One of my last big trips for the BBC was to Rwanda in 2004 to meet survivors 10 years on from the genocide that claimed up to a million lives. During that trip I learned the incredible depravity that human beings are capable of when stirred to hatred. I was reminded of it this week.
One of the men I met was among 45,000 minority Tutsis who had been corralled “for safety” into a school complex on a hill in Murambi. Their Hutu protectors then turned on them in a wild killing spree.
He was shot in the head but clung to life, hiding under the bodies of friends and family, crawling away hours later in the quiet of the night – one of only 34 thought to have survived.
When only a short time later people began to deny the genocide had happened he returned to the scene, dug up the mass graves and retrieved a handful of bodies.
He coated them in lime powder to preserve them – and the truth – laying them in what had been a classroom. Every day for 10 years he had come to that classroom to put fresh lime on the bodies. He took me in to see them, hair and dark flesh showing through the white powder.
A proper memorial has now been built so that their deaths can never be denied, their souls can lie at rest and his daily vigil can be brought to an end.
I thought of him last week when I was sitting in the peace of our garden with my 16 year-old daughter, helping her memorise for her History GCSE the landmark dates in the rise and fall of Hitler – the dehumanising of the Jews and other minorities, the laying of blame and stirring of hatred.
I thought of him last night when I heard about the death of Jo Cox.
And then I remembered some other people from Rwanda. I remembered those in church on Sunday, singing with hearty African harmonies and joyous rhythm, worshipping alongside people who only 10 years earlier had killed their relatives and tried to kill them.
That’s where I learned about the other side of human nature and our astonishing potential – the potential for unbelievable forgiveness and love.
Last night Robert Harris, the author and historian, tweeted: “How foul this referendum is. The most depressing, divisive, duplicitous political event of my lifetime. May there never be another.” Amen to that.
Information and truth
We live in a culture of TMI – too much information – which may explain why, according to the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information, the average human attention span is now only 8.25 seconds.
Anyone in marketing has to overcome that attention challenge, and so do politicians if they want to get their messages across.
Given how the referendum has been conducted, one must assume politicians have now decided the only way to do that is by appealing to our emotions rather than our intellect – and to our basest emotions at that.
I’ve never been in doubt which side of the Brexit debate I stand, and neither have many on the other side. But millions stand in the middle, undecided, crying out for intelligent, balanced debate.
Today I work in PR and communications. The values of my company are clarity, spark and truth – qualities we’ve seen precious little of from politicians in the past few weeks.
I want a political dialogue that strives for those values – one that recognises we have enormous amounts of information being thrown at us and so tries to present arguments in an engaging, concise and honest way.
I want a political dialogue that speaks to those incredible human qualities I witnessed in Rwanda – qualities of compassion, community spirit, truth and hope – and that shows faith in our intellect and our capacity to do what is right.
I’m with Robert Harris. Please, let this be the last campaign I witness that speaks only to our fears and greed, bringing out the worst in us as individuals and as a nation. I’ve seen where that path leads.