By: Gerald Caplan, Coordinator of the Remembering Rwanda network and author of ‘Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide’, the report of the International Panel of Eminent Persons appointed by the OAU to investigate the genocide.
Those of us who are preoccupied with commemorating in 2004 the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide are often taken aback when we are asked questions on the genocide. It is my strong conviction that memorializing the genocide in Rwanda is not taken for granted by most bystanders in the same way as other disasters, let alone the Holocaust of the Second World War.
Isn’t it already ancient history? Aren’t there all kinds of human catastrophes that no one much bothers with? Didn’t it take place in faraway Africa, in a country few people could find on a map. Wasn’t it just another case of Africans killing Africans? What does it have to do with us, anyway?
These questions deserve answers, not least because some are entirely legitimate. Above all, it is fundamentally true that there would have been no genocide had some Rwandans not decided for their own selfish reasons to exterminate many other Rwandans. But once this truth is acknowledged, a powerful case for remembering Rwanda remains, and needs to be made.
The responsibility to remember
First, Rwanda was not just another ugly event in human history. Virtually all students of the subject agree that what happened over 100 days from April to July 1994 constituted one of the purest manifestations of genocide in our time, meeting all the criteria set down in the 1948 Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Genocide experts debate whether Cambodia or Srebrenica or Burundi were ‘authentic’ genocides; like the Holocaust and (except for the Turkish government) the Armenian genocide of 1915, no one disagrees about Rwanda. And since genocide is universally seen as the crime of crimes, an attack not just on the actual victims but also on all humanity, by definition it needs to be remembered and memorialized.
Second, it was not just another case of Africans killing Africans, or, as some clueless reporters enjoyed writing, of Hutu killing Tutsi and Tutsi killing Hutu. The Rwanda genocide was a deliberate conspiratorial operation planned, organized and executed by a small, sophisticated, highly organized group of Hutu extremists who believed their self-interest would be enhanced if every one of Rwanda’s close to one million Tutsi were annihilated. They came frighteningly close to total success.
Third, the west has played a central role in Rwanda over the past century. Just as no person is an island and there is no such thing as a self-made man, so every nation is the synthesis of internal and external influences. This is particularly true of nations that have been colonies, where imperial forces have played a defining role. To its everlasting misfortune, Rwanda is the quintessential example of this reality. The central dynamic of Rwandan history for the past 80 years, the characteristic that allowed the genocide to be carried out, was the bitter division between Hutu and Tutsi. Yet this division was to a large extent an artifact created by the Roman Catholic Church and the Belgian colonizers. Instead of trying to unite all the people they met in Rwanda 100 years ago, Catholic missionaries invented an entire pedigree that irreconcilably divided Rwandans into superior Tutsi and inferior Hutu. When the Belgians were given control of the country following World War One, this contrived hierarchy served their interests well, and they proceeded to institutionalize what amounted to a racist ideology. At independence in the early 1960s, this pyramid was turned on its head, and for the next 40 years Rwanda was run as a racist Hutu dictatorship.The culprits
A multitude of betrayals
It is not far-fetched to say that the world has betrayed Rwanda countless times since its first confrontation with Europeans in the late 19th century. This account has previously presented several of these betrayals before and during the genocide: by the Catholic Church, by the Belgian colonial power, by the French neo-colonial power, by the international community.
To exacerbate further this shameful record, we need to look at the past decade. First, the concept that the world owed serious reparations to a devastated Rwanda for its failure to prevent the genocide has been a non-starter. Second, there has been precious little accountability by the international community for its failure to prevent the genocide. The French government and the Roman Catholic Church have to this moment refused to acknowledge the slightest responsibility for their roles or to apologize for any of their gross errors of commission or omission. President Bill Clinton and Secretary-General Kofi Annan have both apologized for their failure to offer protection, but have both blamed insufficient information; in fact what was lacking was not knowledge – the situation was universally understood – but political will and sufficient national interest. No one has ever quit their jobs in protest against their government’s or their organization’s failure to intervene to save close to one million innocent civilian lives.
Those we must not forget
Finally, the very existence of the genocide has to a large extent disappeared from the public and media’s consciousness. This is the latest betrayal. Marginalized during the genocide, Rwanda’s calamity is now largely forgotten except for Rwandans themselves and small clusters of non-Rwandans who have had some connection with the country or specialize in genocide prevention. That is why the Remembering Rwanda movement was founded in July of 2001 setting up four targets for remembering: the innocent victims; the survivors, many of whom live in deplorable conditions with few resources to tend to their physical or psychological needs; the perpetrators, most of whom remain free and unrepentant scattered around Africa, Europe and parts of North America; and the so-called ‘bystanders’, the sextet named earlier. Rather than being passive witnesses, as the word ‘bystander’ implies, most were active in their failure to intervene to stop the massacres, and all remain unaccountable to this day. It is time the Rwanda genocide is treated with the concern and attention it so grievously earned .
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