Independence Day in Africa a time to take stock of America

The Baltimore Sun

KIGALI, Rwanda - Today I will be celebrating the Fourth of July in a different context than ever before.

In Rwanda, July 4 is a holiday that commemorates the liberation of the country from the genocidal regime that murdered 1 million Tutsis and tens of thousands of Hutu political moderates who were committed to freedom and democracy, from April to July of 1994.

It is a celebratory day, for it marks the end of the genocide and the establishment of a nonracist state that upholds the principles of liberty, equality and the peaceful coexistence of all Rwandans. But embedded within the joy that marks the end of the genocide is the profound sadness that for 100 days, genocide ruled Rwanda as government policy. The slaughter was supported at the highest levels by church authorities, civil society and hundreds of thousands of individual citizens, aided and abetted by an indifferent and complicit international community.

In the United States, July 4 is a day for unrestrained celebration, for barbecues and fireworks, for community gatherings and family get-togethers. It's a time when the differences that enliven American society and culture coalesce around what unites us as a people. Sometimes, in the thick of the excitement, we forget that celebrating America's birthday is not only a time for parties and fun but also a time to take stock of the meaning of America - its values, promise and ideals.

The radically visionary statement of our Declaration of Independence has always resonated for me with great power and personal relevance. I will never forget flying home from Poland, where I had visited Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps, and being greeted at Kennedy Airport by these words painted along the walls of the terminal: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights." At that moment, my sense of gratitude for being American, my love for my country, felt infinite in depth and expansiveness.

The ideals of our Declaration embody a living and dynamic commitment, not a static and historically bound idea. They are at once particular and universal, a uniquely American formulation of a universal truth that knows no borders or boundaries.

Rwanda is striving to build a society that shares our American values. Sadly, the date of Rwanda's liberation and the end of the genocide - coinciding, as it does, with the date of America's Declaration of Independence - could have come much earlier, had the United States and the international community not refused to intervene to stop the genocide and assist its victims.

No member states of the United Nations came to Rwanda's aid in any significant way during those 100 days of hell. The universality of our nation's values was tested, and we, as a people, failed to apply its principles beyond the borders of our nation. We failed not only the Rwandan people but also ourselves, and we failed America.

The United States and Rwanda will forever share the date of July 4, a date of joy but also a date for reflection. It is a date that reminds us of the necessity of ensuring a government that protects freedom and equality so as to guarantee the sanctity of human life and the possibility of justice and peace.

Rwanda is a tiny landlocked country in the heart of Africa. For me, it is far from home. But I know that as I celebrate the Fourth of July in Kigali, I will feel gratitude for America and identification with America's ideals with a special fervor. I will celebrate the holiday as I always do, with exuberance and hearty appreciation for the gifts that come with being American.

Although not all people have the privilege of living in America, the Statue of Liberty proclaims the same welcome and the same ideal to everyone, everywhere. To those who cannot reach our shores physically, we owe our promise that our shores will reach them: by dedicating ourselves to apply the transcendental claims and ethical convictions of our Declaration of Independence, its promise of freedom, democracy and equality - defending these convictions wherever and whenever they are threatened.

Nothing undermines America more than the violations of these principles. And nothing vindicates the American ideal and celebrates America more than their realization.

Noam Schimmel, a volunteer with the Survivors Fund in Rwanda and Plan Rwanda, is a former intern in the prosecutor's office of the U.N. International

Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. His e-mail is

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