Approaching Genocide: Did We Learn Nothing From Rwanda?

by Oliver Mbamara

Dear Secretary-General of The United Nations,

Permit me to draw your attention to the plight of our brothers and sisters back in Africa and other third-world countries. Of course there are many third-world countries facing hardships of all kinds but Africans are a people who strive to survive despite the odds. So if it were about the hardship, I will keep my peace. However, when it is about the brutal and systematic extermination of a people including the various generations and culture that make up such people, bodies like the United Nations (the UN) that are primarily set up to tackle such issues owe it to humanity to boldly stand up and not only do something but do it timely.

It is happening again in Uganda. Just two days ago, it was reported that about 200 Ugandans were murdered (most of them burnt alive) in a village by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). As the fleeing relatives returned to the devastation of the place they once called their home and village, one could not help but notice the hurt of the people as they tried to bury the dead. They quickly dug holes and converted brick-ruins of fallen houses into soil, which they used to cover the carcasses of dear ones scattered around the vicinity. They had to hurry before the rebels would attack again. It was indeed disturbing to see children (many now painfully orphaned) gazing at the charred remains of their loved ones, but more disturbing is the lack of any governmental or official help or relieve of any kind. At the hospital, a female doctor who spoke for others managed to say through exhausted lungs that the badly burnt patients need medicine, treatment items, but mostly security. Yes, there was no security, and only God can tell what would happen if the attackers return to an even more depleted people.

Your Excellency, I am sure you must have seen a clip of the news coverage. Watching the scene reminded me of the predicament of some Rwandans 10 years ago, that were rounded up in a compound and massacred after the withdrawal of a peacekeeping force team that was there for a while. I cannot help but mention that a dog had room in the departing aircraft while the Rwandans who begged to be lifted to safety were left on the ground and eventually slaughtered.

Your Excellency, it is like dejavu all over again. I am worried that things might play out again as the memories return regarding how the world stood around and watched while some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Even as we speak, the bones of the dead in many parts of Rwanda are still lying around, 10 years after they were killed. The few surviving people in notorious areas of the genocide such as Gikongoro want to start a new life and try to leave the brutal memories of the massacre behind, but little or no help has come on how to give the dead the proper burial being asked by the surviving few. It is on record that 50,000 people were systematically murdered in a school compound in Gikongoro village in Rwanda. The evidence is still there by way of scattered bones and decaying flesh being preserved with lime by the four (yes only “four”) people who survived the genocidal attack on the school compound.

Your Excellency, I had thought of keeping my worries to myself. At least some of these concerned communities in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, and so on, are beginning to heal, but only this morning (February 25, 2004), the BBC reported that “Protesters in Uganda have attacked the homes of Acholi people, the ethnic group they blame for a massacre. At least one man – believed to be an Acholi – has been stoned to death by the mob in the town of Lira.” Vengeance, the driving force. It is also reported that Northern civilians are at the risk of loosing their tongues, their ears, lips, noses, and other body parts, children are being abducted and schoolgirls taken as sex slaves. A 23-year-old victim was quoted as saying: “They tied me and laid me down. They told me not to cry. Not to make any noise. Then one man sat on my chest, men held my arms, legs, and one held my neck”. “Another picked up an axe. First he chopped my left hand, then my right. Then he chopped my nose, my ears and my mouth with a knife.” The gory picture of this victim is available at BBC News online under the heading, “Uganda’s atrocious war.” It is a gruesome reminder of how quickly things can go bad, and how brutal these atrocities can get. Another quick reminder of the dark days in the Diamond Wars across Africa involving countries like Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia where many young people got their body parts, particularly their hands, chopped off by opponents. How long shall we sit down and watch the continued perpetration and/or proliferation of these atrocities.

Unfortunately, some of the people in Africa and other third-world countries adopt brutal savagery as a means of making their point or establishing their reign but those of us who disapprove of such barbarism in the twentieth century must do something when we see the signs of such approaching mayhem. Man’s inhumanity to man thrives due to the absence of love. I do not intend to exonerate acts of brutal savagery. However, upon further analysis, it is obvious that at each point in time in the world, there is a society where people are resorting to violence as its way of making its point. In Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Haiti, to mention a few (using current trend of events), people continue to use violence to make their point. Why they so choose is another point for another discourse, which I will spare you here. The world may never know complete peace and sometimes a person or people may have brought such nemesis upon himself or themselves, but compassion demands that we care for our fellow men. This moral obligation becomes something more than mere execution of moral law, convention, or treaties where some entity or institution has been mandated to pursue peace regardless of how distant the attainment may seem. If such objective is politicized or if the execution of such function is tainted with bias or discrimination then such action or inaction becomes one that must be accounted for at the appropriate time.

It is therefore disturbing to note that when several lives are being lost or about to be lost in some third-world countries (especially African nations) due to socio-political crisis, the UN or the big Western nations usually appear reserved in their response? When they eventually get involved, they seemingly do so albeit so reluctantly. The type of leg dragging and red-tapism the world witnessed while thousands of women, men, children, elders, etc were being rapped, tortured, and methodically murdered in Rwanda. It leaves one to think that for some undeclared reasons, crisis in third-world countries are left to deteriorate before the international community ever offers any help if at all. It is said that justice delayed is justice denied.

As I write, the international community and the UN are watching as Haiti is boiling with violence and people are dying. Haiti is a third-world country and does not really have much to offer the big Super nations. At the moment, it is not really certain whether the rebels will succeed in toppling the government or whether the incumbent President will survive the onslaught of the rebels. Going by the history of how the big nations react to third-world crisis, it may not be politically and strategically wise for the super nations to get involved yet without knowing what is at stake. It is therefore easy to predict that the big super nations will play the waiting game until the picture is clear before they will get involved. How unfortunate. Perhaps, there isn’t really much to be salvaged in Haiti economically, but how about the lives and properties being destroyed? How many more will have to die?

Before we forget, let me remind us that the West (including the UN) was on hand to save the Bosnia/Serbia/Kosovo situation. NATO bombing campaign forced Slobodan Milosvic to withdraw from Kosovo, which later culminated in his removal from office. He is now being tried at the Hague by the War Crimes Tribunal for genocide against thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats. The invasion of the Taliban’s Afghanistan and Saddam Husein’s Iraq are still fresh in our minds, and the UN is contributing to the rebuilding of these nations. Africa has had its own share of war crimes and genocide, but how many of such communities are getting enough and continued rehabilitation assistance together with adequate measures to eliminate or reduce the chance of a repeat tragedy? 10 years after the pogrom in Rwanda involving an estimated 800,000 people, most of the bodies have not been buried, the communities have not been rebuilt, and most of the very few who survived have actually not been resettled. What is it that makes it proper for the West (including the UN) to invest billions in rebuilding Iraq, Afghanistan, or Kosovo, and what makes it improper for African recovering nations to receive the same reconstruction or rehabilitation?

The crisis between the Israelites and the Palestinians has always generated prominent concern and the UN has continued to proffer means of resolving the conflict. Incidentally Arab nations of North Africa are very eager to create a free and peaceful Palestinian state while ignoring their African neighboring nations like Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, etc., that are still experiencing states of anarchy with other atrocities including slavery allegedly going on? I will not make any conclusions but one is wont to wonder if the UN is being selective in its involvements with Africa due to the predominance of Western Super nations in the decision making arm of the organization. Perhaps there are reasons not known to the general public. Of course, we all know that most third-world African nations like Rwanda and Uganda do not boast of such rich resources like oil, nor are they the bed of so many billion dollars worth of Western investments. But certainly the lives of the people in those African nations are no less precious or relevant than those of the Palestinians, the Israelites, the Bosnians, the Iraqis, and so on.

Your Excellency, it is my appeal to you to please use your good offices to change the attitude of the UN with regards to its response time and resolution measures adoptable when deaths occur in third-world countries especially in Africa nations. It is evident that under your Stewardship, the concerns of these third-world countries are being addressed but we will remember your era even more if the pace and drag of economic or political correctness is no longer the prior consideration for the rescue or protection of a people facing threats of extermination or genocide. A situation where the UN goes in after the killings and lootings to keep peace in ghost villages or destabilized towns of maimed and disabled victims of hostility and cruelty is not acceptable by people of these third-world countries.

This is in no way suggesting that the UN or any of the Super Powers should disregard the sovereign authority of any third-world country. It is a different case where it is “proven” that a nation’s leadership or government obviously engages in or fails to prevent acts of genocide or annihilation against any of its people and their culture. It could be argued that such government or leadership may have stripped itself of its legitimate sovereignty. In such a circumstance, the “prevention” or stoppage of such acts of genocide could be a bring about an interference in a nation’s internal governance or sovereignty. The UN must wake up to its Global calling and eradicate any reasons that would suggest a selective handling and lackadaisical engagement in African security and socio-political crisis. There has to be a practical transition from cosmetic to practical concern for the welfare and care of the people of the third-world countries. It is my belief that you will not let the Ugandan situation or any other similar conflict lead to another Rwandan calamity.


As I concluded this paper, I learnt that a former British Cabinet Member has asserted that British intelligence services conducted electronic surveillance on you and listened-in on your conversations at the United Nations. Obviously, some of us undergo more scrutiny than others when placed in key and elevated positions such as the Secretary-General of the world’s number one and most influential body – the United Nations. Rather than go on with the views expressed by some observers that “certain people and big governments will never trust “an African or a third-world citizen” at the helm of managing world affairs, I see the development as a confirmation of your commitment and focus in addressing the mandate of the United Nations. If a man should not be trusted because of his commitment to seeking justice and fairness for all concerned, then trust is irrelevant. And if a man is deemed unpredictable because he is driven in his action by the zeal and focus to attain justice or fairness for all concerned, then their judgment, restlessness, and sleeplessness are in vain who seek to distract him, and the work is cut out for them who stand in his way.

That you are still in office and commanding the support of the various members of the world body despite the divergence of their views and their policies, is a mark of your worth, credential, and capability to significantly veer the affairs and direction of the world. I am sure that in your wisdom, you are quite cognizant of the immensity of your office. I only wish to remind your Excellency of the fact that such offices could be used to bring prompt awareness to the predicament of African nations as well as to involve the world in “truly” bringing about the required positive changes and recuperation of many African victims of genocide, deprivation, and dehumanization. I have a feeling that your Excellency is perhaps aware of all the points I have made in this letter, but I feel compelled to at least remind your Excellency of the need for concern, the importance of prompt action, and the dangers of red-tapism, delay, and procrastination.

I would have sent this by post but in view of the urgency of the situation, I have resolved to send it across as an open letter which might reach you in many ways regardless of which part of the world your duty carries you today.

Thank you.

February 25, 2004

Oliver Mbamara, Esq., is an Administrative Law Judge with the State of New York. He can be reached through the Editor

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