Ghosts of Rwanda

Few could imagine, a decade later, the degree to which Rwanda still haunts the souls of those who were involved in the decision-making or, those few who acted and tried to save lives. Here are the reflections of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, U.N. secretary-general; Madeleine Albright, U.N. ambassador; General Romeo Dallaire, U.N. force commander in Rwanda; Kofi Annan, U.N. head of peacekeeping; Michael Sheehan, peacekeeping adviser to Madeleine Albright; General Paul Kagame, commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front; Philippe Galliard, International Committee on the Red Cross; Prudence Bushnell, deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa; and Anthony Lake, national security adviser to President Clinton. These excerpts are drawn from their extended interviews with FRONTLINE.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali
  U.N. Secretary General, 1992-1997

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For you personally, 10 years on, where does Rwanda sit emotionally for you?

It is one of my greatest failures. I failed in Rwanda. My failure in Rwanda is greater than my failure in Somalia, because in Somalia, I was aware of what will happen once the international community withdrew from Somalia. But I was not aware of the degree of disaster in Rwanda, so it is a double failure.

It is a failure that I was not able to convince the members of the Security Council to intervene, and it is another failure that I was not able to understand from the beginning the importance of what was going on. So we have a double failure. ... It took me weeks before suddenly we discovered that it was genocide. So this is another kind of failure. ...

madeline albright
  U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.

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Where does Rwanda sit for you, on a personal and emotional level?

It sits as the greatest regret that I have from the time I was U.N. ambassador and maybe even as secretary of state, because it is a huge tragedy, and something that sits very heavy on all our souls, I think.

Why a regret?

Because I wish it had been possible for us to do more, and President Clinton has said how much he has regretted it. I have reviewed the record a lot, and I don't think actually that we could have done more. I just wish that it had not been something that the international community was not capable of dealing with. So it's a huge regret.

I have been to Rwanda many times. I went and I met with orphans and widows. I went to see the mass graves. I saw the blood in the stadiums. So it's just a horrible, horrible story.

General Romeo Dallaire
  U.N. Force Commander in Rwanda

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Rwanda will never ever leave me. It's in the pores of my body. My soul is in those hills, my spirit is with the spirits of all those people who were slaughtered and killed that I know of, and many that I didn't know. … Fifty to 60,000 people walking in the rain and the mud, you know, to escape being killed, and seeing a person there beside the road dying. We saw lots of them dying. And lots of those eyes still haunt me, angry eyes or innocent eyes, no laughing eyes. But the worst eyes that haunt me are the eyes of those people who were totally bewildered. They're looking at me with my blue beret and they're saying, "What in the hell happened? We were moving towards peace you were there as the guarantor" -- their interpretation -- "of the mandate. How come I'm dying here?" Those eyes dominated and they're absolutely right. How come I failed? how come my mission failed? How come as the commander who has the total responsibility -- we learn that, it's ingrained in us, because when we take responsibility it means the responsibility of life and death, of humans that we love. …

There is no "I'm sort of pregnant." Yyou are or you aren't. And in command there is no "sort of in command." … My failings, my inabilities, not taking advantage, lack of skills, all of it is there. What could I have done better, well, we can discuss that for hours. But there's one thing for damn sure: I was in the field, I commanded, I did not convince, I lost soldiers and 800,000 people died. And there's no way of taking that away. …

kofi annan
  U.N. Head of Peacekeeping

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It was a very painful and traumatic experience, for me personally, and I think, in some way, for the United Nations. It's not something that you forget. It's an experience that, if you go through, becomes part of you, and part of your whole experience as a human being. You will also notice that since then, I have been trying to push very hard for the international community, not only to learn from the lessons, but try and take steps that will make sure we don't repeat Rwanda.

Philippe gaillard
  International Committee of the Red Cross

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Can you talk about how your experience in Rwanda has affected you?

There's something which definitely has changed in my perception of things. I'm not affected any more by horrors. Horrors are meaningless, nonsense. But beautiful things are miracles. … When you see, just very simple, children playing happily, it's wonderful. … "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." Keats wrote that. … Beauty gives sense to everything. …

And even in the horror, you found beauty saving people, or seeing other people help you save people.

Yes, this is our job to, to find beauty, create beauty in the very core of horror.

I don't participate anymore in family reunions. Because of war, sometimes you have children separated from their fathers or husband and wife or whatever and sometimes people meet again. We have been able, after the genocide, to reunite thousands of children with their families. And this is to create beauty within the horror. … [But] I cannot go [anymore]. It's too beautiful.

Once you met somebody at a conference in Britain who said that you had saved their life. Do you want to talk about that?

I met this lady in Great Britain in 2001. I didn't recognize her but she recognized me. … It was emotionally so strong for her and for me to meet again that after two seconds, we started to cry. But it was a cry of happiness of pure happiness. … But it's not very healthy. We should not experience these kind of things. It's just too strong. I will never in my life go back to Rwanda. Not at all because this would remind me of awful things. I don't want to meet again with people we have saved, because it's too strong. It's unbearable. It's too beautiful. …

When we came back from Rwanda, my wife and I had been married for seven years. We had deliberately had no children. It was so evident for her, for me, that after this experience we both wanted to create life. And it is so beautiful. [My children] will know it, they will discover it, [but] I would never explain to my son that he was a product of a genocide. That's not easy to explain.

Michael sheehan
  Peacekeeping Adviser to Madeleine Albright

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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.

General Paul kagame
  Commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front

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As you look back now 10 years on -- how has it affected you personally, and how do you reconcile the fact that humanity is capable of such evil?

Well, perhaps I do not fully realize or understand the full extent of the toll it has taken on me. But it's very difficult to understand how human beings can have [acted] at the cost of many lives, hundreds of thousands, millions, and get away with it; because, as we have a lot of developed countries, and we call ourselves a civilized group of human beings -- how collectively we bear that responsibility of allowing such a things to happen and, later on, treat the situation as normal? It's heavy, it's painful, and I'm saying it at this time just from my personal viewpoint.

But the two are fused together -- whether I am a politician or president or whatever -- I am a person, so sometimes these different aspects, they are just fused into one. Each one either helps or affects the other to move forward. But in my inner feeling as a person, I have lived in a world of injustice. Perhaps the only responsibility I have is to try my best that I don't get involved [in what] one would call injustice, because I have lived it. I know what it means.

Anthony lake
  National Security Adviser to President Clinton

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… [After] the Holocaust, people were saying "Never again, never ever." Then it happened, and you happened to be in office at the time. … You call it the saddest moment of your time in the White House.

In retrospect.

In retrospect, yes. How does that sit for you?

It sits badly, and I can't begin to give you a psychological response to that. It sits badly. But if you want to work on these issues, you cannot wallow. If you wallow in it, you stop working on things, and you mustn't do that. I spent the first 10 years of my career working in Vietnam, and that sits extremely badly with me also.

What you do then is that you take those feelings -- which in some people are intense, in others they are less so -- you learn from them, and you apply them to the next go-round, whether you're in government or simply writing or talking to people like you. Otherwise, what's the point?

Yes, that is the point.

But address it, as I was saying at the beginning, or you're a coward.

Prudence bushnell
  Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa

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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." …

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.

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posted april 1, 2004

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