Years ago, I met the retired Canadian general Romeo Dallaire at a gala. He had a quiet dignity about him — someone who has the utmost respect of many, for having exposed the ineptitude of our global response to the Rwanda genocide. Dallaire single-handedly marshalled Canadian, African and Pakistani troops to protect Tutsis hiding out in key urban areas even though his troops were substantially outnumbered and outgunned. Over 100 days, in 1994, 1.2 million Tutsis and their sympathisers were murdered. Dallaire’s individual actions are widely recognised of having saved the lives of over 32,000 people. He wrote in his book, Shake Hands with the Devil, “I know there is a God, because in Rwanda, I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him. I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists and, therefore, I know there is a God.”
Of the nine million Jews who once lived in Europe, six million perished at the hands of the Nazis. How could an annihilation of a people at this scale take place? This happened because of the prevailing mindsets towards the Jewish population — biases that ranged from indifference to hostility. The non-Jewish populations impassively watched as former Jewish neighbours were corralled and executed — many benefitting by expropriating their properties. The final death count would have been considerably higher had it not been for thousands of non-Jewish rescuers, who risked their lives to save Jews from being captured and executed. These rescuers were honoured and were called the “Righteous Among the Nations”. Irrespective of faith, these rescuers regarded Jews as fellow human beings. This sincerity stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing public indifference and hostility that existed towards Jews at the time. Many rescuers acted out of ideological or religious convictions, while others were expressing humanity and compassion. These were ordinary humans who served as model citizens.
The adage goes, “The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there”. Both Dallaire and the “Righteous Among the Nations” believed there was no difference between a Tutsi and a Hutu or a German and a Jew. They believed in a common humanity that ties us all together. What are the characteristics of those enlightened few people who are more likely to extend a hand to the persecuted? Is it because those who act are graced with a sense of empathy? Saving your neighbour should not be beyond the capacity of ordinary people — every person should have the ability to make a difference. Empathy is the ability to understand that someone else’s pain is as meaningful as your own.
On March 3, a bomb exploded in a predominantly Shia residential neighbourhood in Karachi, killing at least 48 people. Pakistan, where Shias are a minority group, has been a killing field these past several months. Four hundred Shias have been murdered at the hands of militants. Pakistan is in a state of crisis where citizens are having an extraordinary time mustering empathy to tackle militancy head on. The prevailing culture is more vocal about Palestinian rights than it is about protecting its own minorities. But this is dangerous. There should be no illusion that when each and every minority has been eliminated, the silent Sunni majority will suffer the same fate at the hands of the militants. Khalid Hosseini, in The Kite Runner, writes, “A boy who won’t stand up for himself becomes a man who can’t stand up to anything.”
Pakistan has some considerable growing up to do.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2013.