Richard Nsanzabagunwa and intellectual responsibility

On May 2, 1994, Richard Nsanzabagunwa was running for his life. The quiet African night was punctuated by the sounds of pounding feet, gasping breath and gun shots. He outran his pursuers, men who wanted to kill because they disliked his ethnic features, and collapsed at the door of a Presbyterian Church. The night guards refused to grant him asylum inside the church. "The next day, in the morning, it was the church watchmen who tried to kill me," he said. "I started running again and didn't look back. I saw one of them after the massacres ended. He pretended not to know me. I didn't say anything either. What was there to say?"

Richard, a 26-year-old human rights activist, would later learn that his entire family had perished in the massacres. His father, mother, sister and two younger brothers were murdered by the children of his mother's best friend. "We grew up together. Their family lived next door to ours. They were more than my friends," Richard said. "They were like my brothers, my very own brothers."

Richard's native town, Bicumbi, is about 25 kilometers from Kigali, Rwanda's capital. Before the violence engulfed this central African country, the town of Bicumbi boasted at least 100,000 inhabitants. "Numbers lie," said Richard, "but there are only about 15,000 to 30,000 people left there." Richard believes his older sister is among those from the town who survived, although he has been unable to find her.

Richard Nsanzabagunwa is one of a handful of human rights activists who began working for greater understanding among Rwanda's ethnic groups before the plane crash in April 1994 that killed Rwanda's President Juvenal Habyarimana and inaugurated the violence. The killings and subsequent refugee crisis has put images of the small country on the TV screens and in the consciousness of Americans. The pain of losing his family and the awe and strangeness of surviving a massacre that killed as many as 1 million people haunt him, but he continues to fight for human rights in Rwanda. As chief investigator for a grassroots Rwandan human rights organization, ARDHO (Association Rwandaise Des Droits De L'Homme), Richard investigates violations, visits prisons and takes testimony from genocide survivors in an attempt to bring justice and stability back to Rwanda. When asked his ethnicity, Richard answers firmly, "I am Rwandan. We are all Rwandan."

Richard and Alphonse Nkumbito, the founder and president of ARDHO and former Minister of Justice of Rwanda, recently came to the United States as guests of the Reebok Foundation. Richard and three other human rights activists from Tibet, Mexico and the United States were presented with $25,000 Reebok Human Rights Awards at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Working as a consultant for the Reebok Human Rights Program and translating for Richard and Alphonse, I spent four overwhelming, provocative, strange and wonderful days with them. Walking through blocks and blocks of New York's riches and poverty, we discussed and debated endlessly: homosexuality, education, the Holocaust against the Jews, fidelity, Richard's arrest two weeks before flying to America, the genocide and Richard's devastating loss.

The day after the ceremony, Richard and Alphonse received a video camera and training by the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights, and they spoke there at a brown bag lunch about Rwanda's ongoing struggle, and their continuing work with ARDHO.

"What people don't understand," said Alphonse, "is that in 1990, the genocide was already being planned. Hutu extremists believed in the `final solution' to liquidate the Tutsi population and simultaneously dispose of any Hutu moderates in the government who opposed this plan of action; they also wanted to kill Hutus who were friends of the Tutsis, and all human rights activists. They studied Nazi techniques and pored over Nazi documents to figure out the most efficient ways to massacre.

"This was a systematic, planned event. When the killing actually started, of course, things got out of hand. It got to the point in Rwanda where if you see somebody, regardless of who they are, and you think they are a Hutu, you kill them, you think they are a Tutsi, you kill them. Kill. Kill. Kill. That's where the madness led to. It was the intellectuals and the politicians who created this kind of climate. There is a sense that 700,000 people may be guilty of killing. There is no room in the prisons for this many. We have only 13 jails -- room, perhaps for 15,000 people. Any kind of justice in Rwanda must be symbolic. It is up to the intellectuals to see to this - it is our responsibility to preach tolerance and forgiveness among our people. There is only one Rwanda, not two. It is up to us, to all of us, to rebuild our country."

As Alphonse and Richard took turns speaking and answering questions, that sentence, "it was the intellectuals and the politicians who created this kind of climate," boomeranged in my head. Could intellectuals, thinking people with much education and deep interest in the life of the mind, be held responsible? What was my responsibility, as a doctoral student at a prestigious university, to the people in Rwanda or to my own people?

Worrying about grades, exams and papers, nose deep into books with abstruse titles written in even more abstruse jargon, it is so easy to become divorced from what is happening outside of the academic community, and to dismiss the idea of responsibility. Rwanda is far away from Emory University, from Atlanta, Ga. The numbers of those murdered are so high. We have all read the newspaper accounts or watched the dead bodies crashing over Victoria Falls on television. Still, the situation, as far off as it is, often seems unfathomable, easily meaningless.

But the ongoing crisis in Rwanda teaches us a profound truth about the power of the intellect. When intellectuals unite to solve problems, in this case the fallacious "problem" of Rwanda's Tutsi minority, spectacular results ensue. A massacre of devastating proportions, a climate that made Richard's mother's best friend's children raise a hatchet to kill her, was the result of systematic intellectual planning. Responsible for its creation, we also have the tools to strategize the end to this kind of madness, if only we can face up to our responsibility, and acknowledge that the problems of others are our problems as well.

What happens in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in rural Georgia and elsewhere, is the responsibility of intellectuals. Richard's unsung courage and Alphonse's steady insistence that we fight for a more just world must resonate with us, as students, professors and educators. We need to find systematic, well planned solutions to the problems of intolerance, poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and in the words Richard used in his acceptance speech, to "the fear and cowardliness that overcame people's most profound inner beings, allowing them to accept the unacceptable, to kill people who were just like them, who had done them no wrong."

Jennifer Margulis is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of English.

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