Eight Hundred Thousand

This year, the United Nations proclaimed April 7 an International Day of Remembrance. For in the 100 days beginning on the eve of that date 10 years ago, 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda. The divisions between the Tutsi and Hutu peoples in Rwanda were not always as deep as those that separated them in 1994. Over the centuries, the two groups were able to live with each other in relative harmony. The advent of Belgian colonialism in the 19th century, however, exacerbated what divisions existed, as the country’s overlords favored the leading Tutsi as the new elite, mainly because of their more “European” appearance. But the West’s complicity in fostering ethnic rivalry did not end with the Belgian colonialists. When the slaughter began, European troops were already stationed in Rwanda. Their host countries, however, fearful of military and political entanglement, withdrew them. But even a few thousand lightly armed troops would have been enough to halt the génocidaires, who sometimes were armed with nothing more than machetes.

Stung by its experience in Somalia a few months before, the Clinton administration chose not simply to do nothing, but to obstruct any efforts that would encourage international intervention. This points out the need for the American public to be better informed about African politics: Rwanda is not and was not Somalia. One year after the genocide, President Clinton landed at the Kigali airport and apologized for his country’s unwillingness to respond. Underlining the West’s still casual attitude to Africa, Mr. Clinton delivered his apology from the airport tarmac, with the engines of Air Force One still running. After his speech he left the country.


Of all African countries, Rwanda has the highest percentage of Catholics among its citizenry. Yet the church’s record before the genocide was shameful. In essence, many in the pre-1994 Catholic hierarchy engaged in the same ethnic politics that helped to make Rwanda an internationally recognized symbol of intolerance. “Correct” ethnicity led to advancement in the church, which reigned in that poor country as its most powerful institution. While a few bishops spoke out against the persecution of the Tutsi, the episcopacy in general urged Rwandans, as the genocide unfolded, to support the country’s political leaders, who were carrying out the massacres. There are of course inspiring tales of priests, brothers and sisters who manifested heroic Christian virtue and gave their lives for their fellow men and women. But there are other stories, too—like the one of the priest who pulled people out of their houses to be murdered.

Today the Catholic Church in Rwanda is reluctant to come to grips with its role in the genocide, and tends more toward denial and revisionism. As in perhaps no other country, the church needs strongly to assert a morally independent voice and must remain independent of the current political leadership.

The current human-rights trials on the genocide, taking place in Arusha, Tanzania, though underfunded and still facing a great deal of work, have already produced positive results. James D. Ross, senior legal adviser for Human Rights Watch, told America that the Arusha trials have done a “very valuable job,” since they are the first to prosecute rape as a war crime and the first to prosecute specifically for genocide. The court has also successfully targeted the management of the infamous national radio stations, which goaded Rwandans in the weeks before the genocide to kill the “cockroaches.” Unfortunately, the trials are taking place far from Rwanda, a country where many are illiterate and cannot follow the reports of the proceedings, so many benefits of the Arusha trials are lost on the average Rwandan.

Since 1994, there have been some positive efforts at reconciliation, particularly on the local level. The National Commission on Unity and Reconciliation in Rwanda, as well as the Catholic Church, have sponsored seminars, symposia and other gatherings for average citizens.

What are the lessons of Rwanda? First, when the local church is too closely allied with one political party, there is often a concomitant loss of freedom and authority and, as in Rwanda, a tragic loss of compassion and perspective as well. Second, the church in Rwanda needs to face up to its role in the genocide. Third, the international community needs to adopt what might be called a “seamless garment” approach to human rights. No longer can human-rights abuses, much less genocide, be considered excusable in some places but not in others, depending on political expediency. Fourth, the world needs a standby international force to protect civilians in humanitarian emergencies.

The tragedy of Rwanda is not simply that 800,000 people were slaughtered, but that the rest of the world community could easily have prevented it and chose not to.

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