Living long enough to bear witness to the unbearable

02 February 2014 - 02:04 By Sam Jones

As the world marked international Holocaust Rememberance Day on Monday, three survivors described to Sam Jones how they lived through mass killings in Germany, Cambodia and Rwanda

AFTER the genocide that took from her a father, two brothers and a niece, which saw her survive malaria, a snakebite and a miraculously misfiring gun; after the genocide that forced her to seek sanctuary in ditches, bushes and a cathedral, Sophie Musabe Masereka made a silent promise.

"I said to myself: 'I will never get married and I will never get kids, because there is no point in being married if my husband is going to be killed; there is no point in having kids when I have seen entire families dying. I would rather stay the way I am.'"

Twenty years ago this April, Masereka, a Rwandan Tutsi who dreamed of becoming a nurse, watched neighbour turn on neighbour as the country's Hutu majority embarked on a three-month campaign of systematic slaughter during which 800000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered.

Although tensions and violence between the two groups were common, the shooting down of an aeroplane carrying the Rwandan president, Juvénal Habyarimana, on April 6 1994 triggered a killing frenzy that was unprecedented in scale and ferocity.

"Before then, they used to kill quietly; after that it became open," said Masereka. "I started hearing gunshots, people screaming, homes being burnt. Very early in the morning, I could see many people running in both directions - running, screaming, children crying."

Her father, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor who had lived through the Rwandan revolution that preceded the country's independence from Belgium, called his children together and told them: "All I can say is go find refuge, go find where to hide, but wherever you'll be, keep praying. If we happen to meet, we'll pray together."

They were not all to meet again. Five days later, Masereka watched as one of her brothers was taken to the side of the road and shot. After hiding in bushes, where she was bitten by a snake, she decided to return to her family only to find them being lined up next to one of the newly dug pits that had appeared near Tutsi homes. Her younger brother tried to shoo her away. "He told me: 'Go! We are going to be killed. We don't want you to die with us.'"

His warning saved her life. Ten years ago, she gathered her brother's bones and those of her father and niece from the pit and washed them.

The closest of Masereka's many subsequent escapes came when she was picked up at a roadblock and told she would be shot. For some reason, the bullet that should have hit her fell from the barrel of the gun to the floor.

Masereka believes it was God who brought about her escape; the brother who was with her at the time insists her life was spared because he paid the soldiers a bribe worth roughly R3.50.

With the help of a neighbour, she managed to get to a cathedral in Kigali where about 1500 people were hiding. The number of sanctuary-seekers gradually diminished as Hutus arrived to take small groups out to be murdered.

After a while, they tired of the slow pace and told those inside that they would be back the next day with grenades. Once again, her luck held: rebels arrived that night to rescue Masereka and others.

Two decades on, her memories are as fresh as her grief. "Every day, I find a way to say my people's names," she said. "When I'm on the bus sometimes, I remember them and tears come to my eyes."

SOKPHAL Din's memories, grief and anger are equally vivid. He was 18 when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, dragged his family out of their house in the Cambodian capital and drove them into the killing fields, where, one by one, he watched them die of hunger, exhaustion and malaria. For four years they lived in the jungle as Pol Pot set about murdering 1.7million people.

"It was like living in the dark ages," said Din. "They called it Year Zero. There was no contact with the outside world. From time to time they forced us to move around like cattle. They kept doing that until we were completely tired and some died from starvation or disease."

With no more sustenance than a daily spoon of rice, he began to find himself obsessed with food - and death. "We closed our eyes every night and dreamed about food, about chicken. But as I was about to eat it, I woke up. Then I'd try to go back to sleep again to continue the dream and think 'Please let me finish that chicken'."

His grandmother, whose ashes he still carries, died in his arms in the killing fields. His four-year-old brother was the next to die, succumbing to malaria after trying to fish for shrimp. As he watched his aunt perish and then his cousins, Din felt a monstrous envy.

"I looked at them and I thought: 'You are so lucky. You're dying now. You're going now, you're not suffering any more. I am the one who's still alive here and I don't know what's going to happen to me.'"

He was freed in 1979 after the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia. After living in a refugee camp and two years as a Buddhist monk, he came to the UK in 1987.

Din still dreams, almost every night, of those four years and the opportunities denied him by the Khmer Rouge.

"They took away my future, my dream of becoming something," he said. "I wanted to be a doctor. They took away my family and all my good memories of my family. They took away my property. I would have been happy if the killing fields hadn't happened. I would have a lot of children - a family around me - and we'd all be happy."

THIRTY-two years before Din was forced into a life of exile and hard labour, Freddie Knoller, a Viennese Jew, was put aboard a train that was bound for Auschwitz.

"The trains had 10 wagons and 100 people squeezed into each one," he said. "It was impossible to be comfortable there, but we organised ourselves: we got the old men, the women and the babies and the children who were there to sit or to lean against the wall."

Although Knoller and the other young people in the wagon took it in turns to sit and stand, their efforts proved insufficient. By the time the train pulled into the camp, one child and three of the older people were dead.

On arrival, he was given a uniform and had the number 157108 tattooed on his left arm. As his head was being shaved, he heard, for the first time, about old people and women being taken to Birkenau to be gassed and cremated.

"We didn't believe what they were saying because it was ridiculous. Germany was supposedly a cultured country. We couldn't believe it, but then they said: 'You will smell the sweet smell in the air of the burning bodies quite soon.' And really quite soon we smelled it and we started to believe that what they were saying was really true."

Despite meagre food and the back-breaking work of carrying 25kg bags of cement to the nearby IG Farben chemical factory, Knoller survived not only Auschwitz, but also its death march evacuation as the Russians approached in January 1945.

In Bergen-Belsen, where prisoners went without food for a month, he dug the ground in search of roots to eat. Others went to more desperate lengths.

"The ground was full of dead people, and I saw with my own eyes young people finding sharp stones and cutting up the flesh of the dead bodies to roast over fire," he said. "There was no more discipline."

Knoller did not join them in either their cannibalism or their despair. From the moment he was captured by the Gestapo in France in 1943 until the day Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British in April 1945, he refused to surrender his hope or his faith.

"I saw in the camps so many prisoners who were pessimists," he said. "They gave in; they gave up; they didn't fight for their lives, but I did fight. I believed in God and I still believe in God because I feel if I am in trouble, I can go back and beg God: 'Get me out of here.'"

Today, at the age of 92, Knoller makes weekly visits to schools to tell pupils about the Holocaust. Din and Masereka also work with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust to raise awareness of genocide.

Din is writing a book about his time in the killing fields between shifts on a grocery store checkout counter and his work as an interpreter.

In the end, Masereka found herself unable to keep the promise she made as a 22-year-old: she is married, has three children and works as a nurse. - ©The Guardian