Saturday, January 21, 2006

Courage and Indifference

From Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: the Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.
The day that Henry returned with the Ghanaians June 8, Major Luc Racine led a small team of [military observers] into Nyamirambo, a suburb of Kigali, to do a reconnaissance of a French-run orphanage called Sr. André.

The orphanage was one of the places that Bernard Kouchner [of Doctors without Borders] had on his radar, and the situation there was desperate. The children, mostly Tutsis, were crammed into the building with little food or water and they could rarely even venture safely out into the yard. The orphanage was surrounded by unfriendly people, including militiamen.

To get there , Racine had to negotiate past twenty-one barriers. Nyamirambo was one of the few densely populated areas left in Kigali and was full of militia. All the barriers there were set up close to drinking joints, and the people at the barriers were boozed up on homemade banana beer. Huts were so jammed together on the sides of the road that driving along it was like going through a tunnel.

Racine drove deeper and deeper into Nyamirambo he seemed to be penetrating the heart of the Interahamwe [militias]. The people of the suburb were so poor it was hard for them to imagine a future and they had been receptive to the Hutu hate message.

The orphanage was a square building surrounded by a fence, and jammed up against the fence on all sides were more huts. When Racine and his team drove into the orphanage compound and parked near the one big tree, the French missionary who ran the place burst into tears. But the arrival of the UN vehicles had drawn attention, and soon hundreds of locals had climbed onto the roofs of the surrounding huts, and some even hopped down to stare in the orphanage windows at the children.

Inside the building, a couple of the adults who had been attempting too care for the children had lost it and become near-crazed with fear. Racine knew there was no way he could bring the children out that day. The crowd was getting ugly, and the UN’s evacuation of orphans was a potentially explosive issue. But he decided to try to move the adults who had suffered breakdowns.

With the occasional militiaman now firing his weapon toward the orphanage, getting anyone out was going to be tricky. They managed to dodge the bullets and reach the cover of the tree, but on the way to the truck, the French journalist was hit in one buttock, and they had to grab him, fling him inside and make their escape.

Racine stepped on the gas and started ramming his way through the barriers, making it past each one just ahead of the word being passed on to stop them. In Racine and his team’s wake, Nyamirambo exploded—the Interahamwe had no compunction about firing at their own people when denied a target. The suburb became so chaotic, we weren’t able to get back into the neighbourhood until Kigali fell to the RPF three and a half weeks later—even Kagame’s troops had trouble taking control of the area.

That failed mission was exactly the nature of the tasks I had to ask the [military observers] to do in order to try to deliver medical supplies and save, protect, feed and possibly evacuate innocent people. By this point we had received 921 requests from the outside world to go in and save Rwandan individuals or entire families, and 252 requests to rescue expatriates. All of those people had connections pulling strings for them through New York, or even calling us directly.

Even though Racine and his team had made it out of St. André’s orphanage alive, Racine was devastated by the thought of not being able to rescue the children. He knew that after he’d left there was a good chance that all the kids would have been murdered—people had been looking in the windows waiting to pounce.

It took every ounce of our effort, resources and courage to produce tiny results, yet all around us hundreds of thousands of human beings were being ripped apart and millions were running for their lives. Sometimes we did more harm than good. After each and every mission, failed or “successful,” I had to wonder whether it was ethical for me to keep my men at such a level of operational intensity and risk.

After I got home from Rwanda, and the years slowly revealed to me the extent of the cynical manoeuvring by France, Belgium, the United States, and the RPF and the RGF, among others, I couldn’t help but feel that we were a sort of diversion, even sacrificial lambs, that permitted statesmen to say that the world was doing something to stop the killing. In fact we were nothing more than camouflage.

When I hit my personal rock bottom in the late nineties, after I testified at Arusha for the first time, it was because I had finally realized the extent to which I had been duped. I had pushed my people to do real things that ultimately saved human lives, but which in the scheme of the killing seemed nearly insignificant, and all the time I had thought I was leading the effort to try to solve the crisis.

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