Survivors cite parallels between Rwanda, Holocaust

NEW YORK — The government of Rwanda has approached a leading Holocaust survivors' group for advice on the long-term effects of genocide.

"We can't turn our backs on them," said John Lemberger, director of AMCHA, an organization in Israel that provides psychosocial services for Holocaust survivors and their families.

Lemberger responded to the Rwandan appeal by attending the government-sponsored "Conference on Genocide, Impunity and Accountability," held earlier this month in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

Legal experts and human-rights advocates from several countries also participated.

More than 500,000 people were killed in Rwanda in the months of brutal violence that erupted in April 1994, after the country's Hutu president died in a plane crash.

Most of the victims were members of the minority Tutsi tribe, though some Hutus also died in the ruthless clashes between the two groups that dominate this African nation.

The Tutsi now control the government, and in trying to rebuild their nation, they have been seeking to deal with the pain and suffering of the country's population, particularly those who survived massacres or lost family.

In addition, the government is dealing with a massive refugee population. Currently, 2 million Rwandan refugees are outside the country's borders, said Lemberger, while within Rwanda, there are hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of them widows and orphans.

Many parallels exist between the survivor populations of the Holocaust and the civil war in Rwanda, Lemberger said.

However, one has to be careful in comparing the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda, he added.

The Holocaust, in terms of intensity, length and method, was "different than conflict in a country between two groups," Lemberger said. For the Rwandans, the "`Germans' aren't somewhere else," the AMCHA director said. "They're within them."

AMCHA's mission remains in Israel, but Lemberger said his group wants to help the Rwandans "move from frustration and despair to hope."

Based on the experience of Holocaust survivors, Lemberger made the following comparisons:

*The problems that Rwandan survivors face are ones that will "last 20, 30, 40, maybe 50 years." The Holocaust not only had an impact on the survivors, but on their children as well.

*As in the case of the Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust, "Rwandans are not aware of what happened to loved ones," he said, stressing the importance of victims being "brought to proper burial," an issue with which the Jewish community still struggles.

*Rwandans have already formed survivors associations, whose members are from a certain town or are dealing with a particular issue. In the case of the Jews, people formed groups, even in camps for displaced persons.