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SOMALIA WAS HARD enough to explain to my students, even though the facts were fresh in my mind. The chaos that erupted in Rwanda late in my first Warburg year was much harder. I’d been away from Rwanda for nearly two decades, and while I thought I still had a good fix on the country’s basic dynamics, I found I had much to unlearn when reports of genocide reached us.

Warburg 2000 Conference
What other Conference 2000 Speakers had to say:

Sir Kieran Prendergast , on U.S. and UN roles in collective security:
"In an era of increasing globalization and proliferating transnational problems, the relevance and utility of the United Nations can only grow. This is not a boast, but an acknowledgment that often there is no alternative."

Prof Erik Jensen, on the objectives of the Warburg 2000 Conference:
"As the sole remaining superpower, the U.S. is faced with difficult decisions when crises arise: whether to act alone; or to tackle them in collaboration with like-minded allies, for example, through NATO; or to work for collective security principally in the United Nations Security Council. Hence the conference title: Collective Security, Posse or Global Cop."

Amb. Denis McLean, on sharing responsibility in wars of nationalism and separatism:
"The U.S. has a fundamental role to play in helping to put together the capabilities to meet these types of emergency. But so too have other countries."

Elizabeth Pond , on Europe's 20th Century transformation:
The cold war was not a freezer, but an incubator of European cooperation. . . . Europe is not and never will be a homogenized federation, but it is already far more than a confederation."


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Rwanda had been a very special experience for me — a sort of three-year escape to Shangri-la. The country was breathtakingly beautiful, its fauna fascinating, and its people simply the sweetest and most decent I had met anywhere. I knew — we all knew — that Rwanda had serious underlying problems: in GNP per capita terms, it was among the poorest in the world, the most densely populated and fastest growing in Africa; its politics were dominated by a single socialist-style party, and its ethnic tensions were held in check by a no-nonsense military ruler. But we had not yet learned to despise African socialism or enlightened despots, and in the 1970s, Rwanda seemed to be making its way forward.

As you might imagine, then, when my students and colleagues began asking questions about the violence erupting in our African Shangri-la, I was short of satisfactory answers. At a brown-bag lunch session in the dining hall, my wife and I described the Rwanda we had known earlier and attempted to offer some some reassuring perspective on the awful reports that were reaching us in Boston (for lack of anything insightful to say, I recall demonstrating Tutsi warrior dance steps!). To their credit, the large crowd of students and others who attended were unimpressed:

How was it possible, they wanted to know, that such “sweet” people could be engaged in such ghastly brutality toward each other?
Why had we American diplomats not foreseen the danger of such an eruption of violence and taken steps to prevent it or curb it?
What were the United Nations, the Belgians, and the French doing? Or the Organization of African Unity? Shouldn’t someone be taking the lead? Why was no one trying to halt the slaughter?

Not just a little chagrined, I felt compelled to do some long-postponed research into Rwanda’s social and political history. With the help of the Simmons library staff and some personal contacts in Washington and New York, here is what I learned:

     First, that differences between Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups were far older, deeper, and more complex than they had seemed to me. (In this regard, I must mention a particularly insightful book entitled The Premise of Inequality in Ruanda, by Jacques J. P. Maquet, which may be found in the stacks of the Simmons library.)

     Second, and more unsettling, I learned that the U.S. and its European friends had indeed been quite active — perhaps too active — behind the scenes in Rwanda before the slaughter began, obtaining promises from the Rwandan president and ruling party of political and economic reforms, promises that may themselves have ignited the explosion of ethnic fear, violence, and murder.

     Third — and this should not have been a surprise — I learned that Washington had no intention whatever of becoming further involved in Rwanda, so soon after its embarrassing fiasco in Somalia and its controversial intervention in Haiti. (Some months later, however, it was prevailed upon to fly relief supplies and personnel into the Kivu province of Zaïre next door to aid Rwandan Hutus who had swarmed there as refugees.)

It was evident even as refugees from Rwanda’s nightmare were flooding across the border into the eastern reaches of the Congo that the rising tide of ethnic conflict in the smaller neighbor was threatening to upset the always-precarious balance of Congolese politics.

Rwanda, after all, had been a mere footnote to the huge Congo, tacked onto King Leopold’s colonial domain (along with its twin neighbor Burundi) as a prize for Belgium’s role in defeating Germany in World War I. Even during the Congo’s worst days, its leaders — and the rest of us — regarded Rwanda and Burundi as insignificant by comparison. So it was astonishing to me to watch the Congo’s own strongman president Mobutu sese Seko — whom we had installed in power thirty years earlier — himself fall, his regime collapse, and his nation practically fall apart at the crest of a wave of change that began in Rwanda’s hills.

Once again, the Warburg chair and the Simmons library were good to me, enabling me to dig more deeply beneath the news headlines. I had been aware that the Congo’s mountainous eastern reaches were populated by people who were close kin of the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, and I had got to know some of their chiefs and leaders when I served there many years earlier. I was vaguely aware too that these border areas had been used for a generation as a staging area for Tutsi guerrilla groups seeking to overthrow Rwanda’s Hutu majority and recapture the feudal kingdom they lost at Independence early in the 1960’s.

But I was surprised, as others were, by the flood of Hutu refugees — more than one million of them — who poured out of Rwanda into the same border region of the Congo during that awful summer of 1994, inevitably bringing with them the virus of ethnic hatred that had devastated their own country and that soon spread rapidly across the eastern third of the Congo.

  • For Rwanda and its new Tutsi-dominated government, the new situation was a simple reversal of roles: the Hutu exiles were now the marauding guerrillas, and it was the Tutsis’ turn to demand that their wretched camps on the Congo side of the border be closed.
  • For the Congo (then still Zaïre) and its dying president, the situation was far more complex: the collapse of Rwanda’s Hutu regime and the defeat of its Congo-backed army echoed like a death knell for Mobutu himself. His own army was soon engulfed by the rapidly spreading ethnic conflict and unable to impose order. And Mobutu’s political enemies quickly seized upon his weakness, joined forces with Rwanda’s winners, and vowed to carry the battle across the continent to Kinshasa.

Which they shortly did, to almost everyone’s astonishment. But the story did not end there, either — where indeed do Africa’s “continuing crises” end? — for the virus of ethnic conflict spread even beyond the Congo’s broad borders to neighboring Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Uganda, Congo-Brazzaville, and the Central African Republic, involving all of them in what has been called Africa’s own “World War.” And although there is now a truce in that conflict, the virus has by no means expired.

I believe there are lessons here that should apply as we consider what America’s global security role should be at the turn of the century, particularly in response to Africa’s ongoing “world war.” For me, these are among the most important:

    First, we cannot disengage from Africa, no matter what the hard-liners say, because America’s own roots run too deep there and because we as a people are too deeply touched by the fate of Africans.

    Second and just as important, we outsiders cannot solve Africa’s problems or end its “continuing crises” ourselves, either by imposing our own value systems through force of arms or by pouring our wealth and technology into its development. Africans must be allowed (and trusted) to discover their own solutions, whether by mining their old traditions or by inventing new ones.

    Third, and closely related to the first two, we must avoid playing the role of bwana mukubwa — the arbiter and decision-maker — in African disputes. A century of authoritarian colonialism did colossal damage to Africa’s social and political traditions, especially its conflict resolution systems. With diplomatic “tough love,” we must allow Africans to work out their differences without appealing to powerful outsiders.

    Fourth, and still in the same vein, we need to shape our future relations with Africa more modestly, steering a careful course between callous indifference and take-charge involvement. This is hard for Americans, impatient and self-confident as we are; but our solutions are not always the right ones for others, no matter how well they may work for us.

    And finally, we must try ceaselessly to understand these people much better than we do. After three decades of flying through the Third World by the seat of my pants, I learned at Simmons that there is no substitute for studying more, reading more, questioning more, and probing deeper into the culture and history of the nations we deal with, no matter how much first-hand knowledge we may think we’ve accumulated on the job.  

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The author, publisher of this journal and a U.S. Foreign Service officer (ret.), among other senior assignments was ambassador to Rwanda, 1976-79, and to Somalia, 1987-90. He described Rwanda's ethnic catastrophe in an earlier piece in American Diplomacy (Policing a Disorderly World, March 31, 1997 issue).

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