The Lessons We Can Learn from Rwanda

By Short, Clare | New Statesman (1996), July 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Lessons We Can Learn from Rwanda


Short, Clare, New Statesman (1996)


Our obsession with fighting terrorism is creating dangerously weakened states. The consequences for poor nations could be catastrophic.

Rwanda is a beautiful country that shares borders with Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). In a genocide during 100 days in 1994, one million of its eight million people were slaughtered -- mostly by machete. The events of 1994 received little coverage in Britain. Rwanda was a francophone country about which we knew little. The UK representative at the United Nations, like others, evaded our duties under a key international convention by refusing to use the word genocide.

The world had signed up to the Genocide Convention in 1948 after the Holocaust in Europe. It obliged signatories to intervene to prevent such crimes. The Rwandan genocide was organised and predicted. There was a UN peacekeeping mission in the country which was supposed to help enforce a previously negotiated peace agreement. The Canadian head of mission, General Romeo Dallaire, repeatedly warned UN headquarters of the threatened slaughter and called for help. Instead, the UN mission was pulled out and the large number of Rwandans who had fled to the UN encampment, thinking they would be protected, were systematically killed. People also sought sanctuary in churches across the country; but were slaughtered and their remains left on the church floors, or thrown into mass graves.

The first time I visited Rwanda in 1998, I met a woman near one of the churches who had crawled out from a mass grave. She had a deep scar across her shoulder, but she was alive because she had had a baby on her back who died, but who saved her life. A new baby nestled against her scar. I decided then that the UK should do all we could to help the people of Rwanda ensure that that baby's generation grew up without the fear of genocide.

The ethnic hatred that made such events possible was generated by Belgian colonialism. Rwandans have one shared language and a long history as a united country. But some people were cattle owners and others tilled the land. Some were tall with thin features like Ethiopians or Eritreans and others more stocky, with broader features, like the majority of Africans. The Belgians -- like most colonists -- based their power on divide and rule. They embellished a racial myth that the tall, thin Tutsi minority were descended from royal lineages and the stocky Hutus were an inferior people. The Tutsis were then educated and used as administrators, while the rest of the people were treated harshly. As independence spread across Africa, the colonists realised that the Tutsis couldn't win an election in the society they had polarised, and so, in order to maintain influence, switched sides.

After independence, Tutsis were not allowed to be educated and were oppressed and discriminated against. There were outbreaks of ethnic killing and displacement. In 1989, refugee Rwandans based in Uganda who had helped President Yoweri Museveni to liberate Uganda formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front. They moved into Rwanda in 1990 and made very rapid progress. By 1992, they were on the outskirts of Kigali--the capital -- and could easily have taken over, but the international community pressed hard for negotiations. An agreement was reached to set up a transitional government, bringing all parties together with a commitment to unity and reconciliation. A UN peacekeeping force was organised to uphold a peace agreement. But some elements in the government of Juvenal Habyarimana did not want to share power and started to organise the killing of all Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Hate radio poured out diatribes of lies and poison, calling for the Tutsis to be eliminated.

After three months of slaughter in 1994, the RPF took Kigali. They found the Central Bank looted. The ministries had no files, papers or windows. The people were traumatised and millions had fled their homes. …

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