Survivors of some of the last half-century’s worst atrocities now have their stories and firsthand experiences preserved for future generations through a special Baylor Institute for Oral History (IOH) project.
For the past two years, Baylor IOH has interviewed, recorded and curated the stories of 14 individuals—all now living in Texas—who survived wars and unbelievable carnage. Their information provides a human connection and recorded witness to the events through the Survivors of Genocide project, commissioned and funded by the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission.
“When we hear about genocide, we see numbers, often graphic numbers, and hear reports of atrocities,” Dr. Stephen Sloan, BBA ’90, MA ’98, Baylor IOH director and assistant professor of history, said. “What can be lost is the human experience. What is it like for an individual to encounter this and continue to live a life? What oral histories and this project bring is that human experience—someone touched as closely as you can be by an event, relating it to you to help us understand.”
Whether it was in Cambodia, Bosnia-
Herzegovina, Rwanda or Sudan, the lives of the survivors were turned upside down in conflicts that claimed millions of lives amid violence that separated families and forced evacuees from their homeland to seek refuge in other countries. All experienced appalling loss and witnessed horrific events, yet found and followed circuitous paths to the United States.
Today, the survivors contribute to Texas communities as policemen, businesswomen, social workers and parents. A summary of experiences of four of the individuals interviewed follows.
When war came to her country of Bosnia in 1992, it separated Heldic from her daughter for three years. She survived in an atmosphere of increasing oppression and violence, eventually reuniting with her daughter and escaping to the United States in 1995. Despite a difficult transition, Heldic built a life for her family in the Burleson area where she owns and operates a retail cleaning business.
Thai and his family moved several times during the Cambodian Civil War to escape the conflict before being broken apart and scattered with the takeover of the Khmer Rouge. After several years in work camps, the Thais were reunited only to encounter additional hardships attempting to flee their country. Eventually, he made it to Texas. Thai now serves the City of Dallas as a police officer.
Abdulkhalik was 7 years old when war came to her home in western Sudan. She immediately fled to the mountains with her three brothers. Abdulkhalik joined the millions of Darfuris displaced by war as she searched for peace and reunion with her family. She came to the United States with her family in 2010 and entered the Houston school system. In June 2013, she married Khaled Handhal, and they have two children.
Gasore was 8 years old when war came to his small Rwandan village. He lost his family before spending months evading capture, fighting off attackers and helping fellow Tutsis survive the violence. He came to the United States in 2005 to attend Abilene Christian University on a track scholarship. Serge and his wife are the co-founders of Rwanda Children, which provides aid to vulnerable children in his home village of Ntarama.
All 14 interviewees shared firsthand memories of traumatic moments. Dr. Melissa Sloan, BA ’91, a psychologist, and English PhD student Nathan Roberts also attended the interviews. Melissa Sloan visited individually with the survivors after the main interview as a part of the program design, helping them process what was shared and providing further resources as needed.
“I want to thank (Baylor Institute for Oral History) for having this moment of opportunity to make my voice heard where two million have no voice at all,” said Albert Cheng, survivor of the violence and genocide inflicted by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. “(They) have no voice besides them crying for help. It’s not me, but their voice, too. Their voices of suffering, the voice of justice, the voice of freedom. I’ll voice it out for them, not just me.”
Videos and transcripts, along with histories of the wars and conflicts they survived, are available in an online exhibit on the IOH website, baylor.edu/oralhistory.