Bystanders to Genocide

The author's exclusive interviews with scores of the participants in the decision-making, together with her analysis of newly declassified documents, yield a chilling narrative of self-serving caution and flaccid will—and countless missed opportunities to mitigate a colossal crime

Still, about 300 Rwandans from the neighborhood had gathered at Rawson's residence seeking refuge, and when the Americans cleared out, the local people were left to their fates. Rawson recalls, "I told the people who were there that we were leaving and the flag was coming down, and they would have to make their own choice about what to do ... Nobody really asked us to take them with us." Rawson says he could not help even those who worked closest to him. His chief steward, who served dinner and washed dishes at the house, called the ambassador from his home and pleaded, "We're in terrible danger. Please come and get us." Rawson says, "I had to tell him, 'We can't move. We can't come.'" The steward and his wife were killed.

Assistant Secretary Moose was away from Washington, so Prudence Bushnell, the acting assistant secretary, was made the director of the task force that managed the Rwanda evacuation. Her focus, like Rawson's, was on the fate of U.S. citizens. "I felt very strongly that my first obligation was to the Americans," she recalls. "I was sorry about the Rwandans, of course, but my job was to get our folks out ... Then again, people didn't know that it was a genocide. What I was told was 'Look, Pru, these people do this from time to time.' We thought we'd be right back."

At a State Department press conference on April 8 Bushnell made an appearance and spoke gravely about the mounting violence in Rwanda and the status of Americans there. After she left the podium, Michael McCurry, the department spokesman, took her place and criticized foreign governments for preventing the screening of the Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List. "This film movingly portrays ... the twentieth century's most horrible catastrophe," he said. "And it shows that even in the midst of genocide, one individual can make a difference." No one made any connection between Bushnell's remarks and McCurry's. Neither journalists nor officials in the United States were focused on the Tutsi.

On April 9 and 10, in five different convoys, Ambassador Rawson and 250 Americans were evacuated from Kigali and other points. "When we left, the cars were stopped and searched," Rawson says. "It would have been impossible to get Tutsi through." All told, thirty-five local employees of the embassy were killed in the genocide.

Warren Christopher appeared on the NBC news program Meet the Press the morning the evacuation was completed. "In the great tradition, the ambassador was in the last car," Christopher said proudly. "So that evacuation has gone very well." Christopher stressed that although U.S. Marines had been dispatched to Burundi, there were no plans to send them into Rwanda to restore order: they were in the region as a safety net, in case they were needed to assist in the evacuation. "It's always a sad moment when the Americans have to leave," he said, "but it was the prudent thing to do." The Republican Senate minority leader, Bob Dole, a spirited defender of Bosnia's besieged Muslims at the time, agreed. "I don't think we have any national interest there," Dole said on April 10. "The Americans are out, and as far as I'm concerned, in Rwanda, that ought to be the end of it."

Dallaire, too, had been ordered to make the evacuation of foreigners his priority. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which had rejected the field commander's proposed raid on arms caches in January, sent an explicit cable: "You should make every effort not to compromise your impartiality or to act beyond your mandate, but [you] may exercise your discretion to do [so] should this be essential for the evacuation of foreign nationals. This should not, repeat not, extend to participating in possible combat except in self-defense." Neutrality was essential. Avoiding combat was paramount, but Dallaire could make an exception for non-Rwandans.

While the United States evacuated overland without an American military escort, the Europeans sent troops to Rwanda so that their personnel could exit by air. On April 9 Dallaire watched covetously as just over a thousand French, Belgian, and Italian soldiers descended on Kigali Airport to begin evacuating their expatriates. These commandos were clean-shaven, well fed, and heavily armed, in marked contrast to Dallaire's exhausted, hungry, ragtag peacekeeping force. Within three days of the plane crash estimates of the number of dead in the capital already exceeded 10,000.

If the soldiers ferried in for the evacuation had teamed up with UNAMIR, Dallaire would have had a sizable deterrent force. At that point he commanded 440 Belgians, 942 Bangladeshis, 843 Ghanaians, 60 Tunisians, and 255 others from twenty countries. He could also call on a reserve of 800 Belgians in Nairobi. If the major powers had reconfigured the thousand-man European evacuation force and the U.S. Marines on standby in Burundi—who numbered 300—and contributed them to his mission, he would finally have had the numbers on his side. "Mass slaughter was happening, and suddenly there in Kigali we had the forces we needed to contain it, and maybe even to stop it," he recalls. "Yet they picked up their people and turned and walked away."

The consequences of the exclusive attention to foreigners were felt immediately. In the days after the plane crash some 2,000 Rwandans, including 400 children, had grouped at the Ecole Technique Officielle, under the protection of about ninety Belgian soldiers. Many of them were already suffering from machete wounds. They gathered in the classrooms and on the playing field outside the school. Rwandan government and militia forces lay in wait nearby, drinking beer and chanting, "Pawa, pawa," for "Hutu power." On April 11 the Belgians were ordered to regroup at the airport to aid the evacuation of European civilians. Knowing they were trapped, several Rwandans pursued the jeeps, shouting, "Do not abandon us!" The UN soldiers shooed them away from their vehicles and fired warning shots over their heads. When the peacekeepers had gone out through one gate, Hutu militiamen entered through another, firing machine guns and throwing grenades. Most of the 2,000 gathered there were killed.

In the three days during which some 4,000 foreigners were evacuated, about 20,000 Rwandans were killed. After the American evacuees were safely out and the U.S. embassy had been closed, Bill and Hillary Clinton visited the people who had manned the emergency-operations room at the State Department and offered congratulations on a "job well done."

VII. Genocide? What Genocide?

Just when did Washington know of the sinister Hutu designs on Rwanda's Tutsi? Writing in Foreign Affairs last year, Alan Kuperman argued that President Clinton "could not have known that a nationwide genocide was under way" until about two weeks into the killing. It is true that the precise nature and extent of the slaughter was obscured by the civil war, the withdrawal of U.S. diplomatic sources, some confused press reporting, and the lies of the Rwandan government. Nonetheless, both the testimony of U.S. officials who worked the issue day to day and the declassified documents indicate that plenty was known about the killers' intentions.

A determination of genocide turns not on the numbers killed, which is always difficult to ascertain at a time of crisis, but on the perpetrators' intent: Were Hutu forces attempting to destroy Rwanda's Tutsi? The answer to this question was available early on. "By eight A.M. the morning after the plane crash we knew what was happening, that there was systematic killing of Tutsi," Joyce Leader recalls. "People were calling me and telling me who was getting killed. I knew they were going door to door." Back at the State Department she explained to her colleagues that three kinds of killing were going on: war, politically motivated murder, and genocide. Dallaire's early cables to New York likewise described the armed conflict that had resumed between rebels and government forces, and also stated plainly that savage "ethnic cleansing" of Tutsi was occurring. U.S. analysts warned that mass killings would increase. In an April 11 memo prepared for Frank Wisner, the undersecretary of defense for policy, in advance of a dinner with Henry Kissinger, a key talking point was "Unless both sides can be convinced to return to the peace process, a massive (hundreds of thousands of deaths) bloodbath will ensue."

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