Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - Editorial: The most terrible word

Mass killings in the Great Lakes in 1994 have shaped everything that has followed.

Genocide. It is perhaps the most chilling word in any language, one so heavily antithetical to basic civilized behaviour that individuals, institutions and governments almost automatically refrain from its use even when logic dictates otherwise.

Hundreds of thousands of persons were slaughtered in Rwanda's Killing Fields in 1994. But it is only now that the obvious is being admitted by many. On a recent visit to the region, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began to set the official record to rights when she said "We, the international community, should have been more active in the early stages of the atrocities in Rwanda in 1994, and called them what they were: genocide."

The sheer number of victims involved in the slaughter has shaped everything that followed, making the Great Lakes crisis very different to other humanitarian emergencies.

More than two million Rwandans fled their homeland in the wake of the massacres. Many were encouraged or coerced to do so by their old leaders, but the majority needed little prodding, overwhelmed by events they had witnessed and the retribution they feared.

Camp conditions in Tanzania and eastern Zaire were often appalling and it is clear large numbers of Rwandans wanted to end their exile. Once more, their former leaders wielded a still considerable influence - this time to stop return. And once more, fearful Rwandans needed little encouragement to stay put despite conciliatory statements from a new government in Kigali.

When the Kivu camps were broken up in 1996 during a rapidly expanding rebellion, tens of thousands of people risked probable death in the rainforests of Central Africa rather than an uncertain future in Rwanda. An unknown number of people were killed, indiscriminately and in direct retribution for the 1994 massacres.

Aid agencies faced what one field officer termed a 'mountain of dilemmas' every day.

Should we, the humanitarians, continue to feed camps which were full of, and often controlled by, the génocidaires? Should field workers tell the world what they knew of fresh killings in the forests if that endangered not only their own lives but also ongoing efforts to save many tens of thousands of still living refugees? In such extreme circumstances was the principle of 'voluntary repatriation' practical or even possible?

There were no 'easy' answers anymore and often no 'good' answers either.

Genocide continues to cast its shadow over attempts to rebuild Rwanda today, while in neighbouring Burundi, almost unnoticed by much of the outside world, as many as 150,000 people have been killed in the last four years in similar violence.

Killings by both sides go on inside Rwanda. The prisons are overflowing and most inmates probably will never receive a fair trial. The government is suspicious of an outside world which Rwanda believes was far more generous to refugees and the perpetrators of the original killings than to other innocent survivors. Rehabilitation and reconstruction are proceeding slowly and renewed killings are spreading ominously.

Madeleine Albright attempted to add perspective to the daily headlines when she cautioned, "I think there is clearly room for improvement in the human rights record of Rwanda. But I think it's also important for us to understand how difficult it is for a country that has seen a half million people slaughtered, to put itself back together and reconcile."

If nothing else, that process will take a considerable amount of time.

A total of 36 UNHCR field personnel and family members were deliberately killed, died in the course of their work or are still missing. Other humanitarian agencies suffered similar casualties. This magazine is devoted to their work and memory.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 110 (1997)