A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide 
by Linda Melvern.
Zed, 272 pp., £16.95, September 2000, 9781856498319
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Jean de Dieu, 11, was curled up, a ball of flesh and blood, the look in his eyes was a glance from nowhere … without vision; Marie-Ange, aged nine, was propped up against a tree trunk … her legs apart, and she was covered in excrement, sperm and blood … in her mouth was a penis, cut with a machete, that of her father … nearby in a ditch with stinking water were four bodies, cut up, piled up, their parents and older brothers.

Sights like this – recorded by an observer with Médecins sans Frontières – were common in Rwanda in April and May 1994, when Hutu extremists butchered up to a million people, mainly Tutsis but also Hutu moderates who were seen as ‘sell-outs’. The small United Nations force under Major-General Roméo Dallaire and the gallant contingent of the International Committee of the Red Cross under Philippe Gaillard had to confront them over and over again. This was one of the few real genocides of modern times. Apart from the Armenian massacres and the Holocaust, Pol Pot killed around two million people in Cambodia and the German administration of South West Africa killed 90 per cent of the Herero people in the early years of the last century. Part of the horror of Rwanda is that we think of genocide as belonging to an age we had left behind.

Gaillard, a medieval scholar, said that the apocalypse in Rwanda was prefigured in the works of Breughel and in the cast of characters consigned to the Inferno in The Divine Comedy. Each night at supper he would read to his Red Cross workers from Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer, hoping that the poem would have the calming effect of prayer. Rimbaud was a friend sitting with them, he insisted. Though she resists the temptation to mount a soapbox in this excellent and tersely written book – which was turned down by twenty British publishers and, until now, has not received a review in the UK – Linda Melvern believes that the Rwandan tragedy represents the unravelling of the new international order built on the defeat of Nazism. The Convention on Genocide was, she points out, the world’s first human rights treaty and if the UN was founded with one aim, it was to prevent things like this.

Melvern is indignant that the conflict between Tutsi and Hutu is so often seen as tribal. The two groups share the same language and cosmology and have no distinct areas of residence. The Tutsi minority – Hutus make up at least 80 per cent of the population of Rwanda and Burundi – were simply the traditional ruling caste, historically controlling the monarchy, the army and the administration. But rather as in Northern Ireland, these differences of caste have gradually assumed tribal importance to the extent that the protagonists believe they can recognise one another on sight – Tutsis are taller and thinner – and because there is a historical accumulation of resentments against the entire group. Tutsi simply means ‘rich in cattle’, while Hutu means ‘servant’, and Hutu resentments are typically those of any underclass: an anger against past social injustices, a partly justified belief that all Tutsis condescend to them and prevailed on their Belgian colonial masters to do the same, and a neurotic anxiety that perhaps they are, indeed, inferior.

Once Rwanda and Burundi became independent democratic states in 1962, the fact that the Hutus had a natural majority meant that Tutsi dominance could hardly continue. The Tutsis remained in control in Burundi and the result was an attempted Hutu coup in 1972 in the course of which 200,000 Hutus were massacred – the Tutsis carefully targeted educated people, who might threaten their position in the future. Neither the UN nor the Organisation of African Unity had anything to say. In Rwanda, Hutu dominance produced repeated Tutsi attempts to reverse the status quo, often with outside help; in each case – in 1962, 1963, 1967, 1990 and 1993 – this resulted in reprisals against Tutsis. The 1994 genocide was simply a repetition of that pattern on a far greater scale, Hutu extremists having decided to do away with the ‘Inyenzi’ (the Tutsi ‘cockroaches’) once and for all.

As Melvern shows, the 1994 genocide was planned in detail. Elaborate lists were drawn up of those to be massacred; half a million machetes and huge numbers of axes, hammers and razors as well as guns were purchased in advance and stockpiled – the costs were met by cunningly diverted aid funds. Belgium and France, both countries with expert knowledge of Rwanda, were aware of what was coming; the Belgians issued horrified warnings. As early as the spring of 1992 the Belgian Ambassador, Johan Swinnen, told Brussels that the extremist Hutu clan, the Akazu, was ‘planning the extermination of the Tutsi of Rwanda to resolve once and for all … the ethnic problem and to crush the internal Hutu opposition’. One of the organisers of the genocide, Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, boasted that he was preparing ‘apocalypse deux’.

The behaviour of the French was worse than that of the Belgians. Eager to become the pivotal power in the Great Lakes region, they aided and abetted the massacres at every turn. The Akazu death squads had received military training from the French; Hutu extremists were always assured of a warm welcome in Paris and the flow of French arms to the Hutus continued throughout the genocide. Whenever the Tutsis regrouped sufficiently to threaten Hutu power, France mounted a discreet military intervention to save its friends. The French troops who arrived towards the end of the 1994 massacres were thoroughly confused by the reality of the million Tutsi dead: they had been told they were coming in to prevent a massacre of Hutus by the Tutsi minority.

Burundi’s first Hutu President was assassinated in October 1993, on the day before General Dallaire, the Canadian head of the UN Assistance Mission (UNAMIR), arrived in Rwanda. His death triggered up to 50,000 deaths in Burundi in reprisal and convinced Hutu extremists in Rwanda of the need to act. From this time on ‘genocide hung in the air,’ as one observer put it. Finally, on 5 April 1994, both the new President of Burundi and the President of Rwanda were assassinated when the latter’s plane was destroyed by two ground-to-air missiles as it approached Kigali airport. In the ensuing political vacuum no one was quite sure of who was giving the orders – precisely the cover the murderous Interahamwe movement needed.

The scenes Melvern goes on to describe – the mass slaughter by machete, the lopping off of limbs before the final death-thrust, the prodigious killings in churches of those who had fled there for refuge, the mothers forced to bury their children alive – are terrible. Ironically, there were never more than 15 reporters in Rwanda to witness these atrocities – though no fewer than 2500 were celebrating the birth of South Africa’s new democracy a little further south.

Melvern believes that the West is deeply culpable. When the Czech Ambassador to the UN Security Council likened what was happening to the Holocaust, he was taken aside by British and American diplomats and told that on no account was he to use such inflammatory language again: it was ‘not helpful’. As the reports of carnage began to trickle through, the Republican leader Bob Dole was interviewed on CBS. ‘I don’t think we have any national interest here,’ he said. ‘I hope we don’t get involved … The Americans are out. As far as I’m concerned in Rwanda, that ought to be the end of it.’

Melvern sees Rwanda as ‘the defining scandal of the Clinton Presidency’. She describes with contempt Clinton’s playing to the humanitarian gallery as the Hutu death-squads piled into refugee camps in Zaire. Suddenly there was endless American sympathy for the refugees and, once the million dead had been disposed of, Clinton even had some empty rhetoric to offer. ‘The international community … must bear its share of responsibility … We did not act quickly enough after the killing began … We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name, genocide. Never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence.’

We have got used to the spectacle of Clintonite politicians around the world making rhetorical flourishes as they apologise for slavery or what was done to the Maoris, American Indians or Aborigines. It is the politics of remote catharsis: you appropriate the moral high ground by showing an apparent humility and contrition about sins which were not yours, about events safely concluded before you were born. The extraordinary thing about Clinton’s apology for Rwanda was that the genocide really had happened on his watch. But the apology cost him nothing. Rwanda was far away, obscure, it was only Africa: nobody really blamed him and he knew it.

Melvern is determined that he should not get off the hook: she shows convincingly that he and his advisers knew precisely what was happening, and decided to affect ignorance and shut down the channels of communication until it was over. Clinton had been traumatised by the fate of the US mission sent to Somalia in 1992. The American force was then placed under UN command – a fact celebrated by Madeleine Albright as ‘an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country’. The result was that 18 US Rangers were killed, their bodies dragged through the streets of Mogadishu; more were trapped and wounded, saved only by Malaysian and Turkish troops driving Pakistani tanks. It was an unspeakable humiliation. Clinton withdrew his troops on the spot. After that, the last thing in the world he wanted to hear about was an African crisis requiring American ground troops.

More reprehensible by far than anything Clinton did or didn’t do in Rwanda was what Mitterrand did. It is no surprise that his son, Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, who ran the Elysée’s Africa policy, has now been accused of taking his cut as he kept arms flowing into Rwanda. But the ways of Mitterrand père et fils were nothing new. France’s African policy has always been run by a cabal operating out of a back door of the Elysée – this was how Jacques Foccart ran it under de Gaulle and Pompidou, orchestrating coups and mercenary interventions at will. Giscard dispensed with Foccart, but was equally underhand. He continued the pattern of military intervention; Africa was his true domaine réservé, where he went shooting lions and elephants, even ending up with diamonds from Bokassa.

France has realised – and instrumentalised – the key fact about modern Africa, which is that the nationalist elites have failed to build modern states, and mainly aspire to get money offshore and bring up their children in Paris, Geneva or New York. In the world of the dissolving African state, an arms shipment here or there, two hundred well-trained mercenaries or a million dollars for this or that politician can tip the balance in territories rich in gold, diamonds, oil or uranium. It’s absurdly cheap.

Everyone knows that Gaullist Presidential campaigns over the last thirty years have benefited greatly from donations from Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire and the two Congo states (Kinshasa and Brazzaville). It will doubtless be the same in 2002 – which is why Chirac receives Robert Mugabe in such splendour at the Elysée, conscious that Zimbabwe’s 14,000 troops in the Congo make him a key player in such marchandise. Not that France has a monopoly on playing Machiavelli in Africa: Herman Cohen, Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, who was so busy in Rwanda in 1994, today has a multi-million contract to tart up the image of Mugabe. Cohen has also had contracts to promote Zaire’s Mobutu, Gabon’s Omar Bongo (whose Government the State Department reports is guilty of a routine use of torture), and Liberia’s Charles Taylor – an adept in the use of child soldiers and the lopping off of hands, legs, ears and lips.

But – and this is where I part company from Melvern – the reason toxic outsiders can so easily play ducks and drakes with African lives is to do with Africa’s elite. And despite Melvern’s attempt to lay the blame on the West, Rwanda was a made-in-Africa tragedy, not just in the obvious sense that the genocide was planned and carried out by Africans, but because neither the Organisation of African Unity nor individual African heads of state lifted a finger to stop it. Worse, they didn’t even publicly condemn it, just as the OAU said not a word in criticism of the atrocities of Bokassa and Idi Amin – and remains silent now about the actions of Mugabe. Significantly, this same African elite has become increasingly prominent in international institutions of every kind, starting with the UN. If you think about it, this is inevitable: it’s a question of numbers. The UN today has 189 members. The OAU has 50. If you want to get elected as the head of any international organisation you need 95 votes minimum. You look around – get Africa and you’re over halfway there. It’s a nonsense, a travesty: India and China each have higher populations than Africa, but they have only one vote each and Africa has 50.

If, for example, you’re Sepp Blatter bidding to be head of Fifa, you say: the World Cup finals must be played in Africa. Forget the fact that soccer stadium disasters occur with sickening regularity in Africa, that most African teams won’t qualify for the finals, that the crowds can’t afford the tickets, that they don’t have the infrastructure, and so on. Because of extreme balkanisation, the one thing Africa does have is the votes. The same anomaly applies if you want to be head of anything from the International Olympic Committee to the World Health Organisation. You have to court the African élite and then, when you can’t deliver the World Cup or the Olympics or whatever it is to the continent, you register your profound disappointment. The rest of the world is to blame, especially the West.

This is precisely what happened with the UN and Rwanda. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Egypt’s Foreign Minister, was elected UN Secretary-General in November 1991 largely because he had campaigned throughout Africa for the post and been able to make shrewd use of the ‘special fund for co-operation with Africa’ he had introduced during his time at the foreign ministry in Cairo. In addition he had studied in Paris and was a close friend of Mitterrand, who saw him as ‘his’ Secretary-General. Boutros-Ghali made much of being the first African to head the UN (‘Africa is the mother of us all, and Egypt is the eldest daughter of Africa. This is why I have loved Africa and tried so hard throughout my life to help her’). It’s true that he lobbied hard for a UN force to be sent to Rwanda. Even so, he was the worst possible person to be in charge of the crisis. He was 71 in 1994, concerned largely with his own ego, had a confrontational manner and unhealthy links to the Hutu extremists. He had single-handedly reversed Egypt’s traditional ban on selling weapons to Rwanda and was responsible for providing the Hutus with a good deal of the weaponry later used in the genocide. Moreover, he knew what he was doing: he had been visiting Rwanda since 1983 and was perfectly aware that he was supplying matches for the powder keg. Boutros-Ghali then chose for the key post of the Secretary General’s special representative Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, another francophone African and a personal crony. No doubt this was cleared with Mitterrand. Booh-Booh was a former Camerounian foreign minister, openly pro-Hutu, and tried energetically to get the most extreme Hutu party into the Government. Long after the danger of genocide had become clear, Booh-Booh continued to put an optimistic gloss on developments. The effect was to provide cover as the preparations for extermination went ahead.

Yet a third African occupied a key position: Kofi Annan, Under-Secretary-General and head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. When Dallaire cabled Annan to tell him that secret weapons dumps were being set up, Annan quickly forbade any reconnaissance or arms inspection by UNAMIR. If the Hutu killers had wanted allies at the top of the UN to help them organise their genocide in optimal conditions, they could hardly have done better than Boutros-Ghali, Booh-Booh and Annan. To top it all, from January 1994 the killers had their own representative sitting as a non-permanent member on the Security Council, giving them advance warning of UN intentions.

With the massacre just hours away – and despite clear warnings of what was coming – Boutros-Ghali presented an optimistic report to the Council, stating that all parties ‘remain committed to the peace process’. Afterwards, when a million deaths had proved him wrong, Boutros-Ghali excused himself by saying that he’d been travelling a lot and had not actually been in touch with the Rwandan situation for quite a time. Given that he was the organisation’s chief executive, this amounted to an admission that he had not been doing his job. When the tidal wave of killing began, he had refused to break off from his European tour to deal with the situation and didn’t allow any change in UNAMIR’s role on the grounds that he wasn’t sure what was going on.

What Boutros-Ghali really liked was being the guest of honour at diplomatic receptions, whence his incessant travels. When criticised for these lengthy absences, he would insist he could deal with crises by phone and fax, but when asked for decisions he would either claim he needed more information or make clearly inappropriate suggestions, such as that UNAMIR might respond to the killing by quitting Rwanda altogether. His officials had already found his prolonged absences a fatal handicap in dealing with the Bosnian crisis, but his steady refusal to alter his three-week progress from one reception to another while the murder of the Tutsis proceeded – and while UNAMIR, for which he was responsible, took serious casualties – was an act of criminal self-indulgence. As the casualties mounted and the Nigerian Ambassador to the UN asked in desperation if ‘Africa had fallen off the map of moral concern’, Boutros-Ghali did not even get back to attend key Security Council meetings. Moreover, UNAMIR was under-equipped, under-trained and under-manned, with no intelligence function. Boutros-Ghali also continued to produce late and misleading reports to the Council which were so far from depicting the reality of the situation as to be a disgrace of staggering proportions.

Kofi Annan was not much better. On receiving Dallaire’s cable of 11 January, which – three months in advance – gave clear warning of the horror to come, Annan simply failed to pass it on either to the Security Council or to Boutros-Ghali. There was no reason or excuse: he simply didn’t do his job and was rightly censured in a later UN report. The result was that for the first month of the slaughter, the Security Council never once discussed Rwanda at length.

Eventually, realising the enormity of what had happened, Boutros-Ghali scurried back from his tour of Europe and tried to lay the blame on the US and the Security Council, producing some bitter exchanges with Madeleine Albright, who made no secret of her contempt for him. The Bush Administration’s delegation had abstained on his election as Secretary-General and Clinton now determined to veto his attempt to win a further term. Naturally, this was presented as evidence of further bad American behaviour towards Africa and Paris quickly made him the head of its association of French-speaking states – la Francophonie. Inevitably, he now heads Unesco’s special panel on democracy-building.

Melvern is clearly critical of America’s unwillingness to enter into any overseas commitments and disapprovingly quotes Colin Powell’s attitude towards a UN standing army: ‘As long as I am chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I will not agree to commit American men and women to an unknown war, in an unknown land, for an unknown cause, under an unknown commander, for an unknown duration.’ America, of course, will not even commit ground troops under its own command if it can avoid it. That’s the lesson of Kosovo. On the issue of a UN command, however, its position is more understandable. Would any mother aware of what she was doing willingly entrust her son’s life to the sort of mismanagement which seems endemic in the UN? Although Britain and America have been tight-lipped about their reasons for ignoring the UN and relying increasingly on Nato in their dealings with Iraq or Kosovo, or for Britain’s refusal to put its troops in Sierra Leone under UN control, it is clear that Anglo-America, at least, has lost all confidence in the UN – and with reason. What does one make of an organisation which has rewarded Kofi Annan for his inglorious role in Rwanda by appointing him Secretary-General? Or – whatever you think of George Bush Jr – which votes the US off its Human Rights Commission and puts Sudan on it, despite the fact that the Government in Khartoum has killed two million of its own citizens, is suspected of sponsoring terrorists and tolerates slavery? The UN is only a failure to the degree that the US is unwilling to make it a success. Meanwhile, it has begun to resemble a ramshackle Third World state itself: corrupt, ineffectual, eternally in debt.

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Vol. 23 No. 15 · 9 August 2001

R.W. Johnson should have told us (LRB, 21 June)that his list of Hutu ‘reprisal killings’ of Tutsis, which begins with 1962 and ends with 1993, is partial. They began in 1959 and there were ten in all. He notifies us of five. He also tells us that the plane of the Rwandan President, Habyarimana, was shot down on 5 April, but it was on 6 April – the day the genocide began and on which it is now commemorated every year, and not only in Rwanda. Johnson says that the killings were carried out in ‘April and May’, but they continued into July. General Dallaire was not ‘the head of the UN Assistance Mission’ in Rwanda, but the military commander. J.R. Booh-Booh was the ‘head’. Johnson identifies Herman Cohen as Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. But he was a member of the Bush Administration. How could Cohen have been ‘so busy in Rwanda in 1994’ when he was out of office? Finally, Clinton did not withdraw his troops from Somalia ‘on the spot’ after the deaths of 18 US Rangers in 1993, but gave six months’ notice of doing so.

Elaine Windrich
Stanford University

R.W. Johnson writes: I plead guilty of absent-mindedness on Herman Cohen’s tenure. And of sloppy writing on the matter of the withdrawal of US troops from Somalia: it was the announcement that was immediate. Yes, I might have listed every single massacre and alleged massacre of Tutsis in the thirty or forty years before the 1994 genocide and I might have called Booh-Booh by his full title, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to Rwanda, but everybody used (and uses) the acronym UNAMIR (UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda) to denote the UN military force or, as I say, ‘the small force under Dallaire’, which was all that counted at the time. Booh-Booh was quite ineffectual.

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