Starting from today, Rwanda will be marking 20 years of its history’s most infamous chapter. The 100-day genocide started on the 7th of April in 1994 and, although it officially ended that very same year, the wounds still seem fresh. As a student of History and Politics, Rwanda has been a part of my education for a very long time. As a citizen of Bangladesh, a country which suffered its own deplorable mass slaughter, it has also been an incident I seem to have a strangely personal connection to. The world is still reeling from the mistakes it made during those harrowing months and the hard-learned lessons will not soon be forgotten.
Here in the UK, the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster will be commemorated just over a week from now. On the 15th of April in 1989, 96 Liverpool FC fans lost their lives in the most tragic circumstances. The calls for justice have taken over two decades to be heard with the inquests wrongfully blaming the victims only recently being overturned and fresh investigations having just been commissioned. Despite the unjustifiable approach the authorities had taken to the initial incident, and the many subsequent denials, there is no doubt that anyone who has even a remote interest in football history – a substantial proportion of the world – knows at least the basics of the tragedy.
And, of course, this is also the year that marks the centenary of the First World War. Sadly mislabelled “the war to end all wars”, the conflict will be solemnly marked by a range of exhibitions and ceremonies across Europe. In the age of drone strikes and phone taps, children will be taught in classrooms about the historic Western Front, the trenches, the heroism, and the futility of the millions of deaths. Humanity has an extraordinary capacity for memorialising misfortune from decades ago, to the point where people who were not even alive during those events feel a sense of grief.
This is a remarkable trait indeed and one that would indicate that the mistakes of the past will not be replicated. It is equally remarkable – and extremely disheartening – that we are unable to focus on the many catastrophes befalling the world at this very minute. For the better part of a year, Syria was the big story, not just in the media, but in general public discourse. The abhorrent plight of so many innocents moved the world and, for a while, it looked it a course of specific action would be taken. Fast forward several months to the present and, if discussion is to be a barometer, you would be forgiven for thinking that the crisis has been solved. The war is still being waged, the innocents are still suffering, and we have moved on because we are too busy to look at the present.
Consider Ukraine. Amidst the outdated Cold War rhetoric and the (justified) criticisms of American diplomats, we seem to have forgotten about the Ukrainians themselves, the people who matter the most. What started as a people’s movement, with hope for unity and divisive flaws aplenty, has now turned into a power struggle between two superpowers. The same apathy towards the realities on the ground has sentenced countless other countries to a state of perpetual inequality. Egypt’s authoritarianism was condemned for a while and then forgotten when the deaths no longer tallied in the hundreds. Bangladesh was criticised for unfair elections and yet that same government continues to hold power unchallenged.
Human memory is often a painful experience. As the commemorations this year alone show, we are condemned to remember our greatest follies because they should not have been allowed to happen in the first place. But while these tributes need to happen, let us not turn a blind eye to the atrocities taking place right now. If we continue to do so, we will not have any good memories left.