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  Crigler, PART TWO
DESCENT INTO HELL
 

  W I L L   O M I T  the grisly details here. Most of us saw enough of them on television. Let me merely summarize what happened and then try to approach an understanding of why it happened.

Anti-Tutsi violence spread out from the capital and across the country like wildfire. Although the cause of the plane crash remained a mystery, Hutus instantly blamed Tutsis and viciously vented their anger on the minority and those Hutus known to favor ethnic accommodation.

Leading the violence were many persons who had been prominent during the years of Hutu dominance and military rule. The late president's own security guard evidently played a major role (and would later be accused of systematically organizing the genocide). Political youth groups formed under the old single party were mobilized to do much of the dirty work. But most of the mayhem was carried out by "average" Rwandan Hutus, young and old, acting spontaneously all across the country.

The results were appalling:
  • In only three months, more than a half million Rwandans were killed, or about one in every ten. The population was literally decimated. Many thousands more were were maimed and left to die, or stripped of their properties and forced to flee.

  • The vast majority of victims were Tutsis, members of the pre-revolutionary ruling caste; fully one-half the country's entire Tutsi population was destroyed within the span of a few weeks.

The weak provisional government immediately lost control, and several of its members, including its woman prime minister, were murdered by mobs. Another Hutu-led "interim" government was installed, but it soon fled the capital and collapsed.

After six weeks of violence and terror, the Tutsi-led insurgent army marched on Kigali to fill the vacuum. Its leaders easily seized control and installed their own coalition government, one that included several "moderate" Hutus in top positions but was clearly Tutsi-controlled.

The rebel victory and the prospect of a vengeful Tutsi "restoration" set off a new phase in Rwanda's agony: a human migration of truly epic proportions.
  • From mid-July to late September, 1994, close to two million Rwandan Hutus --- more than one-quarter of the country's entire population --- abandoned their homes, fled the country on foot, and sought shelter in neighboring Zaire, Burundi, and Tanzania.

And with them, the virus of ethnic conflict began its spread across central Africa.

One must ask, then,

Why was this ghastly tragedy allowed to unfold?

What had become of the UN peace keepers, the foreign peacemakers, the humanitarian organizations, the human rights advocates who were so active in Rwanda earlier?

Why were the multilateral institutions powerless to intervene and halt the violence?

And finally, where were the Americans?

As we have seen, the UN was certainly not absent from Rwanda, but its 2,500-person peacekeeping unit was wholly inadequate to halt the spasm of violence that erupted after the president's plane crash. Its assignment had been merely to monitor the government's peace agreement with the rebels, and it was entirely unprepared to cope when the agreement evaporated and the killing began. Many of its members were seriously injured, and eight Belgian troops were murdered as they sought to shield the provisional government's prime minister from angry mobs. Facing an impossible situation, all but a token force were quickly withdrawn.

As the magnitude of Rwanda's ordeal became more apparent, however, the Security Council instructed Secretary General Boutros-Ghali to try to raise a major peacekeeping force to send back to Rwanda. But member nations failed to respond or posed conditions the Secretary-General could not meet. So the Council finally authorized France to send a 3,000-man team to stabilize the situation and protect relief workers and other foreigners who remained in the country.

Not surprisingly, the Clinton administration was reluctant to assume the lead in putting out Rwanda's fires. Our frustrating experiences in Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti were just then fresh in everyone's mind. The Rwandan situation posed even greater logistical problems for deploying military forces; the politics behind the conflict were even more obscure to most Americans; and direct U. S. interests affected by the fighting were practically nil.

So the United States instead focused its attention on rescuing the "innocent victims" of the conflict, notably the throngs of Hutu refugees in Zaire and Tanzania and the genocide survivors inside Rwanda, and it joined in a massive airlift of relief supplies and humanitarian assistance to these groups. The effort certainly saved thousands of lives among the refugees. To be frank, it was too little; too late for more than a half-million genocide victims; it did little to stabilize the region politically or prevent the spread of ethnic conflict; and aid to refugees could hardly qualify as vote of confidence in international peacekeeping from the world's "indispensable nation."


 
THE VIRUS SPREADS
 


E V E R T H E L E S S,   F O R   T H E  next two years, concern for the innocent victims on the one hand, and avoiding military involvement on the other, defined our response to central Africa's ethnic turmoil.

International relief agencies delivered huge amounts of food, medicine, and supplies to the refugee camps dotting the borders, while diplomats and mediators (Jimmy Carter among others) sought to arrange for the refugees' peaceful repatriation.

Media attention shifted to Burundi next door, where ethnic violence was rising sharply and a coup d'état by Tutsi military officers had ousted an elected civilian government. Burundi is Rwanda's twin in many ways --- historically, geographically, and ethnically --- but it differed fundamentally in that its own Tutsi minority had never really lost power, as that in Rwanda had at independence. When its elected president Cyprien Ntaryamira (himself a Hutu) was killed with Rwanda's Habyarimana in the mysterious 1994 plane crash, Burundi managed for a time to escape the chaos that wracked its neighbor.

Inevitably, though, violence spilled over as Hutu refugees from Rwanda swelled the ranks of Burundi's own dissidents. The military coup-makers proposed to halt the cycle by tightening security controls; instead, their stringent methods caused growing numbers to join the rebels. The African community, strongly backed by the West, attempted to punish the Burundi military by means of a tight trade embargo on the land-locked country. But the embargo made life even harsher for the average Burundi without dislodging the military. Ethnic violence continued to increase, with over 200,000 killings since 1993, and refugee numbers outside the country began to rival Rwanda's.

It was in Zaïre that the spill-over effects of ethnic turmoil were most serious. The refugee camps along its borders became hotbeds of intrigue and bases for cross-border raids by Hutu militia remnants. Increasingly, the Hutu refugees quarreled with the close kin in Zaïre of the hated Tutsis back home. Although these Tutsi communities had settled there centuries earlier, their members were treated as second-class citizens by Zaïrean authorities, and Zaïre's army refused to protect them. So the Tutsi communities organized and armed their own militias to protect themselves. Quarreling soon spread up and down the eastern fringe of Zaïre, and what began as self-defense soon turned into an organized Tutsi insurgency on Zaïre's own soil, aimed not only at expelling the Hutu refugees, but at defeating the huge but corruption-riddled Zaïrean army and even ousting President Mobutu Sese Seko himself from power.

Not surprisingly, Zaïre's Tutsi insurgents, now styled the "Allied Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaïre" (ADFL), won immediate sympathy and substantial military support from their cousins in Rwanda and Burundi. Their campaign successfully closed down most of the refugee camps and forced the Hutu refugees either to return to Rwanda or flee still deeper into Zaïre's forests and jungles. The ADFL's lightening offensive humiliated Mobutu's much larger army, and they now control virtually all of the country's eastern border region with Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, plus much of the territory inland as well, an area fully five times larger than Rwanda and Burundi combined. Although Mobutu has recruited some 200 European mercenary soldiers to spearhead a counter-offensive, the ADFL continues to capture important towns and enlarge its domain.

Now, Zaïre is not little Rwanda or Burundi. It is an enormous, potentially rich, and strategically important country, one that has engaged and worried the United States almost continuously since the earliest days of independence. Zaïre has also represented, for many years, the nightmare scenario for those concerned with multinational peacekeeping due to its very size and wealth, its corrupt and creaking political system, and its layered ethnic complexity. As ethnic conflict spreads across eastern Zaïre from our tiny Rwandan "paradise," there is every reason to fear that the peace keepers' nightmare is becoming a reality.


 

Conclusion:
NO END IN SIGHT
 


 W O U L D   L I K E   to end this piece on a positive note and report that, at least in Rwanda itself, the spasm of violence is over and conditions are returning to normal.

Unfortunately that is not the case.

The returning refugees have posed major headaches for the new Rwandan government; identifying and detaining those suspected of leading the 1994 genocide has proven especially difficult (some 90,000 Hutus are now in prison awaiting trial). Nor have all the returnees come home seeking to live peacefully with their old neighbors; armed attacks, reprisals, lawlessness, and common crime have claimed hundreds of new victims since the first of the year, Hutu and Tutsi alike.

Moreover, a growing share of the renewed violence has lately been aimed at foreigners assigned there to help restore peace and stability:

  • In recent weeks, five UN human rights monitors were brutally gunned down as they went about their inspection duties in southwest Rwanda.

  • In March, a Canadian priest was shot and killed while delivering communion to parishioners in a small rural settlement; he had worked in Rwanda for more than thirty-five years.

  • Recently, three Spanish physicians were murdered as they treated patients at a clinic in the town of Ruhengeri; an American doctor was wounded in the same attack and lost both legs.

So while central Africa has slipped from the headlines, the peacekeeping challenge has become more urgent than ever, raising several crucial questions:

  • How is the international community to deal with disorder in a major, strategically important country like Zaïre if it has been unable to do so in tiny Rwanda?

  • How is the United States to avoid taking matters into its own hands and becoming the world's policeman if multinational institutions fail to do the job?

  • And maybe most important, How are outsiders to avoid making a bad situation even worse, as clearly was the case in Rwanda?

I have no simple answers to set forward here, but it seems evident that the United States can neither wash its hands of involvement nor assume sole responsibility. Nor can the nation fail to act out of fear of making mistakes. Initiatives through the framework of the United Nations may provide the best available answer. As frustrating as the bloated UN bureaucracy may be, as aggravating and tedious as UN decision-making surely is, the collective approach to peacekeeping nonetheless has dampened more conflicts and curbed more violence in this century than has unilateral intervention.

Admittedly, multilateral action has serious drawbacks.
  • The system is slow-moving;
  • it is poor at anticipating problems before they mushroom out of control;
  • the UN is chronically short of operational resources despite its considerable budget;
  • and it depends far too heavily upon the constant political, material, and moral support of certain key members, above all the United States.

These drawbacks are significant, and the reforms promised by the new Secretary General, Kofi Annan, are long overdue. Still, it embarrasses me deeply as an American, when the United States sidesteps its responsibilities as a UN member and partner, demanding, for example, that the former Secretary General be fired, while refusing to pay the billion dollars owed in overdue assessments.

America could not, by itself, have prevented Rwanda's descent into hell. But by joining more fully in the collective effort to curb the effects of ethnic conflict, the United States might significantly have helped prevent the spread of violence and averted the more serious conflict that now looms in the heart of Africa.

It is not yet too late.


Return to Part One

Frank Crigler co-founded and publishes American Diplomacy. See his biographic entry in this edition of the journal. ~ Ed.

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