Robin Garabedian graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in May 2013, where she served as co-coordinator of UMass STAND from April 2010 to April 2012. In the fall, she will be returning to UMass to begin graduate studies in rhetoric and composition. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over the past several years, international human rights abuses have been given more and more media attention. The events that have taken place in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and more have compelled more Americans to think about foreign intervention for humanitarian purposes. Within the anti-genocide movement in particular, as the picture has gotten more complex, consciousness of our role in “stopping” genocide has expanded. As anti-genocide activists, many of us no longer entertain the notion that we can “stop” genocide, and we accept that most of our activism has no effect on those that are affected by genocide.
It is good that we are acknowledging the complexity of the contexts we are working with, but this rising consciousness has contributed to a decline in participation. The picture has become so complex that it has become harder to recruit people to participate in anti-genocide activism. The anti-genocide movement is not as immediately inspiring, and as a result, the movement is not as strong as it once was. An aura of resignation in response to the fact that there is very little we can do is spreading at an alarming rate.
At the risk of going back to the black-and-white rhetoric used so frequently a decade ago, I want to insist this is something that we as anti-genocide activists – indeed, as citizens and as humans – cannot let happen. I say this as someone of Armenian descent in the anti-genocide movement. The Armenian Genocide of 1915, or, as we say in Armenian, Medz Yeghern (“Great Crime”), is approaching its hundredth anniversary next year, and my ties to the Armenian Genocide are a constant motivation for my involvement within anti-genocide work. Over the past few weeks, however, it is not the past that has been the main source of my anxieties surrounding the persecution of Armenians, but the present. Currently, Christian minorities, including Armenians, are being targeted in Kessab, Syria. Kessab is a hub of Armenian culture near the border of Turkey and Syria, and over the past few weeks, rebel groups such as al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front have invaded Kessab after crossing into Syria through the Turkish border. Homes and churches have been destroyed, private property has been pillaged, and families have been forced to flee their homes. Getting credible information has been very difficult, and as a result, while many Armenians are attempting to raise awareness of what is happening to our people in Kessab, we are more often than not trying to determine what exactly is happening.
I do not know what, if anything, I can do. I teach a class of sixth and seventh-graders at my local Armenian church’s Sunday school, and when they ask me if there is anything we can do, I am at a loss for words. I see adults fretting about how Armenians are still not safe, and I experience microaggressions against Armenians who are “just crying genocide again” on the Internet. The complexity of the issue has become more personal, and it is very scary.
My confusion and the confusion of many of those who do anti-genocide work is especially relevant as we commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Reminders of the untold human suffering that engulfed the country over the hundred days during which the genocide took place has strong potential to heighten the defeating sentiments that have taken a strong position within the anti-genocide movement. But with international human rights abuses continuing to occur, with survivors of the Rwandan Genocide still bravely speaking about their experiences, and with so many people in the world that have been affected by genocide in some way, we as anti-genocide activists must find ways to work through the complexity that we are faced with.
We must reflect on our privileges, and how they affect our views about genocide and the work that we do. Many of us are white, middle-class students, and we must recognize the privileges that these social identities afford us. We cannot know the detrimental effects of racism and poverty, societal problems that can influence the causes of genocide and mass atrocities, from personal experience. Many of us also work in contexts that have been heavily influenced by western media and western images of so-called “third-world countries” that promote the idea that those who live in Africa (a continent consisting of fifty-four nations!) just need to be “saved” by white westerners. We cannot shy away from difficult conversations that delve deeper into these ideas, and we must embrace the constant evolution of the anti-genocide movement.
Most importantly, however, we must listen to and support survivors, for any effective anti-genocide movement must prioritize the voices of those directly affected by genocide. With many instances of genocide and mass atrocities, such as the Rwandan Genocide, we have the privilege of survivors who are still living and are willing to share their experiences. With many other instances of genocide and mass atrocities, this is no longer the case. When I was very small, there were always a few survivors at commemoration events for the Armenian Genocide. Now that the genocide was a century ago, however, there are almost no survivors left, and so many of their perspectives are lost forever. The most important thing we can do as anti-genocide activists is listen to survivors whenever we can for as long as we can, for they are ultimately the only ones who can determine how to remember and pay honor to those who did not survive – regardless of how low or high our consciousness of our role is and how defeated we may sometimes feel.