By Samantha Goldberg
On April 6, 1994 a plane carrying Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down in Rwanda, killing all passengers. Tensions between the two main ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi, had been steadily increasing up until this point. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, a group comprised mostly of Tutsi exiles, were growing in numbers.
A Hutu extremist radio station reported false news to support an ideology of “us versus them” and “kill or be killed.” President Habyarimana, a Hutu himself, had been making strides towards finding a peaceful resolution and dismantling extremist groups. His murder left a vacuum for Hutu extremists to begin taking control and carrying out the plans of genocide that had been in the works for some time. After the plane crash, violence began and the next 100 days would be more destructive than anyone could have ever imagined. The genocide in Rwanda abolished over 800,000 primarily Tutsi and moderate Hutu at a daily killing rate of at least five times the pace of the Nazi death camps.
Twenty-five years later, on April 6 in 2019 the absence is still felt, wounds still unhealed, and loved ones still missed. Survivors, as well as former perpetrators, continue to live side by side; struggling to forgive and move forward. Even so, they wish to never forget the hardships they went through. Every year during this time, the Kigali Genocide Memorial ceremonially lights up a ‘remembrance flame’ in commemoration. The flame will remain lit for a 100 days, to light up the darkness that Rwanda experienced all those years ago.
Looking back, it is shameful how little the international community acted in order to protect those suffering. In 1948, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the United Nations. By the 1950s, nearly 150 states have signed on, agreeing to act in the case of genocide in order to ensure these mass atrocities never happen again. In 1994, the world failed to act in accordance to this agreement.
The United States, with their infamous dance around “the g-word” painted them as oblivious to what was taking place, although ample evidence suggests they knew exactly how bad things were. A report on Rwanda prepared by an official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense dated May 1st stated that:
“1. Genocide Investigation: Language that calls for an international investigation of human rights abuses and possible violations of the genocide convention. Be Careful. Legal at State was worried about this yesterday- Genocide finding could commit [the U.S. government to actually ‘do something.’”
When the Clinton administration was finally forced to release a statement to shame the Rwandan government by calling people out by name to, “do everything in their power to end this violence immediately.” Those accused only heard about this years later and called the attempt “truly pathetic.”
The issuing of this statement by the administration only surfaced after lobbying by Human Rights Watch. This makes us ask the painstaking question, what if people had cared more? During this time in 1994, there were virtually no groups, activists, or news agencies condemning the lack of action. Media in the United States during this time comprised of primarily stories of refugees fleeing Haiti, the election of Nelson Mandela, and of course, Tonya Harding’s attack on her skating opponent. “Genocide in Rwanda” failed to reach the newsstand. Bosnia presented one of the worst humanitarian crisis at the time, with nearly four million at risk of death. This was represented in U.S. media outlets with a range of 43-67% of their coverage devoted to covering the story. Rwanda was close behind with nearly three million people at risk, with a news coverage range of merely 3-10%.
A quiet nation wasn’t the only thing leaving the US reluctant to act. Past failures in Somalia was fresh in their minds, acting as a deterrent for acting now. After ten Belgian Peacekeepers were killed, the U.S. urged that all UN troops leave Rwanda to save face from another embarrassment.
Twenty-five years later we have to reflect on how things could have gone differently. The world is still broken in places, and people’s lives are being turned upside down. Genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing are not crimes of the past. Today, refugees flee from areas tormented by war and violence in search of safer grounds. Instead of taking them in where they can be safe, domestic politician often promote a policy of shutting the door on them. Advocate to pursue your government to accept refugees fleeing war, keeping yourself up to date on current events, and being the voice for those who cannot be heard are simple things that can be done. You have a voice, use it for justice and spread the word to support those in need.
Imagine you are one of those suffering. Crying out against deaf ears as you struggle to escape with your life. Do you really want to look back twenty-five years from now and think, “if only something more could have been done?” Twenty-five years after the genocide in Rwanda, the international community looks back in shame, will you?
Samantha Goldberg is a student in the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program. This heavy subject does not bring down her bubbly demeanor, she is lighthearted and quick with a joke. Outside of her school life, she enjoys baking, running, and eating pizza. In the future, she dreams of adopting a puppy and perfecting the art of bread making.
Power, Samantha. A Problem From Hell.
Prunier, Gerard. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide.
Thompson, Allan. The Media and the Rwanda Genocide.