Remembering Rwanda

International | AFRICA: Ten years ago, the United Nations failed to act as Hutu extremists killed 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates. The central African country still lives with the consequences

Issue: "George W. Bush: Gut check," April 24, 2004

GRIEVING RWANDANS BURIED the remains of hundreds of family members in 20 communal coffins in a state ceremony on April 7, the official commemoration day marking the 1994 genocide. The crowded farewell wasn't perfect, but it offered more dignity than being dumped into pit latrines and mass graves 10 years ago. At the end, President Paul Kagame lit a flame to burn for 100 days, the length of the genocide that saw 800,000 murdered.

The mass killings may have passed, but Rwandans are still suffering the consequences. The genocide began when extremist Hutus, the central African country's majority tribe, began slaughtering minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus with machetes, hoes, and bullets. They also raped about half a million women and girls, infecting thousands of them with the AIDS virus, HIV.

About 10 percent of Rwandans now have HIV. Between AIDS and genocide, the country of 8 million also has 1 million orphans, one of the highest ratios in the world. And almost half the country's women in 1994 were widowed by the genocide.

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The genocide began when Rwanda's Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down in his plane, along with the president of Burundi. Who fired the missile is still unclear, but it was the signal to the Hutu-dominated government and supporting militias to begin the attack. Tutsis fled their homes for public locations such as schools and stadiums, but concentrating themselves in large groups only made the Hutus' job easier.

"Much of the killing was perpetrated by ordinary people who took up machetes to hack open the skulls of their neighbors," said Gary Haugen, who led the UN investigation into the killings following the violence. After his stint in Rwanda, he founded the International Justice Mission, which fights to end global slavery. "Rwanda demonstrates again that it doesn't really take much for ordinary men to turn to evil."

The United Nations has suffered the most embarrassment for its inertia. At the start of the genocide, the UN had about 2,500 peacekeepers in the country. But most had withdrawn to neighboring Uganda, and Belgium withdrew its troops-the largest contingent-after 10 of its soldiers were killed.

At the end of April, the Security Council voted to reduce the number of peacekeepers to only 270. They multiplied that to 5,500 in May, but the troops only began arriving after the genocide. And in March this year, the UN reported discovering the black box of the Rwandan president's downed plane, believed to be lost, in the bottom of a filing cabinet.

Mr. Haugen notes, however, that the United States didn't send American troops either, because President Clinton feared the political fallout if they met the gruesome deaths endured in Somalia a year earlier. His administration also pressured the United Nations to sit back too. "It wasn't actually even an instance of missing an opportunity-it was an affirmative policy of the United States to make sure the UN didn't intervene," Mr. Haugen said.

At the height of the crisis the State Department studiously referred to killings as "acts of genocide." Classifying it as simply "genocide" would have increased demands for U.S. intervention. UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright backed Belgian calls for a UN troop pullout-an agreed-upon cover to protect Belgium and other nations that did not want to stay and fight.

Now smarting consciences over Rwanda have spurred intervention in other conflicts. NATO launched air strikes in Serbia in 1999 as ethnic cleansing widened, and France sent troops to Congo's eastern region as vulnerable UN peacekeepers faced tribal violence. In the meantime, Rwanda has stayed quiet for the last 10 years.

The progress is a tribute, Mr. Haugen said, to the tribal conciliatory efforts of the country's current leadership. Minority Tutsis also have the upper hand over extremist Hutus now-they control the government under Mr. Kagame. "The nation is still devastated by those events," Mr. Haugen said. "It's not clear how long the stability will last."


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