The Age of Humanity: Learning from the Rwandan Genocide

Sign Outside a Rwanda Genocide Memorial

Sign Outside a Memorial to the Rwandan Genocide

By Narrelle Gilchrist

Innocent people crouch in their houses, trembling, waiting for death, for the sight of the one who will deliver the fatal blow. Over the past few weeks, they have watched as their families, friends, and neighbors have been slaughtered, their bodies left to rot in the road. Outside, men walk through the streets, carrying machetes, killing indiscriminately. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, people wake up each morning to sunny skies and guarantees of safety. They come home each night to their families, worrying about nothing more than their own lives, unaware of the horror that is unfolding in a tiny nation on the world’s most neglected continent. The extremists, bolstered by the Western nations’ inaction and simple indifference, continue the slaughter. Twenty-one years ago, in the boiling hot, bloody summer of 1994, over 800,000 innocent lives were lost during the Rwandan genocide. And the United Nations, the United States of America, and all the other nations of the world did nothing. They just stood by and watched.

The history of the human species has been defined by the pursuit of international progress that benefited one population, the West, at the expense of another. We have been absorbed in conflicts beginning in Europe and North America, while casually ignoring the plight of those in smaller, strategically unimportant countries. In the age of human rights, we ignore the plight of millions, for intervening would risk the life of a single American. Are American lives more valuable than Rwandan lives? Or are all lives worth the same? By standing idly by while innocent people were killed, the Western world became an accessory to murder in 1994. Today, we must learn the price of our inaction, putting humanitarian interests first, valuing each life as the same.

“Is it Tutu and Hutsi, or Hutu and Tutsi?”

In 1994, this was the first question government staffers asked as they were forced to turn their attention towards the tiny, landlocked African nation that they knew little about. Yet, like so many other third-world conflicts, the roots of the violence were entrenched in the actions of European imperialists. In pre-colonial times, Rwandans who owned the most cattle were known as “Tutsis”, while everyone else were called “Hutus”. The divisions were not strict, and Hutus could easily become Tutsis through intermarriage or the acquisition of more cattle (Rosenberg). When the Europeans arrived, however, they solidified the two categories into racial divisions, irrevocably dividing Rwanda. Deciding that the Tutsis had more European characteristics, such as lighter skin and taller builds, they granted them positions of authority and even declared them “lost Christians” (Gourevitch 52). In 1933, every Rwandan was issued an ethnic identification card, a feature that was paramount in ensuring the endless slaughter of Tutsis in 1994. The Tutsis, who made up only about fourteen percent of the Rwandan population, continued to hold all the roles of responsibility, while the Hutus, who made up eighty-five percent of the population, remained second-class citizens (57). This forced racial divide created decades of resentment that led to the conflicts that define the region today.

Like most third-world conflicts, the Rwandan Civil War remained of little consequence to the first world until both the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front and the Hutu government asked for help in enforcing their peace deal. In August 1993, the United Nations Security Council formed the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). Finally, with troops on the ground, Rwandans hoped that their conflict-ridden nation would receive the help and protection it needed from the Western nations (“Rwanda”). Yet, the 3,000 UNAMIR troops were under-equipped and not authorized to use force except in self-defense, and Rwandan civilians were quickly disillusioned of any hopes that the peacekeepers would be able to protect them. With blue-helmeted peacekeepers on the streets, and promises of peace ringing in the air, the agreement slowly fell apart, and the nation moved further along the path to genocide.

In a small European country, the sudden murder of one thousand, or even one hundred, civilians, would prompt immediate international intervention and a global crisis, as it did in Kosovo in 1998. Yet, on April 6th, 1994, genocide broke out in Rwanda, and the Western world fled. On the first night, the Hutu army murdered Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who was not a Tutsi but a Hutu, yet was willing to share power with the Tutsis. Her children, who hid until they were rescued, heard gunshots ring through the air. “Then we heard the soldiers scream for joy. And after that there was nothing but an eerie silence” (Doyle). Ten Belgian U.N. peacekeepers were tortured, mutilated, and killed after trying to protect the prime minister.

A week after the death of their peacekeepers, Belgium withdrew from UNAMIR. Shortly after the outbreak of the genocide, Lt. General Romeo Dallaire, force leader of the peacekeepers, sent an urgent request to the UN Headquarters requesting that the UNAMIR force be increased to 5,000 troops, a force that he believed could stop the genocide completely. Instead, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to cut the UNAMIR force from 2,500 to 270. On April 30th, the Security Council passed a resolution condemning the massacre. Yet, nowhere in the resolution was the word “genocide” used, a term that would have legally obliged the U.N. “to prevent and to punish” the perpetrators of this crime against humanity. French, Italian, and Belgian troops entered Rwanda, but only to rescue their own citizens. No Rwandans, not even orphans, were allowed to leave the country. As innocent people were slaughtered by the thousands, the Western nations returned to their own affairs. With the American embassy evacuated and all Americans out of harm’s way, President Clinton congratulated his staff on a “job well done” (Power, “Bystanders”).

In the late 20th century, a nation had turned into a slaughterhouse, yet the Western world’s job was done. This statement alone demonstrates the fundamental implication that the job of the world’s superpowers begins not with humanitarian interests, but with their own self-interests. Doctors murdered their patients; teachers killed their pupils. Yet, the people of the privileged world slept soundly in their beds, and their leaders failed to initiate any meaningful action. On the violence-ridden streets, blue-helmeted UNAMIR peacekeepers were scarce to be seen. The 270 left in the country were spread thinly, trying to protect those they could, but without the authority to shoot or engage. Meanwhile, in New York and Washington D.C., world leaders were being regularly updated on the deteriorating situation in Rwanda. Yet, Clinton administration officials had been warned against using the word “genocide” in public, for the president had already decided not to intervene. Instead, though they knew of the Hutu’s “final solution” to eliminate all Tutsis, though they knew children were being slaughtered as they spoke, all government officials referred to the situation in Rwanda as “acts of genocide”, leading one reporter to ask: “How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?”

“That’s just not a question that I’m in a position to answer,” replied State Department spokesperson Christine Shelley.

“Well, is it true that you have specific guidance not to use the word ‘genocide’ in isolation, but always to preface it with these words ‘acts of’?”

“I have guidance which I try to use as best as I can. There are formulations that we are using that we are trying to be consistent in our use of… I have phraseology which has been carefully examined and arrived at as best as we can…” (“The Role”)

So, while innocent people were being slaughtered by the thousands, the Western governments were busy obfuscating and rationalizing their inaction, avoiding at any cost confronting the fact that they alone had the power to stop the genocide, but were unwilling to do so. In their months of peacekeeping in Rwanda, the UNAMIR soldiers were authorized to shoot only dogs, whose habit of feeding on the bodies of those slain was regarded as a health problem by the UN. Not only did the United States government fail to militarily intervene in Rwanda, but it also failed to intervene in any way diplomatically. The United States did not end diplomatic recognition of Rwanda’s Hutu Power government until July 15th, three months into the genocide. By jamming the RTLM broadcasts or raiding the extremists’ weapons caches, thousands of lives could have been saved. Yet, none of these actions were taken. Even at the peak of the genocide, Rwanda seemed distant and of little concern to senior officials in the Clinton administration.

Instead, the Rwandan genocide ended largely without Western assistance. On July 4th, the RPF troops reached Kigali. They continued to gain ground in the nation, stopping the slaughter as they reached city after city. On July 18th, after one hundred and three days of massacre, the RPF declared a de facto ceasefire, officially ending the genocide. By that time, at least 800,000 Rwandans were dead, and millions more were left irreparably physically and emotionally scarred.

In 1948, as the Holocaust left waves of shock all over the world, the United Nations adopted a resolution stating, “The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish” (United Nations). Yet, genocides have occurred in Sudan, Cambodia, Bosnia, Burundi, and Rwanda. The doctrine of human rights, engrained in our minds after the catastrophe of the Holocaust, has faded until it has become nothing more than stonewashed writing on bedrock, illegible and obsolete. Far from reaching into the most distant corners of the world to ensure the supremacy of human rights everywhere, time and again we have turned a blind eye to those whose needs do not directly pertain to us. We forget that human rights means not American rights or European rights or Western rights but human rights, and are thus guaranteed to every human being. Yet, twenty-one years ago, while men and women around the world went to work in offices, ate three meals a day, and watched sports and TV shows, others crouched in churches, homes, and ditches, waiting for death to find them in the form of a neighbor, carrying nothing but a machete. World leaders plead ignorance, swearing that they remained unaware of the worsening conditions in Rwanda, but unfortunately, that isn’t the truth.

Three months before the genocide began, General Dallaire sent a fax to the UN relaying information from an Interahamwe informant – information that told not only of illegal weapons caches, but that also spoke of the planned extermination of all the Tutsis. Dallaire recommended that his peacekeepers raid the arms caches and ensure the protection of the informant and his family (Power, “Bystanders”). The response from the UN was clear: there would be no raids, no guarantees of protection. The words “final solution” bounced lightly off the ears of the bureaucrats in New York who went home at night to a comfortable house, assured of their safety, protected by a police department and the might of the world’s army.

2,976 people died on September 11th, 2001, and American foreign policy changed irrevocably. An average of 8,000 people a day died in Rwanda for a period of over 100 days, and not a single nation did anything to stop it. Everyone knows what happened on September 11th, 2001. We remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news. Every year on September 11th, we stop to honor the memories of those who gave their lives. Hardly anyone knows what happened in Rwanda. No one knows what a Tutsi or a Hutu is, and no one stops to remember that over 800,000 innocent Rwandans lost their lives twenty-one years ago.

Have we learned the lesson of Rwanda? Are we willing to let the mistake be repeated in Syria? In Iraq? In Nigeria? In Sudan? The price of inaction in Rwanda was over 800,000 innocent lives. Dallaire asserted, just after the start of the genocide, that 5,000 UN Peacekeepers could have stopped the killings, an estimate that has been reaffirmed by countless military analysts. 5,000 Westerners could have saved 800,000 Rwandans. Why didn’t they?

“The root of it all,” wrote General Dallaire, “is the fundamental indifference of the world community to the plight of seven to eight million black Africans in a tiny country that had no strategic or resource value to any world power.” Dallaire, who has suffered from post traumatic stress disorder following his experiences in Rwanda, remembers the “judgment of a small group of bureaucrats who came to ‘assess’ the situation in the first weeks of the genocide: ‘We will recommend to our government not to intervene as the risks are high and all that is here are humans’” (Dallaire 6).

We must enter the age of humanity, when the supremacy of human rights everywhere will become our ultimate goal. When humanitarian interests, not merely economic and political gains, will dictate our actions. When the world will not stand by as innocent people are slaughtered by the thousands. When we will all stand as one, separated by neither race nor ethnicity, neither nation nor religion. When we will never forget the 800,000 innocent people who lost their lives over the course of one hundred days in Rwanda, and we will never let it happen again.

Works Cited:

Dallaire, Lt. Gen. Roméo. “Rwanda Genocide.” Romeo Dallaire. 2013. September 4th, 2014.

Dallaire, Lt. Gen. Roméo. Shake Hands with the Devil. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2003.

Doyle, Mark. “A Good Man in Rwanda.” BBC News. April 3rd, 2014. British Broadcasting Corporation. August 10th, 2014.

Gouveritch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1998.

Human Rights Watch. Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath. Washington, D.C.: Human Rights Watch, 1996. Print.

Interview with Paul and Tatiana Rusesabagina. Humo, nr. 3365 (March 2005): 142-149. Print.

Koppel, Ted and Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire. “A Good Man in Hell: General Romeo Dallaire and the Rwanda Genocide.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C. June 12th, 2002. Guest Event.

Power, Samantha. “Bystanders to Genocide.” The Atlantic. September 1st, 2001. Atlantic Monthly Group. August 10th, 2014.

Power, Samantha. “Never Again: The World’s Most Unfulfilled Promise.” Frontline. WGBH Educational Foundation. September 4th, 2014.

Rosenberg, Jennifer. “A Short History of the Rwandan Genocide.” July 31st, 2014.

“Rwanda – UNAMIR.” United Nations. 2001. August 10, 2014.

“The Role of the West.” Rwandan Stories. August 25th, 2014.

United Nations, General Assembly. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. A/3/13. (January 12th, 1951). Accessed from

“100 Days of Slaughter: A Chronology of U.S./U.N. Actions.” Frontline. WGBH Educational Foundation. August 10th, 2014.

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Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics. 

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