photo of desforgesGhosts of Rwanda
alison des forges

She is a historian of African history, specializing in Rwanda, and a board member of Human Rights Watch. Less than two weeks into the killing, she met with officials in the U.S. State Department and National Security Council (NSC) and lobbied for their help. "We were not asking for U.S. troops. … It was clear to us that there was no way that the U.S. was going to commit troops to Rwanda. We were looking instead for a strengthened U.N. presence and U.S. support for that." In this interview, she discusses the atmosphere of those Washington meetings, and their sole outcome -- a White House press release condemning the genocide leaders: "[The release] had relatively little effect, because it was followed by nothing any more substantial. I believe it was one of several things which influenced [the killers] to begin controlling the killing [so] that it would be less visible to the outside world. So we might not have actually done anything except drive it underground." This interview was conducted on Oct. 1, 2003.

… During the period when the U.N. was turning its attention to Rwanda, and the Arusha peace accord process was underway, what was your opinion of the U.S. government's attention to what was going on there? Were they paying good attention to the situation?

I think that, particularly right at the time when the peace treaty was signed, there was a real sense of relief -- of almost euphoria -- because there had been this long process of negotiations, and finally there had been a settlement. We were all essentially naive, I think, in failing to appreciate the extent to which certain people on both ends of the spectrum were not satisfied with that peace accord, and were determined to, in some way, upset it for their own purposes.

What do you mean when you say, "We?"

I mean people from the NGO (non-governmental organization) world, people from the human rights movement, people also from the diplomatic community -- and not just outsiders, but also within Rwanda. There was a general sense of relief and enthusiasm and optimism that this was actually going to work. So that the voices of people, like some of the leaders, for example-- When the leaders of this ultra-Hutu Coalition for the Defense of the Republic (CDI) came out and said, "We're going to trash this. This is not going to last. This is a recipe for disaster," they were more or less disregarded, because the feeling was that the best majority of players were on board. …

In any peace process, there's always going to be people who will be left on the outside. …

That's right, and there had been considerable debate about whether or not to attempt to include the people who were representing the ultra-Hutu. The decision was finally that no, they were too, too extreme in their ideas, and that if they were included, that would skew the final arrangements. So they were left out, but with the idea that they would eventually be pulled towards center.

What happened, of course, was that the internal arrangements of the peace accords split apart instead. Rather than the ultra-Hutu being pulled toward the center, the center was split, and one part of it was pulled towards the position of the ultra-Hutu. …

We know that, even quite soon after the accords were signed, that both sides began new military preparations; certainly on the side of the ultra-Hutus. So they began to look towards renewed military action. The RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) side as well began to increase their outreach, in both the sense of recruiting politically, and recruiting also for military forces.

We don't know, in fact, who began -- if one side was reacting to what the other was doing, or if they began simultaneously. But the essential point was that, while most of the world and most Rwandans were thinking that the war was over, there were, in fact, two groups convinced that the war had to begin again.

You are very careful making a distinction on extremists on both sides A lot of people don't make that distinction; but you're clear in your own mind [that] there were?

Certainly the proof that we have in shows that there were, on the side of the RPF, some people who were determined to recruit new forces and who were ready to move towards renewal of combat. This was also the case certainly on the side of the CDI and the ultra-MRND (National Revolutionary Movement for Development) people. So that was clear. What is not clear, as I say, is whether one did this in reaction to the other, or whether they did it almost simultaneously, or independent of what the other was intending.

… How would you characterize the U.S. policy?

The U.S. was interested primarily in getting a war over. They acknowledged that there were human rights abuses which had taken place during the course of the war. But they felt that, rather than address those abuses directly, it was more important to resolve the conflict, because they believed that the killing of Tutsi, for example, the smaller-scale massacres that had happened in 1991, 1992 and so on -- that these would end when the war ended. So their immediate preoccupation was ending the conflict, getting some kind of a stable government in place that would carry on.

Often now, there has been the allegation that the U.S. was, in fact, favoring the RPF, was favoring that side of the conflict. Seems to me that was not the case, because in the discussions I had, both in Washington, and locally in Rwanda, where I attempted to create some sense of outrage about massacres of Tutsi and abuses of Tutsi-- My sense was that this was that this was always downplayed; that the primary concern for the diplomatic personnel, both at the embassy and in Washington, was to maintain neutrality in this war and not to condemn any abuses of the Tutsi, because this might suggest they were no longer neutral. So they were very anxious to try to preserve their own role as a middle player here, as a facilitator between the sides.

So once the paper was signed, it became a kind of sacred text, and everyone wanted very much to make it happen. The focus on making it happen meant perhaps the key players were unwilling to look away from that text, and [were unwilling] to actually look carefully at what was happening in the real scene. …

Did you personally have doubts?

I think we were concerned once we saw the extent to which the political structure that was supposed to be the core of the accords was fragile, because it was built on a principle of a three-legged stool, with the idea that you were creating a transitional government. That would be the RPF, the forces of President Habyarimana and those around him, and then this third force of the internal political opposition groups. What happened from the time the accord was signed on until the beginning of the genocide was that that third leg of the stool essentially collapsed, and the stool split in half.

So as we began to see the signs even as -- at the every time the accord was being signed -- that one of the key parties, the MRND, which was essential to that third leg, was already starting to fall apart. We began to worry that this structure was not anywhere near as sound as it appeared to be.

On a personal level, what was your gut feeling on what was going on?

The initial enthusiasm and optimism of August gave U.S. some level of reassurance about Rwanda, even though, as I say, there were these concerns about the MRND starting to divide. Then came October. Burundian President Ndadaye, assassinated in October, had been the first Hutu freely and fairly elected in a country where the demographics were very much like those of Rwanda. So there had always been an echo effect back and forth between Rwanda and Burundi, where violence in one place could provoke violence in the other, or at least anxiety in the other. After Ndadaye had been elected, he continued in power for several months, and a group of Tutsi soldiers assassinated him.

The result was massive killings both of Tutsi, originally, and then of Hutu by the Tutsi army in reprisal. So that happened at the end of October. The small group of us who worked on that part of Africa worked on Burundi as well as on Rwanda. So for a short period of time, Burundi replaced Rwanda in our consciousness. We were all focused on the horror that was unfolding in Burundi, and Rwanda seemed, in contrast, to be doing relatively all right.

What was the international response to the Burundi killings?

Virtually nothing. There was some pressure put on the Burundi military to back off and return to [their] barracks and allow a civilian government to take power. And that did in fact happen, and in some ways [it] is an interesting parallel to what happened in Rwanda, as a concern on the part of the international community, that the fig leaf of the civilian government be put in front of the reality of continuing military control. But once the fig leaf was pulled up and put in place, it was OK. So this pressure on the army resulted in their pulling back and allowing a civilian government to take control.

But the reality of the enormous killing provoked really virtually no response. Very little was said in the press. I think it was a tiny paragraph once in the New York Times, but very little said; yet there were tens of thousands of people killed. Naturally, this had its impact inside Rwanda, both the killing itself and the absence of international reaction to the killing. We know that, during the Rwandan genocides, Radio RTLM and officials as well specifically talked about that and said, "Look what happened with Burundi. Nobody gave a damn, so we can do the same thing here, and no one will give a damn."…

Let's get into the genocide. On April 6, where were you?

I was at home in Buffalo, New York. The evening of April 6 in Rwanda was still midday in Buffalo. About 20 minutes after the president's plane was shot down, a friend and colleague, a human rights monitor, called me, and said, "This is it. We're finished." I said, "What happened?" She said, "The president's plane has been shot down." She knew it very quickly, and she was immediately sure that she, as a human rights activist and the Tutsi as well, as part of an ethnic group would be targeted for killing.

So this friend and colleague--

Monique Mujawamariyaw, who was a woman I had worked with since 1991. She was a person who had already been targeted. She was legally Hutu, but her mother was Tutsi. She had been targeted because of her courageous stand in defending Tutsi, and in opposing human rights abuses by the Habyarimana government.

So I called her back every half-hour, starting that afternoon, and going on through the night. As I did so, she recounted to me scenes that became worse and worse. She could see groups of soldiers and militia moving across the hills in her neighborhood -- moving from house to house, pulling people out of houses, killing them.

Then, at one time more or less in the middle of the night, I called, and she said, "They're coming closer. They're at the house next door. They've taken three men out on a corner, and they've shot them." I could hear the noise in the telephone, and she said, "Now they're at the door," and I could hear the pounding on her door. Then she said she was-- She didn't know what to do. I knew that she had already had a certain amount of coverage in the press, because she'd been in the U.S. at one point; she'd met President Clinton.

So I said to her, "Give the telephone to them, and I'll pretend that I'm a White House person and I'll tell them to leave you alone." She said, "No, that won't work." Then she said, "Please take care of my children. I don't want you to hear this," and she hung up.

So I began calling back a few minutes later, and called back the whole rest of the night. There was never any answer. So the next day, I wrote a fax to my colleagues at other Human Rights Watch offices -- people who knew Monique well -- and explained what had happened, and said that I thought she had been killed.

But I kept on calling. Finally, three or four days later, I had a phone call in the middle of the night, and it was Monique. She had been able to flee from her house, then creep back in during the night and hide in the ceiling for three or four days. Then she had come down and had seen that there were soldiers outside, rather than militia. This was important, because she felt the soldiers were more likely to not kill her. Her own husband-- She had been married at one point to a soldier, so she took her wedding album and went outside and showed them her wedding pictures and said, "You see, my husband was a soldier. Here is this commanding officer and that commanding officer and that commanding officer," and she showed the pictures.

So then she said, "I need to be taken to protection, to the Hotel Mille Collines." She had persuaded two of the soldiers [who] agreed to do that. On the way there, they had robbed her, both for money, and they had stolen also a brooch which had been my grandmother's that I had given to her at one point. When she called that night, the first thing she said to me was, "I'm alive, but they took your grandmother's brooch." I said, "They can have the brooch as long as you're alive."

She then managed to escape from the country and was taken out in the evacuation along with some of the Europeans. [She] became a very powerful voice outside Rwanda, here in New York at the U.N., and also in Europe, pleading for assistance to Rwanda. …

Why was the Mille Collines a safe haven?

The Mille Collines became a safe haven, because it was owned by a European airline. It was a place that was not going to be easily destroyed, because that was something that would annoy Sabena and its Belgian owners -- that was probably the bottom line. So it was a place where foreigners were already staying. The idea was that the closer you came to foreigners, the safer you were likely to be, if you were a targeted person.

So several hundred Rwandans did flee there and, in fact, were safe, although there were a couple of times when the militia actually came into the hotel, made incursions into the hotel, but were finally driven out, either by forces, or through the skill and negotiation techniques of the manager.

What did you do after that?

It's a blur of constant meetings, interviews, travel from one place to another; a lot of meetings here at the U.N., talking with Security Council delegates, particularly the Czech ambassador, the New Zealand ambassador, the Spanish ambassador, who became very concerned and very, very anxious to act to protect Rwandans; meetings in Washington with various people -- the National Security Council people at the State Department, trips to Europe, meetings there with various government officials; coordination with colleagues in the NGO community, the non-government organizations; and lots and lots of time spent talking to journalists, trying to explain what was happening, to give some depth to the scenes of horror that were being portrayed.

You made a decision to start to try to influence policy when this began, by lobbying and talking to decision-makers. …

We at Human Rights Watch had been involved since 1991 in trying to influence policy. We had seen small-scale massacres. We had documented the involvement of people in the government and in the military, and we had documented the growth of the militia. So we had been attempting already, for many months, to persuade governments and international agencies to be concerned and to take a stand on this issue. …

At some point in those 10 days, you went to see people in the State Department?

Yes. I've forgotten exactly when it was. But it was fairly early on in one of our visits to Washington that Pru Bushnell saw several of us from Human Rights Watch who were working on Rwanda at that point. From that first meeting on, we had the sense that here was someone who really cared, who was as committed as we to try to make something happen, but who also was obviously blocked by the decisions of her superiors.

When she recalled the meeting, she said you were pretty forceful.

It could be; what I remember, I'm not sure. It was the very first meeting -- perhaps it was the meeting after that. But I do remember a meeting where we were all sitting together there, four or five of us. She had a staff person with her. It happened that we were all women, and perhaps because we were all women, we weren't afraid to cry. So we talked about the situation. I remember we then all cried, all of us. Then Pru took out her box of Kleenex and passed it around. We all blew our noses and she said, "OK, now what are we going to do next?"

She recalled that she said to you, "I'm actually not the right person to really change the policy." She helped you figure out who was. …

The message that we got from several people was basically that we needed to go elsewhere; that although what we had to say was impressive, it was moving, it was convincing, but our listeners … weren't at the appropriate level to make the policy decisions necessary.

We had that experience as well with Madeleine Albright, who was then the U.S. representative at the UN. When we went to see her, Monique and I, at the point when the question was whether or not there would be a total withdrawal of U.N. troops. We went to argue for the lives of those Rwandans that would certainly have been lost if those troops had been withdrawn -- for example, the people who were being protected at the Amahoro Stadium, at the King Faisal Hospital.

So we went and spent half an hour or 45 minutes with Madeleine Albright. At the end, she said,. "You know, you have a very strong case. But I'm not the person to hear this. You need to take it to Washington." We said, "To whom?" She said, "To the National Security Council." We said, "And if they won't receive us?" She said, "Tell them to call me." By the time we got to Washington, we found that they would receive us. So we were able to speak to people at the NSC and to make this case.

Who did you speak to?

We spoke to a number of different people. We spoke to Donald Steinberg, who was the senior person on Africa. Then we spoke to the group that was in charge of international operations, because they were the ones who were making decisions having to do with the U.N. peacekeeping force.

Who was that?

That was Susan Rice and, I believe, Joseph Wilson. …

Before we move on … when you met with Albright, total withdrawal of the U.N. forces was the option on the table. Did you get a sense of whether or not she personally supported that? …

I believe Ambassador Albright did not support that decision to withdraw all U.N. troops. I think she was, afterwards, unjustly blamed by the press and by others for having put forward a policy that was not basically her policy, so that, in a sense, she bore responsibility, because, of course, she didn't openly denounce it and resign. I have the impression that she personally was opposed to it.

And at the NSC?

We saw Mr. Steinberg. We saw the people connected to international operations. Then ultimately we saw the president's national security adviser.

Roughly, when was that?

That would have been in the third week in April. …

So you saw Tony Lake, the national security adviser?

It was Monique and I who saw Anthony Lake, yes.

What happened?

He listened very carefully for perhaps half an hour, very intently. But at the end of the half-hour, I had the impression that he was not moved to change his ideas all that much. So I said to him, "Look, I have the feeling that we are not getting very far in trying to get some change in U.S. policy. What do we need to do to be more effective?" He said, "Make more noise," and I think that was the essential message throughout here -- that for the policy-makers in Washington, Rwanda was simply not an issue that created enough noise for them to pay attention.

[Can you describe] the meeting, the mood?

It was a meeting where I recall more the role played by Susan Rice than anyone else. I don't think she was the senior person at the meeting, but she was the one who seemed to have the most immediate responsibility for the factual details of the case. My sense was of a person determined to be absolutely crisp and firm and hard-nosed about the situation, as if, as a young woman in the company of middle-aged males, she had something to prove; and what she was going to prove was that she could deal with this in as hard-nosed a manner as anyone else.

Was the message coming back to you a hard-nosed one ?

The message that came out to us was definitely hard-nosed; a person who was allowing absolutely no emotion into her consideration of the issues, who felt probably that it was inappropriate to take into consideration that these were women and children that we were talking about, civilians who were being massacred. Instead the issue was dealt with in terms of a very much more technocratic, cut-and-dried kind of analysis of the military situation and the possibilities of action -- or non-action, as the case may be in that situation.

Did they talk about national interests? What was the background objective, from their perspective?

I think the background objective from their perspective was to find reasons not to do anything. There wasn't a great deal of philosophical analysis about it. It was more or less, well, here are obstacles which are going to make it pretty much impossible for this thing to happen.

We did have one discussion with another staffer at the NSC, a military officer seconded to the NSC. We talked to him about this issue. He, to my great shock, talked about this genocide as age-old tribal hatred, as something that was perhaps almost inevitable, the kind of thing that happens in Africa and it's regrettable, but after all, we can't really do anything about it. …

It upset me, because here at the highest policy-making levels in the U.S. government was a military officer, who was presumably giving his advice to policy-makers -- who had so little conception of what was happening in Rwanda that he could mistake a modern-day genocide, designed and carried through by a group of political actors for their own benefit-- That he could mistake that for a so-called ancient tribal hatreds, which, in fact, were neither ancient nor tribal in the case of Rwanda. …

I'm just wondering what the differences were . There was receptiveness of your ideas when you talked to people in the African bureau at the State Department. They're all interested in Africa. But the NSC's perspective was different. …

That was certainly the case, although the distinction was maybe not so much between the NSC and the State Department as it was between the two branches of the NSC itself -- that is, Steinberg, as the head of the African division of the NSC, I had the feeling was as committed as some of the folks at the State Department to seeing some kind of action. At one point -- I think the issue was a request for visas by some of the leaders of the genocidal government to come to the U.S. -- I wrote him a fax arguing against that, and relating some of the most recent information I had received about killings in Rwanda. When he wrote back to me, he said, "Your fax moved me to tears," and I think he was being truthful. I think he really did care, and this really was an agonizing issue for him. But again, being the person in charge of Africa was obviously not a position that gave him enough strength, enough clout in the system to do anything about it.

The international organizations' people, on the other hand, it seemed to me had a quite completely different set of interests. Their interests had to do with preserving [the] U.S. relationship with the U.N. Something that I didn't understand really at the time was the extent to which congressional pressure from conservative congressmen against the U.N. was putting pressure also on the White House and on the NSC, in terms of what could or couldn't be done in peacekeeping operations.

The number of peacekeeping operations at the U.N. had increased enormously in the previous year or two. The budget for peacekeeping had gone up 300 percent in one year. Then that was followed by the disaster in Somalia. So you had all of a sudden in Congress the growth of a very strong concern about any U.S. involvement in peacekeeping.

So I think, in fairness to the people from the International Operations division [of the NSC], we have to say that they were perhaps interested primarily in preserving the possibility of a future U.N. peacekeeping operation for some situation where they thought U.S. interests would really be at stake. They didn't see that for Rwanda, and so they saw only an enormous risk.

What they wanted to avoid at all costs was taking the risk for Rwanda, which in the end might not be worth the effort, from their point of view. So it was perhaps not just hard-heartedness, indifference, racism -- all of those things which one could easily accuse them of. But it was perhaps also, I would hope -- maybe it's too idealistic -- but I hope maybe also a concern for preserving some freedom of action vis-a-vis the U.N. in the future that led them to take this very hard line against involvement in Rwanda.

When you had these meetings, were you using the word "genocide?"

Oh, yes. We used the word genocide beginning on April 17. In a letter to the Security Council and from that time on, we used the word regularly. … We used it in all of our meetings with government officials, with journalists, We used the term with our colleagues, of course, because from our point of view, by mid-April by the end of the first week, it was clear what was happening -- that people were, in fact, being targeted with the intent to eliminate them.

Was there aversion to that word?

Oh, yes, of course. When we talked about genocide with policy-makers, it was clear that their response … that was simply a word that was not being used.


Intentionally, yes. Yes.

On your meeting with Tony Lake, what were you saying to him?

We were asking at that point for some clear statement from the U.S. that this was a genocide; that the U.S. condemned it; that it would not in the future aid this government, because it was a government involved in genocide; and we wanted this message delivered as directly and personally as possible.

We believed -- and information since has confirmed that there were within Rwanda, including within circles of the military and decision-makers -- there were people opposed to the genocide, people who were looking for ways themselves to oppose it from inside.

Our hope and our strategy was to use the leverage of international public opinion to convince those people inside Rwanda that what was going on was really wrong, immoral, illegal and would be punished, so that they would separate themselves from the people engaged in genocide and perhaps create a mass of opposition, of resistance which would at least limit the damage, if not stop it altogether.

Were you asking for U.S. troops, or a stronger U.N. force?

We were not asking for U.S. troops as such. We attempt to be realistic in creating policy strategies. It was clear to us at that point, from even very preliminary discussions in Washington, that there was no way that the U.S. administration at that point was going to commit troops to Rwanda. What we were looking for instead was a strengthened U.N. presence, and U.S. support for that U.N. presence.

When you met with Tony Lake-- He has an interest in Africa. What was his demeanor while he listened to you?

Very quiet, very polite. He didn't really ask any questions, as I recall. He more or less took it all in and that was it. It went nowhere.

Were you able to get any concrete actions as a result of those meetings?

Yes. At the time, it seemed like perhaps an opening that might lead to something more. But now when we look back in retrospect, we see that what we got from those meetings was so minimal as to be almost ridiculous.

From the meeting with Lake, he agreed to issue a press release basically putting certain Rwandans on notice that their behavior was being observed, and that they should be mindful of international law. So we actually composed the press release.

We sent it over to him. It was a press release which said, in effect, certain people who were named, including Colonel Bagosora, and including several others, were [being] informed by the White House that this kind of killing was a violation of international law, and that they would be held accountable for it.

Why did you want that?

Because we wanted we wanted some form of public statement -- from the president ideally, but if not from the president, at least from the national security adviser -- showing an awareness of what was happening and condemning it, so that people inside the country who were also opposed might take heart, and themselves [and] try from inside to resist.

What effect did that have?

In fact, it had relatively little effect, because it was followed by nothing any more substantial. I think that it was one of a number of actions -- including, I believe, a phone call that Pru Bushnell made to the military leaders -- I believe it was one of several things which influenced [the killers in Rwanda] to begin a more active policy of what they call pacification. Pacification meant basically channeling and controlling the killing in such a way that it would be less visible to the outside world. So in other words, we might not have actually done anything except drive it underground.

Were you instrumental in getting Clinton to read a statement on "Voice of America?"

I don't know exactly to what extent our efforts had anything to do with Clinton's reading that statement on the radio. What we had asked for was a clear statement, very brief, very short, signed by Clinton, by the French president, by Belgium -- the major donor countries to Rwanda, and potential future donors -- simply saying, "What is happening in this country is a genocide, we condemn it, and we will not ever give any assistance to this government in the future."

So we were asking, not for any commitment of money, but rather the reverse -- for a commitment never to give money to this government. Rwanda was a country that depended very heavily on foreign aid, foreign assistance for its even for its operating budget. Many Rwandans knew this. Even at grassroots level, people in rural areas formed direct relationships with communities abroad in kind of twinning relationships or twin sister city kinds of things in order to get assistance to build schools and hospitals. So they were directly linked to the foreign community, and directly reliant on foreign money to improve local conditions in their own backyard, so to speak. Our idea was that if they understood that this government was never going to have access to that kind of money, it would be quite easy for people to understand that this government was going to fail.

If it was going to fail, then there was no interest in committing horrendous crimes at its direction, because it wasn't going to go anywhere. So that was our reasoning, our logic. But I remember we discussed this idea of a joint appeal from major national leaders. We discussed it with Pru Bushnell. I believe that she made the effort to take it up the hierarchy, up to the White House.

The next time we saw her, she said that the idea was rejected by the White House. The suggestion was made instead that perhaps we non-governmental organizations should take out a full-page ad in the New York Times to make this point. Of course, this is patently ridiculous. The protests of a group of NGOs in the New York Times is nowhere near equivalent to a statement from the president of the United States, the president of France, the prime minister of Belgium and so on. But that was the best she could come up with. …

If there had been some kind of armed intervention, given what you know about the country and the RPF, and how the RPF had their eyes set on Kigali-- Some say the RPF might well have fought the U.N. What do you think?

Certainly that was a fear. It influenced the decision, first of all, to do nothing, and later the decision to do something as slowly as possible; that's for sure. But the fallacy in that whole argument was that intervention did not have to mean going back to the peace accords and sending everyone back to their corners the way they had been before. That wasn't the idea at all.

The plan -- and I believe this was also the plan that Dallaire had developed, as well as plans that we discussed here on this side -- involved instead an effort to protect the civilian population; perhaps to create safe zones in a way that would not directly challenge the either of the belligerent forces.

The way the war was being conducted, you had the RPF advance primarily coming out of the northeast and then sweeping down the east. But you still had the center and the southwest of the country, where large numbers of Tutsi had gathered and where the war was not happening in the first couple of weeks, but the genocide was [happening]. So had there been the creation of a zone protected by U.N. troops to provide security to targeted people, then you could have saved lives of the people within that zone without necessarily having brought into play the whole question of the combat of the two belligerent forces.

This was in fact a major issue, because once several of the Security Council delegates -- particularly the representatives of Czechoslovakia, New Zealand and Spain -- became convinced that this was a genocide, they made great efforts to push the U.N. into greater action and to sending more troops back. By this time, the first group of troops had already been reduced.

On a Saturday, they were able to hold an urgent session of the Security Council that lasted all day -- eight hours of debate on this issue. The Czech delegate presented a presidential statement, which used the word genocide. The U.K. representative said that was ridiculous to use this term, and the debate went back and forth. The U.S. also was opposed to any attempt to send back a strengthened U.N. force.

As the day wore on, the president of the session, who was the New Zealand delegate, finally said, shortly before midnight, that if there were no agreement on the issue, he would declare the meeting an open meeting. The Security Council meetings of this kind are normally closed. … So by saying to the Security Council, "If there is no decision soon, I will declare this an open session," the New Zealand ambassador put them on the spot, because the delegate from the United Kingdom was not going to say in a public way that it was ridiculous to call this a genocide. Nor was the U.S. representative going to openly take a position against any aid to Rwanda.

So by using that leverage, he was able very cleverly to push through a presidential statement which used the definition of genocide, although not the word. This was on April 30. [It] used all of the terms of the Genocide Convention about attacking an ethnic group with the intent to destroy, and also to direct the secretary-general to look into providing a new U.N. force, a strengthened force to protect civilians.

That meeting ended at midnight. The Czech representative called me right after and said, "We've won. There's going to be a new U.N. force." We went to bed, the two of us, feeling great satisfaction that there would be a rescue for all of those thousands of people still waiting for help.

The next morning, he called me and said, "Forget it. It's not going to work, because the RPF is completely opposed." Now the RPF had taken a position that any new U.N. force that went in could impede its military advance, and they just weren't having any. I believed that this alternative proposal of a zone to protect civilians could exist and would not impede their military advance, and that there was just a problem of communication here. So I called various representatives of the RPF to talk about this, and finally got one in Europe, who said to me, "Basically, the genocide is over."

This was on April 30. I said, "I don't know whom you're talking to, but the people I talk to every day by telephone in Kigali are waiting to be rescued, and they're saying, 'Where are you?'" His answer to me was, "Madame, those are our people, not yours."

As a result of the RPF position, which was also formalized in a press release that was issued that day or the next day, the Security Council stepped down, slowed down its attempt to send a new force. It was not for several weeks -- not until May 17 -- that finally this new force was authorized.

So the hypothesis that some have put forward that the RPF's opposition to a new U.N. force was an impediment to that force -- that appears to me quite borne out by the evidence.

When you talked to some members of the Security Council, they were receptive to the message that you were delivering?

The response among the delegates of the non-permanent members to the Security Council was far more open and concerned than that of the permanent members. It's enough to give you some hope the structure of international organizations, and to make you wonder what would have been the ultimate impact of this whole train of events if they had known earlier on what the major players knew about the situation in Rwanda. For example, if they had known fully all of the considerations back in January and February, would they have allowed Dallaire and the peacekeeping force to have been left isolated that way? Because once they did know what was happening, once they understood after the first week of April, they did invest enormous efforts in trying to get the U.N. and the major actors to move.

Did they help your lobby?

One of my colleagues had a letter published in the New York Times -- I believe it was April 15 -- about the killing in Rwanda. That letter spurred Ambassador Kovanda, the Czech representative, to call us and to say, "I need to know more about this situation." He was sent on to me, and I remember him calling me -- I think it was on a Saturday morning -- and introducing himself, and saying, "I'm Karel Kovanda. I'm the ambassador of the Czech Republic to the UN. You don't know me, but I want to know more about Rwanda."

We talked for two or three hours. In the end, it was he who arranged for me to come and give an informal briefing to other non-permanent members of the Security Council at a little tea party at his house to give me an opportunity to lay out the information that I had, because he believed that they were not being fully and accurately informed by the U.N. Secretariat.

These smaller non-permanent members of the Security Council undertake an enormous responsibility when they come to the council table -- a responsibility of knowing and acting on many areas of the world where their own countries perhaps have no representation, or have no large embassies. So their sources of information are very limited, and they are obliged to act and to make their decisions largely on the basis of information delivered to them by the Secretariat.

It was in revolt against that that Kovanda reached out to the community of non-governmental organizations and said, "I believe we are not being accurately informed. What can you tell us that we are not hearing from the Secretariat about this situation?"

It was really an act of tremendous responsibility on his part.

By the Secretariat, you mean the U.N.?

That's correct. It was the Secretariat of the U.N. that had the obligation presumably to provide full information to all members of the Security Council. But there, the information they presented and the way they interpreted it was very ambiguous, very unclear, and in no way gave the sense of a genocide. They talked about the disastrous events as if it were a natural catastrophe, a hurricane, or a volcano exploding. They gave no sense of political direction, and they talked about the killing as if it were happening on an equal basis between two belligerents, with no sense that civilians were being actively targeted and exterminated.

So if you read the content of the of the briefings that were provided to the members of the Security Council, you can understand why Kovanda and the others felt they were not being accurately informed. …

How can we understand-- Were there good guys, were there bad guys.?

When you look at the events of 1994, yes, there are good guys and bad guys. The good guys are the ones without the guns, and the bad guys are the ones with the guns and the machetes. That's the simplest way to put it.

The civilian population was victimized at the time of the genocide. Those people who were Tutsi or supporters of Tutsi or related to Tutsi or willing to protect Tutsi were killed. Those who refused to participate in killing them were also sometimes killed. The genocide took place in the context of war. In a war, you can also have war crimes, and either side can be guilty of war crimes. In this particular war, both sides were guilty of war crimes. One side was guilty of genocide.

So it must be clear that you don't confuse these things; you don't make any equivalence between them. The government of Rwanda, at that time, some of its military forces, its militias, were used to carry out a genocide against Tutsi and to eliminate political opponents and people who opposed the genocide. They also engaged in some war crimes and crimes against humanity in their attacks on civilian targets during war and so on.

The RPF, which was the guerilla force opposed to the Rwandan government, also committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. It did not commit genocide. The distinction lies in the words of the law, the Genocide Convention, which is that genocide is an attempt to eliminate, in whole or in part, the people of a given group.

We have no evidence that the RPF was engaged in genocide. We do have evidence that some RPF soldiers engaged in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that's where the difference lies. There is no equivalence in the crimes. But there is an equivalence in the right of the victim to justice, whatever the crime and whoever the perpetrator. …

Just a broader point-- Many say this genocide just exploded. It happened so suddenly, and that was a factor in making it unstoppable.

Often people who look at the genocide from the outside are inclined to see a kind of spontaneous outburst, a rage, a conflagration of horror; when in fact, that wasn't the case, when you trace the ups and downs, because it was a very complex phenomenon. It was an enormously dense set of historical events compressed into a short period of time. But if you tried to pull it apart and analyze it, you'll see that in the early period, the killings were directed primarily at the capital, at the center, and in a few outlying regions…

But there were other areas, for [example, the center of the country and the south of the country], where this didn't happen, where things remained generally calm and peaceful. What does that say? That says that you don't have a mass of Hutu Rwandans ready at the first sound of a whistle to grab their machetes and run for the nearest Tutsi throat. That was certainly not happening.

You had instead very complex political forces happening, taking control here. Some political forces opposed to the genocide continued to resist for at least two weeks.

Then what happened?

On the weekend of April 16-17, the government decided to expand and intensify the genocide and to make it nationwide, to carry it into those regions which had thus far remained generally peaceful. Why then? Why did they decide? Perhaps because that was the point at which most of the foreigners had gone. Where the U.N., the Belgian troops were being pulled back, and where the U.N. force was-- It was being discussed that this force was going to be shrunk or removed altogether.

So perhaps at this point they were so encouraged by this, the lack of international reaction. … So they then decided to go ahead, to move it out into other areas where people were not participating.

They did this in several ways. They did it by having senior government officials go into the areas or meet with local administrators. That happened in Gitarama in the center of the country on April 18. It happened in Burtare on April 19. They also removed administrators who had opposed the genocide, including the governor of Butare and the governor of Kibungo. The governor of Kibungo was killed almost immediately. The governor of Butare was hunted down for several weeks and eventually slaughtered, as was his family.

So get rid of the resisters, move in with senior-level authorities to deliver the message. Transfer into those areas of peacefulness various militia units from places that were already hot. So they came in. They were brought in to kill Tutsi, but also to threaten Hutu who were not participating. Then in addition to all of this, you had radio RTLM, which was being used throughout the country to incite to killing.

Radio RTLM ridiculed and harassed those burgomasters, those mayors and other local government officials who are not participating, and threatened them. So you had a congruence of a number of pressures to isolate and to threaten those people in the governmental system, those civilians who are not participating. Because of that, you were able to force a significant number of them to begin to collaborate in this killing campaign.

Final thoughts? Why do we still need to do this? Why do we still need to talk about this 10 years later?

Because there's a war going on in Burundi, which has already led to killing on an ethnic basis, which could lead to further killing on an ethnic basis; because we have just seen killing of thousands of people in the Congo on an ethnic basis; because Rwanda, although it appears at the moment extremely stable, still has major problems of reconciliation and justice to resolve, so that the consequences of this genocide and the effect that it could have on neighboring countries continues to be enormous.

We're not finished with it yet. The trials go on of some of the leaders of genocide at the international tribunal. Within Rwanda, there are about 100,000 people waiting to be tried.

We also have inside the country an entire generation of children, the vast majority of them who were alive at the time, the vast majority of them saw people killed in brutal fashions. Perhaps as many as 60 percent of those children saw members of their own families slaughtered in brutal fashion.

We have significant numbers of women infected with HIV/AIDS because they were raped during this genocide, and little is being done to relieve their misery. We have lots of pieces yet to pick up.

But even more than that, we need to be ready. We need to be ready for the future. These kinds of wars directed against civilians are increasing. The kind of war that happened in the middle of the twentieth century, where you had professional armies confronting each other, has given way now to another kind of war, which is being waged against civilians. The laws of war that we drew up were meant to protect civilians. Now the context has changed, and the civilians are becoming the object. Are those laws of war still valid? Can we enforce them? And what will we do, the next time a civilian population becomes the objective for extermination?

That's why we're still talking about this 10 years later.

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posted april 1, 2004

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