Rwanda: Never again yesterday

11 April 2014 05:12 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Twenty years ago, the United Nations and the Western powers failed to stop the Rwandan genocide that was taking place under their very boots. There was UN and Western presence in Rwanda when 800,000 minority ethnic Tutsis were killed by the militia from the majority Hutu community. The systematic massacre did not take place in a day or a week. It started on April 6 and went on for nearly three months. The world powers showed little interest in the bloodbath in Rwanda while the Western media under-reported the violence or did not report it at all. For Rwanda is not as important as oil-rich Iraq or strategically located Syria or Russia-ramming Ukraine.

The US media was more interested in the O.J. Simpson murder trial than the happenings in an unheard of country called Rwanda which did not have exploitable natural resources for the capitalist world to turn its focus on. In Africa, the world media’s focus was on South Africa where the first ever free election for the presidency was being held, with Nelson Mandela tipped to win. The violence, if reported, was seen as tribal warfare, not sufficiently newsworthy to be highlighted in prime time bulletins or on the front pages.

If this was the attitude of the corporate media, what did the United Nations do while hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were being killed at a time when communications technology had brought even the remotest place on the Earth into one’s sitting room?

Three months before the genocide, the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was warned of it by UN peacekeeping mission chief Romeo Dallaire in a secret cable, but Annan’s follow-up action was wanting. Annan failed to share the cable with the Security Council. In fact, the cable was the second such warning. In August 1993, a team of UN human rights investigators too had warned of a genocide in the making.





Three months before the genocide, the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was warned of it by UN peacekeeping mission chief Romeo Dallaire in a secret cable, but Annan’s follow-up action was wanting. Annan failed to share the cable with the Security Council. In fact, the cable was the second such warning. In August 1993, a team of UN human rights investigators had warned of a genocide in the making.


On Monday, in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressing a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the carnage said that the UN was still ashamed of its failure.

A UN report released in 1999 said the world body and its member states failed Rwanda in deplorable ways, ignoring evidence that genocide was being planned, refusing to act once it was under way and finally abandoning the Rwandan people when they most needed protection.

Rwanda and later Srebrenica in Bosnia have shown that, for UN officials, observing UN’s bureaucratic rules is more important than saving lives. In Rwanda, according to the report, the UN officials there did not act fast enough because they did not want to go beyond the mandate of their mission. The UN lacked the will to take on the commitment necessary to prevent the genocide.

At Monday’s commemoration ceremony in Kigali, a play was staged to show the UN taking the responsibility of looking after Rwanda from the colonialists, only to abandon the people and run away when they most needed the UN.

The scene was probably based on the UN peacekeepers’ departure from a school where thousands of Tutsi civilians had gathered hoping for protection. The report said: “The manner in which the {UN} troops left, including attempts to pretend to the refugees that they were not in fact leaving, was disgraceful.”

If this was how the UN turned a blind eye on the horror in Rwanda, the United States and President Bill Clinton apparently adopted a hands-off approach, having learned a bitter lesson in Somalia’s civil war. Belgium, which had been governing Rwanda under a League of Nation Mandate system till independence in 1962, withdrew its peacekeeping troops when ten Belgium soldiers were killed by Hutu extremists in the early days of the violence, provoking other countries that had contributed troops to the UN force also to follow suit.

Rwanda’s Tutsis may forgive Belgium but not France. The Rwandan government did not invite France for this week’s ceremony in Kigali because it believes that French troops aided the massacre.

A report compiled by an independent investigation panel appointed by the Rwandan government has accused France of arming, training and advising Hutu extremists prior to and during the massacre. It even charged that French troops also took part in the massacre.

Identifying the then French President François Mitterand, the then prime minister Dominique de Villepin and 33 military and political officials as war crimes suspects, the special commission report said; “French soldiers committed many rapes, forced sexual intercourse specifically with surviving Tutsi women. They clearly requested Interahamwe [Hutu militia] ... to kill Tutsis.”

It also accused the French soldiers of handing over some of the Tutsis in a displaced people’s camp to Hutu militias to be killed under their very eyes. The report also said that France which worked closed with the Hutu dominated government knew that the genocide was likely to take place but failed to act.

France, which sent troops to Rwanda in 1994 with UN Security Council approval, however, rejects the charges and in turn accuses the present President, Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, and some of his closest officials of being responsible for starting the genocide.

Rwanda is yet another country from which colonialists had left after creating conditions conducive to ethnic, tribal or inter-state conflicts. It was the Germans who first colonised the landlocked central African country in the late 19th century. For centuries, the majority Hutu people and the minority Tutsis lived in peace. At the time of independence, the Hutus made up roughly 85 percent of the population and the Tutsis 14 per cent. Under the tribal set up prior to the colonial era, the Tutsis ruled the territory and hence occupied a higher strata of society vis-à-vis the Hutus who were largely farmers. The distinction is better understood as a class or economic division rather than one based on race or ethnicity. There was inter-marriage and a Hutu can also work himself up the social ladder and become a Tutsi by accumulating wealth.

During the colonial era, the minority Tutsi’s occupied top government positions. Tension between the two tribes increased in the 1950s when Belgium was preparing Rwanda for independence. The Hutus saw independence as empowerment, and democratisation as an end to minority Tutsi domination in Rwandan politics.

Obviously, the Tutsis did not support the Hutu-led independence movement. In the years running upto independence in 1962, Rwanda saw many a conflict in which hundreds of Tutsis were killed and tens of thousands fled to neighbouring countries such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (earlier known as Zaire), Tanzania and Uganda.

The Hutus described the conflict as the ‘Hutu Peasant Revolution’ or ‘social revolution’ for independence. After independence, the ethnic conflict took a different turn with Tutsi refugees in Tanzania, Zaire and Uganda organising themselves as militant outfits and staging attacks on Hutu targets and the Hutu government. One of the powerful Tutsis rebel movements to emerge was the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). It was founded in Kampala, Uganda. The RPF backed Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army during the Ugandan civil war in the early 1980s. With the support of Musevini who has been the president of Uganda since 1986, the RPF launched successful attacks on Hutu targets in Rwanda. In retaliation, hardliners in the Hutu government labelled every Tutsi in Rwanda as a collaborator or traitor. Radio and TV stations controlled by Hutu hardliners perpetuated the hate campaign, exacerbating the ethnic tensions.  Peace efforts made by the UN, regional countries and world powers made little or no headway with the Hutu government refusing to share power or to allow the Tutsi refugees back into Rwanda.

Largely due to the efforts of the African Union (then known as the Organisation of African Unity) in 1993, the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement, consequent to which the UN Security Council approved a United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). But all hell broke loose on April 6 when the aircraft carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down by a rebel rocket. Within hours, Hutu militia set up checkpoints and took control of the streets while the hardline radio and television stations told the Hutus to kill the ‘cockroaches’ – a derogatory reference to the Tutsis. Identifying a Tutsi was easy because every Rwandan carried an identity card which mentioned his or her ethnicity.


A report compiled by an independent investigation panel appointed by the Rwandan government has accused France of arming, training and advising Hutu extremists prior to and during the massacre. It even charged that French troops also took part in the massacre.


As the killing spree continued with neighbours killing neighbours and, in some cases, spouses killing spouses, countries contributing to the UN force withdrew their troops, precipitating what is now described as the worst pogrom in the post-World War II history. The UN peacekeeping presence dropped from nearly 3,000 to a mere 270 when the unprotected civilians needed the UN the most. Some reports said nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by machete-wielding extremists or gun-carrying government soldiers. Thousands of Tutsi women and girls were raped. Bodies flowed down every river. The streets of Kigali were strewn with dying people and decomposing bodies. The violence continued till the Tutsi-led RPF captured Kigali in July 1994.

This created another refugee crisis. This time about 1.4 million Hutus fled the country and sought refuge in neighbouring DRC. Hutu militia and former government troops are operating alongside Congolese militia and other armed groups from refugee camps in the DRC to launch attacks on Rwandan forces, creating another regional conflict involving several African nations.

As the scale of the genocide became evident, the UN and the West set up an international tribunal to try those responsible. The tribunal has sentenced Jean Kambanda, the Prime Minister at the time of the genocide, and scores of others to life in prison.The government of Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, also launched war crime trials with reconciliation being one of the goals of a process known as a participatory justice system or Gacaca.

Hundreds if not thousands of Hutus who took part in the massacre have since been released after they repented. Some of these Hutu men now financially support Tutsi women whose husbands and sons they killed. Kagame has done a good job in reconstructing the Rwandan identity. The Constitution states that all Rwandans share equal rights, while laws have been passed to eliminate discrimination and divisive genocide ideology. Rwanda under Kagame has also made economic progress and is moving towards stability despite threats across the border from hostile neighbours and former Hutu militias.



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