Africa Watch

The Rwandan genocide twenty-one years later

Rwanda – let’s not forget

The gruesomeness of Rwandan genocide compelled the international community to say “never again” but twenty-one years later it appears as if the commitment has been forgotten. 

Every person with an interest in politics can recall incidents, local or international, that had caught their attention.

For me there are a few. What immediately comes to mind is: the assassination of President John F Kennedy and the conspiracy theories that followed; the moon landing in 1969; the defeat of the Soviet Union by a bunch of hard-nosed mujahideens in the mountains of Afghanistan; the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; and the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

The Rwandan genocide, aptly described as one of the defining barbaric acts of humankind, occurred in the space of only 100 days from 7 April to mid-July 1994.

Nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in an orgy of bloodletting.

The massacre of the innocent was an unparalleled modern genocide, a systematic attempt to exterminate the Tutsi minority and Hutu moderates in the name of a supremacist ideology, called Hutu Power, propounded by Hutu extremists. It was, in its execution, one of the most unequivocal cases of genocide the world has ever witnessed.

At the same time, but in complete contrast, the people of South Africa were preparing with great anticipation and delight to participate in the country’s first democratic election in which all its citizens could participate.

A more contrasting scenario is almost impossible to imagine.

Time for reflection

Twenty-one years later both countries can reflect on a moment in their respective history that will last for eternity.

For Rwanda and mankind, it is an opportunity to reflect on an incident so appalling it still remains almost impossible to comprehend.

In April 1994, for South Africa, the right to freedom and to life was a direct consequence of sustained pressure and involvement of the international community, but not so for the people of Rwanda.    

The international community, and in particular the West and the United Nations (UN), showed scant interest and failed to respond and act decisively to stop the carnage. They must carry much of the blame in infamy.

Astonishingly, four days after Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane was shot down while landing at the Kigali international airport, an incident which sparked the genocide, France and Belgium sent troops into Rwanda to rescue their citizens – also airlifting American civilians out of the country. No Rwandans were rescued, not even those employed by Western governments.

When diplomatic messages warned the United States (US), Britain and the UN of an imminent “new bloodbath” months in advance, no action was taken. Only in May 1994, after much hesitation and reluctance, did the UN agree to increase its contingent of peacekeeping troops in Rwanda – to a paltry and totally inadequate 5,000 men. Incredulously they were not deployed for a further six months – by which time the killing had already stopped.

Despite many confessions, best illustrated by former US President Bill Clinton’s almost tearful one that too little was done by his administration to help bring an end to the killings, and recurring commitments that a similar incident will never be allowed to happen again, most recently by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda, it will and must remain a stain in the world’s collective conscious.

From recently declassified State Department documents and classified intelligence reports obtained, using the Freedom of Information Act, it transpired that President Clinton and senior members of his administration had been very selective with the truth. They were, in fact, despite all their denials, aware of the mass slaughter in Rwanda.

But, against the background of the 1993 humiliation in Mogadishu, Somalia, when the dead bodies of 18 marines were paraded through the streets, and which painted the Clinton administration as incompetent on foreign policy and weak on military matters, it was decided to do nothing.

 As one commentator described the then prevailing attitude: “President Clinton and his cabinet allegedly decided to whitewash the genocide, including the word itself, and block the public’s access to any evidence of the mass slaughter.”

In the final analysis Rwanda had nothing to offer. There was no political, legal, strategic or moral basis for Clinton to commit troops to a tiny central African country to stop a conflict that did not affect American interests.

Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the UN peacekeeping force, who tried against all odds to stop the carnage with meagre support, manpower and equipment, remains unequivocal: “President Clinton did not want to know. I hold Clinton accountable. He can excuse himself as much as he wants to the Rwandans, but he established a policy that he did not want to know.”

The lack of interest shown by the rest of the world, including Africa and the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU), is staggering and not only the Americans are to blame.

The OAU was spectacularly ineffective and incompetent while Belgium as former colonial master and architect of a discriminatory policy that set Tutsis and Hutus apart, and France as close ally to the Rwandan government of the day, must also share their part of the blame.

In the months leading up to the tragedy, the Belgian Foreign Ministry sent instructions to its ambassador at the UN to explore how to strengthen the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda. It expressed in diplomatic correspondence the “possibility of genocide in Rwanda” and admitted it would be “inacceptable for Belgians to be passive witnesses to genocide in Rwanda”.

This commitment did not prevent Belgium from capitulating. In the first days of the mass killings some Belgium soldiers were ambushed and hacked to death. It led to the immediate withdrawal of the remaining Belgian troops. It left the UN peacekeeping force almost depleted and invigorated the killers who were said to be tiring of killing up to 10 000 people a day.

It is also said that on hearing the news that the plane carrying Rwanda’s president was shot down, French president François Mitterrand asked one of his foreign affairs advisors as a matter of fact, “Have you heard? It is terrible. They are going to massacre each other.”

Words remain cheap

It is not out of order to remind the world and the UN, despite Ban Ki-moon’s commitment, that an undertaking was given that a repeat of the Rwandan genocide would never happen again, anywhere.

Looking back on the UN’s track record of the last twenty-one years, it seems that, unfortunately, words are cheap, promises readily made and more readily broken.

At this very moment Syria is caught up in a situation not that much different to what happened in Rwanda. Reports of a deteriorating situation are making headlines.

Yet, the UN appears to excel in its failure to help bring an end or at least to challenge those responsible for the atrocities being perpetrated.

President Obama’s “red line” challenge to Syria in 2013 on the use of chemical weapons has long since been blown away by the winds of time.

Perhaps, one day, in following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, Obama, with the rest of the world (South Africa included), will all have the courage to face the survivors of the Syrian genocide or any other conflict that carried the hallmarks as in Darfur, Iraq and northern Nigeria, and ask for forgiveness – not that it will make any difference to those who perished while the world stood by and watched.     


by Garth Cilliers

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