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How Abandonment In Rwandan Genocide Changed Peacekeepers' Role

Family photographs of some of those who died hang in a display in the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda's capital on Saturday.
Ben Curtis
Family photographs of some of those who died hang in a display in the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda's capital on Saturday.

It's been 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, in which political ideology and ethnic hatred gave license to thousands of Hutus to kill Tutsi families. But ethnic ideology may not have unleashed the genocide if the international community had not stepped back and allowed it to happen.

One notorious episode of abandonment changed forever the role of the United Nations peacekeeper. Early in the morning of April 7, 1994, thousands of Tutsis began arriving at a school on the outskirts of the capital, Kigali, seeking the protection of Belgian soldiers stationed there for the U.N.

"We believed in those brave soldiers," said survivor Venuste Karasira this weekend from a memorial stage set up on that school's soccer field.

Karasira described how Hutu militiamen surrounded the school, but were blocked from entering by their fear of the Belgians.

Imagine our panic, he said, when one afternoon the Belgian soldiers packed up to leave. The Tutsis, including men and women and children, begged them to stay.

"I remember one of us asking them to give us few guns so they could protect ourselves, but still they refused," Venuste says. Some even asked the peacekeepers to shoot them to avoid a worse death at the hands of the militias, but the soldiers drove off.

The massacre that unfolded was horrific. Thousands were killed.

After Karasira's testimony, a retired Belgian colonel addressed the crowd. Jean Loup Denblyden wasn't at the school, but at the airport where the Belgian soldiers were sent. He said the young soldiers told him they saw the killers in their rearview mirrors.

The soldiers had been ordered to leave, Denblyden said, to help escort European nationals to the airport so they could flee the country. Meanwhile, a larger contingent of Belgian soldiers just a short flight away in Nairobi was left idle.

"We waited for them to be ordered to arrive," he said. Those orders never came.

"The soldiers knew that the killing would happen," says professor David Simon, associate director of Yale's Genocide Studies Program. "The decision-makers did not have it in their calculus."

Simon says the United Nations of 20 years ago was much more respectful of state sovereignty. It didn't see civilian protection as its job, especially protecting civilians against their own government.

"It was really just a non-thought ... about who might be protected and what lives might be lost," he says.

But the abandonment at that school — and Rwanda as a whole — affected the U.N., especially Kofi Annan, who was then in charge of peacekeeping. Simon says you can draw a line between that fateful non-thought and a considered rewriting of the U.N. mandate in 2005, which said that states bear a responsibility to protect their own citizens. The language would have mandated intervention if the Rwandan genocide were to happen today.

Rwanda's foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, whose brother was among the hundreds of thousands killed in the genocide, told scholars in Kigali there's still a wide gulf between having those intervention tools on the books, and having the will to use them.

"It's a big mistake to believe that when you see the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and the 10 non-permanent members at any given time in New York, that they are sitting there to save the world," she says. "They are not. They are not."

To prevent future atrocities, she says, we need to find ways to allow big countries to preserve their interests, while not abandoning our fellow human beings.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.