Rwanda and Its Moral Lessons
These remarkable photographs were taken by
New York Times photographer Vanessa Rick
in 1999 and are chronicled at Children of
Rwanda’s Genocide. This child lives in the
Kigali dump (credit: Vanessa Rick)
The Rwandan genocide is quite simply the most momentous and troubling event of our time. Like Hitler’s Holocaust, it is too big to comprehend emotionally or even linguistically. Theodore Adorno once said that the only proper response to the Holocaust can be silence. In some senses, the same may be true of Rwanda.
But I only agree with Adorno in a spiritual sense. We must stand in awe and utter incapacity before the enormity of this crime against the entire human race. But eventually, we have a duty, if we wish to prevent more Rwandas to talk and write and make films and write letters and read blogs about the genocide. It must never leave our consciousness.
The Last Just Man makes the point that in Rwanda the killings far outstripped in grim efficiency that of the Nazis. The Hutus murdered 800,000 with mere machetes in a three MONTH period, while in approximately three YEARS of extermination and with every technological advance in killing science known up to that time at their disposal, the Nazis managed to kill 6 million. These are the kinds of bone-chilling “facts” that we must face when we confront these evils.
Luckily for us, there are artists, filmmakers and journalists who’ve risen to the occasion by memorializing the suffering in as powerful a way as one can imagine. I’d like to tell you here about some of the profoundly powerful works created to chronicle that genocide. They are the sentries and signposts that provide us with resources to comprehend what happened (if that is indeed possible) and to formulate a response (no matter how inadequate).
The 8 year-old boy pictured here
is accused of genocide
Right now, the film Hotel Rwanda starring Don Cheadle as Kigali hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina, who turns his establishment into a sanctuary to save the lives of innocent Tutsis is vying for Hollywood Oscars. But let’s not forget Philip Gourevitch’s book, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, from which the film originated. Gourevitch lived in Rwanda for nine months after the slaughter and has written several extraordinary pieces on the genocide in The New Yorker. Unfortunately, the magazine does not make any of them available online. Library electronic databases only begin archiving the magazine in 2001 so you cannot find his article there either. Neither could I find the article with the help of Google. With the help of my local library, I’m making his groundbreaking article, The Genocide Fax (which first chronicled Romeo Dallaire’s heroic efforts to stave off genocide), available here. PBS makes the full text of the memo available via its documentary, The Triumph of Evil.
Many remarkable books and documentaries have been made about the genocide but the most powerful one I’ve seen is Greg Barker’s, Ghosts of Rwanda. It reveals the finest of human behavior exemplified by Dallaire, Carl Wilkens and Captain Marc Diagne; the most depraved in the person of the perpetrators; and somewhere in between the callow, shameful failure of U.S. and UN political leaders and diplomats to mount an effective response to evil.
Like any Jew who lives in the aftermath of Hitler’s Holocaust, I’ve tried to come to terms with that greatest of genocides. One of the great questions we pondered in classes in Jewish theology at Camp Ramah when I was a teenager was: “can it happen again?” And the related questions, “is Hitler’s Holocaust sui generis? and “could there be any crime that compares to it?” Alas, we now know the answer to all those questions and it is, yes. It certainly can happen again and has in Rwanda, the Sudan, Kosovo and Cambodia (among other places). While Hitler’s men may’ve killed the most, these other genocides are all of the same type. No, our Jewish suffering was, unfortunately not unique.
In watching Ghosts of Rwanda and the other media featured here I’ve learned a few important lessons about the genocide against the Jews. The main lesson is that while genocide happens because of deep reservoirs of evil in human beings and nations riven by hatred, genocide cannot happen unless the internal and external forces that might stop it are immobilized by fear, inertia, blindness or distraction. Unfortunately, all these phenomena were evident in the pitiful response of the global community (specifically the UN and U.S.) to the Rwandan genocide.
These orphaned children participate
in activites at a shelter
As we watch senior U.S. officials claim querulously that the extent of the genocide “wasn’t clear” (Madeleine Albright) or that we just didn’t understand what was happening (Bill Clinton), or that “I asked others for the evidence and they couldn’t provide any” (Anthony Lake) we can understand how the Allied powers acquiesced in Hilter’s genocide. What is remarkable in today’s world is that a mere ten or so years later we understand roughly what happened, who failed the Tutsis and why. What is deeply regretful is that no one was held accountable after World War II for doing nothing to stop the Holocaust (nor has anyone outside of the direct perpetrators been held accountable regarding Rwanda). Neither FDR, who refused to bomb the camps and railroad convoys to the camps nor James Burns, the anti-Semitic Secretary of State who actively campaigned against helping Jews and saving their lives have been held truly accountable by history or the nation. I guess you call this a ghoulish sort of progress in that today we can say who did the right thing and who did nothing. Rwanda will stand as an eternal blot on Bill Clinton’s presidency and hopefully he will spend the rest of his life tortured by what he could’ve done and didn’t. FDR’s presidency has hardly received any such accounting. His undoubted greatness remains relatively untarnished in the eyes of historians and that is deeply to be regreted.
It is only natural that what grips us the most powerfully is the herosim of the Dalliares, Wilkens and Rusesabaginas. It represents the only thin threads of human dignity that run through this sordid story. Listening to Carl Wilkens describe how he decided that he must confront the Hutu prime minister who he knew was responsible for the genocide he witnessed every day in order to save the children at an orphanage is some of the most compelling testimony I have ever watched. Knowing his life was in danger and that this man was responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands, he politely but forcefully asked him to save the children who were then surrounded by drunken and armed militias itching to kill. Would he die for his temerity? Or would his request be honored either out of human decency or a desire to appear magnanimous to this foreigner? The only thing that really matters is that the Hutu leader called off the dogs and the children were saved.
When we watch Dalliare, we join him in his heartbreak. We all die a little with him as he describes the attempted suicides, alcoholism and haunting nightmares which accompany his post-Rwanda life. Perhaps most disturbing and pathos-filled is his haunting reply to an interviewer who reassures him that he did his best: “But what good does that do me? My best was not good enough. And what happened is my fault.”
No, it was not his fault. Though we can certainly empathize with the profound sense of guilt he feels for his impotence. But there are real culprits who deserve real blame. Among them: Kofi Annan and his chief deputy, Iqbal Riza who checked Dallaire’s best plans and impulses instead of facilitating his efforts; Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright (among others); the Belgian government which withdrew its troops, the largest contingent of the UN peacekeeping force; but most of all the Tutsi Interhamwe militia who perpetrated the evil. All of them either have blood on their hands directly or could have saved lives if they’d done what they should have done. Instead, they let humanity down and history will judge them harshly for it.
The following is a set of links that I’ve found helpful in understanding the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide:
Ghosts of Rwanda: interviews with key diplomatic and military players in Rwandan genocide
The Few Who Stayed: Defying Genocide in Rwanda–radio interviews with three heroes in the face of evil
Ghosts of Rwanda: video excerpts
Ghosts of Rwanda: full program transcript
Triumph of Evil: PBS documentary
The Last Just Man: documentary profile of Romeo Dallaire
4 thoughts on “Rwanda and Its Moral Lessons – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
Comments are published at the sole discretion of the owner.
I recently read A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide which covered Rwanda (and Bosnia, and Cambodia, and…) It did not make me happy with Clinton, to say the least…
Nick Kristoff’s column today was very powerful. Let’s hope it does some good.
Yes, both of those are very powerful & should be read. Kristoff’s article also quotes a Janjaweed memo outlining the genocide explicitly–very important evidence for later genocide prosecution I should think (if it can be authenticated).
Much the same thing almost happened in East Timor in 1999, after the vote for independence from Indonesia, which the UN conducted. When violence by pro-Indonesian militias exploded, killing 1,500 people, the world simply watched the TV reports and did nothing. Finally, the UN decided to evacuate its compound in Dili, leaving the people who had been protected there to die.
But the foreign UN workers realized that, far from being powerless, they were the most powerful people in the world. If they ignored the order and stayed then troops would have to be sent to protect them, and the terror brought to an end–after some 200,000 East Timorese had been murdered during the 24-year occupation.
Yes, thanks Montag for adding that perspective. Of course you are right. I didn’t know that UN staff refused to evacuate E. Timor. If so, they were truly heroic.
Dallaire too was heroic in Rwanda because he continually disobeyed direct orders from UN headquarters to desist from any active forms of resistance to the Interahamwe. In fact, the Security Council voted to end the UN mission in Rwanda & he flat out refused to leave. Who knows how many more would’ve died if he’d acquiesced in those wretched orders from Kofi Annan’s staff in NYC?