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Rwandan genocide

April 7, 2009

On April 7, 2009, Rwandans commemorate the 15th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi minority. The United Nations now acknowledges its failure to intervene. DW-WORLD looks back at this international scandal.

Thousands are buried in the Nyaza cemetery outside Kigali
Thousands are buried in the Nyaza cemetery outside KigaliImage: AP

When the streets in Rwanda began to fill with corpses 15 years ago, the world stood by and did nothing, despite the fact that the United Nations already had peacekeepers deployed in the country. The UN Security Council prevented its troops from getting involved. Over the course of 100 days during that spring, 800,000 Rwandans - mainly minority Tutsis - were murdered by Hutu militias.

Since the end of the genocide, experts have been investigating the actions of the international community. It's now clear that there were sufficient warnings to have prevented the genocide - or to have at least reduced the number of victims.

Two months before the outbreak of the genocide in Rwanda, Jacques-Roger Booh Booh, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), sent a cable to UN headquarters in New York. He wrote that the security situation was deteriorating on a daily basis, and reported "increasingly violent demonstrations, nightly grenade attacks, assassination attempts, political and ethnic killings."

"We are receiving more and more reliable and confirmed information that the armed militias of the parties are stockpiling and may possibly be preparing to distribute arms to their supporters. If this distribution takes place, it will worsen the security situation even further and create a significant danger to the safety and security of UN military and civilian personnel and the population at large," he continued.

His telegram was just one of many indications that a catastrophe was brewing in Rwanda. The UN mission had been on the ground there since the end of 1993. Its soldiers delivered reports of attacks on Tutsis, weapons stockpiling by Hutu extremists and secret training camps for militias. UN staff weren't the only sources of such information, says Linda Melvern, an investigative journalist from Britain and the author of two books on the Rwandan genocide.

A man in Nyamata, 18 miles south of Kigali looks at hundreds of skulls, Jan. 26, 2002, at a memorial for victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda
A memorial for victims of the genocide in RwandaImage: AP

"The Belgian government was well aware of the risks in Rwanda, and, in the weeks beforehand, pleaded with the US and UK diplomats at the United Nations to reinforce the pathetic, ineffectual peacekeeping mission they'd mandated for Rwanda," said Melvern. "The US and the UK refused aid at this crucial time in February 1994 for reasons of economy. This failure, I think, sent a message to those planning the genocide that they could continue, knowing that the world would fail to react."

Bankruptcy of humanity

When the genocide broke out on April 7, 1994, the UN peacekeepers stood by powerlessly. Around 3,000 Tutsis sought safety at the base of a Belgian contingent in Kigali. But after 10 commandos were killed by forces from Rwanda's regular army, Belgium decided to pull its troops out. The Tutsis were left with no protection, and thousand were slaughtered on April 11 on a hillside called Nyanza.

It's on this hillside that Rwanda is holding ceremonies to mark the 15th anniversary of the genocide.

"Nyanza is the failure of the international community, it's the bankruptcy of the whole of humanity," said Benoit Kaboyi, executive secretary of Ibuka, the country's main organization of genocide survivors.

For Melvern, the failure to prevent the killings was also attributable to the lack of media coverage.

"The whole focus at the time was on the former Yugoslavia," she said. "When the genocide began 15 years ago, the Balkans were being bombed and the whole focus of the [UN] Security Council was on the former Yugoslavia, as was the focus of the Western press. For the Security Council and for journalists, Rwanda was not at the top of the agenda. Even when genocide was determined on April 29, 1994 by Oxfam in a press release, [British] newspapers hardly covered that story at all. So it's a media failure as well as a political one."

The international troops in Rwanda were only authorized to evacuate foreigners. The force commander of UNAMIR, Canadian Lt. General Romeo Dallaire pushed repeatedly for permission to deploy troops to stop the killing, but he was consistently refused. At the time, Western politicians even refrained from describing events in Rwanda as genocide. Then US President Bill Clinton instead called it a "tribal war."

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who in 1994 was serving as the head of UN peacekeeping operations, issued a statement 10 years after the genocide saying he should have done more to stop it.

"We must never forget our collective failure to protect at least 800,000 defenseless men, women, children who perished in Rwanda 10 years ago," Annan said. "We must acknowledge our responsibility for not having done more to prevent or stop the genocide."

Wounds still not healed

Fifteen years on, the wounds many Rwandans suffered have still not healed. One issue for survivors is giving the dead a fitting burial. At the height of the genocide, the bodies of up to 20,000 victims floated downriver to southern Uganda, where they were hurriedly buried in mass graves. Now, they will be exhumed and re-buried in a ceremony, the Kampala-based Central Broadcasting Service radio quoted Rwandan diplomats as saying.

Then there is the issue of the perpetrators of the genocide, many of whom are still at large in Africa, Europe and North America. Hundreds of suspects sought for their involvement in the killings by the Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda (ICTR) are living either under false identities or, sometimes in the open, as political refugees. The government in Kigali, which has been led by President Paul Kagame since his Tutsi rebel group took over in the aftermath of the genocide, says foreign governments often don't respond to extradition requests.

The governments of France and Canada, for example, have refused to extradite suspects to Kigali because they believe the Rwandan courts that convicted them failed to meet international standards.

"That sends the wrong message to criminals," Paulin Nteziryayo of PAGE-Rwanda, an organization formed to aid genocide survivors, told the AFP news agency.

Survivors of the genocide sit on benches listening to a justice ministry official
Ruandan communities have tried thousands of people suspected of taking part in the genocideImage: AP

While the survivors try to move on with their lives and deal with the trauma inflicted by those 100 days in the spring of 1994, survivor associations claim that, for many, the terror still hasn't ended. In parts of the country, Tutsis continue to suffer intimidation or are killed by their former foes says Ibuka head Benoit Kaboyi.

"Genocide survivors are still being massacred in Rwandan interior regions," Kaboyi told AFP. "You cannot hush up these killings by attributing them to the settling of scores within clans."

As for the international community, some observers say it still hasn't learned from Rwanda. General Dallaire, for example, is one of many voices accusing Western countries of once again watching as the next genocide in Africa unfolds - namely, the conflict in Darfur.

Daniel Pelz/Deanne Corbett/afp
Editor: Nancy Isenson