Deacon Nick Valvo has learned that history often repeats itself if no one intervenes. He kept that thought in mind when he chose the topic for the spring book club at Auburn’s Sacred Heart Parish, where he is pastoral associate.
During the month of May, members of the book club watched the film “Hotel Rwanda” and planned to read Immaculee Llibagiza’s book, Left to Tell.Both works both tell the story of the 1994 ethnic genocide in Rwanda, where, according to Catholic News Service, more than 800,000 people were brutally massacred in a clash between the Hutu and Tutsi people.
In the wake of this genocide, many members of the international community pledged to remain vigilant to prevent such an atrocity from ever happening again. But less than a decade later, a similar situation erupted in Africa, in the Darfur region of western Sudan.
Open warfare broke out in Darfur in 2003, and since then more than 70,000 people have been killed and more than two million others have been forced to flee their homes for refugee camps, according to CNS. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called on Congress and President George W. Bush to work to end the crisis in Darfur.
“The U.S. Catholic bishops join with the leaders of other faith communities and all people of good will in an urgent appeal to the president and our elected representatives to strengthen their efforts to bring a definitive end to the intolerable moral and humanitarian crisis in Darfur,” stated the April 28 document from the USCCB. “Our nation cannot remain silent in the face of killings, rape and wanton destruction. Our country must do more, much more, to defend and protect innocent civilians. Anything less would be unworthy of us as a people committed to human life and dignity.”
Deacon Valvo hopes members of the book club will be moved to voice their opposition to the Darfur killings after they learn more about what happened in Rwanda 12 years ago.
“I hope that they’ll take away a real sense of what’s actually happening in these countries that are devastated with this type of violence,” he said. “Hopefully they will be motivated to stand up and speak out against this kind of thing.”
Book-club members spent about half an hour discussing “Hotel Rwanda” after watching it May 2 and planned further discussion for May 9, when a local historian was to present some of the historical factors that led to the genocide. On May 16 they’ll begin discussing Left to Tell, which chronicles Llibagiza’s survival of the attacks.
“We talked about how it’s one thing to read about a fact in a newspaper article, and it’s another thing to see it lived out or played out in front of you,” he said.
“I remember reading about (the Rwandan genocide) in the newspaper over coffee in the morning before work,” Deacon Valvo said, recalling that he briefly pondered what a tragedy it was, then he finished his coffee and went to work. He didn’t fully grasp the extent of the tragedy and human suffering until he watched “Hotel Rwanda,” which was released in 2004.
The film, which was nominated for three Academy Awards, tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu hotel manager who opens his doors to more than 1,000 Tutsi refugees and moderate Hutus fleeing the Hutu militants.
“It’s easy to distance yourself when you read about this stuff in the papers. When you sort of experience it secondhand by watching a movie, it suddenly becomes real and it makes an impression. You’re confronted with the reality of what that really means,” Deacon Valvo said.
After watching “Hotel Rwanda,” Deacon Valvo began to understand what the violence in Rwanda meant for the people who lived it and who were often represented simply as statistics in the media. Similarly, there are human lives and stories behind the numbers and statistics reported in recent articles about the Darfur violence, he noted.
“I decided that I needed to understand what those words meant and then do something about it, even if it was just making others aware or writing a letter to a representative,” he said.
Deacon Valvo is not the only local Catholic working to raise awareness of the Darfur situation. The Diocese of Rochester recently listed issues affecting Africa among its social-ministry priorities for the year, and several local parishes and Catholic Charities organizations have become involved with “A Million Voices for Darfur,” a national campaign organized by the Save Darfur Coalition.
Through this campaign, Americans are encouraged to send postcards and letters to Bush and other elected officials, urging them to act against the violence in Darfur. Thousands of people attended the coalition’s April 30 rally in Washington, D.C., and Deacon Valvo was one of about 1,300 people to gather at Rochester’s Temple B’rith Kodesh for an interfaith Darfur rally on April 27.
The rally convinced Deacon Valvo that he can make his voice heard to make a difference in Darfur.
“As these numbers begin to increase and these postcards begin to multiply, that voice becomes louder and louder. Hopefully there’s time to stop this terrible situation,” he said.