Kwibuka: Remembering Rwanda

Twenty years ago she was in her early twenties, working for the ICRC in Kigali, a mother of two young children.

She was also broiled in fear for herself and her family, on the run from Hutu genocidaires, a legitimate target in one of the most horrendous episodes of humanity.

Today she travels to tell her story and the story of other survivors. She dons a professional suit and knocks on doors hammering in the “never gain” mantra.

She generally gets positive responses, she says. And she’s now better at masking her emotional scars.

She recounts her story; how the stench of premeditated genocide lingered in the air a long time before that day in April when President Habayarimana’s plane was shot down, and how “Kangura” magazine and RTLM radio spewed hate speech for years before the mainstream genocide began on April 7th, 1994.

My heart clogs when she tells me how she lost her newborn. I wonder in awe and agony how anyone can psychologically survive what she had gone through.

“For years I woke up, looked in the mirror, and all I could think of was ‘inyenzi'”. It was common to refer to Tutsi as cockroaches. That the racial jab became commonplace should have been ominous enough that genocide was only a matter of time. The process of dehumanizing and denigrating an entire race had already taken root, augmented by a parallel discourse of racial superiority advanced by advocates of Hutu Power.

Everywhere she goes she decries the “west” for having seen all the signs and did nothing to stop it, then for having stood silently for a hundred days as almost a million Rwandans were systematically and brutally murdered.

“When the Arusha Accords were signed in August [1993], we all rejoiced and cheered. My American colleague at the ICRC just bit her lower lip and looked stern. When I asked her what was wrong she told me not to be so happy. ‘This won’t end well,’ she told me. She knew. They all knew.”

The most common reason referenced for the inaction of the West is of course the Somalian trauma of October 1993, when 18 US soldiers died in the Battle of Mogadishu, causing the subsequent withdrawal of the United States from Somalia, and its mental withdrawal from Africa, indeed from the concepts of peacekeeping and peace enforcement, as a whole.

In the first month of the massacre, RPF members, reporters and regional powers tried to clarify the scale of the atrocities in order to stimulate some international action. President Clinton practically however slammed the door shut with Presidential Decision Directive 25 which stated that the litmus test for any US involvement or participation in UN operations would be whether or not they “advance US interests”.     

In later years, the Tutsi sense of betrayal was augmented by foreigners who highlighted their own countries’ failure in the ultimate humanitarian test of empathy, compassion, and altruism. Linda Melvern’s “A People Betrayed” is a clear indictment of great powers and the role they played, whether inadvertently or knowingly, in allowing the genocide. Gerald Caplan holds the world to account to prevent future instances of this heinous crime against humanity.

Then of course there was Romeo Dallaire, a man who is both admired and loathed for his role. It is nevertheless established that he had documented all the early warning signs and wired them through, but received a cold and hollow response in return.

She reminds me of these names and others whom I hadn’t heard of, her anger swelling, her eyes reddening. “We were betrayed, we were failed!”

It is easy to follow that logic. To buy into it, and to perpetuate it as the main cause or at least as an important factor in what happened over the course of the bloodiest 100 days of the twentieth century. But to do that would be missing the core of the story.

The world didn’t fail Rwandans. Rwandans failed Rwandans, just like Syrians failed Syrians, and South Sudanese are failing themselves now. At the heart of the Rwandan genocide is not a nonchalant West. That’s merely a subplot. At the heart is a story of fratricide, bad governance, blind racism, historical inequalities, vindictive vengeance, and Milgram obedience. A tragedy in which Rwandans themselves played the major roles of villain and victim.

In future Rwandas, in current Syrias, there will always be a part for outsiders and extras, but if the main characters cannot realize that they are the centre of the story, upon whom the climax hinges and the denouement resides, then “never again” will always remain an empty resolve.

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