The complicated lessons of genocide
When thousands of Rwandans gathered this spring in the capital, Kigali, the hope was that they could put behind them the genocidal rampage that tore their country apart twenty-five years ago. First, they watched as world leaders, including Canadian governor general Julie Payette, laid wreaths and lit a memorial flame at a site where more than a quarter of a million victims are buried. Then, as darkness fell, about 3,000 people walked through the city to the national football stadium, where 30,000 more were waiting. The lights were extinguished, and the stadium was lit by a sea of flickering candles as survivors of the genocide spoke, their voices punctuated by cries of anguish in the audience.
The killing on everyone’s mind that mournful night in Kigali began on April 7, 1994, after an airplane carrying the country’s Hutu president was shot down. The killers were organized and had lists of those who had been marked for death. They were urged on by a private radio station, seemingly established to further the genocide. The grisly statistics of the slaughter can’t be stated too often; they should be hauled out every once in a while to remind us of the human potential for evil. By the time the killing stopped, 100 days later, somewhere between 800,000 and a million people had died. That’s an average of 8,000 or 10,000 murders every day. The victims were primarily members of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority, and they were killed one by one — men, women, children, and babies hacked apart by machetes or clubbed by members of the majority Hutu population.
The killing overwhelmed a meagre United Nations force, under the command of Canadian lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire, which had been deployed the year before to keep the peace in a civil war. The UN force had a mandated strength of 2,500 soldiers, but it took months to get to that number. And when the killing started, the UN (pressured by the United States and the United Kingdom) refused to reinforce the contingent. It actually cut it back to about 400. Shockingly, there was little outcry from nations beyond Rwanda’s borders. There was no organized attempt to stop the killing.
The Rwandan genocide has rightly taken its place in the dark history of man’s inhumanity. When he laid his wreath, Rwandan president Paul Kagame promised that his country would never again make the mistakes that had led to the genocide. “Fear and anger have been replaced by the energy and purpose that drives us forward,” he said. “Nothing has the power to turn Rwandans against each other, ever again. This history will not repeat.”
It is a fervent hope, and Rwanda has indeed, by some measures, made a remarkable recovery. Its economy has grown rapidly, and its rebuilt cities are peaceful. Kagame has won the admiration of Western leaders, as well as donors who have shovelled money into the country despite concerns about his past and his dictatorial inclinations.
By all appearances, Rwanda has embraced civility. But what of other countries? Have they learned the lessons of 1994? Would Western countries look away again? What are the most important lessons to guide us going forward?
Rwanda is a complicated place, a landlocked country in eastern Africa that was badly served by its former colonial overlords, first Germany and then Belgium. It continues to grapple with its legacy — both the divisions sown in the colonial days and the genocidal consequences of ethnic rivalries. It’s true that there has been a consistent attempt at bringing génocidaires to justice. Some 300,000 were incarcerated after those 100 terrible days, and about 46,000 are still in prison. But many perpetrators live alongside the families of their victims — even among those who survived and bear the machete scars. It’s why many observers describe Rwanda as a peaceful but uneasy place. As William Faulkner wrote of the American South during Reconstruction, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Kagame, who took office in 2000, is intimately connected with the genocide: it’s generally accepted that he led the Rwandan Patriotic Front army of Tutsi exiles from neighbouring Uganda and helped end the slaughter in July 1994. The Canadian journalist Judi Rever is among those who don’t accept the heroic story, however. Rever has spent more than twenty years investigating what happened, and in her 2018 book, In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, she argues that the RPF participated in the genocide, albeit with more discretion than the Hutu and their Interahamwe killing machine. Kagame, for his part, maintains that a bizarre Tutsi-Hutu rivalry, which Belgium codified more than a century ago, is a thing of the past. In fact, he discourages any talk of ethnicity. “We are far better Rwandans than we were,” he told the memorial ceremony.
There were many culprits for the violent paroxysm of 1994 — from the Roman Catholic Church to France and the United States — and everyone from former U.S. president Bill Clinton to former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has expressed remorse. In Allan Thompson’s view, Western news organizations are partly to blame for the slaughter. The international media, he argued in his 2007 collection of essays, The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, acquiesced to the killing campaign by downplaying it. A senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a journalism professor at Carleton University, he takes up a similar theme in a new collection, Media and Mass Atrocity: The Rwanda Genocide and Beyond. “The killings happened in broad daylight, but somehow still didn’t fully penetrate our consciousness,” he writes. “Confronted by Rwanda’s horrors, international news media at times turned away, or muddled the story when they did pay attention by casting it in a formulaic way as anarchic tribal warfare rather than an organized genocide.”
Roméo Dallaire, the frustrated Canadian commander, contributes the latest book’s foreword, as well as an angry essay. Undercut by the UN, Dallaire watched helplessly as the “hate media” of Hutu extremists — chiefly Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, or RTLM — fuelled the killing. “By the time international media did turn its attention to Rwanda,” he writes, “it was essentially too late for their reporting to have an influence on events or to generate the kind of groundswell of public opinion that would have been necessary to bring about a major international intervention effort.”
Undeniably, the Rwanda genocide received scant coverage from Western media. There was little of the television airtime that some people believe can move a government to act, as when the CBC and Live Aid highlighted Ethiopia’s devastating drought of 1984–85, which claimed a million lives. At one point during the 100 days, CNN aired a horrific roadside killing, filmed from a safe distance by a British camera operator. But the network was mostly preoccupied with the drama surrounding the arrest of O.J. Simpson, in Los Angeles, and the election of Nelson Mandela, in South Africa.
One might understand why most news organizations kept their distance. For a start, it was exceedingly dangerous on the ground, and the satellite infrastructure necessary to send pictures back to newsrooms was lacking. And there were no scheduled flights from the ruined Kigali airport. More practically, Rwanda is a poor country of little geopolitical importance.
However underreported, the crisis wasn’t completely ignored. The Globe and Mail’s Jeff Sallot — flown into the country by the Department of National Defence, along with other Canadian reporters — filed a front-page story from a village near Kigali. He graphically described the butchering, by machete, of an old man and a little girl. The May 4 headline: “Rwanda a Land Stalked by Death.” If that left any doubt about what was going on, Sallot used the word “genocide” to drive the point home. Stories like his were rare, however, and most journalists left the country with other expatriates as the murders continued.
The RPF put a stop to the killing in early July, and then the media did flood in. When I arrived in Kigali toward the end of the month, the city was a ghost town with no water or electricity. Piles of garbage and rotting dog carcasses were left untouched. Tutsis had sought protection at the football stadium (the same one that hosted this spring’s memorial ceremony). Outside it, some men carefully butchered a cow in the blazing sun. There were bullet casings everywhere, and the odd bit of bone or skull wasn’t hard to find. The hot story — the easier story, I admit shamefully — was 160 kilometres away in Goma, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Afraid of reprisals, some 800,000 Hutus had walked there, among them countless génocidaires. They settled into three camps, north of the city, that lacked adequate sanitation and clean water. The first cases of cholera were confirmed in late July, and by the time I arrived a few days later, the disease was cutting a swath through the refugees. Thousands perished every day. Their bodies could not be buried in the hard volcanic plain, and so they were rolled into blankets and stacked by the side of the road for crews to transport to mass graves, where they would be covered by a layer of lime and red African soil and then forgotten.
The blaze of publicity about the Goma crisis caught the international imagination in a way that the genocide hadn’t. The world mobilized a sizable relief effort — but not before 50,000 people had died. This, of course, was a fraction of the genocide’s death toll, but it received more attention because it was much easier to cover. Reporters could hop a relief flight in Nairobi, land in Goma an hour later, and be in the midst of mass death. There were plenty of satellite connections to rent, and there was nothing political involved. Everyone can hate disease, and being in Goma meant you didn’t have grapple with Rwanda’s complicated history to explain who did what to whom and why.
Thanks to the heroic effort of aid agencies, the mortality rate in the camps came down, and by mid-August the story had slipped off the front pages and the newscasts. By November, the wire services that had chronicled the genocide’s aftermath in great detail went quiet. Every story has its day, even if it involves a million deaths.
Dallaire has said he could have stopped the killings with 5,000 troops, but the UN failed to back him. That situation might have changed if Washington, London, and Paris had felt the heat of intense media coverage and public outrage. But the operative word is “might.” What if Rwanda had been flooded with Western reporters? Would the major powers have acted? It’s not clear. After all, what was going on in Rwanda wasn’t a secret. Governments around the world knew exactly what was happening, and that it wasn’t just random Hutus killing random Tutsis. They knew it was a rampage orchestrated at the highest levels of the state.
Those looking back on the genocide also have mixed views of the so-called CNN effect, which holds that media-inspired emotion can prompt policy changes. Many with foreign policy experience reject the notion that TV coverage drives action. As Steven Livingston and Alice Musabende write in Media and Mass Atrocity, “Little solid evidence exists in support of the assertion that non-state actors, including the news media, have the capacity to instigate an immediate intervention in an unfolding crisis or conflict.”
Would the United States, gun‑shy after its disastrous peacekeeping mission in Somalia the year before — when eighteen of its soldiers were killed and one dragged through the streets of Mogadishu — have acted if CNN had given Rwanda wall-to-wall coverage? It’s an unanswerable question. And, at this point, the debate about this and other issues — who shot down the president’s plane? should Dallaire have gone around his UN bosses and leaked his early 1994 cable that warned of a coming genocide? — is starting to get stale. Academics and other analysts, with their talk of framing and constructivism and their charts of this and that, have drained those horrible events of 1994 of their emotion. And that’s a great pity.
To truly commemorate the Rwandan genocide, what’s needed is the creation of a road map for the modern era so that “never again” actually means something. The task starts with a recognition of how much the world — the communications landscape in particular — has changed and how issues surrounding “hate radio” and the responsibilities of the mainstream media are now largely superfluous.
Indeed, the mainstream media that dominated the landscape twenty-five years ago has shrivelled away. Fewer and fewer watch network or cable TV, and fewer still read newspapers. Is it possible to sway public opinion when communication is so fragmented? The dramatic expansion in the popularity of social media, accessed mostly through smartphones, suggests a new way of disseminating information. But is that enough? In Media and Mass Atrocity, Geoffrey York, the Globe and Mail’s veteran Africa correspondent, estimates there will be about 750 million of the devices on the continent by 2021, and that this widespread presence has the potential to expand freedom and empower citizens. And he warns that there are already “dangerous and worrisome consequences” of the rapid distribution of false information by smartphones. In South Sudan, for example, “social media has fuelled waves of hate speech that have provoked deadly violence and ethnic conflict.”
In another chapter, Stephanie MacLellan emphasizes a similar point and notes that users not only can receive hateful messages, as listeners did from RTLM in Rwanda, but can also pass along and enhance them. “In this way, messages can spread far and wide without the traditional vetting role that is performed by journalists,” she writes. Moreover, much of this traffic is carried on the ubiquitous WhatsApp, which encrypts communications and “makes tracking the spread of dangerous speech . . . incredibly difficult.”
But, as Simon Cottle writes elsewhere in the book, the revolution in communications has also made the concealment of collective violence more difficult. We are unlikely to see another Rwandan “genocide without images.” The ranks (and budgets) of TV networks and newspapers have certainly thinned, and there are places, such as Syria, where only reporters and camera crews with a death wish choose to go. The smartphone camera has, however, created millions of citizen-journalists who can bear close witness. The smartphone’s potential is augmented by non-governmental organizations’ new-found access to satellite imagery, which allows events to be tracked — and publicized — in real time. It has allowed us to watch as the Rohingya Muslims flee Myanmar, for example.
Non-mainstream media made it possible for a UN panel to condemn “the gravest crimes under international law,” while noting that Facebook played a role in allowing Myanmar’s military to inflame ethnic tensions. Even still, Cottle laments, disturbing images are not always enough: “It needs to be said that the power to ‘see’ and the capacity ‘to care’ clearly do not reside in images themselves.” The practitioners of realpolitik recognize, as Livingston and Musabende put it in their chapter on prevention, that “clearly understood national interest must trump emotion and soppiness.” If that holds true, then the power of “never again” is severely diminished — our road map goes nowhere. It is a bleak situation to contemplate, and the current uncertainty about whether or how to regulate social media will take some time to resolve itself.
While a vehicle for confronting the implications of social media exists, genocide is not yet on the agenda. One of the founding goals of the new International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy — involving Canada, the U.K. and twelve other countries, but not the United States — is to stop the deliberate spread of disinformation, which it sees as a credible threat to democracy. But over three days of hearings in Ottawa in late May, committee members seemed more interested in their children’s smartphone addictions and the protection of personal data — an opportunity lost.
Kagame believes his country has learned from its gory past and will not commit the same errors again. In his foreword to Christine Magill’s book, The Hope That Remains, Will Ferguson offers a somewhat more measured assessment. “The Rwandan community has lessons to teach us,” he writes, “if we will listen. Lessons about extremism, about scapegoating segments of society — whoever they may be — of pigeonholing people as part of a group instead of treating them as individuals.” So are we listening? Would we turn away once more? Does “never again” retain its emotive power, or have we become anaesthetized to mass violence far from home?
The doubts are well placed. Just consider the systematic killing of at least 100,000 Darfuris in Western Sudan, ongoing since 2003, or Myanmar’s violent expulsion of the Rohingyas over the last several years. As Kofi Annan said in Thompson’s 2007 collection of essays, “It is still not clear, were the signs of impending genocide to be seen somewhere today, that the world would mount an effective response.”
Amid this gloom, it is something of a relief to encounter a little optimism. Christine Magill, for one, strikes such a tone in The Hope That Remains, where she tells the stories of ten Rwandans who came to Canada after the genocide (they were joined by many hundreds more). Their experiences in 1994 were about as horrific as you can imagine, and they still bear scars, often physical, of those times. But their resiliency shines through. Marie, for example, was thirteen when the Interahamwe arrived at her school. She and her sister were attacked with a machete, and they lay with the dead overnight before being rescued by sympathetic Hutu villagers who hadn’t been attacked. Only half of Marie’s family of fourteen survived.
Marie came to Canada in 2002. She struggled with learning English, with the cold Manitoba weather, and with her anger. “I felt that my life had ended with the genocide, and I wanted to commit suicide,” she tells Magill. Eventually, she met her future husband, on the anniversary of her brother’s murder, and she found forgiveness. “It changed the meaning of that day for me, the experiences and feelings I had attached to it,” Marie says. “God wanted me to focus on living in the present instead of the past.”