Exclusive Interview: Journey Through Genocide Writer Raffy Boudjikanian

More than a million children have been killed, raped, displaced, or otherwise harmed during the geocide in Darfur. In 100 days, the genocide in Rwanda claimed between half-a-million and a million lives. And it is estimated that 1.5 million died during the Armenian Genocide. Such numbers are frightening, but they can also be abstract, especially to those unfamiliar with what happened. In his new book Journey Through Genocide: Stories Of Survivors And The Dead (paperback, Kindle), CBC national reporter Raffy Boudjikanian takes a more personal approach to these tragedies through what he calls “a travel diary and a personal meditation.”

In the following email interview, Boudjikanian explains how this book came to be, why he took the approach he did, and what he hopes readers will get out of his book.

Journey Through Genocide Stories Of Survivors And The Dead

What is Journey Through Genocide about?

It is a travel diary and a personal meditation about the ordeal that is genocide, based on my trip through Chad, Rwanda, and Turkey in 2012. In the first country, I interviewed survivors who had escaped massacres from Darfur, in the neighboring country of Sudan. In Rwanda I spoke to survivors of the genocide against the Tutsi that occurred in 1994, and in Turkey I spent most of my time in and around the city of Elazig and the ruins of the fortress-town of Kharpert, where my Armenian ancestors lived before some of them were killed, others exiled, during the Armenian genocide of 1915.

Why did you feel this was the best approach to take for Journey Through Genocide?

Having grown up knowing about genocides from a very young age, due to my own family connection to the events of the Armenian genocide, I felt as if this was the best way for me to treat the subject. There are a lot of scholarly books about genocide, and that academic body of work is extremely important, essential, for a common understanding of what genocide is. But I’m not an academic and felt that I would have more to say about the subject from a personal point of view. I also felt the travel diary approach would allow me to make this an easier read than the understandably somber space most books about crimes against humanity occupy.

Your personal connections to genocide was obviously a factor, but why did you decide to write this book, and why did you decide that you were the right person to write this book?

I first heard about the Armenian genocide when I was four years old. I have a vague memory of my dad reading a book, its cover decorated with skulls. I asked him what it was about, and he told me, in as much as an adult can to a child, about the Armenian genocide. My parents, my siblings, and I are all born in Beirut, Lebanon, because our grandparents’ generation escaped from the Armenian genocide in Turkey during the crumbling days of the Ottoman Empire. My paternal grandfather, Armen, was seven years old when he last saw his father alive.

My immediate family and I moved to Canada from Lebanon in 1991, to escape the consequences of the Civil War that tore apart the latter country in the ’80s.

So the events of the Armenian genocide, though decades before I was born, have shaped my life’s path and always been a part of my backstory.

I felt like I had an emotional understanding of what genocide was, and I wanted to deepen that understanding. I wanted to meet survivors of more modern crimes against humanity, see if I could understand from their own experiences what life must have been like for that seven-year-old boy, my grandfather, in the early parts of the 20th century.

And I wanted to pass along that more emotional understanding to my audience. At first, the trip that became Journey Through Genocide was supposed to lead to a series of radio documentaries. It became a book once I came back from my trip and decided it would be a better way to tell that story.

As you mentioned, you look at three different genocidal events in Journey Through Genocide. Why did you decide to write about three as opposed to doing a deeper dive on just one?

Deeper dives exist on each and every one of these examples already. And unfortunately, most survivors of the Armenian genocide are now deceased, given how long ago it happened. To get at that really emotional understanding of genocide, I had to go to places where survivors are still alive. And I thought comparing and contrasting a few different examples would allow me to draw out similarities and differences between various crimes against humanity.

Conversely, why did you decide to do just three, as opposed to five or seven or whatever, and how did you decide which three to do?

My original plan was to do several more. I ultimately had to limit my scope due to two of the oldest problems in the world: lack of time and lack of money. I kept the idea of interviewing Darfuris on my list because Darfur remained, at the time of planning the trip, still the most recent example of what scholars called a genocide or, at the very least, a crime against humanity with some of the hallmarks of genocide. And yet I felt like daily media coverage was already moving away from it, so I wanted to get people thinking about how people are still living through the consequences of those events.

Rwanda remained on my list because of its relatively unique status as a country that’s also been through a relatively recent genocide — the events there only happened in 1994 — but that has forced itself to pull back together after what happened. The government’s political order of the day is reconciliation, but at the same time it tries very hard to mete out justice against accused genocidaires. I wanted to explore that dynamic.

And I really wanted to see my ancestral homeland with my own eyes, see what it is to be an Armenian living in Turkey, nearly a century after the events, so the final leg of the trip had to be that country.

As you said, there are similarities between these tragedies. But were there any that really surprised you or, conversely, something you expected to be common between all three but it only happened in one of them?

We often think of communities that have been through genocide as ones that want some form of recognition or retribution for what’s happened to them, and this is true, but I think we connect that idea to community leaders that advocate at a political level, whether it’s at the United Nations or with different countries’ governments.

What this trip showed me is that that kind of recognition is important at an individual level as well, and can take many different forms.

In Chad, at a UNHCR refugee camp for Darfuri refugees, I visited a school that was essentially a single hut. Understanding that I’m a journalist, one of the schoolboys approached me and said he’d like to express his frustration at the idea that he and most of his schoolmates really want to do well in school, and move on to university to be able to improve their lots in life, but realize that they’ll very likely never be able to do that given that their school was that single hut in a refugee camp. I do not believe he thought I could wave a magic wand and create a solution for him, but he knew I was there to document life at the camp for an audience and he wanted me to at least get his story out. That’s one example of what I mean by individual recognition.

Another from Rwanda: a Tutsi survivor you’ll meet in the book told me she once confronted a man whom she was convinced took part in the killing of her family, but he insisted to her that he did no such thing, that he only broke into her house with Interahamwe militia that day and stole an item of furniture while others did the killing. She walked away from that meeting extremely upset that he would not confess, not recognize what he had done.

And in Turkey, you’ll spend a bit of time with me at the Agos Turkish-Armenian weekly newspaper in Istanbul before we go to Kharpert. Agos employees repeatedly risk the ire of the government with stories about the Armenian genocide — for decades, Turkish official government policy has been to deny it was a genocide, and say there were deaths on “both sides” — and are still haunted by the 2007 assassination of one of their editors, Hrant Dink, who would constantly raise the subject.

When you started writing Journey Through Genocide, did you look at any similar books to see what to do, or what not to do, in terms of things like the structure?

Though I had read both academic books and more personal accounts of genocide by the time I sat down and stated writing my book, I do not recall specifically looking at more of them at that point.

I did think a lot about structure in terms of how to vary up the tone between different chapters and different parts of the trip, mostly to keep it interesting for the reader. You’ll notice some playing around with non-linear forms of narrative in certain parts of the book, as well as limited switching from first to third-person accounts.

So what do you hope people will get out of reading Journey Through Genocide?

Most of us understand the concepts of crimes against humanity or genocide, but tend to think of them as abstract terms: names of places, times the events happened, death tolls, the people killed. So we’ll think of the Jewish Holocaust, and we know it happened during the Second World War and six million Jews were killed, and associate it to countries such as Poland, Austria, and Germany. Or we’ll think of Rwanda and the terms “more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus” and the year 1994 will pop into our heads.

I’m hoping Journey Through Genocide will let readers look beyond those numbers and realize that there are people out there living through the consequences of those events and may have to do that for the rest of their lives.

Among those 800,000 and more who died in Rwanda? Five of the siblings of the Tutsi survivor I spoke to you about earlier, and her parents. She’s moved on but still breaks down when she thinks back to how her siblings were thrown into a latrine and she stopped hearing their sobs. What does it mean for her to live with that pain for the rest of her life? What does it mean for us that we still live in a world where these kinds of crimes against humanity can still happen?

Journey Through Genocide Stories Of Survivors And The Dead

Finally, I hope this doesn’t come across as insensitive, but if someone reads Journey Through Genocide, they’ll probably need some cheering up. So what funny or lighthearted book would you suggest someone read next and why that?

I can absolutely relate to that, and often do find the need to break away from reading or writing about literally the worst that humanity can possibly do. Personally, if you’re still in the mood to read travel diaries, it’s hard to go wrong with anything by Bill Bryson, whose personal observations of the various countries he visits have kept me entertained for years. His Neither Here Nor There: Travels In Europe, and The Lost Continent: Travels In Small Town America both occupy space on my bookshelf.

If you want to switch up genres, I sometimes like to go straight from non-fiction to sci-fi or a good detective story, or really, anything that just takes me away from the real world. For of a combination of sci-fi and detective fiction, I thought Ben H. Winters did a good job with The Last Policeman, for example. I also really enjoy the more pure sci-fi of Jon Scalzi. Redshirts in particular is a favorite.

And of course…go outside! Go do something life-affirming. See your friends and family. Go play sports with little ones in your family if you have any. That’s always a riot for me.

 

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