Remembering Rwanda


By Andrew Quist

April 7 marks 25 years since the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda. In just 100 days, 800,000 to 1 million people were slaughtered. Most of the victims were Tusti, targeted in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The génocidaires also killed 30% of the pygmy population and any Hutu who refused to take part in the killing.

The genocide was ordered by military leaders who took control of the country, coordinated on state-controlled radio, and perpetrated by the military, youth militias, and ordinary citizens who killed their neighbors with machetes. Rape was also used as a weapon against the Tutsi. Thousands of women contracted HIV as a result of rape.

The genocide ended in July 1994 when Tutsi rebels took control of the country. In some parts of Rwanda, the genocide had already ended before the rebel victory simply because there were no more Tutsi left for the Hutu militias to kill. Members of the UN Security Council like the United States later said they wish they could have done more to stop the violence, but they didn’t know it was occurring until too late. This is a lie. Formerly classified diplomatic cables that were released in 2014 reveal the American and European governments knew genocide was about to take place before the killing began on April 7. They just didn’t care.

As the killing unfolded, rather than send additional peacekeeping troops to Rwanda and alter their mission from observing to protecting lives, the UN Security Council voted to cut the number of peacekeeping troops from 2,100 to 270. The commander of the UN peacekeeping mission, Roméo Dallaire, said the remaining peacekeepers soon found themselves “standing knee-deep in mutilated bodies.” The director of the National Security Archives, which had the diplomatic cables released, stated, “It’s clear, in hindsight, that the pullout of peacekeeping was the green light for genocide.”

Why did the world do nothing as a million innocent people were murdered? And why have we not learned from this colossal mistake? Genocide has continued to occur: Congo 2002–04, Darfur 2003–present, Myanmar 2017–present.

The answer lies in our psychology. In his 2007 article published in Judgment and Decision Making, “If I look at the mass I will never act: Psychic numbing and genocide,” Paul Slovic describes a psychological deficiency called psychic numbing which results in indifference to genocide.

Slovic writes, “Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue ‘the one’ whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of ‘the one’ who is ‘one of many’ in a much greater problem.” Slovic continues, “Statistics of mass murder or genocide, no matter how large the numbers, fail to convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The numbers fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action.”

Samantha Power discusses how our psychology causes us to feel indifferent to genocide in her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. “The atrocities that were known remained abstract and remote . . . Because the savagery of genocide so defies our everyday experience, many of us failed to wrap our minds around it . . . Bystanders were thus able to retreat to the twilight between knowing and not knowing.”

If reports of statistical deaths fail to motivate us to stop genocide, how can we motivate ourselves?

Slovic suggests two strategies for mobilizing political action to prevent and stop genocide. First, journalists should focus on one victim in their storytelling in addition to providing the larger context of widespread violence. New York Times journalist Jeffrey Gettleman did an excellent job of this in his October 2017 article “Rohingya Recount Atrocities: ‘They Threw My Baby Into a Fire.’”

Second, “we must create and commit ourselves to institutional and political responses based upon reasoned analysis of our moral obligations to stop the mass annihilation of innocent people.” Because it is often politically safe for a country like the United States to do nothing when a genocide is occurring in a foreign country, these institutional responses cannot be built from the ground up in the midst of a crisis, but rather must be put in place at the UN during times of peace. The global political movement Responsibility to Protect is a good start that should be built upon.

How often will we say “never again” again?

Photograph of Ntarama Church Genocide Memorial by Dave Proffer. CC BY 2.0