photo of dead bodiesGhosts of Rwanda
introduction - april 1, 2004

Rwanda was supposed to be easy.

Ten years ago, when the United Nations sent peacekeepers to this small, Central African nation -- with the full support of the U.S. government -- most of the policy-makers involved believed it would be a straightforward mission that would help restore the U.N.'s battered reputation after failures in Bosnia and Somalia. Few could imagine that, a decade later, Rwanda would be the crisis that still haunts their souls.

"Ghosts of Rwanda," a special two-hour documentary to mark the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide -- a state-sponsored massacre in which some 800,000 Rwandans were methodically hunted down and murdered by Hutu extremists as the U.S. and international community refused to intervene -- examines the social, political, and diplomatic failures that converged to enable the genocide to occur.

"With the perspective of time, the Rwandan crisis can be seen as a crucial test of the international system and its values -- a clash between the ideals of humanitarianism and the cold logic of realism and national interest," says FRONTLINE producer Greg Barker.

Through interviews with key government officials, diplomats, soldiers, and survivors of the slaughter, "Ghosts of Rwanda" presents groundbreaking, first-hand accounts of the genocide from those who lived it: the diplomats on the scene who thought they were building peace only to see their colleagues murdered; the Tutsi survivors who recount the horror of seeing their friends and family slaughtered by Hutu friends and co-workers; and the U.N. peacekeepers in Rwanda who were ordered not to intervene in the massacre happening all around them. The documentary features interviews with Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake as well as haunting interviews with the Hutu killers themselves, and a powerful interview with BBC journalist Fergal Keane who travelled through Rwanda as the genocide was drawing to a close.

"For me, the failure of Rwanda is ten times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia," former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali tells FRONTLINE. "Because in Yugoslavia the international community was interested, was involved. In Rwanda nobody was interested. So we have to fight two problems. The tragedy as such and the indifference of the international community."

In addition to dramatic accounts of events on the ground in Rwanda -- including the frenzied evacuation of all U.S. citizens and foreign nationals even as Rwandan citizens begged in vain for protection from the murdering mobs -- "Ghosts of Rwanda" follows the "high politics" of Washington, New York, and Europe, examining how an internal policy debate that placed national interest above humanitarian responsibilities prevented officials from responding to the Rwandan crisis.

According to Anthony Lake, President Clinton's national security adviser, there was little discussion at his level about Rwanda. "I asked some of the people from the Defense Intelligence Agency, `So what's going on? Who's killing who? I haven't seen much about this.' And they couldn't tell me," Lake recalls. "I should have reached out and said `Tell me more.' And I didn't. [I was] concentrating mostly at the time on Bosnia and Haiti."

The film also reveals in detail how the Rwandan Hutu extremists not only secretly planned and executed a detailed plan for genocide, but also calibrated their actions to ensure that the West would not intervene.

Today, many in the West still question how they could have intervened in a crisis about which they had little understanding. "This was also a lesson that I learned profoundly as a diplomat," Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs for the Clinton administration, tells FRONTLINE. "To come with our own assumptions, our own values, to move either diplomatically, physically, psychologically into another country and think that we can understand it because we are sharing the same vocabulary words, is to really delude yourself." She adds, "What was happening in Rwanda was very complicated, and certainly beyond my understanding."

While "Ghosts of Rwanda" investigates the relationship between Africa and the West, the film also details the personal experiences of the few foreigners who stayed in Rwanda and had an enormous impact like Philippe Gaillard of the Red Cross. Gaillard was the only representative of a major aid organization to remain in Rwanda throughout the genocide. Although his organization has a tradition of quiet-spoken neutrality, Galliard decided Rwanda was different, and he went public with his estimate of how many people had been killed in a matter of two weeks: 100,000.

"In such circumstances, if you don't at least speak out clearly, you are participating [in] the genocide. If you just shut up when you see what you see … -- morally, ethically you cannot shut up. It's a responsibility to talk, to speak out."

The commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda, Gen. Romeo Dallaire says he remains haunted by his inability to stop the killing. "Rwanda will never leave me: it's in the pores of my body. …We saw lots of them dying, and lots of those eyes still haunt me -- angry eyes, innocent eyes. They're looking at me with my blue beret, and they're saying, `What in the hell happened?'"

"Ghost of Rwanda" concludes by examining the aftermath of the genocide, the lessons learned -- and not learned -- by the international community, and by questioning whether the phrase "never again" has more meaning today than it did ten years ago.

"'Never again' was said after the Nazis. It was said after the killing fields of Cambodia. It was said after Rwanda," says Michael Sheehan, a former staff member of the National Security Council and an aide to Ambassador Madeleine Albright at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in 1994.

"Could it happen again? It certainly could," Sheehan says. "Will the world respond? I hope so."

home · introduction · analysis · interviews · timeline · rwanda today · video
the responsibility to protect · discussion · producer's chat · links & readings · press reaction · tapes & transcripts
credits · teacher's guide · viewer's guide · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

posted april 1, 2004

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo copyright © antony njuguna/reuters
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation