Raising the African dead

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By Yohannes Edemarian

Over the space of a hundred days, 800,000 Tutsis had been hacked to pieces by machetes wielded by Hutus. Their bodies lay limp and decaying in churches. River currents carried their mutilated bodies into neighbouring countries. In the spring of 1994, the systematic annihilation of Tutsis rocked Rwanda, and the world watched, unmoved.

The chaos had been coming for over a century: history had cast the minority Tutsis, cattle-owners, as the aristocracy and the Hutus as an underclass of farm workers. When Rwanda’s Belgian colonizers arrived in the 19th century, they exploited the divide, encouraging the Tutsis to feel superior because of their more ‘European’ features. The Hutus were understandably upset. Years of abject poverty didn’t help.

The trigger to the Tutsi tragedy was the assassination of the country’s Hutu president in early 1994. Whether he was killed by Tutsis, or by Hutu hardliners bent on accelerating their program for genocide is irrelevant. The death squads did their work with brutal efficiency.

Mind numbing as the killings may have been, almost as disturbing was the indifference with which the international community dealt with the incident. A small number of UN troops within the country chose not to react. Their superior, reeling from the international body’s recent failures in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, decided not to intervene.

The Americans bickered about whether what was going on was genocide or just isolated “acts of genocide.” If it were true genocide, the international community would be forced to invoke the UN Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, which has existed since the ragged years after World War Two. But by the time it was finally agreed that it was genocide, it was too late. Those who were to die were dead.

Meanwhile the French, longtime friends and allies of Hutu government, took things a step further and actually helped the killers. They volunteered military assistance to repulse an invasion by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a force of exiled Rwandans fighting to rescue their brethren.

However, the will to fight was stronger within the ranks of the RPF and soon they controlled the country, causing millions of Hutus (both guilty and not guilty) to flee and establish squalid refugee camps in neighbouring Zaire (now Congo) and Uganda.

Once again the international community showed their excellent judgment by providing the fugitives with shelter, sustenance, and healthcare. This influx of aid organizations into the refugee camps gave casual observers the impression that the Hutus were the ones who were suffering. The murderers living in the camps exploited this misconception and so aid organizations ended up feeding and protecting criminals who belonged in court room dockets.

The Western media portrayed the crisis as an age old animosity between tribal groups, something that could not be made sense of — Africans killing one another, yet again.

Years later, the Western world has re-thought its positions. In 1997, during trips to Africa, both then President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeline Albright, offered apologies for not reacting during Rwanda’s hour of need. Meanwhile, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations delivered an impassioned speech about “the failure of international community to respond adequately” and the need “to bring genocidal killers to justice.”

But by then the media world had moved on, and set its sights on more pressing matters. The press was entranced by the sexual antics of Monica Lewinski, and the apologies didn’t surface on newsroom agendas.

An opportunity to revisit the issue and to explore the reasons for the apathy with which the world reacted — or didn’t — was lost amid reports of White House intern’s antics.

By 1998, most of the Hutus refugees camps had been persuaded to return to Rwanda. Their lives gradually returned to normalcy. And because so many were guilty of murder, it was impossible to prosecute them all without starting another war on ethnic lines. What is left of Rwandan society is a traumatized people who live next door to the killers of their mothers, brothers and sons.

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