Powerful accounts by genocide survivors, a journalist seeking to bear witness to their pain.
Darfuri refugee camps in Chad, Kigali in Rwanda, and the ruins of ancient villages in Turkey — all visited by genocide, all still reeling in its wake. In Journey through Genocide, Raffy Boudjikanian travels to communities that have survived genocide to understand the legacy of this most terrible of crimes against humanity.
In this era of ethnic and religious wars, mass displacements, and forced migrations, Boudjikanian looks back at three humanitarian crises. In Chad, meet families displaced by massacres in the Darfur region of neighbouring Sudan, their ordeal still raw. In Rwanda, meet a people struggling with justice and reconciliation. And in Turkey, explore what it means to still be afraid a century after the author’s own ancestors were caught in the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
Clear-eyed and compassionate, Boudjikanian breathes life into horrors that too often seem remote.
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A necessary journey
Why do people slaughter each other en masse? And why do others stand idly by? Is reconciliation possible when the truth is denied? These are just some of the questions raised by Journey Through Genocide, a new release from Dundurn Press. In its pages, these questions aren’t a matter of dry statistics or abstract philosophy; the people affected by these tragedies will tell you themselves, through the author, about the searing horrors they’ve faced.
The author himself is ideally suited to telling this story. As both a reporter and descendant of genocide survivors, Mr. Boudjikanian has an intimate knowledge of the deeply scarring intergenerational effects of mass tragedies. By using a straightforward writing style speckled with touches of humour and profound sorrow, he brings to life the survivors, prosecutors, international aid workers, and embattled journalists encountered on his travels. There are even hints of suspense, but more on that later.
This is a necessary book. Mr. Boudjikanian tackles a subject that should, by its very definition, be unpalatable and indigestible, nearly impossible to properly illustrate on the best of days. But in less than 200 pages, he weaves three different but complementary stories together into a coherent, lucid picture of catastrophe.
We start in Chad, where survivors of massacres by Janjaweed fighters in the Darfur region of Sudan recall with gut-punching detail the destruction of their homes and slaughter of loved ones. In one interview, the author asks a survivor if he had personally seen the corpses of families left behind following a foray for supplies when he sensed the danger coming. The survivor gives a long response in Arabic, pointing to his own eye. The author did not need to wait for the translation.
From there, we head to Rwanda where ongoing tensions simmer beneath the surface between two peoples who have to live and work together side by side. The genocide of the Tutsis, most often referred to as the Rwandan genocide, is a subject that still comes up in conversation, though most would rather not dwell on it. The wounds are barely scabbed over, and that is palpable. Perhaps the most telling is when we meet the man tasked with tracking fugitives from justice. He presents himself as someone on a quest for justice, pure and simple. That quest must presumably be undergirded by a deep well of personal tragedy, but try though the author (and no doubt countless interviewers before and since) might, he stays on message.
The latter part of the book is about the Armenian genocide. The author travels to historical Armenia, to his ancestral seat in Kharpert. This is somewhat inconvenient given that Kharpert is in Turkey, a country which actively denies the genocide, and engages in revisionist history even on the very ground once occupied by hundreds of thousands of Armenians. It’s right there in black and white, on, for example, a tourism ministry plaque at Kharpert Castle which avoids mentioning the area’s original inhabitants. It also happens in practice, like the local individual of Armenian descent who would only talk to the author on condition of anonymity.
The chapters dealing with the visit to historical Armenia are suffused with and enlivened by the author’s personal recollections, which I will not utter here. He does a far better job of that himself; I urge you to read the book if only for these deeply intimate passages. He writes, as coolly as one can, about the anxiety he experienced about possibly being surveyed by government agents; a very reasonable concern given his profession and his lineage. Turkey denies the genocide, and also jails journalists (245 at present count, according to a cursory Internet search). More to the point, his thoughts about forgiveness and reconciliation, his anger, his feelings about a home he never knew, make his work that much more poignant.