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Rwandan Genocide

January 16, 2011

This is the less savory part of this blog and the first installment on Rwanda, taken from a larger lecture I give on the history of genocide in the twentieth century. The lecture begins with the Herrero Genocide in (today’s) Namibia and concludes with Rwanda. The twentieth century was rife with genocide from start to finish. Needless to say, this is the kind of entry I’d just as soon not write.

When does genocide occur?  What criteria need to be present?  Communal conflict sows the seeds of genocide.  (Not always, of course).  But through the 20th century, it has tended to take place in the following sites.

The first of these is in the emergence of nation states in the West, examples of which included the conflicts that arose between the English and the Welsh and Scots, and those that erupted in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada.  In these countries, the conflict was managed effectively and stable democratic governments resulted.  The nation state has defined who “belongs” and who doesn’t.

The second site in which communal conflict emerges is that of post-colonial societies.   In these societies, prior to independence competing communal elites played down their differences in the interest of winning freedom from the colonial powers.  Once independence was achieved, the scarcity of resources to cope with conditions and aspirations rapidly led to the establishing of coalitions to ensure the maximum allocation of existing resources to members of their own ethnopolitical groups.  This characterised the situation in such multi-communal societies as Lebanon, Sri Lanka, India, Nigeria, Sudan, and Burundi, among others.

The third site in which communal conflicts have flourished through the 20th century has been that of former polyglot empires which have disintegrated.  A contemporary example is the former USSR.  There, the political authorities kept in check, submerged, or endeavoured to eliminate communal identities in the interest of the formation of an integrated national identity.   The collapse of central communist rule was quickly superseded by the re-emergence of regional, ethnic, and religious identities.

Rwanda: After a 100-day reign of terror, some 800,000 Rwandan civilians were dead, most killed by their machete-wielding neighbors. The UN’s peacekeeping force commander, Roméo Dallaire, had sounded the alarm. He’d begged. He’d bellowed. He’d even disobeyed orders. He recounted in a recent interview: “l was ordered to withdraw…by [the U.N. Sec. Gen. Boutros] Boutros Ghali about seven, eight days into it. .. and I said to him, ‘I can’t, I’ve got thousands’ -by then we had over 20,000 people-‘in areas under our control. … The situation was going to shit….And, I said, ‘No, I can’t leave.”‘

The U.N. had sent Dallaire and 2,600 troops, mainly from Bangladesh and Ghana, to Rwanda to oversee a peace accord between the region’s two main groups, Hutus and Tutsis. But on April 6,1994, eight months after the peacekeepers arrived, a plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents, both Hutus, was shot down over Kigali, the Rwandan capital. Hutu-controlled radio blamed the Tutsis and immediately began calling for their extermination, as well as for the murder of moderate Hutus considered friendly to the Tutsi “cockroaches.” The broadcasts gave details on whom to kill and where to find them.

Dallaire and his troops were about to become spectators to genocide. As bodies filled the streets and rivers, the general, backed by a U.N. mandate that didn’t even allow him to disarm the militias, pleaded with his U.N. superiors for additional troops, ammunition, and the authority to seize Hutu arms caches. In an assessment that military experts now accept as realistic, Dallaire argued that with 5,000 well-equipped soldiers and a free hand to fight Hutu power, he could bring the genocide to a rapid halt.

The U.N. turned him down. He asked the U.S. to block the Hutu radio transmissions. The Clinton administration refused to do even that. Gun-shy after a humiliating retreat from Somalia, Washington saw nothing to gain from another intervention in Africa, and the Defense Department, according to a memo, assessed the cost of jamming the Hutu hate broadcasts at $8,500 per flight-hour.

For many, the Rwandan Genocide stands out as historically significant not only because of the sheer number of people that were murdered in such a short period of time, but also because of the way many Western countries responded to the atrocities. Despite intelligence provided before the killing began, and international news media coverage reflecting the true scale of violence as the genocide unfolded, virtually all developed, first-world countries declined to intervene.


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