All the media attention to the 20th anniversary of the slaughter in Rwanda reeks of irony. If only we had paid as much attention before the blood flowed.
Major-General Romeo Dallaire, the heroic Canadian officer in charge of the UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) force, was there to assist in the implementation of the Arusha Accords, the peace agreement between the Habyarimana Government's FAR (Rwandan Armed Forces) and the rebel RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), led by Paul Kagame.
Nonetheless, the explosion of violence against the Tutsis that Dallaire was trying to avert was triggered on April 6, 1994, when Habyarimana's plane was shot down over Kigali as he returned from a conference, killing all aboard.
As the horror began to engulf the countryside, General Dallaire appealed for 5,000 additional troops, with which he said he could stop what would be a colossal slaughter. His request was denied and in the next 100 days the Rwandan genocide cost the lives of between 800,000 and over a million human beings, Tutsis and some Hutus, before being brought to a halt by the occupation of the country by Kagame's RPF.
Despite the weakness of the U.N. and the cowardice of the Clinton administration, which refused to call the killings genocide because to do so would require that we act, Dallaire managed to save the lives of upwards of 30,000 people with his small force. His personal heroism, however, was not enough to ward off the deep depression that overcame him because of what he saw happening and was unable to stop.
What he saw and what he did are unimaginable to most of us, but his name belongs in the pantheon of heroes.
As one of a small group that traveled the country on behalf of the U.N. High commissioner for Refugees a few months later, I can attest to both Dallaire's heroism and the impact on the human psyche of such incomprehensible savagery.
Walking through a prison so crowded the inmates had to sleep in shifts and a refugee camp populated with menacing genocidaires, interviewing scarred survivors and watching Interahamwe children's war dance were hard to take in, but the massacre sites will never leave me. At night, unable to escape the images, I wrote:
The Church at Ntarama
Everything I believe was challenged by the infernal tableau displayed in this place. Though the three buildings and the yard between them were all so full of remains that one had to tread carefully, the chapel somehow presented the most soul-bruising image, probably because one clings to the hope that it does represent on some level the salvation, the deliverance from evil that these poor slaughtered wretches were seeking.
Piles of bones, the outline of the body they once supported still defined by the ragged remnants of their clothing, lay where they came to rest, tossed, strewn about by the force of the blast, the bullet, the thrust of the spear, blow of the club, swipe of the machete. Again and again and again the machete.
Books, canes, toys, purses, thermos bottles, shreds of the last things they held - those which their murderers left behind - punctuate the sentences of death written by these heaps of what were once vital beings.
The air, suffused with a thick, hideously sweet, cloying, web-like quality, is almost impossible to breathe. It is as if, having stepped into a charnel house, a human abattoir, I am caught between here and somewhere else, between this dimension and another, and to bring this horror into my nose, mouth, lungs, is to invite in corruption.
This holy place, and it clearly was that to those who sought refuge here, is now mute testimony to the unholy. What moves here, what this intruder can see and hear, are the roaches, lizards and others that find their sustenance in the leavings. But what exists here, what insists that it be heard, is the faint echo of the shrieks and moans of the dying as they compete with the grunts and exclamations of those who did this terrible work; the delicate puff of air from a hand reaching out, fingers curling in despair; the hiss of the blade on its downward path; the final sigh of release from those who expected more.
If there is in man that divine spark, it has here been crushed, spat upon, reviled, denied. Has it been extinguished? Can it be? Will we allow it to be?
Will we allow it to be? That is the question I brought home. And the rush of relief to be safe in our ever-so-civilized society renewed the conviction that we must not, cannot allow it to be extinguished. Ever. Anywhere.
Today, after the passing of a generation in Rwanda, through the truth and reconciliation process known as Gacaca and the power of the human spirit, that divine spark has demonstrated its resilience. Tutsi and Hutu, victim and perpetrator, have found a way to come together and rebuild their society. They are demonstrating today the almost unbelievable power of the human capacity for reconciliation and, in some astonishing cases, the miraculous impact of forgiveness.
And here, 20 years later, here in the world's "indispensable nation," we incarcerate more of our citizens than any country in the world; we lock 80,000 of our fellow citizens, including children, in solitary confinement; we criminalize drug abuse; we punish more people, more harshly, than any developed country; and we dehumanize and execute women and men at a rate putting us in a league with China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
When one considers Romeo Dallaire's courage and that of the people of Rwanda, it appears we have much to learn.