Friday, April 6, 2012

Genocide in Rwanda - Remembering April 1994

Gorilla in Rwanda

This April marks the 18th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, a tiny African country that used to be more known for its mountain gorillas than for mass killings.  But now Rwanda has gained notoriety for an extremely organized and efficient genocide effort.  Between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed in 100 days.  With many people dumped in mass graves or thrown in the river, and whole families and villages massacred, it is impossible to account for each individual who died.  8,000 people dying each day is an incomprehensible number.  The fact that many of the victims were killed not from a distance with bombs and grenades, but in a very personal manner--being hacked to death with machetes--is even more disturbing.

Rwanda - Land of a Thousand Hills

The United States had a difficult time even calling it a genocide.  Calling it by name would have obligated the US to do something about it.  Overall, the US and Europe chose to look out for their own citizens and interests, and left the Rwandans on their own.  Tensions in Rwanda were running high in the early 1990s.  The UN had a peacekeeping force on the ground.  There were many indications and warnings that the genocide was pending.  The UN commander, Lt. General Romeo Dallaire, even asked permission to confiscate weapons caches that were in place in Kigali to prevent the weapons from being used in the mass killings he feared were imminent. Dallaire's request was refused.

Map of Rwanda and genocide sites.

If the international community had intervened with a greater level of commitment at any point in 1994, many lives could have been saved.  UNAMIR (the UN Assistance Mission To Rwanda) was understaffed and ill-equipped.  Their mission was so narrow that UN soldiers were not able to save many lives.  It is haunting to read the communications from  Lt. General Romeo Dallaire requesting forces and permission to act as the genocide erupted around him.  This competent and seasoned commander wanted to do more, and could have, had the UN given him the mandate and resources he desired.  Instead, his hands were essentially tied, and he was left to witness the horrors of nearly a million deaths.

Why talk about genocide now?  Why remember Rwanda?  Here are two things for you to consider.  18th century statesman Edmund Burke said "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."  If we are unwilling to learn from past experiences, how will we respond better the next time a world crisis rolls around?  With many hot spots around the world, it is only a matter of time until the international community is faced with genocide again.  Secondly, to quote Philip Gourevitch, a journalist who has written about the Rwandan genocide, "The best reason I have for looking closely into Rwanda's stories is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence and my place in it."  (from We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, by Philip Gourevitch, Picador, 1998). Like Gourevitch, perhaps we should be more uncomfortable with ourselves and our place in this world if we DON'T care.   Should we, as people, be able to ignore the horrors happening to others?

Nyarubuye Genocide Memorial

Americans are quick to state "Never again!" when it comes to talking about the Holocaust or other genocides.  But how firm is our commitment?  Would the US population really support putting American lives on the line to save people half a world away caught in situations most people don't fully understand?  And yet, that may be the only way to make it so genocides don't happen again, and again.  In his book, Shake Hands With the Devil, Romeo Dallaire said, "If we believe that all humans are human, then how are we going to prove it?....In the future we must be prepared to move beyond national self-interest to spend our resources and spill our blood for humanity....For the sake of the children and of our future:  Peux ce que veux.  Allons-y."  (Where there's a will, there's a way.  Let's go.)

If you would like to know more about the genocide in Rwanda, Artwife recommends the following:

  • Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza.   This book tells the story of a woman survivor who hid in the tiny bathroom of a pastor's house for three months.   Seven other women were with her.  Immaculee tells of the role her faith played in her ability to cope with the terror of her situation.  Her story is compelling and uplifting as this amazing woman chooses to rise above the horrors she has lived through.
  • An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina.  Paul Rusesabagina of "Hotel Rwanda" fame tells his own story here, and professes that he is not a hero, but just an ordinary man.  As you read his account, you cannot help but wonder if placed in the same situation, you would be as extraordinary as this ordinary man.
  • Shake Hands With the Devil by Lt. General Romeo Dallaire.  This book is a wrenching insider's account of a UN commander on the ground in Rwanda. 
  •  We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch.  Journalist Philip Gourevitch explains in uncomplicated prose the history of Rwanda's ethnic tensions, and succinctly summarizes the events of 1994.  He interviews many who were there, and includes their accounts in the narrative.  If you want a great overview of the genocide and its aftermath, Gourevitch's book is good choice.
  • Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda by Alison des Forges.  This book was published by Human Rights Watch in 1999.  It is difficult to find a copy of this one, but it reads well, even at over 700 pages.  I read this one year between Thanksgiving and New Year's, and it is unforgettable.  The late Alison des Forges painstakingly documented the genocide from its inception to the aftermath, and effectively analyzed the movements of the Interhamwe, as well as the international response (or lack thereof).  Des Forges manages to distill an enormous amount of information into a surprisingly approachable volume.  I was fortunate enough to get this on interlibrary loan from a university library.  You can also find a PDF file of it on the internet if you search.  It is well worth it to read even parts of this account.
  • Hotel Rwanda - movie.  This is an excellent movie with Don Cheadle starring as Paul Rusesabagina (see "An Ordinary Man" above), a Rwandan hotel manager who manages to save over 1,200 people in his hotel during the hundred days of genocide.  It is both riveting and terrifying.  Yet Rusesabagina's story of courage under extreme circumstances is a must-see.  The film is rated PG-13, and is appropriate for older teenagers and adults.
  • Sometimes in April - movie  This movie aired on HBO, and subsequently on PBS.  It is the story of two brothers who found themselves on opposite sides during the genocide.  As one seeks to rebuild his life, he hears from his brother who is imprisoned for war crimes.  The imprisoned brother claims to have information for him regarding his wife and child who were killed in the genocide.  The movie is based on actual events, and is an interesting picture of people trying to cope with the aftermath.

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