“One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin
On April 6, 1994, the Rwandan genocide began. Over the course of 100 days, approximately 800,000 people were
slaughtered with machetes. Paul Kagame led a Tutsi rebellion from the Congo, took control of Rwanda and ended the genocide. He is still the president of the country, which is viewed as a model for other countries in terms of reconciliation and prosperity. The prosperity comes, however, from foreign aid and by exploiting the resources in the Congo, where they have been fighting a proxy war since the genocide ended. The war didn’t end in Rwanda, it just moved next door.
During the Rwandan genocide, I was slightly obsessed with Bosnia. I had bought into the general theory that Africa was a mess, it always had been and always would be and therefore I paid little attention to what was going on there. My interest now is probably partially due to my own feelings of guilt. Slobodan Milošević did horrible things in Bosnia, he exploited old hatreds that had been long forgotten. In 1984, the winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo and the country was also viewed as a model of racial and religious tolerance. His crimes took longer but were no less horrific but that does not excuse the way the west ignored Rwanda.
By ignore, I mean we ignored it completely. Dee Dee Myers, President Clinton’s spokesperson at the time said, “Acts of genocide” had been reported. I have nothing but respect and admiration for Myers but what did that mean? Later, I worked at the United Nations (UN), when Kofi Annan was the Secretary General. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. He has said Rwanda was the biggest failure of the UN. It also sits at his feet, as the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), it was his job to prevent or stop this. I have read and heard reports that people in this office ignored faxes they were sent detailing the situation there. Roméo Dallaire headed up the UN peacekeeping force that was sent to Rwanda but given no real authority to act. I think the experience broke him — read Shaking Hands with the Devil, and tell me you disagree. When I was at the UN, we received confidential reports from the Congo. This was years after the genocide but I had to stop reading them because they made me cry. How bad are things when you will carry your children though a river filled with alligators? Pretty fucking bad.
So, Paul Kagame, who was seen as a savior has yet to do what real leaders to, like Nelson Mandela, he should relinquish the presidency. You can read more about the Congo situation here.
We build museums and memorials to wars and genocides. We make pledges to prevent mass killings, yet we do nothing to stop them. We watch movies like Hotel Rwanda, we read books like We Wish to Inform You Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families and The Graves Are Not Yet Full. We wring our hands and regret not doing anything and think of genocide as something that happened in a far away place, in a far away time. It isn’t.
We have to stop treating people like they are disposable. We do it here, as many and one in three African American men go to prison. We discount people — in Africa, Asia and here at our own peril and detriment. Until we acknowledge and appreciate all human life, we will never live up to the promise of “never again.”
I have met and hope to work more with Paul Rusesabagina, the man who inspired the film, Hotel Rwanda. When I think about the dangerous world we occupy, it seems like there are too many problems that are too big for one person but then I remember his actions during the genocide saved more than a thousand people. I hope to host a fundraiser this year for the Paul Rusesabagina Hotel Rwanda Foundation. I have worked with anti-genocide organizations to help them use social and traditional media and get the attention of their elected representatives. I am not a soldier or have the skills to go places like the Congo but I use the skills I have to do what I can. It is not enough but and I don’t have any answers but if just one person reads this and decides to engage on issues like this, then I have made some difference, even if it just a small one.
And I am reaching out to the Rwandan embassy to see if they have a response to this and will post it when/if I get a reply.