Magazine article The Christian Century

Words for Bearing Witness: Reading Elie Wiesel after Fleeing Rwanda

Magazine article The Christian Century

Words for Bearing Witness: Reading Elie Wiesel after Fleeing Rwanda

Article excerpt

MY EIGHTH-GRADE English teacher put the word genocide on a vocabulary list. I hated it immediately.

The word is tidy and efficient. It holds no true emotion. It is impersonal when it needs to be intimate; cool and sterile when it needs to be gruesome. The word is hollow, true but disingenuous, a performance, the worst kind of lie. It cannot do justice--it is not meant to do justice--to the thing it describes.

The word genocide cannot tell you, cannot make you feel, the way I felt as a child in Rwanda. The way I felt in Burundi. The way I wished to be invisible because I knew someone wanted me dead at a point in my life when I did not yet understand what death was.

The word genocide cannot articulate the one-person experience--the real experience of each of the millions it purports to describe. The experience of the child playing dead in a pool of his father's blood. The experience of a mother forever wailing on her knees.

The word genocide is clinical, overly general, bloodless, and dehumanizing. "Oh, it's like the Holocaust?" people would say to me--say to me still. No, I want to scream, it's not like the Holocaust. Or the killing fields in Cambodia. Or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. There's no catchall term that proves you understand.

There's no label to peel and stick that absolves you, shows you've done your duty, you've completed the moral project of remembering. This--Rwanda, my life--is a different, specific, personal tragedy, just as each of those horrors was. Inside all those tidily labeled boxes are 6 million, or 1.7 million, or 100,000, or 100 billion lives destroyed.

You cannot line up the atrocities like a matching set. You cannot bear witness with a single word.

I started reading Elie Wiesel's Night that year. The book alarmed and comforted me. I wanted to consume it whole. Wiesel was white, European, male, and Jewish. Wiesel was me.

He expressed thoughts I was ashamed to think, truths I was afraid to acknowledge. He described walking in the snow--the cold, the mouthfuls of bread and the spoonfuls of snow, an injured frozen foot that felt like it was no longer his, "a wheel fallen off a car. Never mind." I had walked in the heat, but it was the same walk--desperate, disembodied, surreal. I couldn't stop staring at the page. …

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