Why Nations Go to War: Heart of Darkness: Rwanda and Darfur

Why Nations Go to War

Ours is still a far from peaceful world. September 11, 2001, is embedded in the collective memory of our generation, and George W. Bush’s war with Iraq will echo through history for decades. But there are other wars on a horrendous scale that threaten humanity’s future and must not be ignored. Two of these took place in Africa and involved horrible massacres on an almost unimaginable scale. Both were described as genocide by the United Nations, yet they were slow to arouse effective action by the international community because neither affected the strategic interests of the great powers. They occurred in Rwanda in 1994 and in Sudan ten years later.

The genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994 caused the violent death of almost 1 million people. Yet, during my research, I was confronted by a frustrating information gap. With the exception of a shattering report by American journalist Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be

Killed with Our Families, and Alan J. Kuperman’s article, “Rwanda in Retrospect,” in Foreign Affairs’s January/February 2000 issue, there were few objective sources on which I could rely. Yet the following truth had become clear: This was not a war between two hostile African tribes; it was the massacre of close to a million Tutsi in the spring of 1994 by Hutu extremists. In Kuperman’s words, it was “the fastest genocide in recorded history,” and it was genocide by stealth.7

Gourevitch’s preface is worth quoting at length: Decimation means the killing of every tenth person in a population, and in the spring and early summer of 1994, a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda. Although the killing was low-tech-performed largely by machete-it was carried out at a dazzling speed: of an original population of about seven and a half million, at least eight hundred thousand people were killed in just a hundred days. Rwandans often speak of a million deaths, and they may be right. The dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.8

The reason? More than a hundred years ago, German and then Belgian colonizers had elevated the Tutsi tribe to leadership positions in their colony, apparently because the Tutsi were taller and of lighter color than the Hutu. The genocide of 1994 was the Hutus’ ultimate revenge after decades of Tutsi oppression. Tens of thousands of Tutsi were found with their hands and feet chopped off by machetes, the Hutus’ way to “cut the tall people down to size.”

By the time the Western world learned of the Rwandan disaster, most of the intended victims were dead. Neither President Clinton nor UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was aware of the true dimensions of the slaughter. Both Kofi Annan, Boutros-Ghali’s successor, and Clinton apologized in 1998 for their ignorance, if not their indifference.

It appears that by the millennium a consensus had been reached that international intervention was justified in cases of aggression by one country against another-as with Iraq in Kuwait-and in cases of genocide by dictators against their own peoples-like Milosevic in Kosovo. But this understanding is not all-encompassing. It does not as yet include the continent of Africa, which still seems to evoke Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Western minds. Perhaps it was this indifference that the Hutu counted on in the pursuit of their genocidal goals. Kuperman concludes that more UN forces deployed prior to the genocide could have deterred the killing.9 But such a deployment would have presupposed a collective will, and it was precisely that will that was absent. In December 2003, almost a decade after the massacre, a United Nations Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, convicted three Rwandans of genocide and crimes against humanity for using radio stations and newspapers to mobilize the Hutus against the Tutsis and to lure the victims to killing grounds where they were exterminated. The panel of three African judges, drawing a legal boundary between free speech and criminal incitement, meted out two life sentences and one twenty-seven-year prison sentence. “There is a wide range for free expression,” the court declared, “but when you pour gasoline on the flames, that’s when you cross the lines into unprotected expression.” Prosecutors called the verdict a historic victory.10

One man did light a candle in this pervasive darkness. A hotel manager in Kilgali, Paul Rusesagabina, shielded about 1,200 terrified Tutsis from the murderous wrath of the Hutus. He did this by calmly informing them that their intended victims were paying guests in his hotel and that any harm done to them would have serious consequences for their would-be murderers. Through a combination of bluff, cajolery, and bribery, he talked the Hutus out of killing his Tutsi wards, putting his own life on the line several times in the process. Like Oskar Schindler half a century earlier during the Nazi Holocaust, Paul Rusesagabina, an ordinary businessman, showed a courage so extraordinary that his name will never be forgotten. Peace came too late for Rwanda. The genocide had run its course, and justice, too, was tardy. To be truly humanitarian, justice must be colorblind. Unless determined international action truly embraces Africa, as it did in Kosovo, hope itself may become genocide’s ultimate victim.

After the Rwandan genocide, numerous statesmen the world over pledged that such a catastrophe would not be allowed to happen again, and yet it did, this time in the Darfur region of western Sudan. As in Rwanda, race and greed were the driving forces. In 2003 the government of Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, began to encourage and finance nomadic Arab tribesmen to get rid of the blacks in the region. The Janjaweed, as the nomads were called, embarked on a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the “black slaves.” They would ride on horseback into hundreds of villages, rape and kill their victims, loot at will, and then burn their huts, still occupied by little children. Over a three-year period, at least 200,000 Africans were killed by the militias, and at least 2 million fled for their lives, becoming refugees in their own land. The Janjaweed women, known as Hakima, would break into song to cheer on their warriors: “The blood of the blacks runs like water, we chase them away and our cattle will be in their land. The power of al-Bashir belongs to the Arabs, and we will kill you until the end, you blacks!” It was Hitler’s Lebensraum all over again, this time applied by Arabs against blacks in Africa.

The victims of Janjaweed brutality found themselves at the mercy of thousands of humanitarian workers who mustered the courage to expose themselves not only to the harsh desert terrain of western Sudan but also to the wrath of the killers. Foremost among these unsung heroes were the men and women leading UN relief and refugee agencies and Doctors without Borders. When the ferocious Janjaweed chased another 200,000 blacks from Sudan into neighboring Chad, the humanitarian workers were overwhelmed. The UN’s World Food Program, which had accepted responsibility for feeding more than 2 million refugees, was forced to cut food rations in half.

The response by the world to this catastrophe was tepid to begin with. The African Union dispatched 7,000 peacekeepers to the area; they were completely overwhelmed. Clearly, a more massive effort was essential. President Bush, who now described the carnage as genocide, recommended a more robust UN mission of at least 20,000 peacekeepers. Although the UN concurred in describing the Darfur situation as genocide, actual dispatch of the peacekeepers was stalled due to maneuvers by member states such as China that needed access to Sudanese oil.

As time went on, Sudanese president al-Bashir began to invent new reasons why the UN peacekeepers should not be allowed on Sudanese soil. He blamed “Jewish organizations” for promoting UN involvement and, despite clear evidence to the contrary, insisted that the 7,000 African Union soldiers were quite capable of enforcing the peace. If they proved insufficient, alBashir maintained, his government would quell the unrest itself. Since he ran the very government that had unleashed the Janjaweed against the Blacks in the first place, that offer seemed absurd. As prospects for rescue grew dimmer, disease and hunger took their toll. It was not bullets that killed most people in the refugee camps now. It was pneumonia borne on desert dust, diarrhea caused by dirty water, and malaria carried by mosquitoes to straw huts with no nets. “The world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” as the United Nations described Darfur, had become a killer without mercy. To make matters even worse, the humanitarian aid workers themselves became victims of the growing violence. According to the United Nations, more aid workers had been killed during the month of July 2006 than in the previous three years of conflict in Darfur. On August 31, after an acrimonious debate, the UN Security Council authorized the creation of a peacekeeping operation under Chapter VII of the UN’s charter, consisting of a military force of up to 17,300 troops and a civilian police force of 3,300. This new body would replace or absorb the 7,000-member African Union force whose mandate was to expire at the end of September. The problem of obtaining Sudanese consent seemed insuperable, however, since President Bashir let it be known that he would not grant it. As a result, Russia, China, and Qatar, the only Arab member on the Council, chose to abstain. China’s ambassador said that the resolution would make the violence in Darfur even worse. Finally the only way to get the resolution passed was to have it “invite” Sudan’s consent, not to require it.

On September 19, the African Union members met in emergency session and decided to extend the life of its 7,000-member peacekeeping force until the end of 2006. The hope was to buy time and exert pressure on al-Bashir. In the meantime, Hollywood actor George Clooney and his father, both of whom had just visited Darfur, addressed the UN Security Council with an impassioned plea to deploy its peacekeeping force without further delay. Spontaneous demonstrations to save Darfur were held by the hundreds all over the world, and President Bush appointed a new special envoy, Andrew Natsios, a former head of USAID, who knew Sudan well, to help broker peace. In November, the Khartoum regime declared that it was prepared to admit 15,000 UN peacekeepers to Darfur if they were Africans and agreed to merge with the existing African Union force. This concession was made “in principle,” but, in practice, al-Bashir continued to stall. UN emissary Jan Egelund announced that if there were further delays, the crisis would become infinitely worse. In the meantime, conditions facing the refugees had indeed become desperate.

Then at last, a respite. In March 2009, the International Criminal Court in The Hague ordered the arrest of al-Bashir on the charge that he played an “essential role” in the murder, rape, torture, and displacement of large numbers of civilians in Darfur. Almost immediately after the indictment was announced. Al-Bashir decided to leave Sudan in order to attend a summit meeting of the Arab League in Qatar. There he was warmly embraced by his fellow Arabs who congratulated him on his courageous stand against the “insult” he had suffered from the Court.

With al-Bashir more or less out of the way, the situation in Darfur improved dramatically. The hybrid African Union- United Nations peacekeeping mission, the largest in the world, which took years of negotiation to put in place, made a huge difference. The infamous janjaweed, the marauding bandits who raped, killed and terrorized countless civilians, went into hibernation. “Frozen,” said Lt. General Patrick Nyamvumba, the Rwandan commander of the 20,000 UN peacekeepers in Darfur, “It is a good word for the situation. It is calm, very calm at the moment, but it remains unpredictable.” 11 Sudanese fighter jets that used to bomb villages, sat idle on the runway, their cockpits covered in canvas. And tens of thousands of farmers, for the first time since 2003, returned to their villages to plant crops, an activity that might have been considered suicidal only a few months earlier. The biggest remaining problem arose from the tens of thousands of homeless people who still lived in crowded refugee camps, waiting for food handouts, and who feared that their transient lives might become permanent. Idleness, depression, and homelessness were taking their toll. There was also fighting over shrinking grazing land. “The possibility is that they might be here forever” said Mohamed Yonis, a top United Nations official in Darfur.

And the world was still watching-and waiting.

It is a judgment on our times that, more than half a century after the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so many human beings still find themselves trapped in the interstices of the world community. Refugees have no rights and must depend on charity and chance to survive. There are more such homeless people in the world today than ever before in history. The community of nations now confronts the community of exiles. I remember because I was one of them for most of my youth.

Source: John G. Stoessinger, “Why Nations Go to War,” Cengage Learning, Boston, 2011

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis


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