Remembering Rwanda: ‘Frontline’, and my interview

Bill and I watched the ‘Frontline’ special on Rwanda last night. It was beautifully done, in general, and gave much cause for continued reflection and thought.
One of the really constructive things they did was to highlight and explore the absolutely heroic role played by a small number of individuals during the genocide. It was a pity that all the featured heroes except one were non-Rwandans, since I know that many Rwandan nationals– Hutus and Tutsis–also made extremely heroic, life-saving decisions during the genocide; and always, at literally existential risk to themselves. I want to write more about this later.
But still, the Frontline program was mainly about the reaction of outsiders to what happened in Rwanda; and from that perspective, showing so concretely that there were outsiders who did make a difference for the better through simple acts of huge courage and grace just sets in even greater contrast the cowardice of people like President Bill Clinton, national security advisor Tony Lake, and even, I would say, the resposnible people at the UN: then-sec-gen Boutros Boutros-Ghali and then-head of peacekeeping Kofi Annan.
Among the real heroes highlighted were:

  • two African members of the UN’s ill-starred peace force then in the country: one from Ghana, one from Senegal,
  • the head of that force, Romeo Dallaire, and most especially
  • the head of the ICRC’s mission in Rwanda at the time, Philippe Gaillard, and the youthful head of an American Adventist aid organization who was the only American who decided not to take the ‘save your own skin’ option, and to stay behind when all the other Americans left,
  • another American hero featured was Gromo Alex, who volunteered to go into the country, to set up and run humanitarian food drops for Tutsis hiding out in various spots around Kigali.

If those individuals–including, of course, the African peacekeepers who could not expect to benefit from any of the “benefits” of white skin in that situation–could make the decisions that they did, that underlines all the more tragically the very different decisions made by Messrs. Clinton and co.
Shame, shame, shame.
On the other hand, how would I have acted had I been in their position? I do not know. So I don’t want to cast stones. But I do want to know that better and worse choices, and opportunities for real heroism and real leadership, are always possible, even in the direst of situations…
I almost hesitate, after watching and reflecting on that very powerful production, to even mention my own little contribution to WGBH’s broader project. But the interview that Marrie Campbell did with me on the aftermath in Rwanda is now up on the website. If you click here you can go and read it.

12 thoughts on “Remembering Rwanda: ‘Frontline’, and my interview”

  1. I’ve attempted to get information on the allegations that the Clinton Administration was derelict in failing to intervene. The people who do this seem to assume godlike powers in a president who had to battle tooth and nail against a new mood in foreign policy. I remember that episode very vividly, and a lot of idealistic people were plainly assuming that the President was obligated to predict the future accurately and at immense cost.
    Please don’t make allusions to Sierra Leone or Liberia; I’m far from convinced foreign intervention in those (coastal) nations had a significant inpact on the virulence of the civil wars there, and foreign actors in other African conflicts enjoyed one huge factor in their favor: prior to their intervention, there was a critical balance among the rival factions.
    In the case of the Rwandan genocide, the genocidaires were imbedded in the whole of Rwandan society. Even the most passionate advocates of intervention cannot deny this; the genocide occurred in hamlets all over the country, by an extremely coordinated, diffuse group. On the other hand, there was already a large foreign force in the region defending the “Turquoise Zone” and the “Hutu-Power” militia/government inside it, and it wasn’t the Yanks.
    Just curious: Subsaharan Africa, esp. the Francophonic parts, are in fact the EU’s backyard. So why is it that it’s the Yanks who get the blame for failing to invade Rwanda with a gigantic force? (And it is–undeniably.) You understand, don’t you, that such an act would have been over the objectionsof the UN Security Council? And that, after 90 days of defying Congress and Europe, Clinton–whom you revile–would have been compelled to withdraw the American forces and the genocide would run its course?
    I’m interested in something plausible, but I’m very pessimistic about these counterfactual utopias.

  2. “attempted to get information”
    Um, like, see this and this.
    And they were coordinated by radio broadcasts, it would have been a minor thing for the US to jam the broadcasts: it didn’t.
    The “counter-factual utopia” isn’t very necessary to front, in my mind, because the USG actively obstructed intervention as well as UN authorization. It may not have gotten through the UNSC in the end, but there was no way anything would be authorized if the US got in its way, which is what happened.

  3. James, you raise a number of very important points (as usual). I think it’s a bit strong to say that I “revile” Clinton… Certainly, my intention was to criticize him; but then later I asked the hard question about what would I have done in his place…
    About “Turquoise”: It wasn’t in place at the start of the genocide– it was France’s response to the genocide, and had bad and some good aspects to it. But your more general point about relative responsibilities as between the US, Europe, and indeed the rest of the world, is certainly worth more exploration.
    The fact seems clear to me that in early 1994, as today, the US wields an influence in world affairs that is totally disproportionate to the numbers of its citizenry. Then, as now, the US exercized a real “leadership” role in world affairs, whether we wanted it to or not.
    On the Frontline piece, as in Sam Powers’ excellent book, it is made clear that Madeleine’s instructions for a long period during the genocide were to seek the dismantlement of the grossly under-staffed, under-equipped UN force that was there in Rwanda, UNAMIR. Yet despite all its problems, it is undeniably true that the UNAMIR presence that was there did succeed in saving many, many lives.
    What Dallaire has agonized over nonstop ever since is how many more lives his people could have saved if they had had any positive response from UN/New York to the urgent stream of requests he sent for more people, more equipment.
    What Madeleine agonized over a little on the Frontline show was thow lousy her instructions (to push for UNAMIR’s dismantlement) were. What she doesn’t go into is that she was a Cabinet member. Those instructions had come from a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. If she had truly thought her instructions were so lousy at the time she could have either (a) picked up the phone to the White House and demanded a re-opening of the question with Bill, or (b) resigned in protest. She did neither. “Just following orders” does not, in the circumstances, seem like a very strong defense.
    As for Bill, he merely waffled on afterwards about his regret over “the decisions my people were bringing me”. But you know what? He was the President! If he had truly cared, he could have used his considerable powers of public persuasion to win a considerably better–perhaps still not perfect, but certainly much better– position on the UN-deployment matter from the Security Council, and could have won support for it before Congress. There were plenty of good options he could have pursued that would NOT have involved contributing US troops to UNAMIR. Other countries’ troops with some US airlift, financing, and equipment donations would have made a massive amount of difference in Rwanda…
    But I do urge you to see the Frontline show and read Sam Powers’ book, if you have not done both those things.
    As Sam Powers writes, one of the main deficits among US leaders was a deficit of sheer imagination and commitment.

  4. If you can stomach reading more about how culpable some of the above people were re: Rwanda and how easy it would have been to stop the genocide, I strongly recommend reading : “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), by Philip Gourevitch.
    Annan is far more culpable for the deaths in Rwanda than Sharon ever was for Sabra or Shatilla (I could say the same in respect of Bernard Janvier re: Srebrenica). Annan had advance notice and chose to do nothing while 700,000 died. He, of all people, should be tried for war crimes.

  5. Buerman: thanks for the links, I’m reading them now. Yes, it is true this reveals material I did not know before.
    Lewis: I have read that book. My comment reflects info gleaned from the book.
    Blaming Annan for inaction on the part of member states in the UN strikes me as…[multiple edits here] unwise.
    Similarly, blaming the Clinton Admninstration for failing to entirely reverse a tidal bore of domestic opposition to UN-associated, humanitarian interventions–especially in Africa, a region where there is a long track record of Europe taking the lead–is like blaming him for failing to abolish capitalism or the income tax (which I have seen done rather a lot, actually).
    The fact seems clear to me that in early 1994, as today, the US wields an influence in world affairs that is totally disproportionate to the numbers of its citizenry. Then, as now, the US exercized a real “leadership” role in world affairs, whether we wanted it to or not.
    This is circular reasoning. Yes, our influence will be great if the EU pontificators and their affiliated parties behave as they did in this affair–which is, to sit on their hands and blame us for not solving the problem.
    Perhaps they were facing the same domestical obstacles to a benevolent intervention?

  6. James,
    Let me see if I understand your logic.
    1. The member states of the UN delegate responsibility to Kofi Annan as Head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
    2. Annan suppresses (see Boutros-Ghali’s ‘UNvanquished’) the ‘Dallaire fax’, which points out impending genocide (as well as other relevant information). He does not report it to member states or the Security Council.
    3. Therefore, the member states are responsible for not responding to information that Annan never provided to them.
    Am I missing something?
    I note that Annan took many years to apologise for his actions/inactions and he stymied an investigation into same. No doubt, he will take a similar approach to the investigations of his son in the ‘Oil for UN favours’ bribary scandal.

Comments are closed.