April 2014: The Twentieth Anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide: What has been learned? (Part 1)

By Eric Reeves

6 April 2014 (in two parts) ("PART TWO: Darfur, the early responses" may be found at: http://wp.me/p45rOG-1bi

Rwanda at twenty years

April 6, 2014 (SSNA) — Roméo Dallaire offers a number of painful, indeed excruciating observations in his searing account of the Rwandan genocide that claimed the lives of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus beginning on April 7, 1994.  As UNIMAR commander during the months leading up to and during the genocide, Dallaire provides an almost day-by-day account of what he saw, what he heard, what he smelled, and what he was compelled to imagine and dream.  And he was compelled also to confront the almost unimaginable failure of the international community in responding to what was clearly genocide.  Despite the now infamously disingenuous parsings of the word (and acts of) "genocide" by the U.S. State Department, there are very few who then or now dissent from the view that this was clearly genocide.  And yet there was no effort to halt or control the ethnically-targeted mass slaughter—by the UN, by the U.S. or by the European nations that had so solemnly vowed "Never again!" 

Perhaps "never again in Europe," although this requires an explanation of what occurred in the Balkans during the 1990s, atrocity crimes for which the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia convicted a number of individuals on charges of genocide.  Particularly conspicuous in 1994 were the failures of Kofi Annan, then head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and subsequently UN Secretary-General; of President Bill Clinton, who would later admit that his failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide was the greatest of his presidency (he actively worked against an international response); and of the European Union, where the leadership was simply dismal. Annan’s failure is in some ways most telling, as Philip Gourevitch makes clear in his devastating indictment of Annan’s refusal to respond meaningfully to a crisis clearly in the making, certainly as far back as January 1994—the date of the infamous "Genocide Fax" (See Appendix One).

In his Preface to Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Dallaire offers his largest assessment of what he proceeds to recount over the course of more than 500 pages of text:

The following is my story of what happened in Rwanda in 1994.  It’s a story of betrayal, failure, naiveté, indifference, hatred, genocide, war, inhumanity and evil. Although strong relationships were built and moral, ethical, and courageous behavior was often displayed, they were overshadowed by one of the fastest, most efficient, most evident genocides in recent history. In just one hundred days over 800,000 innocent Rwandan men, women, and children were brutally murdered while the developed world, impassive and apparently unperturbed, sat back and watched the unfolding apocalypse or simply changed channels.  Almost fifty years to the day that my father and father-in-law helped to liberate Europe—when the extermination camps were uncovered and when, in one voice, humanity said, "Never again"—we once again sat back and permitted this unspeakable horror to occur.  We could not find the political will or the resources to stop it.  Since then, much has been written, discussed, argued, and filmed on the subject of Rwanda, yet it is my feeling that this recent catastrophe is being forgotten and its lessons submerged in ignorance and apathy.  The genocide in Rwanda was a failure of humanity that could easily happen again.

There is an eerie prescience to Dallaire’s words—published in 2003 but written before what was occurring in Darfur was known to any but a very few—those working in the region or following Sudan very closely.  Dallaire’s book, which won Canada’s highly prestigious Governor General’s Prize for non-fiction, is utterly unsparing, including of Dallaire himself.  It is thus all the more appalling that in their efforts at self-exculpation, so many have sought to lay blame on Dallaire himself.  Most egregiously, the Belgian government determined that Dallaire was responsible for the ten Belgian UN peacekeepers in Kigali who were killed in the opening days of the genocide; this ignores the fact that extremist Hutu elements well understood that such killings would compel the precipitous withdrawal of the 450-man Belgian contingent from Rwanda, essentially crippling Dallaire’s small UNAMIR force.  Attacks on Europeans would have come sooner or later, if only to forestall Western military intervention.  Blaming Dallaire also ignores Belgium’s own significant role in the recent and more distant events in Rwanda’s often grim history.  In its blaming of Dallaire, Belgium is also painfully exclusive in its concern for its own nationals in Rwanda.  Indeed, the extraction of foreign nationals was the only real concern that European nations and the U.S. demonstrated.

After the fact, and in the face of such massive failure, scapegoats are much in need; and no one was in greater need than the Belgians.  Scapegoating, however, can’t take the place of assigning true responsibility.  And the real question is how we have assessed responsibility for some 800,000 lives lost, countless more civilians raped and displaced, and continued instability throughout the region, for which, to be sure, the present government in Kigali bears far too much responsibility.  And there are difficult questions that linger still: what should the UN have done in responding to the massive refugee flight to the Democratic Republic of Congo, knowing that among these Hutu refugees were some of the worst elements of the infamous Interawheme?  knowing that these brutal men continued to be a threat, to those in the camps and possibly—if reconstituted as a force—to Rwanda itself?  Such questions had to be answered in the context of hopelessly inadequate resources and enormous urgency, given the desperate state of those arriving in DRC and their urgent need for "safety."

We must also bear in mind how little time was available once the genocide began, which makes Annan’s dilatory and disingenuous role as head of UN peacekeeping all the more culpable (again, see Appendix A with its note on Philip Gourevitch’s "The Genocide Fax").  If warnings from Dallaire, beginning in January 1994, had been taken seriously, if an unaccountably unconcerned Annan had argued passionately for what needed to be done, events might well have been altered or deflected in significantly different ways.  But here we pass into speculation, even as the present day realities of Darfur require a similar assessment of responsibility and of the myriad failures of the international community: the African Union, the Arab League, the UN, the Organization of Islamic Conference, Russia and China, the countries of the EU, and of course the United States.

PART ONE: Darfur, ten years later

If the extraordinary speed with which some 800,000 people were killed in roughly 100 days remains the single most shocking fact of the Rwanda genocide, Darfur presents us with a very different spectacle of international failure, but one equally shocking.  Large-scale, ethnically-inflected violence in the region has now entered its second decade, already having claimed some 500,000 lives (see August 2010 mortality assessment at http://wp.me/p45rOG-AB).  More than 2 million people are internally displaced and over 300,000 remain refugees in Chad.  Humanitarian operations can barely continue amidst the violence that the Khartoum regime continues to sanction, indeed encourage; and with the recent mobilization of its newest Janjaweed militia ally, the Rapid Response Force, we are seeing violence of the sort that defined the earlier years of what most observers have judged to be genocide.  Wholesale destruction of the villages of non-Arab or African tribal groups has accelerated over the past two years—but never really ceased.  What we see now is a crescendo of violence directed against increasingly vulnerable civilians, much of it revealed by the Satellite Sentinel Project (http://www.satsentinel.org/).  This is how the men of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime have chosen to conduct counter-insurgency war against armed forces rebelling against decades of political marginalization, chronic insecurity, and economic deprivation.

The use of rape and gang-rape as a weapon of war has long been a central element of the Darfur genocide—often revealingly accompanied by hateful racial epithet (see "Rape and Sexual Violence Ongoing in Darfur" by Doctors Without Borders/MSF-Holland, March 2005).  Radio Dabanga continues to report frequently on aerial military forces directing their attacks against civilians or deploying these forces in an utterly indiscriminate manner.  Bombardment has been relentless, and nowhere more than in the Jebel Marra region in the center of Darfur.  There have been more than 600 confirmed aerial attacks on civilians since the beginning of the conflict, continuing a pattern established in the long North/South civil war and now extended to the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan State and Blue Nile State.  The actual number of bombing attacks in Darfur is almost certainly many times the number confirmed (see updated data at www.sudanbombing.org).  Each such attack is a war crime under international law; in aggregate, they are (according to the terms of the Rome Statute) crimes against humanity (see original analysis of this issue, May 2011, at www.sudanbombing.org).

In all of the military arenas of greater Sudan, the aircraft of choice for Khartoum is the Russian-built Antonov cargo plane, retrofitted to be a crude "bomber" from which shrapnel-loaded barrel bombs are simply pushed out the cargo bay at very high altitudes and without aid of a bomb-siting mechanism, or indeed any way of ensuring that bombs drop within a radius extending hundreds of meters.  As military weapons they are useless; as a means of attacking the civilians perceived to be supporting the rebel forces in these various areas, they have proved devastatingly effective.  In concert with a total blockade of humanitarian assistance to rebel-held areas of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State, the bombing campaign has crippled food production in the two areas and forced millions to flee, or remain and face the increasing likelihood of starvation.

All this comes at a time when South Sudan is in the throes of convulsive self-destruction following the ominous political events of December 2013, events that have led to widespread ethnic killings, retaliatory killings, and yet further revenge killings, auguring a terrifying cycle of continual inter-ethnic violence that threatens to destroy the new nation.  Millions now face famine, according to the most recent UN assessment, which could not be grimmer. 

In a perverse irony, news about South Sudan, which is accessible to intrepid journalists, makes Darfur even more invisible, especially since Khartoum allows neither a news nor human rights reporting presence in its western region.  The UN and African Union "hybrid" force (UNAMID) has been deeply negligent and dishonest in its accounts of what is occurring; so, too, have some UN humanitarian officials, most notoriously George Charpentier (see May 25, 2012 account at http://wp.me/p45rOG-P3).  A catalog of the statements by officials from both sides of the UN, as well as successive AU heads of UNAMID, reveals a steady pattern of denial, disingenuousness, concealment of data and reports, and outright mendacity in downplaying the continuing catastrophe in Darfur (see http://wp.me/p45rOG-RW). We know this chiefly because of hundreds of reports from the ground conveyed through Radio Dabanga, and until recently the reports of courageous humanitarians on the ground who defied both the UN and Khartoum in reporting directly on what they had seen (see, for example, analysis of August 11, 2012).

Like the morally dissolute response to the 100 days of genocide in Rwanda, the international response in Darfur has failed for more than ten years to be remotely adequate to the threats and realities of human destruction—destruction that may well eventually surpass that of Rwanda.  As humanitarian operations and personnel are continually more restricted, both by insecurity and Khartoum’s denial of access, millions of people are at increased risk from malnutrition, disease, and the life-threatening challenges of further displacement.  Clean water is becoming an even scarcer commodity in this arid land.  And despite its various manipulations of the figures for displacement, the UN itself indicates that more than 200,000 people have already been displaced this year.  The UN figure for 2013 was 400,000 newly displaced civilians. And since UNAMID officially deployed (January 1, 2008), more than 2 million people have been newly displaced, staggering evidence of the Mission’s abysmal failure. The last issue of the UN’s "Darfur Humanitarian Profile" (No. 34, representing conditions as of January 1, 2009) reported a figure of 2.7 million displaced in IDP camps.  The current UN estimate of those surviving in tenuous conditions as refugees in eastern Chad is 330,000, also reflecting a recent and sharp uptick in the number of those escaping violence, in this case by crossing an international border.

And yet despite these overwhelming numbers, as recently as August of last year the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was promulgating a figure of "1.4 million displaced" in such fashion that it was used by important news organizations.  The BBC, for example, reported on May 23, 2013 that “As many as 1.4 million remain homeless after the decade-long conflict," http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22649076) and Agence France-Presse reported “[this newly displaced 300,000 as of May 2013] adds to an existing displaced population of 1.4 million in Darfur."  The figure of "1.4 million" grossly misrepresents the true total of those who have been driven from their homes, some on multiple occasions, by violence and the threat of violence. OCHA is evidently doing some statistical soul-searching, as there has been no figure for IDPs offered in the weekly Sudan Bulletin for a number of months; instead, an insert appears declaring: "IDPs in Darfur: figures are fluctuating and are being reviewed."

In recent weeks, villages have been destroyed in startlingly high numbers.  Much of this is captured in Satellite Sentinel Reports of March 27, 2014 and March 28, 2014; given the ongoing and extremely high levels of violence, we may expect that many more such reports will be forthcoming.  Radio Dabanga has also doggedly reported widely on what it hears from its legion of contacts on the ground in Darfur.  The most ominous of recent reports detail the attacks on displaced persons camps, something that has a long history, but which now occurs with terrifying frequency and immensely greater destructiveness.  Here it may be useful to recall a typical incident from September 2005—a date that falls well outside the "2003-2004" window often used to designate the "real" genocide in Darfur.  The following formal statement comes from Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, at the time Special Representative of the Chairperson of the AU Commission on Darfur (essentially he was the head of an AU observer mission):

On 28 September 2005, just four days ago, some reportedly 400 Janjaweed Arab militia on camels and horseback went on the rampage in Aru Sharo, Acho, and Gozmena villages in West Darfur. Our reports also indicate that the day previous, and indeed on the actual day of the attack, Government of Sudan helicopter gunships were observed overhead. This apparent coordinated land and air assault gives credence to the repeated claim by the rebel movements of collusion between the Government of Sudan forces and the Janjaweed/Arab militia. This incident, which was confirmed not only by our investigators but also by workers of humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental organizations in the area, took a heavy toll resulting in 32 people killed, 4 injured and 7 missing, and about 80 houses/shelters looted and set ablaze. 

The following day, a clearly premeditated and well rehearsed combined operation was carried out by the Government of Sudan military and police at approximately 11am in the town of Tawilla and its Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in North Darfur. The Government of Sudan forces used approximately 41 trucks and 7 land cruisers in the operation which resulted in a number of deaths, massive displacement of civilians, and the destruction of several houses in the surrounding areas as well as some tents in the IDP camps. Indeed, the remains of discharged explosive devices were found in the IDP camp. During the attack, thousands from the township and the IDP camp and many humanitarian workers were forced to seek refuge near the AU camp for personal safety and security.  (Transcript of press conference by Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, Special Representative of the Chairperson of the AU Commission on Darfur Khartoum, October 1, 2005)

That such attacks have continued for almost a decade without serious interruption should be the occasion for serious reflection by those arguing that the violence in Darfur was largely over by the end of 2004.

To be sure, it must be emphasized that not all the civilian victims are non-Arabs/Africans.  Arab tribal tensions have been markedly increasing in recent years, and inevitably Khartoum chooses sides to create an ally and sustain its "divide and conquer" strategy (an excellent overview from 2010 was provided by Julie Flint for the Small Arms Survey, "The Other War: Inter-Arab Conflict in Darfur").  Flint sets out to investigate "the background to and the development of the fighting between camel-herding Abbala and cattle-herding Baggara." The motive for fighting vary: sometimes it is something as specific as competition over access to the gold mines of Jebel Amir in North Darfur (gold exports by the regime have become a critical part of its effort to secure foreign exchange currency (Forex)).  More often fighting is over land that has been abandoned by African populations; and frequently it is an extension of growing competition for the increasingly scarce natural resources of Darfur, mainly water and land that is arable or pasturable.  Much of this fighting has long historical antecedents.

But the overwhelming number of those living in the camps are African; those who have died in the hundreds of thousands are African; the many tens of thousands of girls and women who have been raped and gang-raped are overwhelming African; the targets of aerial bombardment and helicopter gunship attacks have been almost exclusively African.  Ignoring the conspicuous ethnic inflection of conflict over the past eleven years is either a function of ignorance or deliberate misrepresentation of the fundamental character of the violence involving civilians.  Certainly there has been much deliberate misrepresentation by the UN, including the politically, morally, and methodologically corrupt UN Commission of Inquiry on Darfur (UN COI, report issued January 2005).

One investigating member of the UN COI team, Deborah Bodkin, has told me directly that despite claims by Commission chair Antonio Cassese that they were not impeded by the Khartoum regime, the team did not in fact visit or attempt to investigate the claims of mass graves in the Wadi Saleh and Mukjar areas of West Darfur (see my notes of this interview).  Indeed, according to Ms. Bodkin, the forensic specialists with the team did not put a single spade in the ground or do any forensic investigating.  She also makes a series of specific accusations about the incompetence and political corruption of the investigation, reported by Samuel Totten and included here as Appendix Two (my own extensive critique of the contents of the report presented to the Secretary-General appears here). The specific location in Wadi Saleh was in one case identified by a survivor of one of the mass executions who reported the incident to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and to me (by telephone from Nyala, South Darfur; April 2004). 

The Human Rights Watch account is painfully blunt in announcing its report on sustained mass executions specifically targeting Fur men and boys (the Fur are the largest non-Arab/African ethnic group in Darfur):

The 22-page [HRW] report, "Targeting the Fur: Mass Killings in Darfur," documents in detail how the Sudanese government and its allied Janjaweed militias have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur with impunity. These crimes include the round-up, detention and execution in March of more than 200 Fur farmers and community leaders in West Darfur’s Wadi Saleh and Mukjar provinces.  (January 25, 2005 press release; full report at http://www.hrw.org/en/node/77754)

Targeted mass murder has continued without cessation during the Obama administration, and remains directed overwhelmingly against African tribal populations even as it is sanctioned by the Khartoum regime. 

It was with full knowledge of all this that candidate Barack Obama declared, using a politically appealing rhetoric that would be fully abandoned once he was elected President:

"When you see a genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia or in Darfur, that is a stain on all of us, a stain on our souls . … We can’t say ‘never again’ and then allow it to happen again, and as a president of the United States I don’t intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter." (Video recording available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEd583-fA8M#t=15)

Despite these strong words, early in his first term Obama appointed as special envoy to Sudan Scott Gration, a former Air Force Major General who had been very helpful to Obama with military people during the presidential campaign.  Gration also had clear designs on the ambassadorship to Nairobi.  Gration had no appropriate qualifications for this extremely difficult assignment, no diplomatic experience, spoke no relevant languages other than a less than fluent English, had no significant knowledge of Sudan—and yet he was rewarded, at a critical moment in Darfur’s history, with a Sudan "stint" that would provide the diplomatic experience to enable him to become ambassador to Kenya, which he did shortly after resigning.  On leaving Gration had—by all non-administration accounts—done irreparable harm to greater Sudan and to U.S. efforts to work effectively for a just peace in Darfur. 

It was Gration who failed in March 2009 to develop an adequate U.S. response to Khartoum’s expulsion from Darfur of thirteen of the world’s finest humanitarian organizations, cutting overall relief capacity by roughly 50 percent at a stroke. It was Gration who quickly endorsed Khartoum’s "New Strategy for Darfur" (September 2010), which was little more than a euphemism for forced "returns" of IDPs from the camps, enabling Khartoum to shut down these embarrassing reminders of violence and displacement; this something for which humanitarians had already taken Gration to task when he pushed this ambition for "returns" prematurely. It was Gration who, among other acts of mindless diplomatic gambling, pushed for the "de-coupling" of Darfur from broader U.S. Sudan policy.  And it was Gration who led the charge to push South Sudan into compromising yet further on Abyei, despite the explicit terms of the Abyei Protocol of the CPA and the glaring fact that both Khartoum and Juba had accepted the binding resolution to the Abyei boundary issue issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (July 2009).

Although the very embodiment of diplomatic incompetence, Gration would receive—with jovial Senate confirmation—his appointment as ambassador to Nairobi; he was fired by the State Department within a year for what amounted to incompetence.

Gration’s successor, Princeton Lyman, nominally presided over U.S. policy during the seizure of Abyei and the all too predictable subsequent assaults by Khartoum on South Kordofan and Blue Nile. There was painfully little outrage or even dismay conveyed by Lyman, who also remained perversely skeptical about the realities of what was occurring in South Kordofan beginning June 5, 2011.  Moreover, he was wholly ineffectual in helping to ensure that the African Union plan for humanitarian access to these two regions was accepted by Khartoum.  And he was content to leave Darfur "de-coupled." In short, Lyman was weak, often disingenuous, but at least revealed the fundamental premise of the Obama administration’s Sudan policy.  In a December 2011 interview with the influential English-language Arabic news outlet Asharq Al-Awsat, Lyman said in response to a question

Frankly, we do not want to see the ouster of the [Sudanese] regime, nor regime change. We want to see the regime carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures. We want to see freedom and democracy [in Sudan], but not necessarily via the Arab Spring. (December 3, 2011 at http://www.asharq-e.com/news.asp?section=3&id=27543)

It appears not to have mattered to Lyman or the Obama administration that the overwhelming majority of Sudanese—and not just Darfuris—have long wanted regime change, and have grown increasingly explicit in expressing this goal.  Their seriousness can be measured by the increasing willingness to risk their lives and well-being to achieve such change.  More than 300 people were killed during demonstrations calling for regime change in September/October 2013; they died when security forces in Khartoum and elsewhere immediately began firing with what Amnesty International concluded were "shoot to kill" orders. On July 31, 2012 scores of student demonstrators were gunned down in Nyala (South Darfur) by Khartoum’s security forces—ultimately under control of the regime—using automatic rifles.  And there have been many other clear signs of popular support for regime change.  An imploding economy has created shortages and long lines for bread, a food staple for many, and also for cooking fuel; inflation is running at an unsustainable 70+ percent when realistically assessed, and this hits hardest the poorest and most economically vulnerable.

But the expedient and disingenuous declaration that the U.S. wants "to see the regime carry out reform via constitutional democratic measures" is finally so preposterous as to serve only as a measure of how morally bankrupt the Obama administration’s Sudan policy has become.  There is not a shred of historical evidence that the NIF/NCP has the slightest interest in "reform via constitutional measures"—and Lyman and the Obama administration know this full well.  There are all too clearly other considerations in Obama’s Sudan policy, and they hinge in large part on the putative value of counter-terrorism intelligence the regime can provide—this despite the fact that the regime is clearly still in the terrorism business (see analysis of March 7, 2014).  Certainly nothing else explains the massive new U.S. embassy in Khartoum, which when fully completed and equipped as a listening post for northern Africa will have cost the American taxpayers several hundred million dollars.

The U.S. response to Darfur and greater Sudan under President Obama will continue to be a "stain on our souls," and for this alone he deserves his full measure of opprobrium.

Eric Reeves’ new book-length study of greater Sudan (Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012; www.CompromisingWithEvil.org).

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