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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.

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
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

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.

Tags:Rwanda