Lessons from Rwanda: A record of shame

Roméo Dallaire – The International Herald Tribune

Copyright International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, April 12, 2005
OTTAWA Eleven years ago last week, genocide began in Rwanda: the greatest slaughter of human beings since the Holocaust. At the time, the event attracted little attention in the West, and vastly less than the story of the glove in the O.J. Simpson trial, which was topical at the time.
Even now, when the collective conscience does seem more engaged with the issue, we are in danger of learning the wrong lessons from that awful April. Above all, there is a tendency to be too abstract both in identifying causes and in assigning blame for the total lack of a serious international response.
This was the least abstract, and the most up-close-and-personal, of all modern horrors. The majority of the 800,000 or so who were killed died of machete wounds. Many would have known their killers. The survivors and the perpetrators continue to live next to one another.
Conventional wisdom in the West has it that tribal hatreds were the cause of the genocide, and that the United Nations failed to react. That’s all. But it cannot be like this. The genocide is an event that stares out at us from the historical record, silently, like the dead faces of the children that I saw staring out of the long grass, demanding a real explanation. For us in the West, that means addressing the nature of our response to the genocide, and putting aside convenient excuses.
I was the commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda at the time of the genocide. When 10 of my men – Belgian paratroopers – were killed at the beginning of the slaughter, there was an opportunity. There was attention and outrage in West. But the decisions taken were a travesty.
The countries with troops in the small UN monitoring force in Rwanda decided to pull them out. The Belgian government faced negative public opinion at home. Other Europeans remained totally uninterested. The United States was determined that nothing should be done through the United Nations. It was clear that a UN resolution that even mentioned the word genocide would never see the light of day.
There were plenty of excuses: The Belgians had lost men; the Europeans were heavily committed in Yugoslavia; the Americans were wary after the fiasco in Somalia. Everyone was focused on upcoming elections in South Africa. Rwanda just wasn’t on anyone’s agenda.
But these excuses rest on uncomfortable assumptions – in particular, that African lives are vastly less important than other lives, and that genocide does not mean, as it should, that business-as-usual is suspended. If there was any doubt about this, it was played out in front of me over the days that followed.
Special units from Western countries flew in, and out again, with the sole purpose of extracting their own nationals.
I was staying – even without combat forces. A few internationals volunteered to stay. Ghana also agreed to keep troops on the ground, as others ran for the door. Mostly African troops remained with me. Those of us who were left behind were left just as witnesses.
Could we have prevented or curtailed the genocide? The short answer is yes. If we had received the modest increase in troops and equipment that we had requested, we could have stopped the killings. Instead, for two months, the Western nations, who were the only ones with the capacity, refused to do so. In that time, hundreds of thousands died.
It is a story that, almost more than any other I can think of, shames us in the developed world. It was not “the United Nations” that failed, it was each of us in the West. Even our governments and news media only reflected our own lack of real interest in what was happening.
I include myself in this record of shame. I was commander of a force that failed completely. Not least, I failed to convince a single country to come and help save this small country.
If there is any useful lesson that can be drawn from the events of April 1994, it is surely one about just how personal genocide is: for those who are killed, of course, but also for those who kill, and for those, however far away, who just do nothing. Our governments are no better than we are. The United Nations is no better than its governments.
(General Roméo Dallaire is a member of the Canadian Senate. He was commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda at the time of the genocide.)


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