photo of sheehanGhosts of Rwanda
michael sheehan

He was an aide to U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright and was on the staff of the NSC in the George H.W. Bush administration and participated in the decision to send U.S. forces to Somalia in 1992 in a peacekeeping mission which ended in the deaths of 18 Americans. In this interview, he details how the Somalia tragedy infected America's policy on Rwanda. "There was really no political will anywhere in the U.S. government to take the type of risk it would take to move forces into the middle of Central Africa, into a country no one had ever heard of … and to get itself involved in another civil war." This interview was conducted on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 2003.

In the summer of '93, where did Rwanda fit within the U.N.'s peacekeeping operations at the time, and also specifically within the U.S. policy?

In hindsight, it's clear. I wish we would have stepped up and done something much more dramatic to end that genocide. At the time it just wasn't feasible politically; it just wasn't coming together.

The summer of '93 was a very, very busy time for the United Nations and for our new administration that was supportive of peacekeeping and, at the same time, was involved in a tremendous expansion of peacekeeping. You had a massive operation in Cambodia, which was fairly successful [and] was beginning to wind down, but was still looming large. You had a massive operation in Somalia in the summer of '93, and the Pakistanis had been attacked -- really Somalia started unravelling in around of June of 1993. And also you have to remember the Balkans were coming apart and Bosnia was really the front-page news of the world in the summer of 1993. So Rwanda was one of about fifteen or sixteen peacekeeping operations [and] was probably down in the lower tier in terms of attention from senior policy makers.

And since the end of the Cold War, there'd been an explosion of peacekeeping missions.

That's right. At the end of the Cold War, the U.N. became more of a place where the powers could get together and do business. And of course the Gulf War was an example where the five major powers and the Security Council came together and passed a series of resolutions leading up to the Gulf War. But also in peacekeeping you saw -- in Namibia first and then followed by Cambodia -- a consensus in the Security Council to solve some of the lingering old Cold War wars that were still simmering around the world. Peacekeeping became a popular instrument because it proved effective in Namibia and Cambodia -- not a perfect instrument, but effective. And then it was expanded into the Balkans, Somalia, and Rwanda in '93 and '94. Of course its record was much more difficult.

How effective was the operation within the U.N., the peacekeeping operation? What kind of equipment did they have set up?

Well peacekeeping in the years prior to the tremendous explosion in peacekeeping was managed by a very small staff in the Secretariat. And basically they delegated most of the work to the nations that came to participate. The general officers that were selected to run those peacekeeping operations were given pretty much a free hand to run them. And they were generally the patrolling of ceasefire lines. They were fairly simple operations, and so the staff in New York was very, very small.

What happened, though, at the end of the Cold War, as the U.N. got involved in much more complex peacekeeping operations where they got involved in civil wars and where countries were trying to rebuild themselves, wars were still simmering [and] were still raging at the time the peacekeeping operation was involved. That sent the requirements for the U.N. sky-rocketing upwards, and they didn't have the staff or the resources to deal with it. During the period 1993, 1994, the U.S. and other members of the United Nations were in a process of building up the United Nations Secretariat capacity to manage the more and more complex operations that were being given to them by the Secuirty Council.

And President Bush had gone to the U.N. general assembly [in] September of '92 and [gave] a speech talking about the potential of U.N. peacekeeping, so it seemed like there was hope that the U.N. might continue to take on--

In September of 1992 I was on the staff of General Scowcroft and the President. I was on the National Security Council (NSC) staff for President Bush, working on peacekeeping issues along with others on his staff, and there was a great optimism in the Bush administration that the U.N. would be able to step up into this new challenge of peacekeeping. They did so because of a positive record in Namibia and Cambodia, as I mentioned. And there was a great enthusiasm for it, as seen later by President Bush's decision to go into Somalia in November of '92 and have that mission followed up by the United Nations.

So a year later, September '93, Clinton, in his first speech to the General Assembly, delivers a message that the U.N. has to start learning when to say "no." What changed there?

… What was really happening there in the fall of 1993, prior to October 3rd, [was] the failures of the U.N. in the Balkans, and there was a perception that the Security Council kept passing resolution after resolution condemning the violence, primarily the Serb violence in the Balkans, yet there was no follow-up on the ground, that the forces were standing by idly. And so the U.N. was losing credibility. I think that was a focus of the president and others, even in the middle of 1993.

And [U.N. Force Commander General Romeo] Dallaire and others have said that they got a sense that the Rwandan mission was designed to be a relatively easy successful story to help building up the credibility of the UN peacekeeping operations. Is that your sense at the time?

Rwanda was an old simmering issue between the Hutus that maintained control of the country and a Tutsi minority that was fighting from the north. And basically there was a civil war going on between those two tribes. The U.N. mission of 1993 was an observer mission to try to bring a little bit of calm to the fighting in the north while they tried to put together a coalition government in Kigali. It seemed like a doable mission at the time.

Were members of the Security Council prepared to devote a lot of resources to it?

At first it was an observer mission, which only required a few dozen military observers up in the north to try to do that. But it wasn't a high priority mission at the time. I don't think anyone was thinking of a major new commitment on the level of Bosnia, Somalia, Cambodia. It was a smaller mission. There seemed to be some progress on the political front at the time, and that mission was basically there to help give that political process a little space.

Can you tell the Otto story, and that will give us a sense of Somalia's impact on this.

… When I left Somalia in early April of 1994, the U.S. had just pulled out of Mogadishu. The ships were steaming into the Indian Ocean. This is prior to the [shooting] down of the plane in Rwanda. I met with Osmond Otto, a primary financier for Aidid, who I'd met in prison actually before that. I told Otto, "Osmond, you screwed up Somalia for the leadership of that country and screwed it up for the Somali people. You can't bring peace to that country, and the people suffer. The Americans are leaving Somalia and they'll never come back. We weren't there for any strategic purposes; we were there to help you and you basically threw that away," I said. "But not only that, Osmond, you're not only screwing it up for the people of Somalia, but your inability to end the fighting is going to affect others in Africa for the next peacekeeping operation because there'll be a great reluctance for the U.S. and other partners to go back into Africa."

And I said, "Perhaps in Rwanda, which is now brewing, we won't be able to do something there because of the irresponsibility of the Somali leadership to bring this situation to a close." And he laughed and said, "No, you Americans will be back. But, however, we're committed to peace." And I just shook my head. Ten years later, they're still fighting in Mogadishu, and we weren't able to respond as we might have been able to in Rwanda, had it not been for the experience of Somalia.

And Rwanda happened literally days later.

Rwanda unfolded at the time we were leaving Mogadishu. The plane was shot down, the president's plane, on April 6th as the ships were steaming out of the port of Mogadishu. The memory of the tragedy of the U.N. peacekeeping experience [there] for the U.S. was still burning on the minds of policy-makers within the administration. And certainly the critics from the Republican side of the House were very critical of the administration's policy in Somalia. Certainly no one was clamoring for a re-intervention into the heart of Africa. …

And do you think that Somalia really had that searing effect on U.S. policy makers and the U.N.?

Somalia definitely had a searing effect on the American public, which saw those images of American soldiers being dragged around the streets by people they thought they were feeding. It also had a searing effect on the administration. A secretary of defense lost his job over that, Les Aspin. And so I think it was a searing effect on the administration and this was something that was on their minds for the rest of the administration [as] they entered and dealt with peacekeeping missions.

Just so we understand the context running up to Rwanda, [the] deadline for U.S. troops to get out of Somalia was the 31st of March [1994]? And that [was] congressionally imposed?

After the incident of October 3rd [1993] where seventeen American Rangers and Delta Forces were killed, Senator [Robert] Byrd passed an amendment which required U.S. soldiers to be taken out of Somalia by the 31st of March. The president, at the same time, had also set a deadline within the executive branch to do the same. And we in fact did withdraw all American soldiers. They left the port of Mogadishu in that last few days of March and they were steaming eastward in the Indian Ocean in the first week of April.

Were you involved at all during that period and the drafting of the new peacekeeping regulations, PDD-25? What was going on?

I was involved in the creation of a new Presidential Decision Directive, PDD-25, which outlined how the administration would support the U.N. in conducting peacekeeping operations and how the U.S. government would handle the creation or the rejection of and the management of new peacekeeping operations. I was involved in that process from New York and elsewhere, and in my different jobs between '93 and '94.

And was the shape of that document influenced by what had happened in Somalia?

Absolutely. That document began to be drafted in 1993 when I was still on the NSC staff, but then I later shifted to New York and continued to work on it. It was definitely affected. It was revised after October 3rd of 1993 and the experience in Somalia and the experience in Bosnia. And that document came to its culmination in early 1994, right around the time that the Rwanda situation broke out. …

At the same time that the U.S. promulgated PDD-25, we in New York had a process in the Security Council where the Security Council also reviewed its processes for how it would manage peacekeeping operations and make sure that mandates were aligned with resources, to make sure that the council wasn't going to publish empty resolutions and not have the force to back it up. That resolution passed in early May of 1994-- This is something that's important. You had PDD-25 come out, I believe, on [May 3] 1994. The UN Security Council passed a resolution on May 4th of 1994, which contained language that was almost parallel to PDD-25, which said the UN should not pass empty resolutions; it should have the forces there to back up its resolutions. The council passed [this on] May 4th, at around the same time they were deliberating the Rwanda issue.

And the objective there in both those instances was to do away with peacekeeping or to--

Not at all. The objective there was to avoid problems in peacekeeping like you had in Bosnia, where you had multiple resolutions that weren't enforced, or you had a situation in Somalia where the mandate got out of control. It was a resolution, and PDD-25 in that U.N. resolution did the same thing; it aligned resources and mandates it aligned commitments and responsibilities. They tried to bring things back into an orderly shape. …

The U.S., the U.N.-- What was going on there [after the Rwandan president's plane went down?]?

Well we started to monitor the situation. Rwanda started to move up the pecking order in terms of issues very rapidly, as the war escalated and as the situation deteriorated. But we had no idea exactly what was going to happen in the first days and weeks, as it looked like it was just an escalation of the civil war.

The Belgians [are] killed. What impact [did] that have?

As things were rapidly deteriorating in the north and the war reached Kigali, there [were] Belgian soldiers who were surrounded by a group of Hutu militia. And they were told, from what I understand, they were given instruction from somewhere along their higher chain of command to go ahead and turn their weapons over to the Hutus and they'd be escorted out to the airport. Well, they turned over their weapons and they were massacred at that site. And the Belgian government made a decision to withdraw all it's forces out of Kigali, and things really began to deteriorate in a great spiral downward from that point on.

It's been reported that the Belgian foreign minister Willie Claes called Secretary of State [Warren] Christopher and essentially asked for political cover to withdraw the Belgian troops.

I'm not familiar with the details of that phone call. I've heard about it but I won't comment on it. I was in New York; that was a Washington thing.

So in New York, you get a message saying [that the] U.S. government wants to support a full withdrawal from [Rwanda.]

No, we didn't get that message in New York. What we were trying to do in the Security Council, Ambassador Albright was trying to keep the Security Council on track in terms of how it was going to manage this crisis, to make sure that it could respond appropriately and not just pass empty resolutions. That had been the tendency before, to pass a series of resolutions condemning violence and demanding action when there was nothing [to] bind it, and we in the U.S. and others in the United Nations were concerned about the credibility of the U.N. at that time. So we were very aware of that as the situation unfolded in the middle of April.

This is on the record, and Albright kind of alludes to it in her book, about directives coming up from the NSC saying the U.S. should support [a] withdrawal. This is right after the Belgians were killed. … In the book she describes you on the phone, sort of going down to Washington--

That's not how I remember it. I remember well the evening that Ambassador Albright was on the phone with Washington, and she was on the phone on the back of the Security Council and Jamie Rubin, her [spokesperson] and I were there with her. And she was screaming at one official after another, describing to them the situation in Rwanda and in New York, and pleading for more robust instructions to support some sort of action in the Security Council to deal with the deteriorating situation at that time, obvious killing fields that were unfolding in Rwanda. I remember that phone call very, very well.


Because I never saw Ambassador Albright so angry, up until that point. She was screaming on the phone, basically, down to Washington. Now Washington had an inner-agency process at the time that was rreviewing options in Washington to put troops into the southern part of Rwanda to create safe zones for people to flee to and be protected. What was happening in the U.N. council was some in the council were arguing for a U.N. mission to fly into Kigali and stabilize the area there. And there was a great argument back and forth of which option to take. But the fact of the matter is of all the countries that were hollering for action, no one was willing to put troops on the table, an effective force that could actually go in there and deal with the situation.

[So] there was definitely a directive sent to Albright … saying that the position was to withdraw support before withdrawal. And then there was opposition within the council and it was modified to support a minimal force, which was eventually what happened. And there were different options that were discussed within the Security Council.

The pulling out of UNAMIR was in the early part of April. … And when the lead country of a peacekeeping operation asks to withdraw, all members are going to support that in the Security Council. They're the ones that put their troops on the line. If they want to get out, they're going to get the support; that's going to happen any time. So their people were butchered. They wanted out; they got the support to go out, but that wasn't the end of the story.

From there the Security Council then deliberated putting back in another type of force, with a new mandate, to deal with a very changed situation from the original mandate the Belgians had signed up for. And there was another series of debates about what the mandate [was] and who would go into Rwanda. And that's where I was extremely frustrated with the Security Council, because what we saw again was a lot of banging on the tables, a lot of rhetoric from countries demanding action, yet no one willing to put the forces, a credible force on the table to do so. They basically looked for the United States to lead that operation.

Talk about the ambassadors from New Zealand and Czechoslovakia.

They were two countries that were very vocal, New Zealand and Czechoslovakia, but no one in the council was willing to put the full structure on the table that was able to actually do this. They all looked for the U.S., but I argued that not only Americans had the capability to fly a battalion or two into Kigali. There were at least half a dozen of the countries in the world that would have lead such an effort. But they were looking for the U.S. to go back into Rwanda at that time, and I think that had been a very, very difficult political decision for the United States to make at that time.

And I can tell you, having remembered very clearly, there was no one within the United States political spectrum in that period that was calling for an American-led intervention -- no one in the Congress, no one in the executive branch, no one in the military, no one in the press. There was almost a silence on that issue at the time. It was only later, mid-May and later, as the horrors came into full view, that there were a rush of people, volunteering that [the] Americans should have guided an operation in there. But I can tell you, in late April and early May, in terms of the serious political leadership within the executive branch or in the Congress, there was no big advocates for taking U.S. forces that were basically steaming out of the port of Mogadishu at that same time and reinserting them into central Africa in a very, very unstable situation.

There was concern about the humanitarian situation. There was great concern about that, and there was talk about mounting a humanitarian operation in the South. And that was being discussed by members of the Pentagon with me [and] with military officials in the U.N. about the safe areas in the southern part of Rwanda. Eventually that type of operation was mounted and the U.S. did lead that humanitarian operation into eastern Congo and western Rwanda and that zone where we set up a massive humanitarian operation. But this was really later, after the massive killings had already been perpetrated.

In private, in the Security Council, there was pressure being put on the U.S. by some of the other members saying, "Look, you guys should commit U.S. troops."

It wasn't done in such a direct way. In the Security Council, they're very skilled diplomats and they give very carefully worded speeches that describe their outrage of the violence, which everyone shared, and to describe their demanding that there be international action to be taken, which everyone was sympathetic to. There was not necessarily a linkage between those screaming for action and those willing to put resources on the table. We had seen a lot of people scream for action, a lot of resolutions cranked out in Bosnia, resolution after resolution demanding action, and even in the case of Bosnia where we had tens of thousands of troops there that weren't really effective in preventing slaughter. So the U.S. was not really impressed with those types of arguments. What we wanted to see was could we match rhetoric of a commitment to deal with a deterring security situation, a civil war, with a commitment to provide forces that were really going to do something about it. And that's were there was no linkage.

People privately used the words "sanctimonious grandstanding" [to describe how representatives were referring to Rwanda in Security Council meetings.] Was it frustrating?

I was very frustrated in the Security Council in April and May of 1994. I thought some of the speeches made by some of the permanent representatives were sanctimonious and grandstanding, and they weren't really able or willing to put their forces in harm's way to do so. [They were] really basically aiming their criticism, indirectly but fairly obviously, at the United States. And I can remember having a few heated conversations with people in the margins of the Security Council about that. It was a tense and frustrating time. We in the American delegation at the United Nations also wanted there [to] be some action, but it was very difficult to put together the right type of mandate and the forward structure to do something effective.

Was there a concern on your part, as the Security Council was looking at some other kind of forces [in an] "inside out, outside in" sort of plan, that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) would accept outside forces?

Right. One of the principles that had been learned from the hard knock of peacekeeping was that if you're going to put in a peacekeeping force, all the parties had to accept the conditions. At the time the RPF was determined to take power back in Kigali and they weren't interested in the U.N. coming back. And they saw a U.N. force as being a force that would prop up the Hutu regime that was committing the very atrocities that were ongoing.

So the RPF was not interested in a U.N. force, and this was crucial to our decision-making regarding whether a force would go in and whether it would go into Kigali. Since the RPF was against it, you would need a very heavy force to go in there. You would go in there under Chapter VII without the consent of the parties, which would mean it was a war-fighting mission. And there didn't seem to be the type of commitment from member states to go in and do that, to put up the troops that were willing and able to do that. So the U.S. position at the time was informal. If they were going to have more of a mission of humanitarian support, it would be done in the south, outside of the RPF's control, where we would be able to help protect fleeing civilians from the ravages of this war and what became increasingly clear as the day unfolded to be a genocide of enormous proportions.

All of the resolutions coming out of the Security Council emphasized the Arusha peace process, and the RPF had essentially declared that null and dead.

Right. Many U.N. Security Councils often start off referring to current or previous peace resolutions or peace processes, try to get that back on track, and then it goes on to condemn violence and urge them to get a peace process on and urges international action. That's their standard structure of a resolution, but in fact Arusha was clearly dead.

On the ground Dallaire was getting instructions to try to negotiate a ceasefire.

Sure, and you always try to continue to negotiate ceasefires, and that was an appropriate instruction to try to at least stop the fighting while you try to get that peace process back up and running. In hindsight, now you can see that the RPF was intent on taking Kigali.

Let me just ask you, because the review is just kind of confusing. You've got Dallaire on the ground for the U.N., the DPKO, the Secretariat of the U.N. Were you getting information directly from UNAMIR or was that separate? How did that actually flow?

In New York we had information from many sources. We had it obviously from U.S. government sources that fed into our mission in New York. We also had information that came from our colleagues in the Secretariat across the street at the U.N. headquarters. They had their reports that came from Dallaire and other people there. And so we also fed that information back to Washington. So there was a pretty good sharing of information of all sides as the situation evolved.

But Dallaire-- How important was what he said from where you sat? Was it reaching you directly?

Yeah, we knew what Dallaire was saying. Dallaire was asking for some forces and small amounts of forces that he thought that would be able to secure certain parts of Kigali in order to protect peoples' lives. And he thought that might be able to be done. But remember the Belgians, which were the primary western European force, had just left. And there weren't many other European forces that had real capacity, raising their hand up in the air, volunteering to put battalions on the ground in Rwanda. It just didn't exist. So Dallaire was asking for units in Kigali. Our experience said if you're going to put units into basically a war situation, you better send in serious troops. The most serious troops had just left and no one else was raising their hand to fill in. So you had a tremendous frustration of the guy on the ground who's trying to survive and put things together in a very, very difficult situation, and a lot of rhetoric in the council but no commitments.

And the sending in of new U.N. forces for Dallaire, it might have involved fighting the RPF?

Clearly at the time, as the fighting raged around Kigali, the RPF [did not want to see] the U.N., which had previously worked in Kigali with the current government. They perceived that the U.N. force would support the status quo, which meant stop the fighting and renegotiate, which would keep the Hutus in power. The RPF had no interest in a U.N. operation that would do that.

And just as these negotiations [were] going on, was it a frustrating time to be there?

It was very frustrating. It was the darkest days for U.N. peacekeeping. We had some 80,000 troops at the peak of the U.N. peacekeeping around the world, and they were suffering. We had suffered in Somalia; we were suffering in Bosnia; and now [in] Rwanda, we were watching a terrible genocide unfold, and we weren't able to do anything about it. It was a very difficult period. There were a lot of frustrations among all the people, the member states of the UN and the Secretariat themselves.

You believed in the humanitarian goals of Somalia originally. A year later, to see this going on, was it personally disillusioning?

Of course. I was part of the Bush administration when they made the decision to go into Somalia after the election of 1992 and I think that was a noble cause that for a lot of reasons got off track in 1993. But certainly it didn't diminish our confidence that the U.N. peacekeeping could still be an important instrument for supporting peace processes around the world. I still believe that today, not withstanding the difficulties the U.N. has now, as it did then, it still remains an important instrument -- not the only instrument, not the end in itself, but an instrument for member states to use judiciously around the world to help peace processes. This was a very, very tough time for the U.N., and those involved in U.N. and U.N. peacekeeping. Very difficult, very frustrating. And a time that's still affects the thinking of those involved in the Secretariat and those member states that are involved in peacekeeping. That period of '93, '94 -- Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda -- still looms heavily over all the decision-making involved in peacekeeping today.


Because the U.N. suffered, nation-states suffered, and there were some great setbacks in peacekeeping for those that care about peacekeeping, want it to work, tried to find a balance. As my former boss … said, take risks for peace, but prudent risks so that you don't damage the instrument, so they can't be used again to help other people. You have to find that balance where you see wars, where you see suffering. So see if you can put together mandates that work to help people, [and] at the same time not be irresponsible and set up missions that are bound to fail, that not only fail the people that they're designed to help, but also damage the instrument and the institution such that you won't have the opportunity to help others. …

Everyone I talk to, at all levels, expresses just deep frustration and anguish at what was going on. Talk about how you were feeling.

It was a very frustrating period. I recall one of the deputies in the margins of discussions of the Security Council making to me a sanctimonious speech about how the people were dying, and I screamed at him that we were very aware of people dying. I still had the dust on my boots from Mogadishu that I had just come back from. I was aware that Africans were dying, and we cared as much as anyone else and were desperately trying to put together something that could be done. But the international commitment just didn't match up, and they kept turning to the Americans to solve this problem. We were trying to do what we could; we certainly didn't need any more sanctimonious speeches from people that weren't willing to put forces on the ground.

We were extremely angry; we were frustrated with our own government, frustrated with the UN, frustrated with the Africans that were intent on killing each other. It was a horrible time. We were aware of the killing. We were deeply, deeply moved by it but unable to put together the mandate to do it. In hindsight, it's clear. I wish we would have stepped up and done something much more dramatic to end that genocide. At the time it just wasn't feasible politically; it just wasn't coming together.

And that was a source of enormous frustration for those involved in it [who] I'm sure, like me, are haunted by it today, all those images of all those people killed. I went with [National Security Adviser] Tony Lake in August of 1994 and visited the killing fields of Rwanda. [We] saw the little dresses of baby girls that were massacred by these drunken murderers with machetes. We knew that was happening. It was a period of enormous frustration, something I'll never forget. Hopefully the world will never allow that to happen again, and that any president or leaders around the world will step up and find the will to put real forces on the ground to deal with those situations. But it won't be easy, and forces' lives will be put at risk when you go into a raging civil war. But I think hopefully those memories will remain and it will be resolved next time that type of situation unfolds.

"Never again" has been said before.

"Never again" was said after the Nazis. It was said after the killing fields of Cambodia, it was said after Rwanda. Well, could it happen again? It certainly could. Will the world respond? I hope so, and I hope if I'm there again on the margins, I'll be able to express that rage again, perhaps a little more publicly and clearly to try to push people into action.

And again, PDD-25 comes down right in the middle of this.

Right. PDD-25 is released right before this situation unfolds. It was a very careful document that laid out the ground rules for how the U.S. would get involved in peacekeeping. [It] basically said only when the national interest is at stake, which would include a gross humanitarian situation, or other interests that you would match mandates with resources and will and you wouldn't throw troops into willy-nilly situations.

Was there frustration?

It was a very, very frustrating period, because as soon as this document comes out we have a situation of enormous humanitarian consequences unfolding in front of our eyes, but it was very difficult for the administration. The Clinton administration was brought to its knees by the problem in Somalia. Our secretary of defense was fired; our presidency was dramatically weakened. They were enormously criticized for this adventure in Somalia, and now you had another situation unfolding in Rwanda. There was no democratic political operative that could advise President Clinton to virtually turn around the ships steaming out of Somalia and send them back into a new African adventure of a raging civil war in the early parts of this genocide. By the time the extent of the genocide became clear, it was almost too late.

I can tell you also that there was no one on the other side of the aisle, on the Republican side of the foreign policy establishment that was clamoring for action at the time. There was really no political will anywhere in the U.S. government to take the type of risk it would take to move forces into the middle of Central Africa, into a country no one had ever heard of, to insert itself between two tribes no one could even pronounce, the Hutus and the Tutsis, and to get itself involved in another civil war.

Again, by the time the genocide was clear, it was virtually too late to mount that type of operation. Eventually when an operation was mounted, it was a humanitarian band-aid to a gross hemorrhaging of that country.

How did France's Operation Turquoise come about?

Operation Turquoise was the French effort [that] was really a variation of the first mandate that was talked about in the council, which was to go into Kigali with an international force and stabilize the situation. [It] would have stabilized the Hutu regime, and in fact the Hutu regime might still be in control there now, which is an irony of the whole situation. The Tutsis are in charge and aren't going to ever let that type of situation unfold again. The French, however, couldn't go into Kigali because they would have forced enormous resistance there, so instead they came from the west and--

Resistance from the RPF?

Absolutely. There would have been a war. The RPF would have fought them directly, because they were seen as protecting the Hutu regime. So the French were authorized in the council an operation for humanitarian purposes; they went into the west and set up safe zones to try to help the people. I [thought] frankly that's what they'd do. There were other cynics who thought the French were up to other nefarious agendas. I actually don't believe that at all. I really believe they went in there to try to alleviate some of the suffering, and they did. But of course they got there late also, just as the U.S.-led operation that came later also came too late.

How were they able to do it, be it later, when the U.S. couldn't do it?

Well the French did arrive, but they didn't prevent the genocide, so they weren't able to do it. Whether they were able to go into Kigali and prevent it again remains to be seen. They would have needed a lot more partners, and as I said earlier there weren't a lot of people standing up willing to get to embroil themselves in Kigali into the middle of that fight. …

Talk about what became of UNAMIR 2 and this big response afterwards.

UNAMIR 2 was created after the fighting had subsided. The Hutus had left and had moved into eastern Congo and they set up these huge refugee camps, millions of people out there. UNAMIR 2 came in and-- Basically it was an adjunct. The RPF, which evolved into the RPA, the Tutsi army, basically controlled Rwanda and wasn't really interested in UNAMIR 2. UNAMIR 2 in many ways was closing the barn door, not after the horse has left, but after the barn was already burned down. UNAMIR 2 came in, they did some good work, spread around the country, tried to help bring some stability, bring some confidence to all parties, [and] to try to encourage the refugees to come back. But of course that never really worked until, again, the Rwandan authorities took it upon themselves to bring them back in.

The big relief operation in Goma-- [What was the dilemma there?]

The operation in Goma [was] a peak of UN frustration. I went there in '94 after the killing [and] I met with some of the aid workers that were intimately involved in that operation. They were acutely aware that the Hutu -- tens and hundreds of thousands of refugees there, the very perpetrators of the genocide -- were still there, and organizing the camps and benefiting from the relief. So this is a terrible moral dilemma for those humanitarian workers that have dedicated their lives to helping people, and were appalled when they realized that while they were helping people, they were supporting the genocide perpetrators. It was a very frustrating situation for them. Many of them called and wanted to get out of it completely. Others saw that they had no choice because there were women and children that were just dying in front of our eyes. But perhaps their husbands or sons were involved in that genocide, and they were hanging around right on the outside of the camps. We saw them -- and this was again a period of enormous frustration and rage within the humanitarian community on how to handle that moral dilemma.

Ultimately it resolved itself when the Rwandans, the Kigali government decided that they couldn't sustain that situation on its border. And they basically broke up those camps and forced the people back into Rwanda. The people wanted to get back home and they came flooding back into Rwanda. But many others, the genocide perpetrators and others, of course fled in the Congo where they remain fighting today.

Was there a certain PR element to that?

No, that was a very serious humanitarian operation. The U.S. army did a tremendous job when it went in there, setting up water purification sets, medical facilities, transportation and other relief to help with the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to get stabilized out of a critical situation. And notwithstanding everyone's frustration that these were many of the same people involved in the genocide, there were innocent women and children dying and something had to be done. It was one of the most horrific scenes I've seen -- and I've been in most war zones around the world -- to see those camps on the side of those mountains and the suffering of those people. So it was more than a PR effort.

Ten years on-- Where should we place Rwanda historically?

Rwanda matters tremendously. Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia -- three of those missions are crucial to understand for U.N. peacekeepers. It doesn't mean we're not going to do peacekeeping again. It doesn't mean we're not going to get difficult missions, but again you file away those lessons and you hope to learn from them and build peacekeeping operations that work. You take risks for peace, but prudent risks for peace, and hopefully if there [are] situations that are so outrageous, like Rwanda, you can put together the international will and forces on the ground to prevent that type of killing from happening again. So it's a vital part of U.N. history of peacekeeping.

And you personally?

Somalia and Rwanda are forever seared in my memory, and with conflicting emotions about the role of peacekeeping in the world. But it's an instrument I still very much believe in, and one that has to continue to play a role -- and is continuing to play a role -- around the world. Whether it's in Afghanistan or Iraq, the Congo, [or] Sierra Leone, peacekeeping is still a major, major instrument for world peace, whether it's led by the United Nations or other coalitions. It's a difficult business. You don't send peacekeeping operations to Switzerland. You send them to some of the most war-torn places in the world. And the fact is sometimes things aren't going to go that well. That kind of goes with the business, but that doesn't mean you abandon the instrument. You keep working on it, you keep pushing, you improve it and try to keep moving these difficult situations forward one step at a time.

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posted april 1, 2004

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