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Hate as a Contagion: The Role of Media in the Rwandan Genocide

Rwanda Genocide Memorial: 800,000 people were killed in 100 days of systematic slaughter in 1994. Here, Madonna looks down upon a sea of the clothes of the people who were killed in this place. (Photo: configmanager / Flickr)

Excerpt From Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World

Jean’s brother lay before him, battered, bleeding, and in agony from the bludgeoning he had just endured by members of his own ethnic group, the Hutu of Rwanda. Jean stood, machete in hand and gun at his head, facing a decision he was being forced to make – decapitate his brother or face his own demise. Jean and his brother were Hutus, one of three ethnic groups that resided in Rwanda. But his brother was married to a Tutsi woman, the group targeted for annihilation by the extreme Hutu-led Rwandan government in the spring of 1994. When the massacres in Rwanda began, the brothers had given food to Tutsi refugees who were driven from their homes through mass burning and pillaging. As penance for aiding the “inyenzi” (the Rwandan word for “cockroach”), Rwandan military reservists ordered Jean to behead his brother. While he agonized over the predicament, reservists reminded him that he must either kill, or be killed as an accomplice to the Tutsis. In a moment of fear and confusion, Jean thrust the machete into his brother’s neck.

Jean was among the less extreme Hutus caught up in the mass-murder sprees and “made” to kill their loved ones. Others like him killed neighbors, family members, and friends under a similar “kill or be killed as an accomplice” threat. They did so to prevent being placed on the government’s infamous hit list of traitor Hutus who were to be hunted down and destroyed. Some Hutus killed one group of Tutsis while simultaneously hiding and protecting others who were either dear to them or who offered bribes for shelter. Others anguished over killing friends, neighbors and relatives.

Most violators were ordinary people who had not committed violence in the past, and many were remorseless in the killings, believing that they were doing an important job.

Thousands of other Hutus were more like Pierre, a father and subsistence-farmer-turned-killer. Pierre and his neighbors came to believe that the Tutsis were responsible for the death of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana. Filled with rage, Pierre and thousands of regular Rwandan Hutus – farmers, teachers, parents, doctors, and active churchgoers – sought revenge and to eliminate those whom they believed were evil, criminal accomplices out to kill their Hutu brethren. Their mission was to eradicate what they believed was an infestation of vermin, infiltrators, and criminals who were coming to take their land and pile their dead bodies into “pits.” They killed every Tutsi with whom they had contact – community members, neighbors, and friends.

Children and infants were hacked up mercilessly because “you must also kill the rat in gestation; it will grow up to be a rat, like the others.” In some cases, victims were physically and mentally tortured. A primary school teacher pounded a young child relentlessly with a hammer before finally killing him. Another Hutu crushed an already-battered ten-year-old girl with a stone.

Told that they must rape the women before slaying them, some Hutu men sequentially raped Tutsi women until their victims collapsed. They used farm tools, spears, gun barrels, and machetes, or mutilated their victims’ genitals and breasts with acid or boiling water. One group of soldiers held a hatchet to a twelve-year-old boy’s throat, forcing him to rape his mother, while his younger siblings were forced to hold her legs open. Some raped to spread HIV, infecting roughly 70 percent of surviving rape victims.

Rwandan Hutus from all walks of life rose to annihilate the Tutsis, using machetes, knives, acid, or boiling water. In search-and-destroy missions, they moved from house to house and scrutinized every crevice to be sure they had not missed someone in hiding. To ensure they had not missed a hidden Tutsi, “workers” set houses and entire villages ablaze.

Tutsi families fled, seeking cover in churches or other public places, only to find these locales had become slaughterhouses, where killers mutilated hundreds at a time. Dead bodies filled church aisles, pews, halls, city streets, and alleyways in the once-idyllic land. Entire villages became heaps of bodies.

In just over three months, the Hutu people had brutally exterminated three-quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population as well as Hutus who resembled the Tutsis, had helped a Tutsi escape, or had refused to kill. But most violators were ordinary people who had not committed violence in the past, and many were remorseless in the killings, believing that they were doing an important job by avenging the death of their president, defending themselves from what they believed was an oncoming slaughter or exterminating the “cockroaches” that were causing all their political and economic troubles. And although there had been periods of ethnic rivalries among extremists, most Tutsis and Hutus had lived side by side, intermarried, and attended the same schools and churches. And historically, they had banded together to fight common enemies. Differences between them were minimal. Physically, one could hardly distinguish their respective traits, and they shared racial backgrounds, languages, customs, traditions, and territories. But in a matter of weeks, Hutus rose to destroy their neighboring Tutsis. How can we explain this?

The Background: Setting The Stage For Genocide

Historically, Hutus and Tutsis lived together in Central Africa, the region now divided into Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. Divisions between them arose with European colonization. Belgian settlers devised a scheme to separate and distinguish the tribes from each other based on minor physical differences. Tutsis were somewhat taller, more slender, and had smaller noses. The distinctions were so slight that colonists instituted an identification system, requiring Rwandans to maintain papers so as not to confuse the groups.

Initially, the Belgians bestowed benefits onto the Tutsis – offering them better education and prestigious social and political positions – in essence, making the Tutsis an upper class and the Hutus a lower class. But when Tutsis agitated for independence, Belgians shifted loyalties, replacing the Tutsi chiefs with Hutus, who were the majority group. Hutu leaders seized the opportunity and, in a turbulent “revolution,” they conquered the Tutsi rulers and took power. In the process, they killed an estimated one hundred thousand Tutsis and left several hundred thousand refugees.

In one hand, they held their weapon of choice – a machete, a club, or a hatchet – in the other, a radio.

The refugees fled to neighboring countries, such as Uganda, Burundi, and Zaire; but having lost their homes and with limited civil rights in their new host countries, they lived with a deep sense of injustice. By 1961, the Belgian colonization ended, but a new, oppressive Hutu regime had begun. In 1973, defense minister Major General Juvénal Habyarimana deposed the sitting president and seized power in a coup. Although President Habyarimana ended targeted ethnic violence, over his more than 25-year reign, his administration still oppressed, jailed, and sometimes executed political opponents.

Rwandans facing oppression fled, swelling the number of exiles and refugees in neighboring countries to nearly six hundred thousand by the 1980s, where some governments, particularly Uganda’s, persecuted Rwandan refugees. There, a group of exiles formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) with a stated mission of ousting Habyarimana and establishing a more democratic government in Rwanda. On October 1, 1990, the RPF crossed into Rwanda and killed the customs guards at their entry point.

With the aid of foreign troops from France and Zaire, the Rwandan military pushed the RPF back toward the Ugandan border and in the process, summarily killed more than five hundred thousand unarmed people, mostly for suspicion of aiding the RPF. Violence erupted throughout the land. Bombs were detonated on buses, and land mines exploded in roads; unidentified assailants attacked people, led death squads, raped, pillaged, murdered, and threw grenades into homes.

In 1992, at the urging of the Organization of African Unity and France, the Rwandan government and the RPF entered peace negotiations and on August 3, 1993, signed the Arusha Accords, agreeing to establish rule of law, share power, and repatriate refugees. Eight months later, assailants shot down the plane carrying President Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira, killing both leaders. But these events cannot explain why regular Hutu people rose to annihilate their fellow Rwandans. There was one more factor: the mass media.

Media As A Weapon

In one hand, they held their weapon of choice – a machete, a club, or a hatchet – in the other, a radio, most often tuned to Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM), according to observers. Financed and controlled by what were known as the Akazu faction (and Hutu Power) of the Habyarimana government, the RTLM launched its broadcast programs just after the Arusha peace treaty was signed. Led by a young intellectual and university professor, Ferdinand Nahimana, the radio station was said to be the “voice of the people,” attracting listeners with exciting content – entertainment, breaking news, hip music, call-in requests, gossip, and quick wit. It became the most popular station in Rwanda. But nestled between Rwandans’ favorite songs and off-color jokes was an intense campaign designed to evoke passion, pride, hatred, and dedication to a murderous cause that was framed as a noble act.

Broadcasters weaved together a passionate tale of good versus evil, in which the unmistakably evil forces – the RPF and its fellow Tutsi accomplices – were actively destroying all that was good. They were enemies of democracy, justice, the Hutu people, and Rwanda itself. The radio hosts bolstered the story line with tales of horror that repeatedly depicted the antagonist Tutsis as irreconcilably evil. In one tale, the Tutsis from the RPF had allegedly tortured, castrated, and murdered the Burundian president alongside other victims. In another, Tutsis had reportedly cut innocent Hutu people “into pieces with a machete [and] terrorized the population and the authorities.”

The descriptions and the cumulative narrative attacked the fundamental character of the RPF and the Tutsi people as their accomplices, as if they were intrinsically detestable and driven to evil. They allegedly burned Hutu people alive, locked them in houses to die of hunger, and threw their dead bodies into Lake Muhazi. “They mutilate the body and remove certain organs, such as the heart, liver, and stomach; they eat human flesh,” asserted broadcaster Valerie Bemeriki.

These journalists blamed the Tutsis for Rwanda’s misfortunes and political problems, real and imagined.

The Hutu Power-published bimonthly newspaper Kangura corroborated this myth, asserting that Tutsis were fundamentally evil. “The malice, the evil are just as we knew them in the history of our country.” Kangura’s cartoons depicted RPF soldiers slicing up a Hutu baby for dinner as its mother looked on in horror. The caption read, “The RPF Democracy in full function: equal shares for all.”50 In the article, THE APPEAL TO THE CONSCIENCE OF THE HUTU, Kangura writers insisted that Tutsis were “seeking supremacy” and preparing to “decimate us.” It advocated for a racially purified Rwanda, one that either segregated and closely monitored the Tutsi or eradicated them. Overall, these journalists blamed the Tutsis for Rwanda’s misfortunes and political problems, real and imagined. Ultimately, they suggested that the Tutsis’ heartlessness and cruelty could “be cured only by their total extermination.”

The most common insult used by RTLM broadcasters toward the Tutsi was “cockroach” that had to be destroyed. But they also called the Tutsi people cannibals and snakes, hyenas, and other animals. They depicted Tutsis as so fundamentally different from Hutus that intermarriage would produce “hybrid” offspring – “beings with two heads.”

If you are a cockroach, you must be killed,” declared **Habimana. “If he is Inkotanyi, a known accomplice of RPF, don’t accept anything in exchange. He must be killed!”

Through these depictions, some Hutus came to believe their “single job was to crush the cockroaches.” Some said they “forgot” that they were human beings. “We no longer saw a human being when we turned up a Tutsi,” said one Hutu killer. It “meant nothing” to slaughter neighbors and friends, concurred another. “To think we were cutting up our neighbors down to the last one became a goes-without-saying,” he said. “They no longer were what they had been. . . . They had become people to throw away.” One Hutu now saw his friends as “an insect that chews up clothing and nests in it, so you have to squash them hard to get rid of them.”

The “heroes” in this narrative were those who “worked,” a euphemism for murder.

Simultaneously, the RTLM radio hosts called the Hutu people the “true” Rwandans who had inherited “the integrity, the truth” and stood for “the rejection of inequality, of the lie” that the Tutsi people represented. The “heroes” in this narrative were those who “worked,” a euphemism for murder. In the mornings, radio hosts greeted their listeners: “Hello, good day, have you started to work yet?” This “work” was part of their patriotic duty. “Stand up, so we may continue to kill the inyenzi,” announced Ananie Nkurunziza over the air. “Rise up as one man!”

These messages offered a sense of heroism, nationalism, and admiration to Hutus who brutalized their fellow Rwandans. The radio hosts glorified them over the air, sometimes individually calling out their names. “I seize this opportunity to thank the youths fighting at the front: Ruguyekera, Ntwali, Nzarora, and others, . . .” said Nkurunziza. Habimana lavished them with praise. “So, you killed five of them! Keep it up!”

As a means of encouragement, journalists called for honoring the “workers” with special medals and celebratory parties, for which the killers expressed deep appreciation. One Hutu recalled “coming home from the massacre in the church; our welcome was very well put together. . . . It was the most terrific celebration.”

In contrast, the broadcasters shamed and threatened Hutus who resisted killing. “Nobody loves a coward!” proclaimed Habimana. “It is evident that he will never be useful . . . neither to himself, neither to his country.” He insisted that the “ignorant cowards” dishonored all Hutus. “We have to stop these things because they dishonour us.” . . . “Those who are fleeing will regret,” he insisted. Those who refuse to “die for your country [will] die like a dog.”

Broadcasters portrayed the genocide as a grand cause.

As a solution, Habimana said, “Every time that you cross a coward, throw stones at him.” To prevent their escape, broadcasters urged listeners to “learn to be sly. . . . You can dig a pit for them to fall into . . . lay a trap for them . . . you can lay whatever snare for them!” One broadcaster suggested compiling lists of conscientious objectors so that they too could be systematically “eliminated . . . by the good workers who want to work.”

Day after day, the Hutu Power media cheered on their imagined team and detailed battles as if keeping score at a sporting events. Through building camaraderie and by equating extermination with an all-important cause, journalists abetted the slaughter and helped motivate their audiences to slaughter their fellow Rwandans with axes, machetes, and clubs.

Radio hosts assured their listeners that the Hutu killers would achieve victory. The Tutsi people, they said, “will all be exterminated and none will live to tell the disastrous story . . . young men and women [are] burning with the desire to . . . fight the Inkotanyi, to finish and beat them pants down!”

The Four Ends That Made Up the Grand Cause

Broadcasters portrayed the genocide as a grand cause, for which all walks of life, including children, teenagers, and the elderly, were recruited. That grand cause, according to these journalists, was the permanent eradication of evil. Like Hitler’s “final solution,” this “final war” required them to “exterminate the Tutsi from the globe . . . make them disappear once and for all.” The cause contained four “righteous” ends: righting injustice through revenge and destruction, asserting self-defense, instilling a majoritarian democracy, and protecting their country. With this crusade, Hutus could feel that the savage deeds before them were a means to a good end.

Righting Injustice and Asserting Self-Defense: Although the RTLM began its campaign since the signing of the Arusha Accords, it was President Habyarimana’s death and the related stories that triggered some of the most intense emotions. After Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, many Hutus simply waited, “listening to the radio on which one broadcaster proclaimed, The Rwandans “will never forget that those bandits killed their president, whom they loved very much.” Habyarimana’s death, claimed Hutu Power journalists, was one in a long line of injustices perpetrated by the Tutsi people. Stirring historic resentments, radio hosts argued that the Tutsis had a “superiority complex” and that for too long, the Hutu people had endured a Tutsi-driven monarchy, slavery, and exploitation.

This framing catalyzed Hutus. “We kept only one idea . . . suddenly Hutus of every kind were patriotic brothers,” remarked one Hutu. Another agreed that “the hatred came over us suddenly” following this framing: “‘Just look at these cockroaches – we told you so!’ Then we yelled, ‘right, let’s go hunting!'”

While calling for mass slaughter in the name of democracy, these journalists accused their enemies of doing exactly that.

Making the injustice more pronounced, journalists insisted that the land of Rwanda rightfully and exclusively belonged to the Hutus, the “true” Rwandans who had descended from Kanyarwanda. The Tutsis were “invaders” infesting the region to rob the Hutus of their rightful homes. “There is no proof to convince us that [the Tutsis] are Rwandans,” declared Habimana. They came to Rwanda to “attack our country . . . usurp power . . . plunder and grab everything the Rwandans have amassed in thirty years . . . the fruit of Rwandans’ labor,” he said.

The worst was yet to come, according to the RTLM broadcasters. The Tutsi were planning the ultimate injustice – the annihilation of the Hutu people. They would “exterminate, exterminate, exterminate you until they are the only ones left in the country, so that they can keep for a thousand years the power that their fathers had kept for four hundred years,” said Bemeriki. “We have . . . to fight tooth and nail to defend our lives and property,” added Habimana. And many did, believing that they were defending themselves, restoring what they believed justly belonged to their own ethnic group, and protecting their country.

Fighting for Democracy and Saving this God-Given Country

Although the Habyarimana government and the subsequent military-controlled government oppressed suspected political opponents, Hutu Power journalists asserted that theirs was a “government for the entire country, not for political parties.” Through the genocide, they would maintain democracy and prevent a Tutsi dictatorship, they argued.

Their tale created a dichotomy – democracy versus the “dictators of extremists” – in which the democrats were the Hutu Power’s Coalition for the Defense of the Republic (CDR) who “defend the interests of the people . . . the masses and not those of this or that minority group,” according to the CDR chairman Stanislas Simbizi. The others, the RPF and their “accomplices,” were “feudal-monarchists” who “rejected democracy . . . cast [it] . . . out the window” with plans to “strangle it forever.” The RPF and the Tutsis “take and monopolize power . . . govern by force [and] oppress the Hutus,” claimed Hutu Power journalists.

As broadcasters proudly recalled the Hutu “democracy” revolution that overthrew the Tutsis, they argued, “This Rwanda is mine. I am of the majority. It is I, first and foremost, who will decide . . . not you [the RPF].”

Annihilating the Tutsis would therefore “help Rwandans . . . embark on a real democracy,” according to RTLM broadcasters. While calling for mass slaughter in the name of democracy, these journalists accused their enemies of doing exactly that. The “bloodthirsty Inyenzi Inkotanyi who are exterminating the Rwandans [are] lying that they are fighting for democracy,” declared RTLM broadcasters. But they were instead attempting to establish “a killing and oppressive regime” and a “dictatorship [by] genocide, the elimination of the Hutu majority.” They claimed that the RPF “indiscriminately “butchers people and rips open their bellies,” while encouraging similar heinous acts. Finally, the RTLM editor-in-chief argued “Nobody should take power again through the barrel of the gun or . . . through war.”

In the RTLM narrative, the Hutu-driven massacres ensured that the Hutus would take their rightful place as inheritors of the sacred place known as Rwanda. “We are Rwandans. Let us fight for this Rwanda,” their very own country, in which they should have great pride: “Rwanda is nowhere else in the world. Rwanda is here – in Central Africa – where God located it.” But their God-given country’s survival was at stake, requiring Hutus to “Rise up!” and “Take up clubs, cudgels, and axes and confront them head on, in order to prevent them from continuing to destroy our country,” according to Habimana.

Beyond Incitement – Directing Genocide

In addition to provoking destructive emotions, Hutu Power journalists helped organize massacres by broadcasting the Tutsis’ hiding places and directing searches. They called upon listeners to scrutinize abandoned houses, and in drains, ditches, water conduits, and gutters, “especially in the evening,” when people in hiding might scrounge for food.

With long-term hierarchical governance, Rwandans tended to respect rather than question authority.

RTLM hosts broadcast tips that other Hutus had called in. In one program, Habimana urged listeners in Nyakabanda to “be vigilant, search the footpaths thoroughly [and] ferret them out.” In another, RTLM broadcaster Noel Hitimana called out to “the people living in Rugunga . . . Kanogo . . .Mburabuturo” to scrutinize hiding places within the woods.109 Habimana also broadcast specific leads, such as one from “Bernard Ntushoboye’s houseboy,” who allegedly witnessed an escape toward the town of Kimisagara. “Two of them are going toward APACE premises while the other two are going towards Nyakabanda,” declared Habimana. “Start looking for them within the APACE premises in Kabusunzu.” Later, Habimana advised, “Now, they have arrived in Bishenyi [and] in Kigese, in Runda.” He pinpointed the people “sleeping in Karamira’s house . . . in Nyamirambo near Saint Andre. Others are lying in Rukebesha’s house . . .” At another time, Karamira announced, “We know that some left Kimihurura” and suggested entrapping them when they were expected to return to find food.

At roadblocks scattered throughout Rwanda, broadcasters urged heightened scrutiny. If a Tutsi attempted to cross a checkpoint, “Look closely at his cute little nose and then break it!” urged Habimana.

Journalists also encouraged division of labor and suggested the proper use of weapons. “What counts is cooperation among the people,” said Gahigi over the RTLM airwaves. “Those with bows, spears, clubs, catapults must get ready. If one or two people are armed with guns, they must join this group. So if an inyenzi infiltrates in the night, shoot him with an arrow.” And to dislodge Tutsis from their homes, use “a rocket launcher and grenades,” he said.

What Was the Effect of Media?

Several conditions coalesced to facilitate disaster. First, with long-term hierarchical governance, Rwandans tended to respect rather than question authority. “When authorities say move to the left, we move to the left,” admitted one Rwandan Hutu. “If you are my authority and you tell me to kill . . . I could kill him even if I had no disagreement with him,” admitted another.

Second, by 1994, the sociopolitical atmosphere in Rwanda was already near crisis. A troubled economy rife with poverty and famine, tense political conditions, and the sudden death of President Habyarimana generated emotions.

Third, the Rwandan genocide was well orchestrated through the military and police channels that took advantage of ethnic divisions that had been codified by the Europeans and accentuated by the death of Rwanda’s president.

Finally, the media blamed the Tutsis for historic injustices, current crises, President Habyarimana’s death and an array of sociopolitical problems in Rwanda. Until two days after the plane crash, the Hutus and Tutsis “continued to live together as usual,” according to one teenager who participated in the genocide. “We heard on the radio, ‘Look for the enemy no matter where he is; he is your neighbor!’ . . . After [April] tenth, that is when people started to kill each other.” “Before the president’s death, we had no problems,” said a thirty-five-year-old farmer who participated in several attacks. Others iterated the same sentiment. One businessman and farmer married to a Tutsi said, “I did not know how to differentiate Hutu from Tutsi,” until the death of the president.

In their battle of good Hutu versus bad Tutsi, their view was a choice of only two options: either the forces of “death and desolation” or “the people.”

Through “blame frames” and “hate frames,” the media incited ethnically based resentment, fear, anger, pride and hatred – intense emotions in a combination that had not been widespread. The emotions and new cultural values guided behavior. Hutus’ growing fear, resentment, anger, and hatred emerged from the belief that their neighboring Tutsis were evil, were plotting genocide, and must be preemptively exterminated. As greater numbers of community members joined the cause, it became increasingly difficult to resist the ubiquitous forces of culture and intergroup emotions. “We had lived with Tutsi friends,” explained one of the Hutus who participated in the killing. But soon, “We became contaminated by ethnic racism without noticing it.” Many really came to believe that “the Tutsis would kill us,” they admitted. And “little by little . . . our hearts changed.”

Using the Hutu Power doctrines as their foundation, broadcasters consistently tied annihilation to Rwandans’ values such as patriotism, “work” for their country, and a pathway to honor. Through inundation, repetition, and passion, this juxtaposition aroused emotions, masked the heinousness of the crimes, and transformed the meaning of butchering other human beings into what people believed were lofty, noble acts. “Working” Hutus were bestowed pride and glory, while conscientious objectors were shamed, humiliated, and often killed.

Simultaneously, radio hosts generated an ultimatum of disaster, should the Hutus fail to annihilate the Tutsi people. In their battle of good Hutu versus bad Tutsi, their view was a choice of only two options: either the forces of “death and desolation” or “the people.” As this false dichotomy and the accompanying stories permeated the airwaves, Hutu listeners grew increasingly resentful of the Tutsi people for the litany of injustices they had allegedly perpetrated – particularly the death of their president. “Everyone was angry because the president had been killed,” remarked one of the Hutu killers.

Because only about 50 percent of Rwandans could read, radio’s power was enhanced as a primary means of obtaining political and communal information. Beginning in 1990, most other radio was muted, allowing the Hutu Power’s RTLM to monopolize messaging to the public. Although the RPF broadcast on the AM band’s Radio Mutubara, its broadcasts failed to reach many parts of Rwanda, and the government forbade listening, frequently beating people caught tuning to it. In this radio-oriented society, even some Tutsi people listened to RTLM – largely because of its popular music, entertainment, commentary, and what was believed to be breaking news. Without competing sources of information and framing, and because of their connection to government, these messages were both homogenous and authoritative, ultimately making the Hutu Power’s version of Rwandan politics and the Tutsi people ostensibly more and more plausible.

The media did not convince all listeners. Many Hutus worked alongside Tutsis to prevent intergroup warfare. But the media’s “blame frames” and “hate frames” reinforced the thinking of those who were already inclined toward hardline attitudes and fostered an environment of fear, anger, and hatred. Amid the trying circumstances and virulent messages, within one hundred days, ordinary people who had never before killed rose to collectively slay some eight hundred thousand of their fellow Rwandans. It’s an unbearable chapter of history that unfortunately does not stand alone.

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