Lake Highlands High School students had a rare opportunity Wednesday to hear from and chat with Dr. Rick Halperin, Chairman of the Board of Amnesty International USA. Halperin teaches history at SMU and is director of their Human Rights Education Program. Beginning next year, SMU will be the only university in America to offer a degree in Human Rights.
Halperin arranged to have three Rwandans speak to the kids about the genocide there in 1994 and the continuing atrocities in Africa, but the passports and visas of the guest speakers were revoked by the Rwandan government – literally as they arrived at the airport. Juliette Mukakabanda was rescued from the Hutu terrorists just before they killed her (they were enraged she wouldn’t murder her Tutsi husband), and Emmanuel Mugenzira was shot in the head and left for dead in a mass grave under other dead bodies but managed to crawl out and walk forty miles to safety in Burundi. They had planned to bring their interpreter.
To a full crowd of students in the LH auditorium, Halperin spoke in their places about his experiences visiting Rwanda and the history of violence there. On April 6, 1994, terrorists shot down a plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda. Over the ensuing couple of months, almost one million people were killed as Rwandan Hutus tracked across the country shouting “Kill the cockroaches!” Death by machete is, Halperin told the kids, a particularly brutal way to go.
“It is very difficult to be a student and come to grips with terrible human behavior,” he said. “You may ask ‘what does this have to do with me?’ You are going to inherit these problems. You have to eliminate the most dangerous phrases in the English language: I didn’t know or I don’t care. Everyone wants to have the best world we can have, without violence, terrorism, killings and craziness. You have to be aware of what was happening then and what is happening now.”
“Rwanda is the size of Maryland, and it’s a breathtakingly beautiful country,” he told them as he showed pictures from his latest visit. But the people are very poor, AIDS is rampant and the legacy of Belgian colonization is resentment between tribes competing for resources and opportunity. As photos of mounds of bodies flashed on the screen, Halperin described a culture of rape and violence. Smiling faces of Rwandans orphans had the usually boisterous students in stunned silence.
“Where is the world’s outcry?” Halperin asked. “The problems of Rwanda are your problems. Your job is not just to go to university to become a lawyer, teacher or businessman. Your real job is to become a human being.”
“I learned a lot from Dr. Halperin,” said LHHS junior Jasmine Wallace after the presentation. “I connected emotionally to what is happening to children and families there.” Classmate Katie North is shown in the photo asking questions of Dr. Halperin after his talk.
“You will get your turn at running this country,” Halperin stressed. “Every generation gets its turn. I ask that you keep in mind this motto – “There is no such thing as a lesser person.”