Monday, March 11, 2002
The Committee on Conscience sponsors a presentation by Linda Melvern, who is the author of A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide.
Jerry Fowler: We’ll go ahead and get started. Thank you very much for coming today. We’re very honored to have a presentation by Linda Melvern, who is the author of A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide. Today I think Linda is mostly going to be talking about recent research she’s been doing in the Rwanda military archives, and my understanding is she’s the first outside researcher who’s had access to these archives. She’s told me many times she’s got several suitcases full of documents that she hasn’t been able to work all the way through. But we’re very fortunate to have her here today to at least give us a glimpse of the types of things that she’s finding.
So without further ado, Linda Melvern.
Linda Melvern: Thank you. I’d like to thank Jerry Fowler, staff director of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for asking me to share with you my work on the circumstances of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
I’m an investigative journalist, and my work on this story began while the genocide was happening. I was in New York with a Channel 4 TV crew filming a book I’d written on the secret history of the United Nations. I interviewed Ambassador Karel Kovanda, who was the United Nations representative for the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic was one of the ten non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
Kovanda talked to me about how terrible it was to sit day after day in the informal and secret Security Council meetings held to discuss Rwanda, during which no action had ever been seriously contemplated to help the Rwandan people. “Thousands and thousands of people were being killed,” said Kovanda, “and yet 80 percent of the Security Council’s time was spent discussing the possibility of a cease fire in the renewed civil war and the rest of the time deciding what to do about the peacekeepers in the UN assistance mission in Rwanda, UNAMIR.”
In one startling remark, Kovanda told me that he had learned more about what was really happening in Rwanda from human rights groups in New York than from sitting in the secret Security Council meetings, where UN officials in the Secretariat, whose duty it was to report to the Council, had failed to describe what was happening as a renewed civil war and a systematic slaughter.
I later confirmed what Kovanda had told me, for some months afterwards someone leaked to me an account of the secret meetings of the Council held to discuss Rwanda. This was an unprecedented leak of information, and I learned from this document that in the first three weeks of genocide, when the speed of the slaughter was at its height, the death of civilians in Rwanda was hardly discussed at all. The entire purpose of the discussions had concerned the renewed civil war. This was in spite of the fact that reports were coming daily from the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) that detailed the scale and the intensity of the killing. Nor in these weeks was there any serious discussion at all about the possibility of sending reinforcements to Rwanda, although this had been the immediate recommendation of UNAMIR Force Commander.
I never forgot what Kovanda said to me, and my interview with him was the start of a long endeavor that would involve nearly eight years of research and would result in a book and also in an archive that I have created, the Rwanda Genocide Archive, that has been placed in the Hugh Owen Library at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. I continue to investigate the circumstances of this genocide today, and the archive for future generations is growing.
Genocide is the result of a conspiracy. In order to commit genocide, a group of people must make an agreement. Genocide is the intent to destroy a people in whole or in part. We are indebted to Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who coined the word “genocide” and who was the father of the Genocide Convention. The 1948 Convention was the first truly comprehensive and codified protection of human rights, and it stood for a very important principle, that whatever evil may befall any group, nation, or people, it was of concern not just for that group, but for the whole of humanity. I have dedicated my book on the genocide in Rwanda to Lemkin.
“Genocide is a part of history,” he wrote. “It follows humanity like a dark shadow from early antiquity to the present time.”
In October 1997, I was given an office in military intelligence, G2, in the Army headquarters complex in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It was a small room with a corrugated tin roof. A soldier with a Kalashnikof stood outside the door. For several days I sat alone in this office pouring over hundreds of documents - the military intelligence files of pre-genocide Rwanda, a police state based on racism, an apartheid regime that discriminated against the minority Tutsi in all walks of life.
Many of the reports I read led to torture and death, and I felt sullied. Anyone who had spoken out against the regime—Hutu or Tutsi—had been at risk. But there was something more in this archive. Here, in these secret reports, in neatly typed official correspondence, I discovered the genesis of the 1994 genocide and the extreme racism that underpinned it.
These files showed how the logic and the dynamic of genocide had been apparent to its perpetrators. This paper trail showed how genocide slowly but surely evolved. Most notable was a series of reports under the heading “Internal State Security” and addressed to the Minister of Defense and to the President and written in business French. These were carbon copies neatly typed and filed away. The reports warned the president of the danger posed by the Tutsi, although the word “cockroaches” is used to describe them. The Tutsi were accused of secretly planning to take over the country, and the people who were agitating for democracy were called Tutsi “accomplices”, an inherently dangerous and disloyal fifth column.
One report described the reaction of army officers to the burgeoning democracy. These are the officers who were, quote, “sickened by the creation of political parties and proliferation of the private press, the enemies hiding behind freedom of expression as a means to gain power.” The lists of the victims of the genocide had been compiled in the offices of G2.
Hutu Power was the extremist ideology that underpinned the genocide. Hutu Power held that the struggle in Rwanda was not about an attempt to create a power-sharing democracy but a struggle between the Hutu and the minority Tutsi. Hutu Power adherents believed that the Tutsi were foreign invaders who had never had a country of their own. The Tutsi in Rwanda had been excluded from society, from universities, from the civil service, from the army for years. Thousands of them had been expelled from Rwanda.
We may never know the exact moment when the conspirators first conceived the genocide, the moment when a group of ruthless and evil people plotted to wipe out entirely those who stood in their way of power and privilege. They were intellectuals, politicians, media personalities, and army extremists, and they promoted Hutu extremism by manipulating the past warning the people that the Tutsi were coming back to dominate them. They flooded the country with propaganda through the creation of a Hate radio, pamphlets, and newspapers. One headline in a magazine in February ’94 just weeks before the genocide began read, “By the way, the Tutsi race could be extinguished.”
The Rwandan dictatorship was highly bureaucratized. In neatly typed reports, carbon copies of letters, and accounts of meetings, it is possible to see how the extremists in the military, together with their willing bureaucrats, ensured that the militia had enough grenades and Kalashnikofs. By the time the genocide started, the militia in Rwanda was 30,000 strong and organized nationwide with representatives in every neighborhood—one militia member for every ten families. Some of the militia was given Kalashnikofs but only after filling in the required requisition forms. The distribution of grenades did not require paperwork.
It was through this highly organized bureaucracy that RTLM, the Hate Radio, was created. This was a propaganda weapon to prepare the people of Rwanda for genocide. This broadcast the names of those who should die. I found the radio’s articles of incorporation and a list of shareholders—journalists, businessmen, civil servants.
In order to finance the genocide money was siphoned from international funding, the funding provided by the World Bank and the IMF under a Structural Adjustment Program. It is estimated that Rwanda, one of the poorest and most troubled nations on earth, spent $134 million on genocide preparation. Some $4.6 million were spent on machetes, hoes, axes, razors, and hammers. Companies not usually concerned with such trade imported huge numbers of these tools into Rwanda. It remains a mystery to this day why five missions sent by the World Bank to monitor Rwanda’s structure adjustment program apparently failed to notice all this activity.
Only in a well-organized country like Rwanda could such a plan have had any chance of success. Only a tight, secretive, and extremist military leadership could have possibly carried it off. Once the killing started, local administrators were to organize and dispose of the bodies in garbage trucks.
The story of Rwanda is perhaps the most shocking international scandal of the post-war era. In the course of three terrible months in 1994, one million people were killed. There were no sealed trains or secret camps in Rwanda. The killing took place in broad daylight and was highly organized and visibly so.
Contrary to Western press coverage and intense Rwandan propaganda, the genocide did not start as an explosion of spontaneous anger. It was meticulously prepared and premeditated. During my last visit to Rwanda I recently interviewed a colonel in the Rwandan army, who had served for more than 20 years with colleagues who were instrumental in ensuring that the genocide ran to plan.
The colonel told me that in the first weeks of April 1994, he had gone to work as usual in the Ministry of Defense. There were papers to sign and documents to read. I asked him what he had seen in the Ministry of Defense, for in these weeks an estimated 10,000 people a day were being Slaughtered. He told me that he didn’t see anything special and that there was a civil war to fight and much to do. I asked him what he knew of the man credited with having taken control once the genocide began, Colonel Theoneste Bagosora. The colonel would say only, “Oh, I saw him come and go.”
This colonel was a middle-ranking bureaucrat, and during the genocide he had gone to work each day and driven home to his wife each night. In these weeks in Kigali, a pattern of killing had emerged for Rwandan soldiers would seal the exits of the sanctuaries where Tutsi had gone to shelter in schools, clinics, and churches and then the soldiers had let the militia loose to do the killing. Massacres like this became commonplace all over Rwanda while the bureaucratic machine continued almost unhindered.
Each month in Rwanda, it was customary for each of the 11 prefects the mayors—in each of the prefectures to write an administrative report to the president, giving news of the locality.
During the genocide, these reports were written as usual, and in late June the prefect duly wrote his report. I have a copy.
Jerry Fowler: Do you want to show them where Gisenyi is?
Linda Melvern: It’s in the north where Hutu Power was created. You can see the date, the June 27 1994. The genocide began on April 7 1994. This person is writing to the Minister of the Interior, and he’s writing about the activity between April and June of 1994. All the documents are in business French.
Can we have the next—here’s one very crucial line, although there are quite a few in these documents but one for now. He holds a meeting in April, and he tells the local authority—here’s the line, “They must be all eyes and ears to hunt down the cockroaches and their collaborators.” And in the very next line he says they must encourage the people to be as one: “We decided to keep our eyes and ears open,”
This document shows how 26 such meetings were held, one in each of the communes, to encourage the hunting down of the Tutsi.
The failure to act in accordance with the genocide convention, before the genocide and then for three months while one million people were killed is a scandal that has been all but ignored by the press. I think it appropriate during my visit today to talk briefly about the media’s own responsibility in what happened.
My own profession bears a great responsibility for the failure over Rwanda. It is the job of journalists to heighten awareness, to galvanize public opinion, and to try to hold to account those politicians who failed to act in defense of human fairness. We failed miserably over Rwanda. There is no doubt that the events in Rwanda in April 1994 took the British and the American media by surprise, but much of the initial coverage was quite simply wrong.
Before the genocide the coverage of Rwanda’s troubles was negligible with predictions that “tribal warfare” would resume. After the genocide began the initial coverage described the killing to be the result of ancient tribal hatreds. One British newspaper reported without question the claim from a Western diplomat of “various clans were murdering others”. There was barely any coverage of the fragile peace agreement, the attempt to create democracy and the attempts to destroy the peace plan. There was no coverage of Rwanda’s extreme racism.
One notable attempt to change the perception that the crisis was “tribal” came in a desperate letter to the New York Times on April 2O, 1994 Jeri Laber, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch-Helsinki had written of the urgency of getting the UN to find a means to protect the innocent. Leber wrote that to describe “ancient tribal hatreds” in Rwanda was “deplorable, faulty and dangerous”.
The possibility of reinforcements for the UN peacekeepers, an idea put forward by the Force Commander in Rwanda, Lt. Gen Romeo Dallaire, was hardly discussed. There was a reference to the need for a quick reaction force in an editorial in the New York Times on 23 April, necessary to deal with such “calamities.” The editorial had begun with the words: “What looks very much like genocide has been taking place in Rwanda … The world has few ways of responding effectively when violence with a nation leads to massacres and the breakdown of civil order”. The Security Council had “thrown in the bloodied towel” and without a rapid reaction force the world had little choice “but to stand aside and hope for the best.” The editorial reinforced the view that nothing could be done and it reflected exactly the position of the U.S. government as expressed in the secret Security Council meetings held to discuss the crisis.
The initial inadequate reporting of the genocide raises some serious questions, and most of them have yet to be adequately addressed.
The Western media’s failure to adequately report that genocide was taking place, and thereby generate public pressure for something to be done to stop it, contributed to international indifference and inaction and possibly to the crime itself. With no outcry about genocide in the press and a secretive Security Council that was making crucial decisions behind closed doors, no choices were given and no risks were taken. At the very least, the genocide should have been condemned in the strongest possible terms by the press and those who were carrying it out should have been publicly denounced. Their names were known.
In April 1994 the “interim government” in Rwanda, created at the outset by the extremists, should have been publicly condemned and countries should have severed diplomatic ties with Rwanda and expelled Rwandan ambassadors. Instead there was silence. For three months in 1994 the British and the US administrations played down the crisis in the Security Council and tried to impede effective intervention. There was even reluctance to take the slightest action, such as jamming the hate radio, which could have saved lives.
Only by exposing how and why the genocide was allowed to happen—and this would include enquiries into the decision-making in both London and Washington—can there ever be any hope that the new century will break with the dismal record of the last.
[Copyright: Linda Melvern]