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Genocide, guilt and indifference

By Norbert Mao

Looking back at Rwanda 20 years later

Sometime in 1994 a few weeks after the RPA took power in Rwanda I probably became one of the few Ugandans who dared to visit Kigali. I was in the company of Uganda Confidential Editor, Teddy Sseezi Cheeye. Dead bodies were strewn all over the city. Sand bags barricaded every building of significance. The place was so desolate we only did a day trip. We drove out and spent the night in Kabale.

As we mark twenty years since the Rwanda genocide, we have to reflect on the demon that descended on this beautiful land of a thousand hills and why the world looked the other way and the guilt that continues to shape the big powers’ relations with Rwanda.


My reflections begin in 2004 when I finally got to meet the famous General Romeo Dallaire.  This is the Canadian General who was commander of the UN Peace Keeping mission that acquired worldwide notoriety for withdrawing in the face of bloodthirsty militias that eventually became responsible for massacring close to a million people mainly Tutsis within the space of 100 days.  The retreat that Gen. Dallaire led was not due to cowardice.  This brave soldier and his men had received orders from above telling them to withdraw.

Thanks to Congresswoman Betty McCollum, I had a reserved seat in the packed Capitol Hill congressional hearing on “Rwanda’s genocide: Looking Back.”  Representative Ed Royce was presiding.  Our witnesses were indeed a star-studded cast.  Besides Gen. Dallaire, there was Samantha Power, Pulitzer Prize winning author of “A Problem from Hell: America in the age of Genocide” who is now US Ambassador to the United Nations, Alison des Forges, Senior Advisor to Human Rights Watch and Louise Mushikiwabo, a Rwandese then working as an editor at the IMF. Now Ms. Mushikiwabo is a member of the Rwanda government.

Ed Royce’s opening statement set the tone of the hearing.  This hearing, according to Royce was a prelude to a fully-fledged Congressional investigation to inquire into Washington’s response to the Rwanda genocide.

“U.S. response was feeble”, said Representative Royce.  “This hearing is to determine whether the US or the UN is better prepared to respond to genocide”.

In his rejoinder, ranking member, Representative Donald Payne said, “Even when we saw hundreds of bodies floating down the river, we heard every word except genocide.”  In a somber preacher’s voice he added: “We were not strong enough to get our voices heard by those powerful enough to act.  We did not only watch with indifference but we prevented others from helping.  We have yet to learn from the Rwanda tragedy.”

Gen. Dalaire did not beat about the bush.  “There was no commitment by the international community.  Even the media treated the subject as very low key,” he declared.

General Dallaire stands at about 5 feet 8 inches.  With his perennial sun tan and thin grey moustache, he looks more like a Ted Turner look-alike than a real life witness to the most gruesome genocide the world has ever seen.

When the genocide began on April 6, 1994 Gen. Dallaire was commander of the UN forces in Rwanda.  During the hearing he praised the Tunisian and Ghanaian Blue Berets for standing firm.  But Gen. Dallaire did not get the support he needed to carry out an effective mission.  He was instead being asked to withdraw. Gen. Dallaire said he was told: “Africans, when they have a traumatic event lose all sense and logic and therefore if the UN does not pull out, they will be targeted and massacred.”

But as a soldier, he had sized up the situation and instinctively knew the path it would take.  He urgently sent a fax to Kofi Annan, then- UN’s chief of Peace Keeping Operations, and sounded an eerie warning.  “These militias can massacre up to 1000 Tutsi in 20 minutes,” he stated.

In New York, Annan sized up the situation.  The US had just botched an operation in Somalia and US public opinion was still full of wrath for what they saw as a humiliation of American forces.  The mood in Washington was set against deploying US forces to intervene in far off theatres of conflict and a repeat of Somalia.

Annan did not even dare ask for US intervention.  He simply dumped Gen Dallaires fax for fear of awakening the ghosts of Mogadishu.  He could not dare cross what has become known as “the Mogadishu line”.   As the genocide progressed in brutality, a May 1994 memo defended the US government’s refusal to use the word genocide.  The memo bluntly stated that if the term genocide were used then the US would have to “do something”.

According to Samantha Power’s testimony, the internal debate over semantics only settled on giving authority to US officials to recognise “acts of genocide” but not “genocide”.  The world’s greatest power was not only retreating from responsibility but also doing so in the most shameless manner possible.

Kofi Annan’s failure to blow the whistle loud and clear coupled with the US indifference, was like a signal to the perpetrators of the genocide to carry on the bloodletting assured that no one would throw any obstacle in their path.  The victims of the genocide were now like orphans.  They could count on no one to stem the cruel tide that the genocidaires had unleashed against them.  Only the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), led by current President Paul Kagame could pose a threat to the killers.  In addition, far away in Kampala, the friendly disposition of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda could also be counted as an asset in the fight to save lives.

Yet the UN went ahead to cut off the only life-line the victims of genocide were counting on.  The UN passed a resolution ordering the withdrawal of peace-keeping troops from Rwanda. On the day that the UN Security Council voted to pull out the peace keeping troops, the Rwanda cabinet also voted to extend the genocide to regions of Rwanda that were then still secure from the marauding killers.

Museveni’s confession

The RPA and Uganda; the two possible sources of liberation, were also stuck in a diplomatic wrench of the Arusha Peace Process under which there was no free movement of troops and arms across the borders.

But there was another twist.  According to Gen. Dallaire, RPA got weapons through Uganda.  In his testimony, Gen Dallaire said, early in 2004, Museveni scoffed at him saying: “I remember your UN troops at the border stationed to prevent arms supplies, but we managed to get around them.”

How ironic that the man who requested for the monitoring troops in 1994 tells Gen Dallaire ten years later that it was all a ploy – that he did not have the commitment to adhere to his undertakings.

Samantha Power who warned against the US investing valuable time and resources in “bad faith negotiations” made this point very eloquently – these sham negotiations usually force those with the capacity to do something not only to remain neutral in the face of horrendous crimes but also to fail to seek creative responses to what conventional diplomacy has no answers for.

According to Samantha Power, “perpetrators of genocide intent on exterminating the entire Tutsi populace only maintained the fiction of a peace process in order to buy time for their slaughter.”  Samantha Power’s anger at this diplomatic duplicity is completed by her statement that “UN officials maintained diplomatic courtesy, politely allowing the Rwandan ambassador to the UN to speak, never considering urging the closing of a mission comprised of representatives of a genocidal regime.”

`Mushikiwabo the stern’

Louise Mushikiwabo’s brother, a former University Professor, Lando Ndasingwa was the only Tutsi in the cabinet when the genocide started.  He was a Minister of Labour and Social Affairs.  He was a target of political persecution because of calling out for equal treatment of all ethnic groups.  He was also an outspoken opponent of the government policy of denying citizenship to exiled Tutsis.

Louise told the members of Congress.  “On the morning of April 7, as elements of the Presidential Guard approached, the blue helmets stationed at my brother’s house fled.  Within the hour, the soldiers entered the house and murdered everyone inside: my brother, his wife, their seventeen year-old daughter, fifteen year-old son, our mother and another nephew who was visiting.  My life was turned upside down.  Faced with the enormous challenge of “doing something”, I decided to speak out then and pursue justice for my family and my country.  That is why I stand before you this afternoon.”

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