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The Rwandan Genocide: An Indelible Stain

by Susannah Sirkin, MEd on April 7, 2014

Today, as Rwanda launches three months of events to commemorate the genocide that ripped apart that small central African country 20 years ago, human rights advocates are still wondering what happened to the vows of “never again.” Syria, Sudan, and the Central African Republic are engulfed in conflicts claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and the world is incapable of an effective response.

I remember the mornings in early April 1994 when I would pull my car over to the curb of a busy Boston street, blinded by tears and paralyzed in horror as I listened to the reporter telling of bodies piled high in parish churches as machete-wielding Hutu Interahamwe militia massacred every man, woman, and child in sight. The BBC’s coverage of Rwanda’s hate radio streamed through my car’s speaker thousands of miles and oceans away, urging Rwandan Hutu to go out and kill their Tutsi neighbors. This was indisputably genocide.

The reporting continued day after day as foreigners evacuated and desperate calls from courageous advocates and a few heroic UN officials in Kigali fell on deaf ears. The late Alison des Forges of Human Rights Watch, a tiny woman with a gigantic and prescient understanding of Rwanda and its history, produced real-time accounts of the atrocities, begging for an effective global response, and reminding us that many Hutu opposing the Interahamwe were also targets of Rwanda’s cold-blooded killers.

At Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), for the first time, we called for multilateral military intervention to stop the killing. By the end of June 1994, the most intensive rate of mass murder in modern history, with the participation of civilians mobilized by vicious propaganda, resulted in an estimated one million dead. Months later, PHR’s first delegation to Rwanda published photographs of the bodies still piled high in churches and schools and decaying on makeshift wooden scaffolding.

Having failed to stop the genocide of 1994, the international community went about prosecuting the alleged leaders of the atrocities by setting up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in parallel with the newly established one for the Balkans. In 1996, PHR mobilized a team of forensic scientists that exhumed the Kibuye grave, the single largest grave ever unearthed and analyzed for evidentiary purposes. The grave, located near the Catholic Church in the town of Kibuye, contained almost 500 bodies, including children with machete cuts through their skulls and women with babies still strapped to their backs. Among the recovered clothing were the priest’s vestments. Public prosecutions of the lead perpetrators, we believed, would set a modern precedent and deter future crimes. At a minimum, it would deliver justice, a dignified reburial for some victims, and acknowledgment of the facts to the survivors. 

What we can admit, reluctantly, is that while Rwanda commemorates its genocide, Darfur burns and Syria continues to implode. There is no response in sight to the pleas of our Syrian medical colleagues to stop the onslaught of President Assad’s forces, who have destroyed hospitals, killed doctors and patients, tortured prisoners, and raped and plundered, while bombing indiscriminately. Genocide remains unaddressed and unpunished in Sudan, as the indicted but undeterred President Omar al Bashir remains free and continues to control the airpower over Darfur and countenances the brutal Janjaweed militias. The world’s conscience on Darfur, Eric Reeves, recently recited a litany of indiscriminate attacks against Darfuri villages in his regular update. While tens of thousands of young activists have moved on from failure to possible apathy, Reeves still calls on President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise:

“When you see a genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia, or in Darfur, that is a stain on all of us, a stain on our souls. …We can’t say ‘never again’ and then allow it to happen again, and as a president of the United States, I don’t intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter.”

Indiscriminate killing and destruction of Darfuri villages is still happening, and the U.S. policy is to continue to support Sudan’s genocidal regime while the world remains largely silent. In Rwanda, the Kagame government’s well-documented complicity in the slaughter of more than 100,000 Hutu men, women, and children in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo following the grim events of 1994 remains unprosecuted, and the killing in Syria continues unabated while the news blasts into our car radios every day.



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