Unless you've shunned your radio and TV this week, you've no doubt been inundated with remembrances of Kurt Cobain, the singer and guitar player of seminal rock band Nirvana who may or may not have committed suicide 10 years ago (some believe crime-scene evidence points to murder).
That we commemorate Cobain's life and death is understandable; he was, after all, a mysterious, enigmatic personality and one of a select few musicians throughout the ages credited with altering the course of popular music. He was terribly talented, burdened with a rare sense of integrity and-this can't be ignored when evaluating a celebrity's celebrity-one damned good-looking fella.
A generation of Americans can recall Cobain's demise in vivid detail. The same cannot be said for another historical event that was unfolding at the same time-the butchering of roughly 800,000 citizens of Rwanda.
We can respond only to information we're given. The media descended en masse on Seattle, where Cobain's body was discovered, but, if memory serves, there was no proportionate media response to the genocide in Africa. That paradigm remains today. Who knew that a nine-year-long war-crimes tribunal seeking justice for the genocide was still unfolding earlier this year? Who knew a tribunal had even begun? For that matter, who knew the atrocities against humanity had even occurred?
On April 6, 1994, amid a longstanding war between the ruling Hutu tribe and the rebel Tutsis, the president of Rwanda's plane was shot down by Hutu extremists who didn't want their president to reach a peace accord with the Tutsis. A mass-murder spree ensued and, over the course of 100 days, extremists hacked hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus to death, leaving their dead, mutilated bodies strewn about the countryside.
Canadian Gen. Roméo Dallaire, commander of the United Nations force in Rwanda at the time, knew the killings were imminent three months before they began, and he tried to gain approval for military intervention, but his requests were repeatedly rebuffed by officials at U.N. headquarters in New York. He told his superiors that he knew the location of a huge Hutu weapons cache, that a hit list of victims had been prepared by the Hutu extremists and that a plan to provoke and kill a Belgian peacekeeping unit was in the offing. Everything he said in an urgent plea to the U.N. on Jan. 11, 1994, including the murder of the Belgians, turned out to be true.
But he was ordered to stay on the sidelines while French, Belgian and American citizens-no Africans, not even those working with international authorities-were airlifted out of the country. In the middle of it, the U.N. yanked most of its troops out of Rwanda. To say the international community “gave up” would imply that it attempted to act in the first place, which it didn't. The international community looked the other way as 800,000 human beings were systematically slaughtered.
As they were looking the other way, they were engaged in a semantic debate over the word “genocide.” In late April, the U.S. State Department called what happened “genocide,” but the U.N., in a resolution condemning the violence, left the word out. Had the word appeared in the resolution, the U.N. would have been legally forced to respond against the aggressors.
In retrospect, a May 5, 1994 statement by then-U.S. National Security Advisor Anthony Lake-made as the murders continued in Rwanda-is chilling, especially in light of the U.S.'s evolving rationale for invading Iraq: “We have to ask the hard questions about where and when we can intervene. And the reality is that we cannot often solve other people's problems; we can never build their nations for them....”
The Rwanda genocide didn't end until mid-July 1994, more than three months after it had started.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton issued an apology, finally admitting that he and the rest of the international community failed the Rwandan people. Later, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan apologized to the Rwandan Parliament. “Looking back now,” he said, “we see the signs which were then not recognized.”
Those signs were recognized by Gen. Dallaire and his staff. For more on how his “failure” (his own term) to prevent the killings has affected his life, read “The Rwanda Witness” in the April 4, 2004 New York Times Magazine. And for two of the most compelling, heart-wrenching documentaries ever produced, check out The Triumph of Evil, which aired on PBS' Frontline program, and The Last Just Man, a riveting chronicle of Dallaire's experiences in Rwanda.
The significance of all this can be found in the number: 800,000. That's roughly 266 times the number of people murdered in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, and precisely 800,000 times the number of brooding rock stars who died in the Pacific Northwest in April 1994.