How did 'never again' become just words?

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By Richard Holbrooke
Sunday, April 4, 2004

Last December I stood on a nearly finished terrace outside Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and gazed out over a field that held the remains of some 250,000 victims of the worst genocide since World War II. The scene was vastly different from what I had seen on my first visit four years earlier. Then, this same site had been nothing but a tract of mud thickly planted with crooked wooden crosses. Survivors of Rwanda's genocide had talked to us, sorrowfully, recalling April 1994 and their desperate pleas to the United Nations peacekeeping force not to withdraw, not to allow the murders that were about to take place.

Now the muddy field is green, and slopes gently toward the river, the same river where the bodies were once piled several feet deep. In the small museum, photographs and rows of skulls -- eerily reminiscent of the Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia -- chill the visitor into stunned, stricken silence.

What happened in Rwanda -- as in Auschwitz, Babi Yar, Tuol Sleng and Srebrenica -- cannot be fully explained in words. It is unfathomable on so many levels, a horror we want to convince ourselves is beyond human capacity, despite all the evidence of history. Indeed, this week, on the 10th anniversary of the genocide, the memorial that has been built on that Rwandan killing field will be dedicated, and dignitaries will come from all over the world and vow, just as they did after Auschwitz, never to let it happen again.

The catchphrase for the Rwandas and Bosnias of the world, as with the Holocaust itself, is always the same: Never again. Yet time after time, it does happen again. Of course, the specific circumstances always differ; each time they are described as unique. Each time we are told of "ancient tribal" or "ethnic" hatreds; each time there is international "compassion fatigue"; each time there is a demand for an "exit strategy" rather than a "success strategy."

But there is one underlying constant: the failure of the world to recognize and confront the evil that is occurring, and to deny it the chance to unleash its full fury. This is both a failure of will and a failure of courage -- a deliberate shrinking from a reality too horrifying to contemplate, but one that can only be changed if it is, in fact, deeply contemplated, faced directly and stared down.

The lesson of each genocide is the same: The killing really takes off only after the murderers see that the world, and especially the United States, is not going to care or react. That was the lesson of Bosnia, of East Timor, of Angola and of Rwanda. More recently, it was the lesson of Liberia, where the killing and destruction last summer could have been ended earlier if the Bush administration had sent U.S. Marines, waiting on ships just off the coast, into Monrovia. But it didn't, and once again, an avoidable tragedy continued, with 12-year-old child soldiers slaughtering innocents in the streets.

Yes, what happened in Rwanda is difficult to explain. But as living witnesses, we must try. Let me start with the unavoidable truth: Rwanda's genocide, or at least much of it, might have been avoided had the world acted. But as the slaughter started, and after the gruesome killing of 10 U.N. peacekeepers from Belgium, the U.N. Security Council instructed its undermanned and overwhelmed peacekeeping forces in Rwanda to withdraw, ignoring the U.N. commander's request for reinforcements. Some Tutsi who saw clearly what would happen famously wrote a letter that included the line, "We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families."

At least 800,000 people were slaughtered in about three months, a faster rate of killing than even during the Holocaust. The international media, to the extent that it covered the event at all, reported it primarily as an outbreak of crazed African tribal butchery. Of course, this coverage, with its racist subtext, was not true. The genocide was planned, and the deaths were almost all those of one ethnic group, the Tutsis. Lists of victims had been drawn up well in advance and broadcast on the radio, name by name, even license plate by license plate.

Had the Security Council agreed to the U.N. commander's request and sent more troops, I believe, as do most other observers, that at least half the deaths, if not more, could have been prevented. Instead, when the United Nations withdrew, the genocide exploded.

But -- I must stress this point -- the U.N. withdrawal was not determined by something abstract called "the United Nations." That organization is nothing more than the sum of its members. And in this case, this meant the 15 members of the Security Council; above all, the five permanent members -- the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia and China -- and, even more centrally, the United States, France and Britain. It was not "the U.N." -- that tall building on New York's East River, overflowing with diplomatic talk -- that decided to pull out. No. It was the leading nations of the world, speaking through their ambassadors in New York.

I write today as a private citizen, but also as a former member of President Bill Clinton's Cabinet, who was proud and honored to serve in his administration. As ambassador to Germany in April 1994, I was involved in different issues, but I share President Clinton's publicly stated acknowledgment that what happened here was in part an American failure. As he said when he made the first of two visits to Kigali on March 25, 1998, "It may seem strange to you here . . . but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror."

Details matter here. On April 15, 1994, in the Security Council, the United States demanded a full U.N. withdrawal. We even opposed helping other nations who might have intervened, and deleted the use of the word "genocide" from the U.N.'s statements. In fact, only the French did intervene eventually, in a limited way. Had we shown a willingness to airlift even a relatively small contingent of American troops into Rwanda, others would have definitely followed, and the Security Council would have passed the necessary authorizing resolutions. Our troops were in Germany, ready and available. The U.S. Air Force knew the area and its airfields well from its relief operations.


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