 


We started our last day of the CONTACT program in Rwanda with a very interactive visit at Radio LaBene-Valencija where we met with writers, support staff and administrators of the station.  The station uses soap opera programming as a tool for learning and to promote positive change in Rwanda today. Radio Valencia was founded by CEO George Weiss and also has stations in Burundi, DRC and the Nertherlands with furture plans for South Sudan.

Eighty five percent of Rwanda’s population follows the soap opera that sensitizes people towards the origins of violence and how to resolve conflict peacefully. In addition to the radio program, the project sends grassroots coordinators from districts to the smallest villages for dialogue to identify the messages that the soap opera should convey. The scripts are reviewed by an academic team (including our SIT coordinator, Adin Thayer). There are a few cycles of changes and then the program is recorded, edited and aired.

The soap opera is so popular that when the fictional couple from the two conflicted villages in the story are to be married, the nation wanted to attend the wedding. The station could not find a stadium big enough to hold the wedding for the public, so in lieu of actually creating a wedding day, the programmers  asked Rwandans to dress up for the day and confront a person with whom they have conflict and resolve!

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Next we visited The Rebecca Davis Dance Company, an organization under UNESCO, that offers therapy through dance to orphaned, street children in Kigali. Rebeccca was a Carl Wilkens Fellow and I had met her doing my work with that program.

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IMG_3036She was not in Rwanda at the time but arranged for us to meet with the program director, Eugene Dushime,  and we watched the kids rehearse their leaping, spinning and sliding to the fun beat of African music.

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This was one of the most emotional moments of the entire week for me and I could see my classmates cheering with teary eyes as well.

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There is nothing like seeing healing through art in action! We then joined the kids in dance, shared chocolate and high fives. What a fantastic way to end the week!

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After a wonderful party and closing at Eduard’s home in Kigali, I met up with Cory again and we left to catch the flight to Uganda. Here we met Gabriel Bol Deng and had the chance, after a year, to see his nieces and nephews again in Kampala.

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IMG_3902Aluel, Adual, Deng and Akook had been students for the past 4 years in primary school in Uganda.

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It was incredible to see their progress since last year. They shared their grades with us and we could see their pride and appreciation for their education.

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Akook, the oldest, had just graduated from Primary school and went back to the village in South Sudan for 3 months. We were there for his return to Uganda and we talked about his time in the village.

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We stopped by my friend Garang’s home to meet his wife and new child, Wol. This child of 10 months has the longest legs and hugest smile I have ever seen!

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Then we took everyone out for a visit to the zoo, Lake Victoria and shopping for school clothes to get them ready for the next semester.

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Heading home to the US, I am exhausted but so fulfilled.

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I have learned so much from the people of Rwanda and my classmates from around the world. I thank my family at home for understanding and supporting my coursework, my trip, these kids and my desire to see them and learn about the history of African countries. I know they also would be inspired by seeing how the children have advanced here in Uganda. The kids sent letters back to the rest of my family, hoping and praying to meet all of them next time!

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Driving 2 hours south of Kigali to the lush, green city of Butare you can see the country rebuilding at every turn.  Deep in the rolling hills and thick cover of pines trees was Save village in the Huye district where we went to witness a comprehensive reconciliation project.IMG_3840

After the genocide, Rwanda’s prisons were overcrowded and the cases were far too many for the court system to handle. Stemming from ancient customs of problem solving, the Gacaca trial process was established after the genocide to try thousands of accused in the country through the use of village run trials. Gacaca judges were chosen by the villagers based on their honesty and integrity.

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This complex process was not perfect but helped to resolve many cases, but true reconciliation did not come from the sentences, but from “real”, heartfelt confessions. Perpetrators confessed to survivors and survivor families decided if they felt the apologies were sincere and from the heart in front of Gacaca judges, who would then pass down sentences of prison or community service.

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In this village we met some Gacaca judges who were responsible for many cases as well as ex-combatants, former prisoners and survivors. They all held the common belief that if they could not reconcile what had happened with themselves, they could not reconcile with each other. Since Hutu and Tutsi shared community, neighborhoods and families, they had to learn to forgive and live together as Rwandans.

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After  an in depth discussion with many questions, we lightened the mood with some time with the kids (who doesn’t love painting ap on the ipad?), and a stop for ice cream ….(may I take a moment to thank god for ice cream? It can really lift the spirt!) at a little shop opened by a group of female Rwandan drummers. Then we stopped at Rwanda’s national Museum for a bit of ancient Rwandan history.

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Although this was a few days ago, I wanted to lighten up the post to share info about this fabulous Rwandan artist Cory and I had visited.  The wonderful art studio of Emmanuel Knuranga boasts many paintings where african fabrics and influences are woven throughout mixed medium, vibrant and textural work.

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Emmanuel’s complex and exuberant palette is eye candy as soon as you walk into his studio courtyard. It was a treat to meet Emmanuel and watch some of the artists at work. It has me longing to get back to the art studio….

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Maybe even throw some of my empty cans onto the wall and see where they land!

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A crazy note…Emmanuel had just exhibited in at the Southport Gallery in Southport, Ct  ten minutes from my house…..but I had to come all the way to Rwanda to see him!

It’s been only 19 years since the genocide in Rwanda and the country continues to work on healing and rebuilding in many ways. Men who grew up during the genocide, when rape and violence towards women was the norm, now need help in understanding the consequences of those events on their lives.

IMG_3794This morning we met with a representative from Rwanda’s Men’s Resource Center, an organization focused on mobilizing men as participants in the process of supporting women and the challenges men face in the changing gender roles in Rwanda today. RWAMREC offers progressive training for men to help understand the importance of partnering and supporting women. The  primary focus in Rwanda after the genocide  has been on women and the environment often leaving men who have been greatly affected to misunderstand the consequences of what they experienced. The goal of RWAMREC is work with men to help promote positive masculine behavior and socialization towards women. There is a long way to go in this effort but we were inspired by theses steps toward progress.

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We then met with MEMOS, an organization founded by Issa Higiro, that brings genocide survivors together with those who rescued them. We heard moving stories from both the survivors and the heroes that risked their lives to hide them until liberation, knowing that if caught, they would be killed. The fearless people who put their lives on the line to save many greatly humbled all of us. We asked many questions of our guests and then showed our respect and admiration through Rwandan Dance and Song.

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The day ended with a documentary film by our classmate, award winning filmmaker and actor Edouard Bamporiki at his home in Kigali (He’s pictured here with his beautiful wife, Claudine). The subjects from the film who were Tutsi survivors and Hutu who witnessed the genocide then spoke to us from the heart about their experiences of pain, shame and forgiveness.  They were incredible teachers of dignity and perseverance and restored my faith in humanity.

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“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart…” Anne Frank

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Last night friends from around the world reunited in Kigali, Rwanda to begin our week long program of learning and reflection. From our summer in Brattleboro, Vermont to the hills of Rwanda, students from Nigeria, Palestine, Sudan, Uganda, Congo, Afghanistan, India and US came together once again to study peace and reconcilliation. It  seemed like a miracle, envisioning the planes flying from many continents to this small country in East Africa to bring us back together.

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We began the program with a presentation by  Suzanne Ruboneka, Director of the Peace Action Campaign for ProFemmes, an umbrella organization that coordinates a wide range of over 58 NGO’s run by and for women in Rwanda.

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It was clear from listening to Suzanne that every Rwandan could write a book about his or her story during the genocide.  After the tragic events of 1994 the country was 70% women. Many were displaced, had been raped and contracted aids, and most were widows. They had many different political affiliations and did not trust one another.  Women had the need to develop their own programs to show their strength and build unity amongst themselves. Profemme began work to help organizations for women develop and through their efforts advocated  to change all laws of discrimination to women in Rwanda as well as reach the rural communities and lift women into positions of empowerment through microfinancing.

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ProFemme mobilized women to vote and was instrumental in the development of Rwanda’s quota of 30% representation of women in decision-making positions in government.  Although the quote is 30% women actually hold 56% of the seats in parliament!  Today Rwanda’s President of Parliament, Vice President of Senate, Minister of Justice, Health and Foreign Affiars are all women.

Above, our SIT Director, Adin Thayer,  presents Suzanne with a canvas shopping bag as a gift. There are no plastic bags allowed into the country for Rwanda.

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The afternoon was more sombering as we entered Rwanda’s Genocide  Memorial Museum. Pictured above is one of the “Windows of Hope” in the museum by artist Adryn Halter, whose father was a holocaust survivor of Auschwitz. We each walked the museum at our own pace for 2 hours. The only sound I heard was the tears of my good friends. There are no words to describe the heaviness felt after this visit. Many thoughts and emotions were expressed during our peace circle practice that followed. An excercise where we all learned the importance of speaking and listening from the heart and the practice of bearing witness to things as they are “including all forms of joy and suffering in the world”.

Our Coordinator Issa did a wonderful job facilitating our group through this process and left us wuith a wonderful quote….

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”- Albert Einstein

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On a more uplifitng note… we ended the night with a fantastic dinner at the home of our SIT coordinator from last summer, Jessee Rouette and  his wife, Emily who are living in Rwanda for 2 years with their adorable 2 year old son. I had my fill of cuteness playing with him and kept him occupied sorting bottle caps. Did you know that a can of bottle caps can be used to teach colors, help with counting,  transform into instruments and get a child dancing? Thats what I love about Africa. We seem to find ways to entertain and interact that we may never have engaged in at home.

Waking up to the melliflous sounds of birds singing and the beauty of the sun shining over surrounding mountains, one would have a hard time remembering the genocide that brutalized this country 20 years ago. Rwanda, the size of Massachusetts, lost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the span of 100 days in the most brutal government run killings known to history.

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But the scars are so deep now that they can barely be seen, sitting here looking out at the banana fields and hearing the laughter of children in the street.  It is hard to believe that a few hundred kilometers away ,war rages in the conflict mining zones of  The Democratic Republic of Congo and  many seemingly peaceful countries contribute to that violence.  My week here with SIT will be to remember  the loss and learn about work Rwanda has done to heal, reconcile and rebuild. I also hope to gain a better understanding of the conflicts in neighboring countries that could affect the future here.

“The dead of Rwanda accumulated in nearly three times the rate of the Jewish dead during the Holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killings since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” US journalist Philip Gourevitch, author of   We wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda”

Now a stable country with a growing economy, Rwanda feels at the moment like a tropical vacation sitting here in my friends Cory and Matt Melaugh screened in home in the beautiful village of Rwinkavu. Cory, a nurse at Mass General Hospital in Boston, MA, has a one year position as a nurse in the local hospital here and Matt is the supervisor in a library built under by Ready for Reading, anorganizationunder Partners in Health started by Betsy Dicky of Greenwich, CT

I was not sure If I could believe Cory’s advice that I did not need to travel with the same full pharmacy in my suitcase and survival gear as our trip deep into South Sudan last year. This, she said, will be a much different experience. I arrived to the paved roads and lit up city of Kigali and the drive to Rwinkavu was smooth and comfortable. Hey, I might even be able to return the nausea bands and other remedies I rushed to get before taking off!

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Before leaving for Rwanda Betsy and I loaded a suitcase with over 80 pounds of donations for the library. Printer cartridges, dry erase markers and dress clothes. I prayed the whole way here that the small photo printer I packed would make the journey. Matt and I planned a project to help the children have a better undertstanding of their own importance in the world through learning about their image. We hoped to take photos of the children in the library so they could see themselves and make their own portraits.IMG_2300

The library staff occupied the children as we prepared for the exuberant participants.

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Six hours, ten groups and 220 photos later……

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everyone had gone home with a self portrait, photo and a smile!

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A huge thank you to Matt’s brother, Brad for orchestrating the photos of the children and printing all of them at the slow pace of 50 seconds a photo!

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Ok. I know it’s been a long time since I have posted a new blog.  I can only say that I have been preoccupied with many great things. My daughter’s graduation from High School for one, and all the wonderful celebrations that come along with that momentous time in life…

and a wonderful project uniting the artist community to raise awareness for Sudan’s women.

The paintings coming in for The Sudan Canvas Project have been moving and inspiring. Artists who might not have otherwise known about decades of atrocities in Sudan are now researching and becoming inspired to paint.


This creation of art by Cleta Grant of San Francisco is called “Icon I”. It’s combination of silk, linen, organza and burlap on stark black background brings to life the tents of the displaced persons camp through use of texture. A hiding, emotionless face tells the viewer about the hopelessness of war.


Artist Linda Francis of Westport, Ct paints the women of Darfur. Although dressed in the colorful Sudanese drapery, the expressions on faces of her women and the supportive hand of one woman on anothers shoulder strongly depicts the arduous task of waiting for food in the displaced persons camps.

More and more paintings are being submitted. Some are celebratory as South Sudan, after decades of war and marginalization, celebrated freedom of their new sovereign nation on July 9.

Locally, we celebrated as well for the people of Sudan. Friends and neighbors gatheed in the art studio to create signs in preparation for a small rally of peace at Trumbull’s Town Hall.

Although it was a day of celebration here in in Juba, South Sudan, many are also saying strong prayers for peace.

South Sudan’s significant resources have triggered a border war in the disputed area of Abyei perpetrated by the Islamist regime in Khartoum. A regime headed by Gen. Omar al-Bashir  who has been indicted  by the International Criminal Court for perpetrating genocide in Darfur. A recent Abyei border agreement  between North and South Sudan signed in June is tenuous.  More than150,000 refugees  fled to the South from Abyei displaced by raids of Northern forces in May.  Because of recent border conflicts between Sudan and the new Republic of South Sudan.

South Sudan’s hard fought freedom is a credit to the US brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 that laid the basis for secession from Sudan.  The citizens of South Sudan voted overwhelmingly (99 %) in the January, 2011 internationally supervised Referendum for Independence. *

Although attendance was light  (12 noon on a gorgeous summer Saturday), these wonderful activists came out to support. We had a special guest at our Rally, My friend Evelyne Mukansongk, a Rwandan Genocide survivor, who spoke about the importance of hope and the power of forgiveness.


I hope to be writing more about Evelyne soon. You will absolutely love to meet this charming, insprirational woman.

*paragraph taken fromarticle by Jerry Gordon

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