Today marks the 20th anniversary of one of the darker events that occurred within my lifetime. On April 7, 1994 the tiny African nation of Rwanda erupted into violence and stayed there for slightly more than three months – 100 days in fact. In that very short time frame, hundreds of thousands of citizens, the majority of whom were innocent civilians, were massacred. So fierce and brutal was the period that even today, an accurate count of the number of people murdered remains unknown. The United Nations estimates that the death toll was between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people. The official death toll according to the government of Rwanda is 1,174,000. In three months.
The Rwandan genocide has its roots, as many conflicts do, in conflict that simmered for generations and divided a nation. I will never understand those roots in all of their complexity, but I do know, at the absolute base of them, lies “the other” – that intangible and often ill-defined condition of being different in some way. Perhaps a different colour of skin or a different name by which they call god. Maybe they have a different view on how the people ought to be governed or how government money should be spent. Sometimes, it is as simple as how they define love. But some characteristic, some tiny detail, sets them apart.
Terrifyingly, the majority of the murders were not carried out by organized military. No WWII death camps and trains here. In this tiny nation, neighbour set upon neighbour with wood axes and clubs. Baseball bats and machetes were the weapons of mass destruction in Rwanda.
If you have not read Roméo Dallaire’s “Shake Hands with the Devil” you must. It is a book you will only read once, but it will move you to your core. It tells a story of a country in need, of a war that was predicted and of a million lives lost that could have been saved. It ought to be required reading for all military commanders and political leaders.
And that is perhaps the saddest part of the entire horrific matter – they saw it coming. Months prior to the commencement of the genocide, the UN was told it was going to happen. Informants in the Rwandan government told UN officials that plans were being made to begin the slaughter, that specific parties were set to incite the people to murder their neighbors. But no one stopped it. No one stepped in to help. In fact, the UN Peacekeepers that were on the ground had their funding cut and their numbers reduced in the middle of the conflict. Nations with enormous armies did nothing. Nations with tremendous budgets spent not a dime helping. And every minute they did nothing, seven people were murdered.
Things in Rwanda today are somewhat improved. It is no paradise - the nation is still trying to climb out of the hell on earth that it was for those 100 days. In 100 days, almost 15% of the population was killed. Children became orphans and orphans became the heads of families. But the wounds are healing, though resources remain scarce and money, as in many nations, could solve a lot of the problems. Conflict still runs through the area, and peace remains elusive, though the wide-spread slaughter has long since ceased.
The world has changed. We’re more connected now, more in touch with people around the world. We Facebook and Tweet with people from all nations. We call someone a friend whom we’ve never met face to face, and likely never will. We have news dumped into our phones, our computers and our tablets every minute of every day. A mosquito sneezes in Tokyo and we know about it thirty seconds later.
Yet the world has not changed. Srebenica, Syria, Sudan and now the Central African Republic. Genocidal attacks where one group makes a concentrated effort to eliminate an opposing (or even just different) group. Tens of thousands of dead and dying right now, in this moment, but no government will step in. The United Nations does nothing. And children watch their parents die. Fathers watch their daughters brutally assaulted. Parents gather the remains of their children, horrifically murdered for the crime of being different.
When will we learn?