photo of bushnellGhosts of Rwanda
prudence bushnell

As U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, she chaired a mid-level interagency working group that was set up to explore what could be done about the mounting slaughter. In this interview, she offers a glimpse of a risk-averse, weak-willed bureaucracy and recounts how her group was working within severely limited policy parameters, the chief one being that U.S. intervention was never an option. "The anger, the horror of that policy," she recalls. "I don't think there's a person involved in it who doesn't have that frustration, horror still. ... You never wanted to do it again. Once was enough." This interview was conducted on Sept. 30, 2003.

… Going back to these first meetings that you had [when you visited Rwanda], you said that it was theater. What was the theater, and what was going on?

Those who were sitting opposite me could claim this wasn't theater; that they were, at the time, utterly sincere. But when I reflect on what happened -- that is to say the amount of preparation that was going on behind the scenes to prepare people for a possible genocide and the behaviors of supposed tolerance and harmony -- I can't help but think that this was theater. Now, were the people who were actually sitting across from me involved in the decision? I have no idea. But it was very hard.

I wanted to stop the killing. Whether you call it genocide, I don't care. Call it genocide and stop the killing or don't call it genocide. But stop the killing.

I think this was also a lesson that I learned profoundly as a diplomat -- that to come with our own assumption, our own values, our own background; 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. I think that what was happening in Rwanda was very complicated, and certainly beyond my understanding.

The language itself is a very complex language. So if you are communicating with a very complex language, the thought process behind it has to be fairly complicated. The relationships of two peoples in a fairly isolated mountainous part of the world that had evolved over centuries, and that was coming to a point as a result of both colonization and independence, was way beyond the capability of somebody with a fairly superficial understanding of African issues to understand.

You guys had experienced diplomats on the ground there, observing the peace process. What messages were they sending the State Department?

We had put hope in the Arusha peace process. That was our winning horse. At least we hoped it was going to be our winning horse, because again, of a great amount of thinking in Washington before we were going to put resources behind much of anything in Africa that had to do with peace. My colleagues in Rwanda were pushing it. They were influencing me and other in Washington to influence senior policy makers to take a gamble on the Arusha accords, bidding that this was going to be the winning horse.

Because the U.S. doesn't get involved in a lot of African countries at that level, so this was seen to be something that could be a success story?

Absolutely. At this time -- I may be mistaken with my numbers -- but I think there were 15 peacekeeping endeavors going on around the world, five of which were in Africa. So there was, in the minds of some people, a fair amount of engagement in Africa.

Of course, at the time, the U.S. was paying 33 percent of any peacekeeping operation. So there was a feeling on this side that we really needed to pay attention to where we were putting out, where we were putting money. After the Somalia debacle, we didn't want to put money in something that was not going to be a success, both politically for President Clinton, and for the United States and the U.N. as a whole.

And Rwanda was seen to be a pretty safe bet?

It was more than 50-50, and the fact that the French were very eager to put peacekeeping troops into Rwanda also played a factor. …

Our colleagues in the region were telling us that this was worth taking a risk, that this would be an opportunity to see peacekeeping work, and more in the short term than in the long term. So it was not going to be very expensive. We could see results fairly quickly, and the results would be, chances are, successful.

When this delegation came up to New York, they were concerned that the peacekeeping, what became UNAMIR, wasn't getting on the ground fast enough.

That's correct. In fact, there was a great deal of study and talking, report writing, before the Security Council came to agreement to put UNAMIR on the ground. So I think it was in the winter that it finally arrived.



During this period before [the genocide] was going on, in retrospect, was … U.S. policy was being shaped by that theater, as well?

U.S. policy was being certainly shaped by the seeming willingness of the Rwandans to implement the peace accords, by the sense of other members of the Security Council -- particularly the French -- that this was a risk worth taking. And they wanted the Arusha accord to succeed. They wanted peace in Rwanda, and a sense, among the people at my level, that it was worth the investment -- that this was going to be something that would give us the kind of return that we wanted.

This was early on in the Clinton administration. Tony Lake was the head of the National Security Council. Tony Lake had a keen interest in Africa, and so there was not significant push back from the White House, as long as it met the criteria for a successful peacekeeping operation. And we felt that it did.

In retrospect, do you think that at that time, fall of 1993, that the genocide was being planned of the scale that we saw?

Well, certainly we learned later that militia were being trained by a very small group. Now I should probably correct myself. I don't want to leave the impression that the people who came to see me had any knowledge whatsoever. But I think that we policymakers in Washington overestimated the chance for success of peacekeeping. We really felt that there was a far greater consensus that UNAMIR could come in, that a transition government could be put in place, and that there could be free and fair elections than actually existed.

Again, it was so counter to the thinking of an American mind certainly, that one would [be] behind the scenes, planning the slaughter of the people. Never mind that there was still violence, it never crossed anybody's mind that something on the scale of what happened would be actually deliberately planned. …

I want to just ask you about when General Dallaire sent this fax in January.

Before we go there, can I say one thing that really was also influencing U.S. policymakers that we need to put into the equation? That is, that at this time, Liberia was falling apart. I know that, because that was also my issue, because Liberia was felt to be far more in our interest. Because of the historic ties that we had with Liberia, there was a fairly significant amount of attention being played to what Charles Taylor and the other warlords were up to.

So time was divided, and everybody's attention was divided when it came to African issues, and African issues of conflicts. So Rwanda was not the only burning issue. When we looked at issues of conflict -- Rwanda, Liberia -- we would be more forward-leaning in Liberia than we would be in Rwanda, given our history. …

So General Dallaire sent his fax to the U.N. Now you also briefed the U.S. embassy ambassador and other[s]. Do you have any recollection of how that message was transmitted back here to the State Department?

I have no recollection. I keep searching my mind, because not only do I not have a recollection of reading any cable, but when I went to Rwanda in March and I met with the ambassadors, there was no conversation about that either. So if we were wanted back here, I don't know where the message went. …

How [did your trip to Rwanda] come about?

Oh, certainly we had regular interagency meetings on Rwanda. Frankly I don't remember how the decision to send me was made. I had made a similar trip to Liberia earlier. I did a lot of traveling around talking to very nasty people in Africa saying, "Knock it off, stop killing your people." So to me this was, you know, "Pack your bag, get your talking points and go and tell these people to hurry up and get over the issues that prevented them from implementing that part of the peace that is the interim government."

At that point, the sticking point was a congressional seat. That, in our mind, was a sticking point that one could negotiate. The RPF in particular felt very, very strongly that they could not negotiate it, because that seat was the seat of the CDR … the right-wing, Tutsi-hating part of the Hutu establishment that was in fact exercising on the wishes to kill more Tutsi.

I came and said, "Surely you can negotiate. We're only talking one seat in congress." I remember vividly thinking of how I could present my negotiating points to [Rwandan President] Habyarimana and deciding to appeal to ego, which often works when talking to political leaders in any country. I said to him, "Mr. President, this chapter of Rwandan history has your name in it. It can be a chapter of great glory, or it can be a chapter of great tragedy." These were prescient words, although I certainly didn't mean them that way.

What did he say?

He talked about the extent of mistrust within the country and he really underscored there was a great deal of mistrust, that we need to overcome this mistrust in order to put things in place. He was still optimistic that things would be put in place. He, in fact, said that he would try and sort of overcome the last obstacle before I left Rwanda. I was in Rwanda and was going to Burundi next. I think I was leaving on a Saturday morning, and this was on a Thursday. He said, "Before you leave, I promise I will do this."

As I was leaving, it didn't happen. I got a message from him saying, "I'm very sorry that this couldn't take place." And do you know, after we evacuated Americans during what then turned out to be the genocide, I received a letter from President Habyarimana saying, "I'm really sorry I didn't implement the peace accords, but I'm going to do it."

He ended up dead.

He was dead.

He was trying to get the extremist party to back off on its demand for a congressional seat?

I do not know what politically he was negotiating with members of his government. Rwanda is such a small country that a lot of these political players knew each other very well and many of them were related. So these negotiations would go on in a fashion that is not necessarily the kind that we would have now. "OK, now we will negotiate and go to a room and close the door, and now our negotiations are ended." This was the sense I had -- clearly an ongoing conversation, and he gave me the feeling that he was willing to try and overcome some of the mistrust. …

Did you meet with General Dallaire?

No, I did not. I think he was not in the country at the time.

Did you meet with Booh-Booh, the U.N. [special representative]?

Yes, I met with Booh-Booh at the time, and I met with other members of the diplomatic corps, received a briefing. I think we had lunch. We ate a meal together. I had a dinner with members of the government and civil society. Actually I think that it was a large dinner, and members of the RPF were there.

I remember making a speech about my hope that things would be put into place. But the other odd thing about Rwanda was that the government was French-speaking. This was a Francophone country. At the time, very few members of the government were Anglophone. The RPF, on the other hand, was Anglophone, and didn't speak French. So although people could be in the same room, a foreigner like myself had a great degree of awareness of the divide between them when it came to speaking a language I could speak, because one was Anglophone, one was Francophone, and I didn't speak Kinyarwanda.

You met, presumably, with Ambassador Rawson and others?

Yes, I did.

What was the message they were telling you?

That there was concern that there were lists on both sides, and that people were being targeted and killed; that there was a hope that this would stop, if and when an interim government was put in place. I look back now and it was pretty naive, but on the other hand it was also very hopeful. People in our embassy had put an enormous amount of effort into the peace accords, and that's another lesson -- that once you become energized with one solution, it's very, very hard to let go and even consider something else.

The process takes on a life of its own?

The process takes on a life of its own, especially when it's a peace process, because you're not willing to say this peace process is hopeless. At that point, I honestly think the evidence wasn't quite stark enough to have us come to the conclusion.

So there were the two elements: the lack of palpable evidence that we needed to recognize that the peace process was not going anywhere, and the reluctance to veer from a solution we had helped to craft and we had bought into. …

Often when I talk to people who made visits [to Rwanda], [they] always say, looking back, they can think of one little warning sign that didn't seem important at the time.

A couple of people were killed while I was there, and that was certainly a warning sign. Actually, as I look back on it, another one: I was accused later on by members of the RPF, when I went to meet with them in their camp, they told me about the CDR wanting to kill Tutsis. They later accused me of not listening, and I think that was a fairly accurate accusation to make. So, yes, there was one side saying, "Look, we can't do this, because these are the very people who want to kill us," and I was saying, "Yes, but surely you can negotiate this."…

Did you think they were probably overstating the threat?

I thought that they probably were correct, that there were people who were trying to kill them. I also thought that they were killing people as well, that it was an issue of both sides, not just one.

Did they ever use the word genocide?

No, they did not that I recall, but again I have to tell you that, if I really want to be honest with this -- because otherwise we're never going to learn anything -- that I came with assumptions. I'm an American. We don't do this in America. So when somebody says there's a hit list, essentially that you can-- "Oh, yes, OK, I understand hit list." Somebody says "mass slaughter," it doesn't register, because that's just so bizarre. That's so outside of our ability to grasp in terms of human beings' planning this. So if he did tell me that, it did not register.

You asked about what the warning sign was. The warning signs couldn't have been more clear than somebody saying straight back to my face, "Madame, these people are nasty people who want to kill us and they should not be in the congress, because they're the ones who are the most extremist."…

Even if it had registered?

Right. What were we going to do? Say, "OK, you're right. Well, that's it. No more peace accord. Let's go back to the drawing board." Good heavens.

So we had gone down this path to such an extent that to go back to the United Nations and say, "Never mind," to go back to the international community that had helped forge the peace accord and say, "Well, we better start over again," was just not in the cards. And certainly to admit that the extremists as we saw it on both sides, both on the RPF side and on the government side, had been victorious, was not something we wanted to talk about with the Rwandan people.

Do you remember if you asked Ambassador Rawson about these threats, just to seek their advice?

Again we talked about the fact that there were lists. But I will have to tell you that the greater concern at that time was in Burundi, right next door, where I was also heading, and where there [was] killing on a larger scale going on. So this was in the context of a region where two countries in which members of two similar ethnic groups were at each other; one country, notwithstanding the obstacles, was moving in a direction toward peace with a huge investment from the international community; while the other country seemed to be in far worse shape, where killing was still going on, on a fairly active basis. So in comparison, I think that Burundi was the country that was getting more attention in terms of concern than Rwanda.

So then [you] came back to Washington. How did you hear about the plane crash?

I was sitting at my desk when Kevin Aiston, who was the desk officer for Rwanda, came in and told me that the plane had crashed and that the presidents of both Burundi and Rwanda were on board. I went right into denial. "No, it can't be. It just can't be. Go and get in touch with David Rawson and check your facts. Please, this certainly can't be," because I immediately understood what a disaster was going to ensue, given the given the vulnerable state of both countries at the time.

But you didn't think, "Oh, there's going to be mass genocide?"


What did you think was going to happen?

I thought that the peace accords would certainly go back and the success of the peace accords would be even more in doubt. I was really afraid of what was going to happen in Burundi. I was very, very concerned about violence both in Rwanda and in Burundi, but again, given the scale of violence that was happening in Burundi, I was concerned about that.

So he comes in and tells you, and you said, "Check the facts?"

Check the facts. Then when we learned that barricades had been set up in Rwanda on the way to the airport; that the embassy was reporting that it was difficult to get information -- even though there were Belgian peacekeepers, members of UNAMIR at the airport, that information was very difficult -- that the government was not allowing people to go toward the airport. I knew we were in trouble.

Almost immediately the violence started. The violence at the time was far more complicated -- or at least from what we knew was far more complicated. The RPF that had been in barracks broke out of the barracks. I'm not necessarily getting this in sequence. There was fighting between two parts of the government -- the presidential guard, if you will, and members of the regular army. There was fighting between the RPF, which eventually broke out of their barracks, and the presidential guard and the army, regular army, and there were civilians who were being killed. But it was fairly immediate that the civilians, including the prime minister, were being rounded up and killed.

The imprecision of the information grew, because it was too violent for people to get out on the streets, people meeting members of the embassy, to do any reporting. So the information we were getting was from second-hand reports from the embassy. David Rawson was at the residence and there was firefights going on, so it was difficult for him to get to the embassy. The people in the embassy were pretty much holed up in the embassy. Joyce Leader was in her home. Our greatest concern was the safety of Americans, and we told them to stay put and keep your head down.

Am I right in remembering that you wrote a memo to the secretary?

Correct. … I wrote a memo as acting secretary -- which I was at the time, acting assistant secretary for African affairs -- to Secretary Christopher appraising him of the situation, and voicing our concern that there's a strong possibility for large-scale killings, given what we were seeing even early on, and given the targeted killings that were taking place almost immediately after the crash of the airplane.

Did you get a response back from him?

No, which is not unusual. This was an information memo. It was not a memo asking for a decision.

Do you recall how you first got word that the U.S. wanted to evacuate the citizens?

I was leading a task force in the operation center of the Department of State, which is fairly normal procedure when there's a crisis in a country. You gather people together, you go to a room on the top floor. You get a telephone line, an open land line, and you interact with the embassy on the telephone with a big sign that says, "Do not hang up," because you never know if you'll ever get that line back. Now mind you, this was 10 years ago, and we didn't have satellite phones as much as we do now.

The decision to evacuate was made in Washington. David Rawson did not want to leave. No ambassador wants his phone call about evacuating a community, because of the message that it sends to the country, as well as the danger that it potentially puts American citizens in. Adding to the complexity was the fact that we saw the French and the Belgians as being in a position of taking care of citizens more than we. The French and the Belgians were talking about evacuating by air, i.e., coming into the airport and then bringing people out by air.

David Rawson, our ambassador, had the suggestion to take people overland, because at that point, the fighting was concentrating within the capital. The reasoning was, you don't want to bring American citizens into where the fighting is going, when, in fact, if we can get out of the capital, Kigali, we can probably fairly safely evacuate overland to Burundi -- which is what happened.

[Who made] the decision to actually evacuate?

The decision to evacuate was made in the department. The secretary of state signed the decision memorandum to evacuate. It was right after that that, early, I don't know, 6:00 one morning when I was coming into the operation center. A number of colleagues passed me, saying, "Well gee, good luck, Pru. I understand that President Clinton has spoken to both the secretary of defense and secretary of state, saying he wants all Americans out alive, so let me know if I can help." I didn't feel more pressure, because heaven knows I wanted to get people out alive. So when people said, "Gee, did you feel a lot of pressure?" Well, not from President Clinton. I felt pressure from the circumstances.

That directive to get all Americans out alive fell to [whom]?

Me and David Rawson and our teams. I have to tell you, I'm very proud we did. We not only got people out alive under some very hair-raising circumstances, but we actually added an American citizen in the process, because a woman gave birth during the evacuation. So we came out plus one, and I was feeling very proud of that, very proud of all of us.

So you're in the task force room and you've got an open line to the embassy. What kind of assistance were you able to give them?

I actually had two open lines. One was to Kigali, Rwanda. The other was into Bujumbura in Burundi, because people were coming through Burundi overland to Burundi. We had placed U.S. Marines in Burundi just in case they needed to go in and evacuate the Americans. The Burundi military government -- now mind you, their president had been killed, too. So a huge effort went into persuading the Burundi government to allow U.S. troops to come into the airport. The agreement was that they would not leave the airport unless it was a question of life and death of Americans.

Meanwhile, you had the Americans who were going in convoys overland and we lost touch, because again, we didn't have many satellite telephones at the time, and the radio communication went through Nairobi, Kenya and then back to the U.S. So it was a very circuitous process. So once the convoys themselves were pretty much on their own, we were getting information about the status of the convoys: Were they being held up? Were they moving at the rate at which we wanted them to move?

We had a map, and we were looking at our watches and looking at the border. In the meantime, you had American Marines sitting in the airport of Bujumbura, wanting to be helpful, wanting to be active. So part of what I was doing was also negotiating with the American military saying, "Don't you dare. No, no." "Oh, gee, can we have a reconnaissance, you know, send a recon?" "No, don't send a reconnaissance helicopter, stay put." Because I had a real concern that, for all the right reasons, an American military person would get into an airplane or a helicopter and fly over Burundi airspace, and be shot down. Then we would have a mess the likes of which nobody needed.

So there were various negotiations and attention going on simultaneously as each convoy would go overland and be received, until finally David Rawson, as our ambassador, led the last convoy.

So you were coordinating this evacuation?

That's right. My job was to coordinate the inter-agency to serve as the communications between the inter-agency, secretary of state, the president, if necessary, and the people in Rwanda and Burundi. So we were the middle people, if you will.

Your communication with Rwanda was to the embassy?

To the embassy by telephone. …

Who were you talking to on the phone?

I was talking primarily to Laura Lane, because she was the one who was physically in the embassy, and I spoke to Joyce. I only spoke to David Rawson at the very end, and it was a moment I will never forget, because again, things were very dangerous. There was a convoy that his wife led, and there was information that the bridge out of Kigali had been mined. You could hear her as she said, "Well, I'm at the bridge, looks OK, I think I'm going to test it and drive over." So here you are, thousands of miles away in your little bubble of the Department of State, when people are putting their lives at risk. It's like watching a movie or listening to a radio program but not knowing the outcome, and this is real life and human beings whom you know.

When David left, we also had information that some of the bridges had been mined, so we didn't know whether David was actually going to make it to the end. I remember saying, "God bless, we'll pray for you," and that's it until he got to a point at which he could get into radio contact with Nairobi. But for about an hour, we were totally out of communication. Very strange feeling.

When we talked to Laura Lane, she described going around Kigali, trying to find Americans, going up to checkpoints and looking evil in the eye.

Yes, she was on the phone, and I knew she was doing an incredible job. She was young in age as well as young in Foreign Service experience; [an] officer who was in the middle of a circumstance that would have sent shivers down very experienced people. And Laura was absolutely undaunted. Not just people in Kigali, but she was getting in touch with everybody around Rwanda -- and Rwanda had a fair number of missionaries -- and I remember her saying, "I can't find Mrs. So-and-so. I'm not leaving until I can account for Mrs. So-and-so." Laura wanted to know that every single American citizen was accounted for and was on the way to safety.

Did she ever say to you, "Look, we can't leave?"

I don't remember Laura saying that. I remember David saying that, and I remember saying to David, "Not your call," or words to that effect.

Laura said she offered to make the embassy a kind of safe haven and stay behind.

I don't remember. I don't recall that. It could well have happened. I was not the only one having conversations. She could have said that to somebody else.

If she had done [that], what would be the likely response?

"Not your call, Laura." Nobody, no president, no senior leader wants to be responsible for the death of American citizens. We in the Department of State and the Foreign Service feel very, very strongly about our charge to look after our fellow citizens, and by God, that was the issue, and no one was going to argue anything else with us. I frankly felt as strongly about that as anyone else at more senior levels.

What about the Rwandans on the U.S. embassy staff in a situation like that?

I think that is one of the most wrenching and searing parts of being a Foreign Service officer overseas in a mission, because most of our American missions are staffed by very loyal, very dedicated Foreign Service nationals, and in times of crises, we say goodbye. That's happened in Afghanistan; it has happened in Iraq; it has happened all over the world.

When we evacuate, we leave our poor national colleagues behind. It is not something I apologize for; it is a reality that is part of the searing and wrenching aspect of being a Foreign Service officer. You try your best to take care of them in terms of maintaining some kind of contact, in terms of keeping salary and benefits up. But when a situation becomes dangerous, we look after our own.

You're out safely. What do you do then? Do you breathe a sigh of relief?

Absolutely. Huge sigh of relief. Then the issue became, who is left in Kigali to give us information? There was a missionary who had been there many, many years, who had chosen to stay, and from whom we got some information. What information we could glean would come from the lone American. There may have been others, but certainly he was the one who stayed we were most aware of.

We then shifted the focus of the task force to start looking at what our response was going to be to the continuing violence, because the question was, was this a spontaneous, if you will, bloodletting? Even if it wasn't spontaneous, was this something that would go away, would occur and then die down immediately once things sorted themselves out? Or was this the beginning of something we didn't even want to think about? There was, I think, more hope than anything else that things would die down.

They didn't.

The president and first lady came to the State Department and visited the task force?


Tell us about that.

I have photos, actually. There was a dinner taking place at the eighth-floor reception rooms of the Department of State. The Operations Center was on the seventh floor. The secretary brought the president to the task force to shake everybody's hand, recognize their work in helping to get Americans out. …

What's that like, as a Foreign Service officer, after a successful operation like that, having the president there and thanking you for it?

It was fine. But you know, frankly, getting out the Americans, because it was so tenuous and there was such adventures along the way, that for me -- and I think for some of my colleagues -- the real reward was getting out the Americans. It's nice, it's lovely to shake the hands of the president of the United States. But you go to your grave remembering that you helped save fellow citizens. That's a privilege the likes of which goes way beyond shaking any person's hand.

So the task force, then looking at where you went, from here, you were hoping--

What was going on and what do we do? My recollection is that we actually disbanded shortly after the last American was out. I think it took about a week, maybe not that long, but about a week to get people out. I remember that we were in the task force when the decision was made to support the request to withdraw UNAMIR, so that must have been done within the first week or so.

With all of the confusion, it was very evident -- and information was coming in -- about the fact that UNAMIR had not been prepared by their mandate or by the resources they had been given to protect themselves or anybody else against the kind of violence that had erupted. So among all of the different paths of information and the different areas of concern, what was happening with UNAMIR and to UNAMIR was a constant source of information and concern. It was clear that they didn't have, as I say, the resources or the mandate to protect themselves or other people.

The Belgians had lost peacekeepers at the airport. There was a strong sense that the Belgians wanted to withdraw unilaterally if UNAMIR was not withdrawn as a collective. The decision was made to withdraw UNAMIR as a collective. …

There was a lot of conversation at my level and among my colleagues on the Rwanda team about what would happen. Meanwhile there were people in the stadium. There are people in the Mille Collines Hotel. The thought of leaving them, when we knew what was going to happen, was so awful. I mean, it really would be abandoning people. It's one thing to say, "OK, well, we'll hope for the best." It's another thing to know that thousands are gathered in one locale and to say, "'Bye, you know, good luck," and leave them to the slaughter. [That] was repulsive. The Department of State and the inter-agency were successful in persuading our leaders and then the Security Council to leave at least some people.

Meanwhile, of course, General Dallaire was there saying, "You're going to do what?" and sending back pleas for concern and not to abandon -- which is essentially what we were doing to innocent Rwandans. It was awful. I can't tell you how awful it was to have no doubt but what the results of a decision are going to be, and then to sit there helplessly. I mean, that was the turning point. That was when we were left to do whatever we could within this parameter to try and save people's lives.

Did you and the task force have any input into that decision?

To withdraw? No. Never asked. To this day, I have no idea who participated in the conversation. No idea.

How was that decision communicated to you?

I think I heard it from George Moose, or I heard it from one of Christopher's assistants. I don't really recollect.

Do you remember your personal reaction when you heard it?

Oh, I think I felt, what they say -- the wrenching of the gut. … Then it was only reinforced when I saw the expression on the faces of my colleagues who really understood what was going on in Rwanda. They started to push back on me, and I said, "It's too late. That train has left the station."

So then the discussion began about whether it had to be all of UNAMIR, whether some could stay, what in the world was going to happen to the people in the stadium and the Mille Collines.

So you were saying to your superiors or to U.S./U.N., or saying, "Look, at least can we leave some?"

Yes. That conversation was taking place. … U.S./U.N. was sort of on our side, so there was a consensus that was pretty quickly emerging that we couldn't withdraw every single human being -- that there needed to be some kind of presence. Meanwhile, Dallaire was reporting that he couldn't, in good conscience, withdraw every single human being, that a presence would stay until it could be augmented by African troops.

Were others within the Security Council or elsewhere in the government saying, "No, we've got to bring everybody out?" Richard Clarke, for instance?

No, I think there was a recognition throughout the government that we had a moral responsibility not to leave the people in the stadium.

But the president made the decision to take everyone out.

Correctly. They made the decision to withdraw UNAMIR and then came, "Whoa, you know, are you aware of the fact that there are X number of people here and there and so forth and UNAMIR is protecting them? And if we withdraw the protection, then you're literally leaving these people to execution?"

So the conversation went, "Oh, gee, is that right? Well, then, how can we do this? What do we need to protect those who are in the stadium, the hotel, and yet withdraw the majority?" Then I think discussions were taking place within the U.N. with General Dallaire about what the minimum force would be that he could keep to keep some people safe.

The drawdown -- I think it was 270 initially.

I mean, how did we get to 270? Why not 250 or 300? What made 270 the magic number? Who knows?

But I mean, even that drawdown cost lives as well, because there were other--

Sure, absolutely, absolutely. So here was this group of -- I can only speak for my own reality -- here was a group of people, well-meaning State Department employees who would sit in my office, a nice office, talking about, "What can we do to stop slaughter?" I mean, what an extraordinary way to spend time. "Bye dear, I'm going off to the office today to sit with my people and talk about is there any way we can save human beings from being slaughtered when there are no resources, there's no peacekeeping." These were conversations I'll never, ever forget.

Once UNAMIR withdrew the bulk of its force, it's around that time that reports were coming out on the scale of what was actually happening. Red Cross released an initial estimate. So what kind of information were you getting about what was actually going on there? When did you begin to realize that this wasn't just lists -- this was actually across the country?

Immediately. I knew immediately. From within hours of the crash of the airplane, we were getting information. As you pointed out earlier, I wrote a memo to the secretary of state within the very early days, and it didn't let up. It just kept getting worse and worse and worse.

Were others aware that the slaughter was going to be nationwide?

There was hope initially that it would be localized, and that because there was a part of Rwanda that avoided the bloodshed. It started in Kigali and then spread. There was, as I say, real hope that the violence could stop before it got to other parts.

I was on the telephone with both sides -- that is to say the Rwandan Patriotic Front and the government of Rwanda -- giving them my talking points -- "Stop the killing, go back to the Arusha accords, please sign up, agree to a cease-fire."

On the one side, the colonel with whom I was speaking or the chief of staff of the Rwandan armed forces, General Bizimungu would say to me, "Well, you know this is a spontaneous uprising. I don't have the troops to help stop the uprising, because I'm in the middle of a civil war. You tell the RPF that they would agree to a cease-fire, then I can do something to stop the slaughter of the civilians."

On the other side, Paul Kagame was saying -- he didn't say, "Are you nuts?" but that certainly was what I took from the conversation -- that "There's no way we can sign a cease-fire, because it would only allow more forces to be freed to slaughter more people. So we've got to continue doing this."

Let's just go through that again. So there was a decision made that the U.S. government wanted to convey a message to the parties what was seen as a civil war to stop the fighting and go back to a demarche.

A demarche is an official message from one government to another government, correct. So when you deliver a demarche, you are giving somebody a message, and your points are points that have been agreed upon. So the points that I was delivering, the talking points, the message, was that the killing had to stop. I mean, in my mind that was foremost. So on the government's side, the killing has got to stop. You've got to enter into a cease-fire and you've got to return to the peace accords.

On the other side, the official message was you have got to embark upon a cease-fire in order for the killing to stop

Did you personally believe in that message?

I knew full well that just because Prudence Bushnell was talking to Colonel Bizimungu that they weren't going to stop. So it was something I had to do, was something that was difficult to do. It was something that was very strange to do, because Paul Kagame was conducting a war, and the way I would communicate with him was very circuitous. He had done some training in the United States. So there was a contact, an American contact. We would contact the American, who would contact Kagame over the time period which I wanted to speak to him, and then he would put up his satellite. I always knew when he didn't want to talk to me, because the satellite antenna wasn't up on the other side.

I would set the alarm for 2:00 in the morning, our time, because it was 8:00 in the morning Kigali time, and that was about the only opportunity I would have to talk to Bizimungu. So I was setting the alarm and getting up in the middle of the night and having these bizarre conversations in French with Bizimungu, and in the daytime having these equally strange conversations.

"Strange," only because again it was in some respects theater. I mean, here was the a U.S. government official saying to somebody who's fighting a war, "Hello, you know, please sign a cease-fire," and somebody who's involved in a genocide -- I actually spoke with a great deal more passion in French to the guy who was part of killing people. "Hello, this is Prudence Bushnell. Stop it. Stop killing people."

And their response was?

The response on the government of Rwanda's side was always very strange. Again, these conversations were taking place in French, and the secretary of Bizimungu, a man, who got to recognize my voice. So I would say in French, "I'd like to speak to--" "Oh, oui, madame, comment a va," you know, "How are you doing?" And then, "Madame, comment a va," before we would get on to the conversation about the official demarche and the need to stop the killing.

Once when I asked Bizimungu, told him, that they needed to stop the [radio] broadcasts, because we were real aware of the impact of the broadcast to go out and kill the Tutsis. He came back just like that, saying, "Ah, but madame, we're a democracy. We believe in freedom of the press." Just strange.

It was that that ultimately, in one 2:00 a.m. conversation, out of utter frustration led me to go way beyond the lines of my official instructions and tell Bizimungu -- again, because his attitude was just so cavalier -- that President Clinton had said he would hold him personally responsible. Bizimungu's response was, "Oh, well, thank you very much. Tell the president I appreciate the fact that he's thinking about me." So does that give one any hope that the message is sinking in? Not at all.

On the other side, after an initial conversation with Kagame, in which he voiced his concern about the number of people being killed, we went through a fairly straightforward -- I would deliver the talking points, and he would deliver his denial and his concern that implementing them would simply lead to more slaughter. So it was a policy dance we engaged in over the phone.

Can you tell the story about [receiving the call from Kagame at your friend's house]?

I had had a habit of walking with a friend. We would take walks around Reston to primarily to get our reward of popcorn and beer in our kitchen. That is what we were eating and drinking when her teenage son called down and said, "Pru, the phone's for you. It's Rwanda." Huh? So I picked up the phone. This was one of the initial times that I had made connection with Paul Kagame, who had evidently called at home and my husband had given him my friend's telephone number. So there I was in my walking shorts and sneakers and socks, walking back and forth in this kitchen in Reston, Virginia, talking to a warrior in Rwanda about a slaughter of human beings.

He was always very dispassionate. But there was a burst in the middle of this conversation of a fair amount of passion when he said to me, "Madame, they're killing my people." It wasn't part of my instructions to be empathetic, and yet it was it really pulled at my heart, because I knew they were killing his people.

I asked how people were getting away, how people were saving themselves. He mentioned that some of them were trying to get across the border into Burundi. Some of them were hiding out in the forests, and many more were being killed. And that began the only effort I could make as a human being to sort of reach out a hand of humanity by saying, as I signed off, "General, I wish you peace," and that's the way I ended my conversations with him. It was awful. Excuse me. It's really difficult. …

The working group that you chaired -- how often was it meeting? Who was involved, and how did you communicate with different departments?

We had meetings going on at different levels. There were meetings that would occur in my office among people within the department among team members within our span of control … depending on the severity of the situation, because Rwanda went on and on and on and on, with the refugees and the cholera and volcano, etc.

So depending on the severity of the situation at the time, we would meet either once a week with our inter-agency colleagues or sometimes daily. Most of those meeting took place on video conferencing, secure video conferencing. So you would be sitting at a table talking to colleagues at the Pentagon, the joint chiefs, the office of the secretary of defense, the National Security Council and as often as possible, our delegation of the U.N.

It was, what are the facts? What do we know? We began every meeting with what is going on, who has what kind of information. Then we would look at what kinds of taskings we had levied the day before, what kinds of reports, what kinds of requests we had made on, "What's the status? and then, "What do we need to do today?"

What was on your agenda, say, towards the end of April? What was the task force trying to do? What were you able to do?

Fairly constant was: "Where are people? Where's the killing taking place? Is there anything we can do to stop the killing?" So we would have conversations about whether we could jam radios, because there was real concern about the radio as the cheerleader of people committing genocide.

There were conversations, consistent conversations, about what was happening in Burundi, whether this was going to have a spillover in Burundi, and whether we were going were going to see something of equal depth. In Burundi, you also had a Hutu majority and a Tutsi military presence. The Tutsis were in charge in Burundi, and would the Tutsi government turn on the Hutu people in revenge for what was happening to Tutsis in Rwanda? That was always a source of concern.

Did you come to a point where you felt like U.S. government had to try to do something, and were you trying to marshal support within the working group and within the department for action?

We were trying to come up with solutions within the narrow parameters of our policy. We knew that UNAMIR was out. If we even had a discussion about intervention of Western or American forces, it never went past one discussion. So that was off the table.

So we had discussions about what was possibly on the table. Were there African peacekeepers we could bring in? Who would we bring in? We came to the conclusion that, yes, there were African peacekeepers, and the next issue then became "OK, well, how do we get them there?" Who was going to equip them? And these are not people who had the means. They may have the heart, but they don't have the money to bring themselves, equip themselves.

So how much are we willing to invest? Well, I remember there were conversations about adopt a country now. Maybe each of us will take -- each of us meaning different members of the Security Council -- will take a country and invest in helping it get the kinds of resources it needed to be effective.

So that was a whole other conversation then that would lead to and our actions with our embassies in these countries. Would the governments be amenable? What did the governments want or need in return? All of this was very, very laborious. So there was a great deal of talk, there was a great deal of energy going into these kinds of meetings, and almost no result in terms of success that you could point to in Rwanda.

… Was the Pentagon willing to provide support for an African peacekeeping force?

There was a huge reluctance in the joint chiefs to become involved in much of anything. Now mind you, again, we need to put this in the context. We were getting involved in Haiti. So the White House, having made the decision to intervene in Haiti, was coming around to take resources from other parts, including the resources that we had in the Bureau of African Affairs, to move resources to Haiti. That included Pentagon resources. So there was a reluctance to invest resources anywhere except where the president says he puts his influence and his policy.

I remember we always had lots of meetings with the Pentagon. We always had lots of conversations. I also remember little coming of those conversations in terms of actual result.

Was the Pentagon resisting doing anything?

I think, yes, they were resisting. They were saying, "We don't have the strategic interest, we don't have the resources. You civilians do not appreciate just how much it takes to do this, and how we will have to draw on resources that are destined to go to a place in which we do have a perceived strategic interest to do this."

So those were the conversations. You would sit in the meeting. You would ask, in this case, the JCS, joint chiefs, to make a request. Then the next meeting would be, "Well, what's the status of the request?" "Well, we're still writing the paper" or "We're still clearing the paper." Then, "OK, now what's the status?" "Well, you know, there's a problem with this and this." So it was not as if these were discussions that came to closure quickly and briefly. They were excruciating, that went on and on and on. You sort of fell into closure out of, sometimes, just sheer exhaustion from never getting an answer. So I can't say that there were preemptory no's. Sometimes there were preemptory no's. But on the issue of lift, it wasn't preemptory. I think that eventually we did give resources and we did give lift. …

[What was the policy that you were shaping on the task force?]

We were implementing a policy of non-intervention. Within that policy, if there were little ideas like my going on radio, which I did, like trying to get journalists to go into Kigali to do filming in the hope that people would not be so shameful that they would murder on television, then that was fine. But anything that would require a commitment of U.S. government resources or policy commitment required senior-level approval. …

What about this -- I know you weren't directly involved in this -- but this question of using the term genocide [for] what was going on there -- what did you personally think of that that?

The debate was going on, frankly, outside of my team. I had set our objectives, and the first objective was stop the killing. Every day we would get together and look at where the killings is taking place, what we could do, did anybody have a clever idea how we could stop the killing?

The issue of whether it was genocide or not was not something that I had neither the time nor the inclination to deal with. That was a legal issue. That was an issue, a conversation that was taking place, frankly, on a political level within the NSC, among the lawyers. It was a political-legal issue, not my issue, and frankly I didn't care. I wanted to stop the killing. Whether you want to call it genocide, I don't care. Call it genocide and stop the killing, or don't call it genocide. But let's stop the killing.

But the killing was continuing.

The killing was continuing, right. And clearly, when it got to the point where we were, it got within my circle, within my team about whether it was genocide -- I mean, genocide? Well, yes. No one asked us, but it would have taken us a nanosecond to come up with the answer.

But to try to stop the killing, at the same time staying within the parameters of U.S. policy -- how did you square that circle?

Well, we never did. That was the source of the anger, the frustration, the irritation, the horror of that policy. I don't think that there's a person involved in it who doesn't have that frustration, horror, still resident in some corner of self. You couldn't do it; couldn't do it, never wanted to do it again. I'll never work in the policy machinery, I don't think, not in something like that. Once was enough.


Why? Well, because when you say when you're working with people and with an administration that quite literally feels the pain of others, and yet doesn't want to commit resources to do anything, then you're trying to win a sprint with one leg. That's a very painful thing to try and do, and frustrating, and you know at the start, you're not going to get to the finish.

Do you ever call the secretary?

It never occurred to me. I certainly went with George Moose and briefed the secretary, but we are a very hierarchical organization. We were 10 years ago; we still are today. Somebody of a deputy assistant secretary level doesn't get on the telephone to [give] her opinion to the secretary of state or the director of the NSC, especially since we knew they were getting information.

As I say, Tony Lake was very engaged on Africa. We and the African bureau had been criticized before Rwanda about not being forward-leaning enough on our policies, so we knew that certainly Dr. Lake knew what was happening. So it wasn't a question of giving people information that they didn't have and to hear me, "Hi, Pru here. You're wrong," was not a conversation I was about to initiate, nor did I sense he would want to hear it.

Do you wish, in retrospect, you had?

When I look at what is it that I could have done that I didn't do, certainly that was something that I could have done and didn't do. Do I beat myself up for not doing it? No. Do I talk to people about the need to take a risk? Yes, absolutely.

It needs -- within the bureaucracy -- to take risks. When your principles are being [w]alked upon, then yes, I think we need to take risks. On the other hand, I didn't consider resigning. …

When the killing was over and the RPF won and people took onboard really what had happened, did that sink in right away?

I didn't need to take onboard. I knew what was happening I knew there was an instance of a stadium somewhere in the country … and we knew that the militia was coming. We knew that these people were in great jeopardy. We had figured out how much time it would take before the people got to the stadium and started killing. We were brainstorming what to do. I think I was going on radio, the French radio and VOA Africa broadcast, and hoping that these efforts to shine the light would prevent people from killing. And we didn't do it.

So I knew that stadium of people had been massacred. The next year, I went with Madeleine Albright on her trip. We went to that stadium, and they were uncovering the graves, the mass graves. So I didn't need the light to be turned on my head. I knew what was going on.

What was it like for you to go back to Rwanda on that trip?

I had gone back to Rwanda in September 1994. I went back in when the embassy was just opening up again … and visited the embassy, participated in a memorial service for the FSNs who were slaughtered. The ambassador's driver, whom I had met when I was in Rwanda in March, had been in hiding. His family had been killed. We went in the car and he would drive us around. He was talking about his experience. He would point the vacant houses, who had lived there, what had happened.

You could see the fields that had been unharvested, the coffee beans withering on the bushes. Very few vehicles. That was a ghost place, literally a haunted place. People were haunted. You could look in the eyes of Rwandan citizens -- after, I came to recognize that look of a person who has just seen something overwhelming and has not been able to factor it into one's psyche, because it's so huge. That expression was on the faces of so many. I went to an orphanage, saw little children, listened to women. It was very painful, not so much as a policy-maker, but really painful as a fellow human being to come into this country.

And the irony of this will remain with me, along with other things. This was a place in which the victims won. Once the victims won, the international community sort of looked around the table and said, "Well, I wonder if we should trust these people. What are they up to? What are they going to do? Should we give them our support?"

The United States government was among the first to give them support and, you know, good on us for doing that, because how horrible is it to watch people become massacred; have them, despite that, win the war; and then turn around and say, "Well, gee, folks, we're not sure what you're going to do with anger and pain. So I'm not sure whether how fully I'm going to support you with the resources that you need."…

You've mentioned that Rwanda was a morality test.

A morality test, absolutely. Yes, here are we are a nation in whose capital a Holocaust Museum has been constructed with the words "Never again." In total sincerity, we have taken the vow of "Never again," and yet it happened again. And for all of the reasons that make sense for rational policy analysis, we did nothing, and watched as hundreds of thousands of people were massacred by other people -- not armies, not over ideology -- over the fact that "I am afraid of you. I don't trust you, and so I'm going to kill you."

It sound callous, but from the U.S. government perspective, why should we care?

Well, a lot of people said, in terms of our hardcore national interest, it didn't matter and that's why we didn't do anything. In many respects, they were right. So we got out of it without having to use a great deal of resources. Certainly nobody was killed; no American was killed. We didn't violate any international conventions or laws -- unless you want to hold us to account on the Genocide Convention -- and we did the right thing by the taxpayer.

But did we do the right thing as human beings? I think that is an issue that every single one of us who participates in a democracy needs to deal with. This isn't a [test] this is real, because a government is not going to take a huge risk without the consent of the people. Sometimes we can expect our government to be in the lead, and sometimes we need to create the [momentum] so it takes the lead. We did not; the French did not; the Belgians did not; the Africans did not. Nobody did, and I think we legitimately can be held to account. Can we rationalize our way out of it? Sure. Do we still need to be held to account? Yes.

Could it happen again? [If] a genocide were to come out of the blue, so to speak, again, would the response be any different?

I would hope the response would be different. But I think we need to have a lot more discussions like the one we're having right now in order to raise people's consciousness of what it is that an ordinary citizen can do. Because we tend to think, "That's not my problem, not my kid, not my issue." Where's Rwanda? Who are those people? How long have they been killing each other?

So there're all kinds of reasons why I don't have to get involved. Yet, as our world community becomes smaller and smaller, the price of non-involvement becomes higher and higher for individual citizens.

On this morality tale, how do you think you measured up?

That's a very painful question. I did my best, and it wasn't good enough. So did I feel was my heart in the right place? Yes. Do I personally have a guilty conscience? No, I don't. I didn't do the killing. I did what I could do. I feel huge sadness and empathy, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, that's in that drawer, and you take the drawer out, and up comes just very -- sadness is the only way I can put it.

It is so sad to see people slaughtering one another and it's sad, it's absolutely tragic for the victims and their families. I think it's all too sad for the perpetrators, because I don't think that human beings are instinctively created to kill each other. I think it goes against our nature, our humanity. So those who do kill are condemned to live with that blot of inhumanity that they actively engaged in. Those who are victims of that inhumanity are condemned to live with enormous pain and suffering, and the rest of us have the sadness, if nothing else; sadness and accountability.

But I have never wanted to point my finger at anybody within the administration and say, "So-and-so is to blame," or "So-and-so is to blame." I think that the lesson of Rwanda is that the world didn't care enough, and if the world doesn't care enough, we who inhabit the world will pay a price. You do not look indifferently at the pain and suffering in that magnitude and then turn your television set to a comedy program and forget. You don't do it. It is with us today. It will stay with us, and the smaller we become as a world community, and the more we try and turn our back on injustice and inhumanity in other places of the world, the closer it's going to come to us, and the higher the price will be for us.

Do you think the stakes are that high?

I'm beginning to think that it was a much greater turning point than I suspected in the past. Who knew 10 years ago? Who ever heard of it? Who cared about Rwanda even after the genocide? During the genocide, after the genocide, the Rwanda war crimes tribunal -- nobody cared.

Now, fast-forward 10 years and you have a Pulitzer prize-winning book that's been written on genocide in the century. You have young people engaged in getting their doctoral thesis on parts of aspects of Rwanda. You've got major television broadcasts like FRONTLINE engaged in finding out. Ten years later, people are still talking about it with more vigor and more conscience that they ever talked about it while it was going on or in the immediate aftermath.

So yes, it hasn't gone away. Those things, I have found, don't go away. So we deal with them now, or we deal with them later. But you deal with them.

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posted april 1, 2004

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