It all happened during April of 1994 and July of the same year; three months were enough for one of the bloodiest events in mankind’s recent history. A genocide that claimed more than 800,000 lives and left more than two millions as refugees, it took place in the small country of Rwanda in east-central Africa. The events weighed heavily on humanity’s conscious, and is still casting a huge shadow of guilt and shame upon the international community till this day.
Many movies were made based on what went on; like “Shooting Dogs” and “Sometimes in April”. None more famous though than award-winning “Hotel Rwanda”; in which a man, a true human, from the Hutu ethnic majority helps out as many Tutsi civilians as he possibly could putting his own life and his family at risk in the process. It’s a truly powerful and uplifting movie that shows what humans are really made of despite the madness all around.
The Rwanda Background - Genocide
Let’s take a bit of a look at the historical background in Rwanda. The Belgians, who occupied Rwanda, favored the Tutsi minority over the 85% Hutu majority. A Hutu revolution took place in 1959 which resulted in 300,000 Tutsis fleeing the country. The country was declared a republic then, and Belgians granted Rwanda independence in 1962. Ethnic violence, however, continued until a moderate Hutu “Habyarimana” came to rule in 1973, he stayed in power for years to come. In 1990 forces of RPF, mostly Tutsi invaded the country from Ughanda and then a ceasefire was declared and in 1993 and Habyarimana signed a power-sharing agreement with them.
This agreement angered the Hutu extremists, and this was where it all began. The president’s plane crashed and he was killed. Hutu extremists driven by fear of losing power, or maybe planning the thing, got to action. Within an hour of the plane crash, the Presidential Guard together with members of the Rwandan armed forces (FAR) and Hutu militia groups known as the Interahamwe (“Those Who Attack Together”) and Impuzamugambi (“Those Who Have the Same Goal”) began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Some 800,000 people were slaughtered over the next three months. During this period, local officials and government-sponsored radio stations called on ordinary Rwandan civilians to murder their neighbors. Meanwhile, the RPF resumed fighting, and by early July, gained control over most of country, including Kigali. In response, more than 2 million people, nearly all Hutus, fled Rwanda, crowding into refugee camps in the Congo (then called Zaire) and other neighboring countries.
After its victory, RPF established a coalition government, with Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, as president and Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, as vice president and defense minister, and a new constitution adopted in 2003 eliminated reference to ethnicity.
International response... in Rwanda's case
As in the case of atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia around the same time, the international community largely remained on the sidelines during the Rwandan genocide. A U.N. Security Council vote in April 1994 led to the withdrawal of most of a U.N. peacekeeping operation (UNAMIR). As reports of the genocide spread, the Security Council voted in mid-May to supply a more robust force, including more than 5,000 troops. By the time that force arrived in full, however, the genocide had been over for months. In a separate French intervention approved by the U.N., French troops entered Rwanda from Zaire in late June. In the face of the RPF's rapid advance, they limited their intervention to a "humanitarian zone" set up in southwestern Rwanda, saving tens of thousands of Tutsi lives but also helping some of the genocide's plotters--allies of the French during the Habyarimana administration--to escape.
In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, many prominent figures in the international community lamented the outside world's general obliviousness to the situation and its failure to act in order to prevent the atrocities from taking place. As former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told the PBS news program "Frontline": "The failure of Rwanda is 10 times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia.
In October 1994, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), located in Tanzania, was established as an extension of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague. In 1995, the ICTR began indicting and trying a number of higher-ranking people for their role in the Rwandan genocide; the process was made more difficult because the whereabouts of many suspects were unknown. The trials continued over the next decade and a half, including the 2008 conviction of three former senior Rwandan defense and military officials for organizing the genocide.
The Syria Background - Revolution
My interest in bringing the case of Rwanda is to compare the international response rather than anything else. I must, however, mention that the two cases of Syria and Rwanda cannot be compared, because in Syria it’s mainly and mostly a revolution against an old and vicious dictatorship, but in Rwanda it was merely an ethnic power struggle. Definitely some elements suggest it is a war in Syria, but that’s going on the side, and it’s what the regime and some international powers want it to be and/or to look like, yet at the core it’s a revolution with demands and ambitions and deep humanitarian aspects. The second large difference is that it was a full blooded genocide in Rwanda, no mistake about that. In Syria there are definite elements of a genocide being committed for sure, but it can never, and hopefully will not, mount to the same catastrophic heights it had reached in Rwanda.
International response… in Syria’s case
As for the international response; a lot can be said. The international community may not have stayed on the sidelines the way it did in the Rwandese case, but it surely didn’t show enough urgency to act as it watched human rights being dashed and crushed by the regime in Syria. It is fair to say that the geopolitical nature of Syria played a key role in whatever is going on at the international scene; it is far more complex and dangerous than it was in the case of a country such as Rwanda. Many interests are at stake, and every international power wants something out of it. The nation of Syria keeps struggling and goes on with its revolution while the international powers play their game on Syrian ground.
The UN mission presented by Mr. Annan was rather too little too late, and according to many who are observing the situation in Syria it was born dead. It did however bring some hope to Syrians despite the many shortcomings, such as the ridiculously small number of monitors, and the largely stifling terms they hard to work with, to name a few. But all the hopes went begging as the regime started committing one massacre after the other, none more famous than the unfortunate Houla Massacre, while the observing team watched and seemed unable to even come up with proper reports. Activists’ and committees’ calls and criticisms were meant to gear up the work of the observers’ team and to better their performance, but the UN declared failure of the mission bringing back to minds memories of Rwanda.
The situation in Syria, like the ones in Rwanda and Yugoslavia before, is exposing the weaknesses of the international community as well as the double-standards of the big powers in our world. Will the lesson be learned this time? Will the screams of victims make any difference? Will the efforts of activists and human rights entities be properly acknowledged? Let’s face it, we don’t need millions and billions to be spent on organizations that is designed to protect nations and set international justice, but can’t do the job. The world needs to take a deeper look into itself…!
I guess all I wanna say here is that I really don’t want the situation and revolution in Syria to be reduced, 10 years from now, to a guilt-triggered academy-award-winning sensational Hollywood movie!
note: all text in grey concerning Rwanda was taken from a number of sources, and mainly from Wikipedia.