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We must learn from recent genocides to prevent future atrocities

4 min read

In 1994, Mussa Uwitonze was three years old and lived in Rwanda. One day, his parents started packing their belongings, planning to take family across the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The genocide against the Tutsi had begun, and Mussa and his family were not safe from machete-wielding, government-backed militia – the Interahamwe. Mussa remembers witnessing children burned, his sister was raped, his brother – trying to protect her – was murdered.

As we mark this year’s Genocide Prevention Day, it is important for the world to come together, united in our resolve to ensure that we learn from the tragic lessons of the past to build a safer present and brighter future. The pandemic, climate change and politics may dominate our TV screens and the front pages of newspapers, but we must not lose sight of the horrific treatment of marginalised communities that continues unabated in countries like China.

There is a sad truth that is often overlooked when studying the Holocaust or recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur; these were not entirely isolated events. They were the conclusion of years, if not decades, of persecution and dehumanisation. In the case of Nazi Germany, what started as a tolerated prejudice against Jews ended in the murder of six million Jews in one of the most devastating human tragedies of the twentieth century.

American genocide scholar Gregory H. Stanton has articulated 10 different stages of genocide that are predictable but not inevitable. At each stage, Stanton noted, there is an opportunity for people to act and prevent genocide before it happens. So much of what we see unfolding in the Uyghur region, an area widely referred to as ‘Xinjiang’, is a depressing reminder that Stanton’s work remains relevant today.

Hatred, prejudice, and intolerance are pernicious forces that can have unimaginable consequences if left unchallenged

A little over a year ago, a video was circulated online that appeared to show Uyghur Muslims, with shaved heads, blindfolded and surrounded by armed guards waiting to be loaded onto a train. Such scenes are eerily reminiscent of the Holocaust. Hatred, prejudice, and intolerance are pernicious forces that can have unimaginable consequences if left unchallenged.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, “Never Again” became the rallying cry of a world shocked by the cruelty and savagery of the Nazis. Yet 50 years later, in a UN designated “safe area”, genocide returned to Europe. Around 8,000 men and boys were murdered, for no other reason than their Muslim faith. As is always the case, the warning signs were present for all to see. Yet, the international community failed to stop it. Worse, they allowed it to happen under their very noses.

Although those responsible for the atrocity at Srebrenica were eventually brought to justice, it should never have been allowed to happen. History has repeatedly demonstrated the tragic cost of inaction. The warning signs from the Uyghur region are there. The Chinese Communist Party has sought to whitewash the horrors it is inflicting on Uyghurs. The grim reality is that their treatment of the Uyghur people, if left unchallenged, is likely to follow the same tragic path highlighted by Stanton. If we fail to act now, we may run out of time to act at all. Might we then be forced to add the Uyghurs to the list of genocides already commemorated on 27 January each year?

Today, Mussa is a professional photographer, and runs photography workshops for children and young people, giving them a creative opportunity to express themselves. Mussa has supported young Rwandans, Syrian refugees, foster children in Massachusetts and immigrants in Haiti to name a few. As Mussa explains: “Photography is an art that helps you open up and express yourself. It is a voice; it is a tool for change.”

Genocide can happen anywhere. No country is immune. For this reason, we must continue to learn the lessons of the past and prevent such horrors from repeating themselves. Our commitment to genocide education and prevention must never be allowed to diminish.

Let us be inspired by Mussa’s resilience and creativity: It is about time we had a positive story to pass on to future generations. It is about time we showed future generations that history does not have to be ruinous, and certainly does not have to repeat itself. We can all take actions – big or small – and make a positive difference to the world around us, and bring a safer, better future closer.


Olivia Marks-Woldman OBE is the chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. Rahima Mahmut is a human rights activist and UK director for World Uyghur Congress.

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