In 1994 the world sat idly by while a well-planned genocide unfolded in Rwanda. The vicious and systematic massacre of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutu militants in Rwanda should serve as a constant reminder of the power of words to influence minds, to instill fear and distrust, to promote hate, and to engender a culture of ‘us’ and ‘them’. State-sponsored media was used to whip ordinary citizens into a frenzy of blood-thirst, brutality, and what could best be described as collective insanity. How else could one explain the murderous attacks on fellow citizens by their neighbours, other family members and even church ministers with whom they had lived peacefully just weeks before?
In a special event in 2014 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson noted “When people are killed or violated in the name of religion, race or ethnicity, everybody’s humanity is diminished. We are all brutalized – victims and perpetrators as well as bystanders”.
The entire international community constituted the bystanders. All the warning signs were ignored. The international community turned a blind eye to the genocide, choosing instead to call it an ‘internal conflict’, in spite of intelligence supplied by an informant to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), Commander General Romeo Dallaire, prior to the massacre and which he had communicated to the UN Security Council. Grenades and rifles had been stockpiled, shipments of machetes had been received from China in quantities far exceeding the requirements for agricultural purposes and distributed to ordinary citizens, and there were training camps for Interahamwe genocidists. Such low-tech weaponry achieved a level of efficiency that exceeded the rate of killing in the holocaust.
The Hutu-Tutsi strife had at its core class warfare, with the minority Tutsis being largely cattle herders and therefore perceived to have had greater wealth and social status than the Hutu majority who were agriculturists. Their differences were therefore economic and social rather than ethnic. Their physical differences were not immediately apparent because of intermarriage. That they all spoke Kinyarwanda suggested that they had lived together for centuries. The introduction of ethnic identity cards by the Belgians and preferred education granted to Tutsis only exacerbated the divisions and further fueled the ‘us and them’ culture and already entrenched discrimination.
As is common in armed conflict, women and children were disproportionately affected. Among other things, on the UN Day of Reflection on the Rwandan Genocide we must reflect on the emotional and psychological damage to a generation of children who would have been eye witnesses to mass murder; their innocence extinguished with the swing of a machete or other low-tech weapons that required the users to get up close to their victims. And whether family members were the perpetrators or the victims, the psychological and emotional damage to children would have been the same.
But the impact of the genocide was felt long after the 100 days that the killings lasted. In addition to the 800,000 victims of murder, there were over 2M refugees outside Rwanda – both Tutsis and Hutus – as well as about 1.5M internally displaced people. Refugees and internally displaced persons face a higher risk of physical attacks (as often occurred in the refugee camps in Zaire where former genocidists mixed with families of victims) and suffer from a lack of adequate food, shelter and access to health services. The sexual abuse of women and girls that occurred during the genocide continued in refugee camps and the lack of livelihood opportunities post genocide served to prolong their suffering.
The Day of Reflection on the Rwandan Genocide should therefore be one on which we strengthen our resolve to play our part as Soroptimists in the achievement of SDG 16 which calls for peaceful and inclusive societies based on respect for human rights, the rule of law and good governance at all levels. Our UN Consultative Status gives Soroptimists a voice at different high-level fora and we also work on the ground in our communities to achieve our goals. This is where change must start. We must become advocates against discrimination, intolerance, exclusion and hate speech which lie at the core of the conflicts that lead to genocide and we must start with conversations which engender a culture of peace.
SI San Fernando
Trinidad & Tobago