UN general secretary Ban Ki-Moon, Rwanda's president Paul Kagame and others await the lighting of a flame that will burn in memory of those who died in 1994. Photo: Getty
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If a genocide on the scale of Rwanda happened in Europe, would we stand idly by?

Twenty years after the genocide, Rwandans are finding ways to reconciliation. But it’s too soon for the nations and institutions that failed to help to forgive themselves.

The twentieth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide is upon us, a moment which has prompted several reflections upon that horrific event. A prominent theme among these retrospectives has been that of forgiveness: of how the victims of this slaughter are laying aside their grievances with the perpetrators so that, together, they can forge a better future for their country. Their efforts at reconciliation, captured powerfully by the photographer Pieter Hugo for the New York Times, have framed much if not all of the discussion about the frenzied murder of almost a million people. However, perhaps they should not.

Hugo, in the article accompanying his images, contends that forgiveness, in this context, is not merely a matter of the victims being supremely enlightened: it is a practical necessity. “These people can’t go anywhere else,” he observes. “They have to make peace…Forgiveness is not born out of some airy-fairy sense of benevolence. It’s more out of a survival instinct.” The article then proceeds to feature the moving accounts of how these Rwandans managed to find hope amid horror. Towards its close, there is a quote from Laurent Nsabimana, a perpetrator, who says of his victim – Beatrice Mukarwambari, whose house he raided and destroyed – that “her forgiveness proved to me that she is a person with a pure heart”. For her part, Mukarwambari is the model of grace. “If I am not stubborn,” she says, “life moves forward. When someone comes close to you without hatred, although horrible things happened, you welcome him and grant what he is looking for from you. Forgiveness equals mercy.” (My italics.)

There is a great beauty in allowing this sentiment – that “forgiveness equals mercy” – to become the dominant narrative of the Rwanda genocide. Yet there is also a great danger. It seems that two main human instincts, when faced with unremitting bloodbaths such as Rwanda – and, most recently, Syria and the Central African Republic – are to grasp any positives from the situation, or to turn away. The first tendency, to seek a happy ending, can sometimes strike a discordant note; it gives the impression that injustices are approaching resolution, even though many of the conditions which enabled them are still firmly in place. Moreover, it may also place pressure to forgive on those survivors still shattered by trauma.

The second tendency, to turn away, is perhaps more damaging still. Part of this attitude comes from a feeling of helplessness; that what is happening is too distant and complex for us to do anything useful. Yet part of it has more uncomfortable roots. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general whose inability to prevent the genocide drove him to early retirement and depression, has been unequivocal on this point. In a conversation with Ted Koppel in June 2002, Dallaire identified the chief underlying issue as “racism, the fundamental belief that exists that all people are not equal, [which] is going to slaughter millions for years to come.”

Dallaire went on to contend that “even today, after the very delayed effort in getting into Sierra Leone where I’ve been recently with war-affected children, I believe today if some outfit decided to go into Rwanda and eliminate the 320-odd blue-back mountain gorillas that Dian Fossey paid with her life to protect…there would be today more of an effort, more of an involvement by people just like you and me and many others than there would be if they’re slaughtering them again by the thousands in that same country.”

Elsewhere in the conversation, the former general was similarly forthright. “The ones I hold accountable for not understanding and not rising above self-interest to a level of humanity where every human counts and we’re all the same are: the British, the French, and the Americans. Self-interest, political posturing, image dominated their decision processes in regard to Rwanda. ” (My italics.)

Dallaire’s dialogue with Koppel raises searching and awkward questions for global institutions – questions which, if we merely regard the Rwanda genocide as a lesson in forgiveness, those institutions can conveniently evade. Questions such as why, given that $3bn found its way to Rwanda very soon after the bloodletting ended, Dallaire was not able to raise $200m for the troops that he believed necessary for its prevention. In 1994 he identified a clear course of action, as well as the resources – some 5,000 troops – that in his view would have stemmed the tide of killing. Yet, time and again, he was frustrated by considerations that were nakedly political, if not racial. His experiences at the hands of bureaucracy were by turns frustrating, infuriating and heartbreaking. As one government representative told him: “My country was assessing whether it will come in and the government believes that public opinion, the people, could handle for every soldier killed or injured an equivalent of 85,000 dead Rwandans.”

It is impossible to imagine such a ruthless calculation taking place today if a massacre of this length and scale was occurring in the heart of Western Europe. It is impossible to imagine a scenario in Western Europe where, as was the case in Rwanda, the UN would go to 69 countries who had previously pledged military assistance and come away without a single soldier. Not one. Given this vast indifference, the appropriate mantra seems not so much to be “Never Again” as “Forever Again”. This is why, while we applaud Rwandans for using reconciliation as a tool to move forward with their lives, we must be more watchful of those nations and institutions sitting shiftily in the background, furtively and prematurely forgiving themselves.

Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp
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Meet Jorge Sharp, the rising star of Chile’s left who beat right-wingers to running its second city

The 31-year-old human rights lawyer says he is inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s alternative politics as he takes the fight to the Chilean establishment.

Bearded, with shaggy hair, chinos and a plaid shirt, 31-year-old Jorge Sharp does not look like your typical mayor elect. But that does nothing to stop him speaking with the conviction of one.

“Look, Chile is a country that solely operates centrally, as one unit,” he says. “It is not a federal country – the concentration of state functions is very compact. In reality, most of the power is in Santiago. There are many limitations when it comes to introducing significant changes [in local areas].”

In October, Sharp upset Chile’s political status quo by defeating establishment rivals in the mayoral election of Valparaíso, the second city of South America’s first OECD country. He is taking office today.

Often compared to Podemos in Spain, Sharp’s win was significant – not only as yet another example of voters turning against mainstream politics – because it denied Chilean right-wing candidates another seat during local elections that saw them sweep to power across the country.

As the results rolled in, Conservative politicians had managed to snatch dozens of seats from the country’s centre-left coalition, led by President Michelle Bachelet, a member of Chile’s Socialist Party.

Sitting in one of Valparaíso’s many bohemian cafes, Sharp accepts the comparison with Podemos gracefully but is keen to make sure that Chile’s new “autonomous left” movement is seen as distinct.

“What we are doing in Chile is a process that is difficult to compare with other emerging political movements in the world,” he says. “We are a distinct political group and we are a modern force for the left. We are a left that is distinct in our own country and that is different to the left in Spain, in Bolivia, and in Venezuela.”

Sharp’s Autonomous Left movement is not so much a party rather than a group of affiliated individuals who want to change Chilean politics for good. Considering its relatively small size, the so-called Aut Left experienced degrees of success in October.

Chilean voters may have punished Bachelet – also Chile’s first female leader – and her coalition after a number of corruption scandals, but they did not turn against left-wing politics completely. Where they had options, many Chileans voted for newer, younger and independent left-wing candidates. 

“We only had nine candidates and we won three of the races – in Punta Arenas, Antofagasta and Ñuñoa, a district of Santiago,” he says. “We hope that the experience here will help us to articulate a national message for all of Chile.”


Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp

For Sharp, the success of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and the pro-Brexit movement are due to people fed up – on a global scale – with their respective countries’ mainstream political parties or candidates. Given that assumption, how would he describe the cause of his own election success?

“The problem in Chile, and also for the people in Valparaíso, is that the resources go to very few people,” he says. “It was a vote to live better, to live differently. Our project for social policy is one that is more sufficient for all the people. It’s a return to democracy, to break the electoral status quo.”   

Sharp – like many – believes that the United States’ Democrat party missed out by passing up the opportunity to break with the status quo and choose Bernie Sanders over the chosen nominee Hillary Clinton. “They would have been better off with Sanders than Clinton,” he believes. 

“The [people] in the US are living through a deep economic crisis. These were the right conditions for Trump. The people weren’t looking for the candidate from the banks or Wall Street, not the ‘establishment’ candidate. The way forward was Sanders.”

Turning to other 2016 geo-political events, he claims Brexit was a case of Britons “looking for an answer to crises” about identity. Elsewhere in South America, the tactics of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe – who led the “No” vote campaign against peace with the Farc – were “fundamentally undemocratic”.

In the future, Sharp hopes that he and the rest of the Autonomous Left will be better-prepared to take power in higher offices, in order to further reform social policy and politics in Chile.

“For these elections, we weren't unified enough,” he concedes. “For 2017 [when national elections take place], we will have one list of parliamentary candidates and one presidential candidate.”

And while Sharp clearly sympathises with other left-wing movements in countries throughout the world, this is not a call for a unified approach to take on the rise of the right.

“Every country has its own path,” he finishes. “There is no single correct path. What we need to do [in Chile] is articulate a force that’s outside the political mainstream.”

Oli Griffin is a freelance journalist based in Latin America.