In a 2004 interview with PBS’s “Frontline," Kofi Annan called the Rwandan genocide “a very painful and traumatic experience,” both for himself and the United Nations.
“It’s not something that you forget,” said Annan, then-U.N. secretary general. “It’s an experience that, if you go through, becomes part of you, and part of your whole experience as a human being.”
In 1994, at least 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in a 100-day genocide, when Hutu soldiers and militias slaughtered members of the Tutsi ethnic group. At that time, Annan was chief of U.N. peacekeeping.
Annan left behind a complicated legacy when he died Saturday at age 80. A Ghanaian national, he would go on to become the first U.N. secretary general from sub-Saharan Africa. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate managed to in some ways to make progress in Africa in his time leading the U.N. and after, but many saw his failure to intervene in Rwanda beforehand as inextricably intertwined with his later accomplishments. (He also oversaw peacekeeping during the brutal Srebrenica massacre that left thousands of Muslims dead during the Balkans War.)
In 1994, the U.N. instructed Canadian Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who headed the U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda, not to intervene. Dallaire wanted more troops to quell the escalating violence, but instead most of them were withdrawn. In 2014, Dallaire wrote in a Washington Post column that “[p]reventing this genocide was possible; it was our moral obligation. And it’s a failure that has haunted me every day for the last 20 years.”
As journalist Stanley Meisler wrote in Annan’s obituary in The Washington Post: "He and his aides worked behind the scenes to prevent the widespread killing in Rwanda, but they said the forces of ethnic hatred were too strong to temper. When the massacres erupted in the mid-1990s, the U.N. Security Council, led by the United States, did little to stop them; hundreds of thousands were killed. "
Carl Wilkens is an American who was working for the humanitarian arm of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Rwanda when the genocide began. He refused to leave, even as the situation escalated dramatically. In a phone call with The Post on Saturday, he said that the U.N. initially provided a false sense of security for many Rwandans, who may otherwise have run. It was “an enormous failure that has always been a very, very difficult thing for me,” said Wilkens, who wrote a book about the genocide, called “I’m not leaving.”
“Every time, I thought are you kidding me? The person in charge of this enormous failure then gets made the secretary general of the U.N.,” Wilkens said. “That just really was a bitterness inside of me. I think it blinded me from any other positive contributions and achievements and reasons that he may have been selected for that position and then what he was able to accomplish.”
Annan acknowledged the U.N.'s shortcomings, saying in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, in 1998 that "the world failed Rwanda at that time of evil.” Meisler wrote in Annan’s obituary that he later “published long reports, chock full of classified cables, that detailed the United Nations’ mistakes in dealing with the massacre in Srebrenica during the Balkans war and Rwanda in the 1990s.”
In 2001, Annan shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the United Nations “for having revitalized the U.N. and for having given priority to human rights,” the prize’s website says, in addition to his work on “the struggle to contain the spreading of the HIV virus in Africa and his declared opposition to international terrorism.”
Annan is also widely credited with brokering a peace deal that put an end to post-election violence in Kenya in early 2008, after contested elections in 2007 sparked clashes that left hundreds dead.
Wilkens said that in the wake of Annan’s death, he now hopes to set aside some of his bitterness and take a more objective look at what the complicated leader accomplished after 1994.
“When I read about his death, I realized I was very much guilty of something that I think Rwanda has been trying to teach me, and something I think everybody should have a look at,” Wilkens said. “Are we always going to be defined by our worst choices? Our worst mistakes?”