FRESNO, Calif. – More than 75 students and several teachers from high schools of Fresno, Clovis, Central, Madera and Sanger unified school districts participated in an enlightening Genocide Seminar held on Saturday, May 2, at Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Fresno to increase awareness about genocide and encourage local high schools to incorporate related genocide lessons in their curricula.
The panel of speakers for the Genocide Seminar included Dr. Matthew Ari Jendian, Mellissa Jessen, Janine Nkosi and Ms. Stephanie Stockdale. Each of the panelists reviewed the historical and political context of a different case of genocide—including the Armenian, Cambodian, Rwandan and Darfur genocide—addressing similarities among the mass killings and the implications for individual and collective responses to these events.
Hygo Ohanessian, chairperson of the Armenian National Committee of Central California, welcomed the speakers. The event was organized by the ANC and funded by the Bertha and John Garabedian Foundation.
Dr. Jendian, an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Fresno, began the day with an ice-breaker exercise that celebrated the diversity in the room and emphasized that we are all part of the human race, the most similar of all species on the earth. “In fact, genetically speaking, each person is at least a 50th cousin of any other person on the globe, and if something were happening to your cousin, wouldn’t you intervene to assist him or her?” Dr. Jendian asked.
Dr. Jendian, who teaches a course on the “sociology of terrorism and genocide” at Fresno State, then presented the United Nations’ definition of the word “genocide,” (literally “race murder” from the Greek word “genos” and the Latin “cide”) coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1943-44.
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the United Nations in December 1948, defined genocide as certain “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.”
The great irony, however, of the 20th century and genocide is that the 20th century saw many treaties defining and codifying genocide, yet it still was one of the bloodiest centuries in human history.
Mellissa Jessen, who earned her M.A. in International Human Rights from the University of Denver in 2007 with emphases on genocide and human rights and security, described how “ordinary people commit extraordinary evil,” utilizing two pogroms in Poland during and just after WWII, explaining that understanding does not mean excusing behavior. Jessen’s master’s thesis, “The Problem of Neighbors: A comparative study of the ordinary neighbor in genocide in Poland and Rwanda” delves into the phenomena of civilians engaging in mass murder. “The purpose in trying to understand how or why a person participates in genocide is to work towards prevention of future such atrocities,” she said.
Unfortunately, after almost every case of genocide, denial has been a common response. This denial, Dr. Jendian said, can grow over time and come to define the identity of the person or people who are denying the events. As Cornell West has said, “Denial of history represents a lack of maturity.” The first step towards healing is to acknowledge the wrong we have done.
Stephanie Stockdale, who earned her M.A. in International Relations from California State University, Fresno and conducted research focused on genocide and the implications of the international and domestic court systems, presented information about International Criminal Court, which has recently issued an arrest warrant for Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir, President of Sudan, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Part of the difficulty the UN has is getting major powers of the world to accede to the “higher power” of the UN as a world authority where international conflicts can be settled. Stockdale explained that attempts towards reconciliation through the “Gacaca Courts of Rwanda” in Rwanda have attempted to prevent further violence in the region. “By holding individuals responsible for the crimes they have committed is a way to show the world that people will be held accountable when such horrific acts are carried out,” she said.
With each case of genocide discussed—Armenian, Cambodian, Rwandan, and Darfur—the speakers pointed to the lack of intervention by the international community and, specifically, the United States. As Samantha Power, in her book A Problem from Hell, notes, the most common response to the question of “Why does the world and the United States stand so idly by when genocide is occurring” is, “We didn’t know” or “We didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the situation.” But these answers are demonstrably not true. However, Power says, the real reason the United States has not done what it could do and should do to stop genocide is that U.S. leaders lacked the political will to do something—they believed it was wrong, but they were not prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, and domestic political capital needed.
Janine Nkosi, a candidate for a Master’s in Counseling at Fresno State who conducted research on the Darfur genocide, spoke passionately about the current genocidal crisis in Darfur, Sudan. As a mother herself, she explained that “children are particularly at risk because they need food, and are likely to die of diarrhea, malaria and other ailments. 80% of the children under five years old are suffering from severe malnutrition, and seventy percent of the deaths in the camps are children under five.” Children are affected not only physically, but psychologically as well. Nkosi presented some artwork by children in Darfur. One drawing by a 15-year-old boy shows Antonov planes bombing his village. His mother, father, and brothers were all killed in the attack. “This image is one of many graphic examples of how the conflict has impacted the children in Darfur,” Nkosi said.
The speakers also gleaned lessons from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., teaching that we all have a human responsibility to prevent injustice when we see it:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.”
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor political, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.”
As Dr. Jendian closed the seminar, he explained to students that knowledge is not power, “Knowledge is potential power; it becomes powerful when it is acted upon.” Taking action on behalf of others requires empathy—seeing yourself in the other person(s) and identifying strongly with the circumstances and pain of another human being.
Matt Abajian, a high school social science teacher from Central High School in attendance at the Genocide Seminar, provided the following feedback: “The presentations were informative and provided the detail and precision I would love to bring into my classroom.” One week after the seminar, Abajian emailed the presenters about his recent action: “I have just finished putting together about an eight block genocide unit using the resources you gave us teachers!”
One of the greatest lessons from Dr. King that should be passed on to students is that the struggle for justice is not pitted against people; rather, it’s against injustice itself. Instead of having students think that they need to do the right thing by fighting against a person–the “enemy”—the student must understand that the real enemy is injustice, not the person committing it.
The seminar closed with an inspirational message about the difference that one person can make and attempted to answer the question of “Why are we here?”: because we’re the only species that can protect every other species—including ourselves.