Rwanda, part 4: The Rwandan Genocide, Where was the Rest of the World?

Many assume that the Rwandan Genocide began in the flash of an eye- a flash that turned into an explosion of hate and murder as Rwanda’s President Habyarimanan’s plane fell from the sky.

Plane explosion

Flickr photo courtesy of Adam Howarth cc

As we discovered yesterday, this assumption is far from the truth. If the truth about an event that wiped out three-quarters of the Tutsi population at a killing rate five times greater than that of the Nazis (1) existed for decades, then one must ask “During the Rwandan Genocide, where was the rest of the world?” and maybe even more important, “Why didn’t the world get involved?”.

The answer to these questions is difficult to swallow, but it is crucial to understand them if we want to change the way we respond. Let’s begin with a look at three key players: the United Nations, the United States government, and the media.

The Rwandan Genocide, Where was the Rest of the World:


General Romeo Dallarie

Canadian General Romeo Dallaire. Photo courtesy of The Rwandan Genocide: Modern History Project 2012.

The United Nations involvement in Rwanda began in June 1993 when both Uganda and Rwanda requested support troops to help enforce the ceasefire between the RPF and Rwanda’s military. This mission eventually became part of another mission.

In October 1993, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was created to oversee the implementation of the Arusha Accord agreement. Canadian General Romeo Dallaire was appointed commander.

It took over 5 months for UNAMIR to attain the 2,500 troops authorized due to arguments between the nations.


January 1994:

Commander Dallaire recognized the gravity of the situation in Rwanda, but never more so than in January 1994. He received a letter from “an informant who outlined to him Hutu plans being made to exterminate Tutsis; to provoke and kill Belgian troops so as to guarantee Belgium’s withdraw from Rwanda; and the location of interahamwe arm caches” (2).

Dallaire immediately sent a coded fax to the UN requesting permission to raid the arm caches. He “labeled his fax ‘most immediate,’ and signed off in French: ‘Peux ce que veux. Allons’y‘ (‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Let’s go’). The response from New York was: Let’s not” (3). Instead, UN officials told Dallaire to warn the President even though his missive stated that President’s inner circle was involved in planning the slaughter.

April 1994:

Shortly after the Genocide began génocidaires tortured and killed ten Belgium peacekeeping officers who were guarding the moderate Hutu Prime Minister.

Dalliare began with urgency to communicate with the United Nations. He explained that “the killings [were] based on ethnic grounds. He related how the killings were planned, systematic and carried out by state officials” (4). Dallarie also argued that UNIMAR needed at least 5,000 well-trained troops, heavier weaponry, and the authority to stop the killing.

The response from the world community was appalling. The United States and the UK opposed the request because of cost. (Although most certainly, the painfully fresh Battle of Mogadishu and a downed Black Hawk affected the United States’ response.) Belgium responded by pulling all of her troops for fear that more would be killed. So, instead of helping Dallaire, the UN chose to tie his hands.

On April 21, the Security Council, led by the U.S. and the U.K., ordered a reduction of UNAMIR to a token force of 270 troops. The Security Council made this decision even though just two days earlier, on April 19th, the independent organization Human Rights Watch estimated that over 100,000 people had been killed in Rwanda and called on the Security Council to label the massacres as genocide…

As UNAMIR departed from the country, Rwandans laid in the streets trying to block the UNAMIR trucks from leaving, while others threw their children into the trucks screaming, “Don’t abandon us!” and “They are going to kill us if you leave!” (1)

Countries around the world sent other troops to evacuated expatriates. No Rwandans were rescued though, “not even Rwandans employed by Western governments” (5).

Rwandan Genocide, Where was the rest of the world?

“Victims at the Gikondo massacre of children in a church; UN paratroopers witnessed the act while evacuating expatriates but did nothing.” Photo courtesy of The Rwandan Genocide Modern History Project 2012

On April 30, the UN passed a resolution condemning the killings; however, they fell short of calling the them genocide as that would obligate them to get involved. On the same day, a quarter of a million Rwandans- predominantly Hutus- fled the country and entered Tanzania. With the help of the Red Cross, the UN responded. In the UN’s words,”The United Nations and other agencies provided emergency assistance on an unprecedented scale” (6).

Trek of Rwandan refugees

Trek of 250,000 Rwandan refugees. Flickr photo courtesy of cliff1066™cc

Geoff Lane, head of the International Red Cross, says this was the day the world became aware of Rwanda. (7) Prior to this, journalists knew something major was happening in Rwanda. However, it was too difficult to safely access Rwanda to get the story. Besides that many editors thought the “story seemed at first too obscure… – an African blood feud.” (10)

The only hints the public had of what was happening came from the State Department’s confusing dialogue and the United Nations Security Council. However, as the story of why so many Rwandan’s fled their country leaked out, pressure on the UN increased.

May 1994:

As April bled into May, pressure increased in the United States as well. Both the media and the public began to question what was happening and why the United States refused to act. Various government spokespeople attempted to pacify the press:

Christine Shelley, States Dept. spokesperson on whether of not what was happening in Rwanda was genocide:

“…the use of the term ‘genocide’ has a very precise legal meaning, although it’s not strictly a legal determination. There are other factors in there as well” (5)

Anthony Lake, National Security Advisor on PDD25, a presidential directive aimed to limit US military involvement in peacekeeping operations:

“When I wake up every morning and look at the headlines and the stories and the images on television of these conflicts, I want to work to end every conflict. I want to work to save every child out there. And I know the president does, and I know the American people do. But neither we nor the international community have the resources nor the mandate to do so. So we have to make distinctions. We have to ask the hard questions about where and when we can intervene. And the reality is that we cannot often solve other people’s problems; we can never build their nations for them …” (5)

Both of these statements reflect the government’s fear of naming what was happening in Rwanda. A U.S. Defence Dept discussion paper points to this fact “warn[ing], ‘Be careful… a genocide finding could commit us to actually ‘do something’” (9). Something that did not go well in Somalia.

The US continued to quibble, while Madeline Albright stonewalled the UN, repeating the Clinton administration’s position-which according to Phillip Gourevitch was “Let’s withdraw altogether. Let’s get out of Rwanda. Leave it to its fate” (8). In spite of this, the United Nations finally agreed to send 5,500 troops to Rwanda.

United Nations

United Nations deliberating over sending troops to Rwanda in May 1993. Photo courtesy of Rwandan Stories

However, the US and UK delayed the troops’ deployment over disagreements about who would pay for the troops- which were mainly African- and their equipment. Unfortunately, “by the time that force arrived in full, the genocide had been over for months. ” (11)

The US government continued to argue over money and the definition of genocide, while President Clinton gave speeches saying our involvement “must depend on the cumulative weight of the American interests at stake” (9). In the meantime, the UN asked the Pentagon about a request from Dallaire to jam Rwandan hate radio. “The Pentagon reject[ed] the proposal as too expensive, and [said] that any act to silence RTLM might violate Rwanda’s sovereign right to control radio broadcasts within its border” (9).

At this time, the UN decided to send a member of the High Commission to investigate claims about human rights violations in Rwanda.

June 1994:

While the world agued politics and logistics, the RPF slowly gained control of Rwanda.

Still awaiting troop deployment, the UN agreed to allow 3,000 French troops to enter Rwanda to help set up a safe zone. Even though thousands of lives were saved in the so-called “Turquoise Zone,” thousands more were lost. The French allowed the Hutu soldiers who fled to the area to keep their weapons- weapons used to kill Tutsis who thought they had entered a safe haven.

July 1994:

On July 17, the RPF captured Rwanda’s capital and began setting up a new government based on national unity. Pastor Bizimungu was named president and Faustin Twagiramungu became the new prime minister. Hutu government officials, militia members, and other Rwandan citizens fled to Zaire at a rate of 10,000 people per hour.

One hundred days after a missile soared through the sky sparking a flame that was lit decades ago, the Genocide ended. One million lives were lost. Nearly twice that number were refugees.

Then, and only then, did the media and help arrive.

help arrives in Rwanda

UN water tankers. Photo courtesy of Rwandan Story.

As with most traumas and tragedies it took years to process all that took place in those 100 days. It took time for Rwanda. It took time for the world. Eventually, though, our world leaders acknowledged their role in the massacres.


President Clinton apologized to the genocide victims:

… the international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe havens for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide. We cannot change the past. But we can and must do everything in our power to help you build a future without fear, and full of hope … (5)

U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan apologized to the Parliament of Rwanda:

… The world must deeply repent this failure. Rwanda’s tragedy was the world’s tragedy. All of us who cared about Rwanda, all of us who witnessed its suffering, fervently wish that we could have prevented the genocide. Looking back now, we see the signs which then were not recognized. Now we know that what we did was not nearly enough–not enough to save Rwanda from itself, not enough to honor the ideals for which the United Nations exists. We will not deny that, in their greatest hour of need, the world failed the people of Rwanda … (5)

The media too, lamented their part. Even though many journalists hands were tied by the decisions of networks and newspapers, they still live with regret. Tom Giles of the BBC wrote on behalf of all who tried to get the story out:

Many of those who tried to cover this appalling story as it happened around them still harbour, as I do, a lingering sense of helplessness – a sense of guilt, perhaps shame, that we didn’t do more to apply pressure for action when it might have made a difference (7).

Here is the thing:

You and I? We can relate to both sides of this situation.

At times, we have been deeply and tragically hurt. We needed the people in our lives to see what was happening and stop it. For a multitude of reasons, they didn’t. Maybe they argued over semantics or even the logistics of how to help. Maybe they were so burdened by past mistakes and failed attempts at helping others that fear kept them from acting. Maybe, they just didn’t know. Whatever the reason, just as the Rwandan people did, we had to find our own way out of our pain.

On the flip side, we have also been guilty of inaction- arguing, fretting, fear-bound, and ignorant. We chose for every reason listed above and more not to get involved. It is easier that way- or so we think. The problem is when we chose to do what the rest of the world did during the Rwandan Genocide, people hurt for much longer than necessary. In those situations, we need to come forward as our world leaders did and seek both forgiveness and reconciliation. We also need to learn and change how we respond.

Christ calls us to action. At all times, but especially in times of great need, He calls us to serve one another. This was the very reason he stepped down from His Heavenly throne and came to serve the very people He created.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! ~Philippians 2:1-8

When crisis comes, step out of your comfort and step into the chaos. Serve others no matter the cost.

Todays, post was long but important. Thank you for reading to the end. Before you go, leave a comment and share what lesson stood out the most from today’s reading.

Until we meet again…

With Love, Amy E Patton

*For a full listing of posts in this series click here. For more context on the Genocide, read yesterday’s post, The Genocide and Ebola: How the Unthinkable Happens.


Works Cited:

1. Chaulagain, Yam Prasad. The Rwandan Genocide: Could it Have Been Prevented?.

2. The Triumph of Evil: The Warning the was Ignored. PBS: Frontline.

3. Gourevitch, Phillip. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. 1998.

4. Chen, Anson, Viswanathan, Balu. The Rwandan Genocide: Brief Timeline of Events Leading to Genocide. Modern History Project 2012.

5. The Triumph of Evil: 100 Days of Slaughter | A Chronology of U.S./U.N Actions. PBS: Frontline.

6. Rwanda- UNAMIR Background.

7. Ed. Allen Thompson. Media and the Rwanda Genocide.

8. The Triumph of Evil: Interview with Phillip Gourevitch. PBS: Frontline.

9. The Role of the West. Rwandan Stories.

10. Media Failure of Rwanda’s Genocide. BBC News.

11. The Rwandan Genocide.

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