As Haverhill High School senior Michelle Chennault sat in the school auditorium, she was stunned at the stories she heard from the speakers on stage.
She was among more than 100 students who listened to four people tell there stories about how they or their ancestors escaped genocide in four different countries. The human rights forum on Monday was organized and moderated by retired Haverhill Gazette reporter Tom Vartabedian. It is the second consecutive year in which Vartabedian has organized a group of speakers to talk at Haverhill High about genocides.
Most touching to Chennault was the story of Jasmina Cesic, who survived the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s.
"These genocides happened when I was only 2 or 3 years old and I had never even heard about them," Chennault said. "It just shocked me because I was only a toddler and I had no idea what was happening that entire time.''
Cesic was living in the Yugoslavian city of Visegrad in 1992 when the country's government began to fall apart. Constant fighting between Serbs and Muslims led to more than 25,000 deaths of Bosnian Muslims between 1992 and 1995. Cesic was able to escape and come to the United States in 1993, but she left behind her husband, two brothers, uncle and grandmother who had all been killed in the genocide.
Not only did she lose her loved ones — she also lost her right arm. Cesic told the story about how she and her husband were waiting for the bus one morning to go to work when they were shot at from a passing armored car. Her husband was killed and Cesic was badly wounded. She lost her right arm and had wounds to both of her legs. She was in the hospital for 25 days. She came to the United States in 1993, after the U.S. started a program for Bosnian refugees who needed medical treatment.
Rwandan refugee Claude Kaitare spoke about his experience in Rwanda during 1994. Kaitare was living there when President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane was shot down, sparking genocide throughout the small country in east Africa. Although he was only 12 at the time, Kaitare played a vital role in keeping his friends and family alive.
Kaitare was too young to even have an ID card listing his ethnicity, so he was able to pass through certain roadblocks to access marketplaces and acquire necessary supplies. He then passed back through the road blocks to deliver those supplies to relatives and friends who were staying at a refugee camp. He did that for three months until the genocide was over. Kaitare eventually moved to Kenya where he studied English, before coming to the United States.
"To actually see someone there who had experienced genocide and was able to talk to us about that was really amazing," said Haverhill High sophomore Nathalia Ulysse.
Ulysse said she enjoyed hearing the speakers because it genocide not a subject that is usually touched on during her classroom learning.
Also speaking to the students was Jim Vanderpol, a holocaust survivor of World War II from the Netherlands. Vanderpol described his experience as similar to that of Anne Frank, who was famous for hiding from the Nazis in an attic for several months. Frank did not survive the holocaust, but Vanderpol did by hiding in a chimney in Amsterdam.
The final speaker was George Aghjayan, who had ancestors in the Armenian Genocide during the early 20th century. Aghjayan focused on the importance of getting the genocide recognized in the United States. Only 44 of the 50 states recognize the events from 1915 to 1923 as a genocide. Turkey has a major opposition to the genocide being recognized and the fear of damaging relations with Turkey has halted a bill which would recognize the Armenian tragedy in the United States.
The Armenian Genocide will be commemorated at St. Gregory the Illuminator Church on April 17, as has been the case for the last 97 years. Mayor James Fiorentini will speak at the ceremony and the Armenian flag will be raised.
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