Lessons of Rwanda

Apr 042006
Authors: Luci StorelliCastro

April 6 marks the 12-year anniversary of one of the most atrocious ethnic cleansing campaigns the world has ever witnessed.

The Rwandan genocide set the bar for the most heinous crimes against humanity in the post-Cold War epoch, leaving 800,000 people dead in a span of 100 days. As Michael Barnett, one expert on the Rwandan genocide, calculates, the death toll translated to roughly 333 deaths per hour, 5 deaths per minute.

While the number of causalities claimed by the Rwandan genocide pales in comparison to that of the Holocaust, the sinister manner by which the Rwandan killings were carried out is uniquely obscene and bloodcurdling. Unlike most historical mass murdering campaigns that have taken advantage of technology to exterminate a large segment of a population, for most perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, machetes were the weapons of choice. These low-tech instruments allowed for an eerie intimacy with victims, in stark contrast to hitting a switch or pulling a trigger.

Like many others, my initial exposure to the Rwandan genocide came through the movie, “Hotel Rwanda.” I recall leaving the theater distraught and horrified by a humanitarian crisis that had triggered only anemic international intervention. I became interested in learning more about the evolution of the Rwandan genocide and the circumstances that exonerated the United Nations from taking a firm stance in hamstringing the genocide.

Under a historical context, Rwanda was a ticking bombshell. Prior to its colonial period, Rwanda had been settled by two distinct ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis. Although ethnic skirmishes occasionally broke out, the two groups maintained relatively good relations. It was not until colonialism that ethnic tensions would escalate. Essentially, the Belgians institutionalized ethnic identities through scientific means, such as measuring a person’s nose and degree to which their skin pigment was light colored.

The minority Tutsis were viewed as a superior race for the Belgians, because their features bore more of a semblance to Caucasians than the Hutus. Consequently, the Belgians privileged the Tutsis with higher wages, better benefits, top governmental rankings and any other spoils they could deliver. As a result of their second-class treatment, the Hutus grew resentful of the Tutsis and developed a severe inferiority complex.

By the end of colonialism, a democratically assembled government shifted power to the Hutus. Ever since Rwanda’s independence, the majority Hutus have sought to maintain their power, suppressing any effort the Tutsis made of changing the status quo. Ultimately, Rwanda became a fertile ground for civil war and ethnic violence. Moreover, during the 1990s, Hutu extremists mobilized to arm militias and transmit insidious anti-Tutsi messages through the airwaves.

Against this backdrop and the failures of the Somalia peacekeeping operation, the UN was solicited by Rwanda for peacekeeping troops to oversee its attempted transition into a multi-ethnic government. The Security Council approved the Rwanda operation assuming it would be an easy mission and reinstate credibility to UN peacekeeping operations after the aftermath of Somalia.

Unbeknownst to the UN, Rwanda was on the brink of anarchy. To further complicate the situation, UN peacekeeping forces were ill-equipped, threadbare and not allowed to enforce their mandate with the use of force. By the time the genocide broke out on April 6, 1994, UN forces could only watch in horror as innocent Tutsi civilians and moderate Hutus were mutilated with machetes.

Women and children were not spared from the genocide, considering Hutu militias and government forces were operating under a mandate that sought to wipe out the next generation of Tutsis. Also, women were taken as sex slaves, often gang raped and beaten to death. Unfortunately, many of those women and young girls who survived were left with lasting reminders of the genocide – in the form of STDs and HIV.

As all these developments unfolded, the international community watched impassively, unwilling to intervene – in part for lack of information, but mostly for fear that Rwanda would culminate into another Somalia. On April 6, remember Rwanda and the scores of people who fell victim to an unconceivable murder campaign and an indifferent international community.

Luci Storelli – Castro is a double major in political science and philosophy. Her columns run every Wednesday in the Collegian.

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