Last Friday I saw Ghosts of Rwanda, a PBS frontline documentary that chronicles “the hundred days” when 800,000 Rwandans perished in a humanitarian crisis while the rest of the world watched in silence. In a country of 7 million people, nearly 10% of its population lay dead after the wave of impenetrable violence subsided. The documentary doesn’t delve into the tensely polarized and segmented rift between Tutsi and Hutu groups in the country, but rather retraces the story after a most heinous smear and propaganda campaign created by Hutu extremists mobilized large factions to commit monstrous atrocities that catapulted Rwanda into a cataclysmic nightmare.
The thing that blows my mind is, the entire ordeal is documented, it is all on tape. Journalists from around the world had unprecedented access to the horrors, just as journalists moving back and forth from the frontlines of devastation in Darfur do as well. And after it’s all done, we are left with these images, that give us no excuse, no alibi for the international community’s indifference. There are many shocking and grisly scenes of death that are almost too horrendous to accept as reality. Dead bodies were commonplace fixtures on the sides of roads and in rivers. Particularly heartbreaking is video footage of Belgian convoys coming to a hospital used as refuge for both hundreds of Tutsis and the few Belgians that remained in the war torn country. At first the crowd is jubilant at what they think are their liberators. But the Belgian rescue effort is only meant for their national comrades, the Tutsi refugees were left behind. They were probably all killed. The rescue team literally decided which life was more valuable. In this sense, thousands upon thousands of lives’ were despicably negotiated into a political issue, something they never should have been. A Rwandan diplomat was smuggled out of the country to appeal for help, yet her pleas fell on deaf ears among an unresponsive crowd in Washington. “America doesn’t have friends, America has interests…” was what an official said to her bluntly. It was early in Clinton’s first term, and the fatal peacekeeping mission gone awry in Mogadishu Somalia was still fresh in the American public’s mind. The film includes familiar faces in foreign policy like Madeline Albright and Bill Clinton saying politely in retrospect, ‘We knew all about it, and we thought it best to look away.’
With Rwanda, there was an issue with language. ‘Should we call it genocide, then continue to do nothing?’ was the question of the day. Now it is 12 years later, and while the violence in Darfur is openly being called genocide, we have yet to do anything to stop it. At first I wondered how such callous disregard is possible, but then I realized that it sadly doesn’t deviate far from the norm. Already I witness this ability among my peers to detach themselves from other’s condition and put it solely in a context of policy analysis and lengthy discussion of people they perhaps will never see or touch. I’ve listened, and even participated in my share of deep, existential, philosophical, and theoretical conversations about the world’s ills on a very macro level. When you cease in your ability to relate to the human beings that these lengthy and convoluted discussions are about, then it becomes feasible to see how such a human rights failure could have happened, where a crisis was accelerating by the minute in a Central African country that was inconsequential to American interest, and all Washington did was set up a shameful bureaucracy to “discuss” the possible ways they could intervene but never did.
I struggle to find an articulate response to such a jarring account of a startling world event that occurred in the recent past. There’s a world outside of view, and it lights afire everyday embroiled in war, poverty, and political instability. A person doesn’t have to look like you or speak the same language to motivate action against injustice; the mere fact that we coexist should be reason enough. Francois de Salignac de la Mothe Fenelon said, “All wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers … Each one owes infinitely more to the human race than to the particular country in which he was born.” A seventeenth century bishop got it right, maybe our generation will too. I’d like to think so; I have to, for l hate to think of the alternative.