During a recent moment of introspection, Marie Carine Boggis searched the Web for a definition of the word “survivor.” For most of her 27 years, she had been characterized as such.
She was a young girl when an estimated 800,000 people, including her parents and siblings, died in the Rwandan genocide. On Sunday, she discussed her experience with about 40 people who gathered for a walk in downtown Boston to discuss and condemn genocide on the 20th anniversary of the killings in Rwanda.
“Remaining alive after an event in which other people died,” Boggis recalled as the official definition of the word survivor, which has described her for so long. “And that was the most underwhelming definition that I have ever come across.”
The term, she said, did not fit her identity.
It did not account for the years immediately after the killings when she fantasized about her parents picking her up at school. It failed to acknowledge the extreme guilt she felt a few years later. She had settled in with a new family and said she wondered if she would even want to live with her birth parents if they were still alive. It did not answer the questions she has now about how she will one day explain genocide to her own children.
“There’s no proper way to be a survivor,” Boggis said. Each person, she continued, is left to navigate the world in his or her own way.
The marchers in Boston on Sunday represented several communities that have experienced genocide in the past century, including Armenians, Bosnians, and Jews. Their prevailing message was that survivors should unite through shared suffering to ensure genocide is never forgotten or denied.
“Whether or not we’re a member of the community that was victimized in the genocide, we should all take it personally because genocide is a crime against all of humanity,” said Eric Cohen, an organizer of the march and chairman of the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur.
Fred Manasse, who said he was 3½ years old when he fled Germany during the Holocaust in the late 1930s, told the crowd Boggis’s story touched him deeply. He said he lost both parents and a sister at Auschwitz, and he spent several years in denial about their deaths.
“My story is a bit different than hers,” Manasse said. “But it’s not totally different.”
Representatives of the local Armenian community said they also connected with Boggis’s story.
“Today, as always, the Armenians stand as one with our Rwandan brothers and sisters,” said James Kalustian, president of the Armenian Heritage Foundation.
Several people in the crowd Sunday pointed to mass killings in Armenia as evidence of the harm that denial of genocide causes. Academics and historians estimate that 1 million to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in 1915 by Turkish soldiers, but Turkish leaders maintain that fewer people died and the violence did not constitute genocide.
Armenian-Americans still push the US Congress to officially recognize the killings as genocide nearly 100 years later.
Denial or forgetfulness is what allows genocide to continue happening, the marchers said. In Rwanda, the international community largely looked on as the mass killings occurred.
“Really, nobody cared,” said Jean Bosco Rutagengwa, Boggis’s adoptive father, who was 30 and living in Kigali when he survived the genocide there. “But if you have social pressure on organizations and government, I am certain that things will happen” to stop genocide.
Pressure, he said, begins with remembrance.
“When people forget,” he said. “Things like this genocide happen again.”