Reflecting on Rwandan lessons
Ten years ago this week in Rwanda, thousands of hate-filled Hutu extremists launched a well organized, 100-day campaign of killing that left more than 800,000 of their countrymen dead. Most of those killed, raped, and mutilated were Tutsis - the rest were pro-coexistence Hutus.Skip to next paragraph
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The features of that genocide should cause everyone, in Rwanda and internationally, to reflect on the terrifying capacity of humans to perpetrate acts of great cruelty, or to turn a callous, deliberately blind eye when such acts are committed against others.
Just to put the horror in stark statistical context, Rwanda's daily murder rate was several times greater than at the height of the Holocaust in Europe. But in Rwanda, unlike the Holocaust, the killing was low-tech and personal. The Hutu killers "worked" close up with machetes and nail-studded clubs, and only sometimes at an impersonal distance with guns or grenades.
Hundreds of thousands of Hutu Rwandans participated in what seemed to many of them to be a somehow "necessary" activity. Alcohol and peer pressure both played a part in egging them on. Leading institutions in society, including many government and local church leaders, either participated directly or condoned the killings. In those circumstances, it is noteworthy that many Hutus stood aside from the pressure to participate: More than 150,000 of them lost their lives for that act of courage.
Today, Rwanda has a Tutsi-dominated government that is dedicated to rebuilding the links between the country's main communities: the Hutu majority (84 percent), the Tutsis (15 percent), and Twa Pygmies (1 percent).
This project faces many obstacles, including the legacies left by the genocide, the minority nature of the government, Rwanda's chronic poverty, and its location in a very unstable part of Africa.
When I was in Rwanda in 2002, I found that many local churches, especially evangelical churches, were by then playing a very constructive role in rebuilding and reconciliation. I met ministers like Antoine Rutayisire, Michel Kayitaba, and David Bucura - all genocide survivors - who were undertaking broad and effective ministries that combined an emphasis onreconciliation with team-building work on urgently needed development projects.
If Rwandans have many hard tasks to grapple with as they remember the genocide, so, too, do those of us who live in powerful countries elsewhere. The record of the "international community" in 1994 was not, by and large, an honorable one.
When the genocide started on April 7, 1994, there was a small UN peacekeeping force, UNAMIR, already in Rwanda. Its Canadian commander, Romeo Dallaire, had long been hearing reports of preparations for a mass killing. But his pleas to UN headquarters for permission to act against the planners went unanswered.