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WENDY ELLIOTT: Speak up about truth, tolerance, civility

Wendy Elliott. File
Wendy Elliott. File - SaltWire Network

Fields of pumpkin-coloured wheat against a blue sky and a starving little girl in black and white, front and centre. That’s what you see when you take in the customized RV marked ‘Holomodor: The Ukrainian Genocide.’ The mobile classroom was parked for a day in Wolfville last week.

The last century was marked by at least seven genocides across the planet, starting with Armenia in 1915. In the 1930s that genocide was followed by a sobering list: Ukraine, Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia.

For several years the Holodomor National Awareness Tour has visited schools and communities across the country to inform us about a genocide that the world has essentially swept under the rug. The fact is Russian ruler Joseph Stalin starved Ukrainians in the ‘breadbasket of Europe’ between 1932-33 in order to maintain control.

When you enter there is seating for a classroom of people and a video wall practically the length of the bus. It has state of the art educational technology. The documentary footage shows survivors telling their stories.

During the peak of the genocide over a thousand Ukrainians died every hour. People scavenged horsemeat. Parents gave their children to orphanages because they couldn’t feed them. And yet the Soviets dumped 276 million bushels of grain on Western markets in order to create mass starvation. Guards stood in watchtowers and shot anyone taking as much as a handful of grain from the fields.

The Holodomor was covered up until the fall of the USSR in 1991. The archives were then made available to the public. Even now, only 17 countries, including ours, recognize the genocidal intent of that man-made famine. Not surprisingly, Russia is not one of them.

The Holodomor National Awareness Tour hopes to combat this kind of selective historical memory by providing knowledge to educate about the atrocity. But the tour does more than that. It teaches about an Eastern European tragedy that, to many of us, could seem far removed from our lives.

Yet if you use the Holodomor ‘as a lens,’ the project places importance on the courage to speak up about truth, tolerance, civility, and democratic values, according to Roma Dzerowicz, who is executive director of the tour.

It does this through the use of international award-winning technology to engage students. When the bus visits grade schools, entire classes take part in interactive lessons that utilize individual iPads to answer questions and build murals on the screen. She says the youth engage.

“It’s amazing how students realize that … we have a voice. We can create a statement, and we can create knowledge,” she told the University of Victoria student newspaper.

Based in Toronto, the project has trouble meeting the demand just from schools in Ontario. Ideally, Dzerowicz would like to see other mobile classrooms raising awareness about global atrocities and using them as frameworks to teach Canadians about human rights and democratic values. The depictions screened in the mobile classroom are pretty graphic, but the images detail the truth of the hateful things that happened.

Holomodor is based on two Ukrainian words - holod, meaning starvation, and mor, meaning death. Between seven and 10 million Ukrainians were killed, although the exact number will never be known. Children comprised one-third of genocide victims. Many were orphaned and became homeless.

As an umbrella project of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, the big RV certainly has a mission. There is no comprehending what Stalin and the Soviets did. All genocide anywhere is unconscionable. Keeping it hidden for over five decades is a sin against humanity.

What I learned visiting the touring RV is that fake news and uninformed reporting is to be feared today. Despots will carry out despicable crimes if no one dares report on them.

Last year, Reuters reported that more than 60 journalists were murdered around the world. That was a 15 percent increase over the previous year. The deadliest countries, according to Reporters Without Borders, include India, Mexico and, yes, the United States. We best be wise to those facts.

- Former Advertiser and Register reporter Wendy Elliott lives in Wolfville.

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