Rwandan Genocide Could Have Been Avoided
The Nation
January 25, 1997
The genocide in Rwanda speaks of a grand failure of the part of international community. “Had it perceived the danger in advance and acted forcefully afterwards, the genocide could have been avoided,” says Shehryar Khan, former Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Rwanda.

Mr Sheharyar, who also served as Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary, has just finished writing his memoir on Rwanda, titled The Shallow Graves of Rwanda (it was published by I B Tauris in 2001, with a foreword by Mary Robinson, former Irish President UN High Commissioner for Refugees).

In early 1994, Mr Sheharyar was asked by UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to be his Special Representative in Rwanda, where, after accepting the new responsibility, he arrived in July 1994 amid the genocide and remained in Rwanda till April 1997. Within a three-month period, more than one million people died in a series of massacres following the April 1994 death of Rwanda's president, killed when his airplane was shot down by a missile. The resulting Tutsi-Hutu conflict was thought to be a mere civil conflict. That perception, if not world indifference, masked the systematic genocide that followed.

My interview with him in Islamabad focused on an inside account of the genocide in Rwanda, its causes and consequences, and why the world community has failed to tackle them. In his opinion, that the genocide could have been avoided if “we had played our hands differently. The international community either misread or did not want to read the fact that the genocide was about to take place.”

Why this misreading? “The peace-keeping force which the UN sent to Rwanda did not have a specific mandate. It was sent under Chapter 6 of the UN Charter, though the situation demanded the application of Chapter 7 (under which the UN Security Council can allow the use of force). In only six weeks from April 6, 1994 when the genocide started, to May 27, when it ended–nearly half a million out of a total black population of seven million were killed. Only then, the UN ‘decided’ to send a force of 5,500 peace-keepers. But even this took four months to realize. Till then, we were limited to just 444 people, who could not shoot. What could the UN then do?”

Had the Security Council read the situation objectively and sent sufficient force with the required logistics and communications, the situation could have been controlled,” says Mr Sheharyar.

Another lesson of Rwanda, he says, is that massacres were not finished by any international force but when one faction defeated the other. Once the Tutsi-dominated faction, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, achieved military victory, the UN found itself in its second phase. The force had arrived, but without logistics and other support. The mandate was still two steps behind what was required.

The whole country, he says, was shattered. No electricity, no water supply, no food available. “Even I had to stay in a one room compartment, eating German ration. Everyday, I would get just one bucket of water, for every purpose–shaving, bathing and drinking, etc. Inside the room, there would be helmets, bullet-proof jackets, and other things for physical protection against the risky environment.”

The genocide, he says, was horrendous. The killers would ask a husband to kill his wife. When he did not, both were killed. Then, the entire family, from children to grandmother, were tied and made to stand against a wall. “Turn-by-turn, every one was killed, with the rest of them watching and crying, in a manner that, first, one of his or her arms would be cut, then the second one, then one of the legs, then another…”

A genocide, he says, is different from other killings, since, in it one group of people, ethnic or sectarian, sets out to “totally exterminate” the other from the face of the earth. Those who engage in genocide don’t engage in war. They just get hold of children, grandmothers and kill them.

Minutes after the news about Hutu President Habyrimana being killed in plane bombing was broadcast, the Rwandan national radio, Mille Collienes, started calling upon the Hutu people, “Why are the people of Betare (Rwanda’s second largest city) not taking revenge and eliminating them?” Extremists Hutus had already marked the houses of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Within half an hour, the genocide was set in motion.

After the genocide ended in July 1994, says Mr Sheharyar, the UN began to revive “a shattered country and a traumatic people.” There was no government. State Bank, all ministries were looted. No police, no courts, no judges. With the UN effort, however, within two years, the people started somewhat managing their affairs. In its second phase–of Rwandan revival rehabilitation and reconstruction–the UN did succeed, but marginally.

Why not total success? Mr Shaharyar offers four reasons. One, the refugees could not return from bordering countries like Tanzania, Brundi and Kenya. “We were not able to persuade them to return home, since they feared persecution and retribution, and, also because, in the camps, they were intimidated by the same persons who had committed genocide.”

Two, the process of justice has been rather slow. The International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague has taken two and a half years to hear the first case now. In municipal courts, a case was heard only last week. Thus, the national and international system of justice has just begun to operate. “If sufficient justice was not brought to Rwanda quickly, the feelings of revenge would increase.”

The third reason for the UN failure, says Sheharyar, is that Tutsis and Hutus have not yet reconciled their differences. They will not, until justice begins to operate effectively and all the refugees return home. The fourth reason is the mishandling of the $1.2 billion ‘aid for Rwanda.’ This amount is sufficient for a small country like Rwanda. But Rwandans say they have not seen this aid—which, in fact, is being spent by officials of the NGOs of donor states on their luxurious offices, expensive vehicles, lavish hotel accommodation, TA/DA, etc. “A serious dispute between the Rwandan government and the donors on this issue was developing. I tried to bridge the differences by persuading the two sides that they should understand each other’s priorities.”

Till recently, one of the richest economies of Africa, Rwanda’s literacy rate is over 85 per cent. Both Hutus and Tutsis speak the same language, eat the same food, dress up in the same manner, and follow the same religion. Inter-marriages between them were common. Ethnically or racially as well, the two tribes are the same. The only difference is that Hutus are tall, with long face and conventional nose; while Tutsis are short with broad face and flat nose.

Why then did this genocide occur? Mr Sheharyar gives three explanations: over-population, sudden economic decline, and late colonialists’ bid to disrupt the established order in the country. Population density-wise, Rwanda is the world’s second largest country after Bangladesh. In the late eighties, the prices of its key exports, coffee and tea, in the international market suddenly declined, resulting in severe economic crisis.

Relations between Hutus and Tutsis had started to become tense ever since the ‘late colonial power’, Belgium, attempted to disrupt the centuries-old order of Rwanda. In the established order, the aristocratic Tutsis forming just 15 per cent of the population ruled over 85 per cent of Hutu population.

“Before decolonizing Rwanda, the Belgians made sure that the power to govern, in line with democratic trends elsewhere in the world, should be transferred to the majority Hutus. The Tutsis greatly resented this, and always wished to undo the post-colonial order.”