COMMENT: THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE: HOW THE PRESS MISSED THE STORY.
LINDA MELVERN AND PAUL WILLIAMS ARGUED in the January issue of African Affairs that: ‘Britain and other great powers signalled their intention to let the killers conduct their grisly business unimpeded’.1 They claimed that,while members of the UN Security Council might not have recognized that genocide was taking place, they were aware that hundreds of thousands of people were being killed when they decided to withdraw the UN peace- keepers. They therefore accuse the British Government of a ‘deliberately misconceived version’ of what was happening in Rwanda and a ‘wilful neglect of its obligations under the Genocide Convention’.
With hindsight, it is obvious that the world’s political leaders and opinion-formers failed Rwanda in 1994. Bill Clinton, then US President, and Madeleine Albright, then the US representative at the United Nations, have recognized this and expressed regret for their part in withdrawing the UN force from Rwanda as the genocide started. Their British counterparts, John Major, the Prime Minister, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Baroness Lynda Chalker, the Minister for Africa, have been less forthright. At the time no one resigned, and nobody’s career has been damaged by the failure in Rwanda. Indeed, the pivotal player at the United Nations at the time, Kofi Annan, Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping who dealt with the dispatches from the UN force commander in Kigali, has become Secretary General. Annan’s deputy and then successor at Peacekeeping, Syed Iqbal Riza, is now his Chef de Cabinet.
The aim of this commentary is not to pass judgement on these players, but to try to recall the thinking of the time and revisit the context in which decisions about Rwanda and Africa were taken. Since the genocide in Rwanda itself has challenged assumptions and changed perspectives, it requires a mental repositioning that goes further than asking who knew what when. I begin with my own experience as a journalist covering Africa at the time, and then go on to examine some of the early coverage of the genocide that appeared in the British press.
African Affairs (2004), 103, 283–290 © Royal African Society 2004 DOI: 10.1093/afraf/adh046
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I thought long and hard about writing a story that said: ‘Genocide Looms in Rwanda’. It might have made the front page — the aspiration of every journalist — but I had only one source. Everyone else I had spoken to talked up the Arusha peace process. I did not sense anything sinister on the streets of Kigali that might have made me sceptical. And, as the world-weary diplo- mats said, the worst that would happen if the accord did not work would be another round of fighting. I had not been in Kigali long enough to make a judgement or doubt my interlocutors, so to write a sensational story about impending genocide would have been dishonest and irresponsible. It might even prompt genocide. I put down my pen and went off to eastern Congo.
On 6 April I was packing my bag for South Africa to cover the impend- ing election when The Independent’s Foreign Editor, Harvey Morris, called me to tell me about the plane crash. After some discussion, we agreed that I should continue to South Africa, but watch developments in Rwanda. I wrote a background article and caught the plane to Johannesburg. For the next three weeks the newspaper carried agency reports on Rwanda. As the South African polls closed, I flew to Kampala to try to find out what was happening in Rwanda.
Getting to the action was not easy. There were no flights to Kigali or anywhere else in the country. The route from Zaire in the west was imposs- ible, since President Mobutu Sese Seko did not allow journalists into the country except by special invitation. To try to get in from the south through Burundi might be impossible and dangerous, since that country too had been destabilized by the death of its president. The other viable routes were through Tanzania to south-eastern Rwanda — a journey of at least three days — or across the Uganda border, which was officially closed. However, the World Food Programme was running a cross-border feeding operation to eastern Rwanda. This was encouraged by the RPF who controlled the border on the Rwandan side.
The WFP lent me a vehicle and a driver and we drove into Rwanda. Once
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From there, leaving our RPF guide and guard in Rwanda,we drove across to the refugee camps on the Tanzanian side. Here thousands of Hutus who had fled eastern Rwanda told us that RPF Tutsis were murdering Hutus, and that they had come across the border to escape. Some journalists had bought this story at face value. Although we had seen few people on the way, I had seen no evidence of killing and little sign of destruction and I did not believe what I was being told. My instincts were confirmed when two people, separately, drew me aside and told me that what I was being told was not true. I found them convincing. They were clearly frightened but desperate to tell their story. They said that it was these refugees who had done the killing, and they had fled to escape RPF revenge.
On the way back I saw some of the massacre sites that have been exten- sively reported and recorded. Then we turned west to Kigali and joined the RPF front line in the hills overlooking the city from the north-east. From a distance it looked peaceful. It was impossible to know what was happening there.
It was also impossible to get the story out without leaving Rwanda. Tele- phones did not work, and mobile phones did not reach that far in those days. To send reports back to the newspaper meant going all the way back to Uganda — another day’s journey on roads where you had to drive per- manently in second gear. Once out, it might be impossible to get back in again, since the WFP vehicle had to go back to Kampala and no other vehicles were available.
I should also add that it was difficult for me to find words to describe what was happening. I had covered nearly 20 wars, but the usual clichés of death and destruction mocked Rwanda’s horrors. I could find no new words to describe what I was seeing. Furthermore, all the usual human and jour- nalistic instincts to bring something important to the world’s attention shrivelled in the face of what I was seeing and hearing. I began my main
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My own notebooks and reports of that period and reading other reports in the British press provide some insight into what the world thought at the time and how they perceived events in Rwanda. Certainly few people thought that the plane crash that killed President Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi on the evening of 6 April 1994 would trigger one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century. Although the disarming and murder of the Belgian paratroopers, part of the UN force, and the open killings in the streets of Kigali, the capital, began the next day, these events were not interpreted as a spur to international action. On the contrary, they instigated withdrawal. The reasons for this lie in the failure to understand what was happening in Rwanda at the time, and that failure has much to do with the importance — or lack of it — that outsiders ascribed to Africa, the way in which they thought of Africa and the language they used to describe it.
First of all, Rwanda simply was not important enough. To British editors it was a small country far away in a continent that rarely hit the headlines. The words Hutu and Tutsi sounded funny, hardly names that an ambitious news editor or desk officer would want to draw to the attention of a busy boss and claim that they were of immediate and vital importance. Within a few days of the plane crash, The Times ran several articles about what it obvi- ously considered an angle of interest to its readers: the fate of the Rwandan gorillas. Being a former Belgian colony and Francophone, Rwanda was of little interest to the Foreign Office which had been forced to cut its staffing levels in Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was not a country that had historical or commercial links with Britain, and Britain had no diplomatic representation there. In London as the crisis developed, Hurd’s staff were reduced to telling the Foreign Secretary what they had seen on CNN that day. This was Britain’s main source of information on what was happening on the ground.
On 7 April all the major newspapers reported the plane crash that killed the presidents, and followed it with reports of the murder of the Belgian soldiers and then the evacuation of foreigners. There was little attempt to analyze Rwanda’s particular politics, beyond the fact that there had been a civil war that had been frozen by the Arusha Accord. For most newspapers, the foreign story of the moment was Bosnia and its coverage was already stretching budgets and staffing levels.
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In the event, Buthelezi signed the agreement days before the election, the voting was vast and peaceful, and the miracle was completed by the saintly wisdom and demeanour of Nelson Mandela. The expectations of journal- ists, who headed en masse for Durban in search of a bloodbath, were not fulfilled. As a result, they missed the worst bloodbath of all.
They included most of the stringers for the world’s press based in Nairobi, who usually covered East Africa. Normally they would have been in Rwanda on the next flight, but in April 1994 most were in South Africa. The world’s press apparently could not cover more than one Africa story at a time. Some did not even try. The Financial Times of London, always squeamish about stories involving blood but not business, did not send its Nairobi correspondent to South Africa, but nor was she sent to Rwanda for more than a week after the country collapsed.
Burundi, Rwanda’s neighbour and twin, offered more evidence that the world would not be moved by Rwanda’s plight. The previous autumn the first democratically elected president of Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye, had been murdered. He was the country’s first Hutu president and his death was followed by the massacre of at least 50,000 people2. Some said it was five times that number. According to the Commission Internationale d’Enquête sur les Violations des Droits de l’Homme au Burundi depuis 21 Octobre 1993, Hutus and Tutsis were killed in about equal numbers. Reviewing the report, Professor René Lemarchand wrote:
A blind rage suddenly seized Frodebu militants and peasants alike in almost every province, and they killed every Tutsi in sight . . . the picture that emerges is one of unadulterated savagery. In one commune after another, scores of men, women and children were hacked to pieces with machetes, speared or clubbed to death, or doused with kerosene and burned alive. Of the active involvement of some communal and
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2. Commission Internationale d’Enquête sur les Violations des Droits de l’homme au Burundi depuis 21 Octobre 1993 (1995).
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Not a single staff journalist from the British press had covered this story. It barely made the headlines and was hardly reported in British newspapers or on to the national radio in Britain. Any news editor or desk officer who checked through the records would have found that massacres of Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi had occurred with appalling frequency in the second half of the twentieth century. The word ‘genocide’ was fre- quently used to describe these massacres, but no one had ever proposed sending a peacekeeping army to stop them. So why should they now? The United States, whose airlift and financial muscle were — and are — essen- tial to any rapid UN peacekeeping operation, had been traumatized by the deaths of 18 of its special forces in Somalia on a single night in October 1993. As far as Washington was concerned, Rwanda was Africa and Africa was Somalia. President Clinton was not going to allow the UN — let alone the US — to get sucked into local conflicts that might end in another disaster.
The language used by the press to describe Rwanda reinforced the impression that what was going on there was an inevitable and primitive process that had no rational explanation and could not be stopped by negotiation or force. Early reports in the days after 6 April spoke of ‘tribal violence’. A report in The Times warned of an ‘eruption of tribal violence’.4
The local Reuters correspondent, Thadée Nsengiyaremye, reported ‘gangs of youths settling tribal scores hacking and clubbing people to death’. He quoted Western diplomats as saying that ‘continuing tribal slaughter between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority in the Central African states was feared’.5 Lindsey Hilsum, writing in The Guardian on 8 April, spoke of Kigali descending into chaos and quoted a diplomat as saying it was getting ‘messier and messier . . . various clans are murdering others, there is a general score settling going on in Kigali’.6
All this was reported in the context of renewed fighting between the RPF and government troops. After the plane crash, the RPF abandoned the ceasefire and advanced. In Kigali the presidential guard attacked the 600- strong contingent of RPF fighters that had been allowed to come to the capital to protect the politicians who had joined the government as part of the Arusha Accord. The civil war was resumed.
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3. René Lemarchand, Burundi: Ethnic conflict and genocide (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington DC, and Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994). 4. James Bone, ‘Presidents’ deaths raise UN fears of tribal violence’, The Times, 7 April 1994. 5. Thadée Nsengiyaremye, ‘Hundreds die as tribal violence sweeps Rwanda’, The Indepen- dent, 8 April 1994. 6. Lindsey Hilsum, ‘Rwandan PM killed as troops wreak carnage’, The Guardian, 8 April 1994.
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It was not until 12 April when Catherine Bond, writing in The Times, stated that ‘Tutsis were the target plus Hutus who had made the mistake of supporting the [Arusha Accords]’.8 Two days later she wrote:
The majority of the killings are carried out by militias, trained at the instigation of (President) Juvénal Habyarimana. The militia belong to two political parties which are opposed to power sharing with rebels from Rwanda’s minority Tutsi tribe . . . Increas- ingly in the past two days the militiamen have appeared on the streets armed with guns and stick grenades given to them by the remnants of a government led by extremists from the majority Hutu tribe.9
There were several references to genocide in Rwanda and Burundi in the media but these referred to past massacres. This — a week after the killings had begun — was the first hint that what was happening was not mere mayhem or madness, but well organized. Three days later, however, The Guardian was still reporting ‘thousands have died in a orgy of ethnic violence between the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi tribes’.10
The name of the organized death squads that were carrying them out, the Interahamwe, did not get mentioned in the press until 30 April when Reuters began to use it. Meanwhile, the use of words like ‘tribe’, ‘orgy of violence’, ‘bloodletting’ and ‘settling old scores’ implied that these were something incomprehensible to outsiders and uncontrollable, not amenable to reason or negotiable. There was no sudden breakthrough among out- siders in understanding that this was not just another round of fighting between two ethnic groups but an organized mass murder of an entire population. The language of the newspapers gradually changed throughout April from a story about a civil war to a story of genocide.
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7. Agence France Press, published in The Independent, 13 April 1994. 8. Catherine Bond, ‘Cabinet joins flight of 100,000 from Kigali’, The Times, 13 April 1994. 9. Catherine Bond, ‘Kill injured in Red Cross van’, The Times, 15th April 1994. 10. Lindsey Hilsum in The Guardian, 16 April, 1994.
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Yet, had the politicians, diplomats and journalists discovered earlier the organizational element that made the genocide a creation from the top- down as well as the bottom-up, they would perhaps have taken a different attitude to the Rwanda government and the RPF. They would have seen that the massacres were not an offshoot of fighting between government and rebels. They would have seen them as the main issue far sooner.
How might that have changed things? As always, might-have-beens are impossible to judge but had the world’s powerful governments realised and accepted sooner that genocide was taking place, they might have ensured that the UN did not see the two parties as equal combatants in a civil war. That might have meant that they would not have been so keen to work for a ceasefire. Perhaps the US and other Security Council members would not have given the UN orders to abandon Rwanda when it failed to secure that ceasefire. On the contrary, they might have encouraged the RPF to take over the country more quickly to end the killing and establish order. The UN and aid agencies backed by western governments may not then have treated the Hutu refugees and the soldiers that accompanied them in Goma purely as victims in need of aid, but would have taken action earlier to disarm them and investigate who among them was responsible for the genocide.
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11. Interview with author.
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