Editorial: Horror of genocide lingers


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One hundred days. That’s all the time it took to murder more than 800,000 people.

This blitz of human suffering, the Rwandan genocide, shocked the world not only with the body count but also with the extent of its brutality. In a campaign of ethnic cleansing that has been portrayed in movies such as Hotel Rwanda, extremist Hutus slayed Tutsis, a minority ethnic group in East Africa, and even moderate Hutus in Rwanda and its surrounding nations in the country’s civil war.

Twenty years have passed since the genocide, which killed 20 percent of the Rwanda’s population and 70 percent of its Tutsis. And even as new generations of children with no memory of the slaughter are born in Rwanda with each passing year, the genocide has become ingrained in the fabric of its history, through the scars and memories of survivors.

The ramifications of the Rwandan genocide are still felt today. Acts of war rape were widespread, proliferating the spread of HIV/AIDS in East Africa that remains a major health threat. And Rwandans are still seeking justice for the victims through a special investigative team named the Genocide Fugitive Tracking Unit.

But when these acts of terror took place during a time of chaos and indiscriminate killing, finding the perpetrators is no simple task. Since the task force’s creation a year after the genocide, it has brought only 95 indictments to the International Criminal Court, which was created after the genocide to prosecute those involved in the killing and any other crimes against humanity. Out of those indictments, only 49 have ended in convictions in 19 years.

Rwanda still struggles with the dialectic of moving on from the genocide and seeking retribution for its victims. Though much progress has been made in the nation, particularly in reducing poverty and ethnic tensions, the genocide still shapes its politics. A particularly sore point of contention lies between Rwanda and France. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has accused the country of being complicit in the genocide with its support of the Hutu-led government during the period, an assertion the French say twists the reality of history.

Even as the international community is more tightly knit and collaborative now than ever before, genocide and ethnic cleansing are not just distant memories of the 20th century. As in Rwanda, civil wars are the backdrop of mass genocide today.

In Sudan, Africa’s longest civil war brought the first genocide of the 2000s when government retaliation for a rebel attack left more than 300,000 dead in Darfur and South Sudan, and the scorched-earth tactics have displaced more than 2.7 million. Ongoing instances of violence between government forces and rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo have displaced more than 500,000 since 2007, and civilians are frequent targets for mass killings in the North Kivu region. And the use of chemical weapons in Syria has introduced a new devastating aftermath to the civil war there.

In the face of these atrocities, what is being done? With any one country being unlikely to take sole action, the U.N. has attempted to intervene mostly through humanitarian aid and peacekeeping forces. The will for more forceful intervention simply isn’t there. The focus, it seems, is on memorializing past genocides, not putting effort into preventing current ones.

It’s not as if these atrocities are committed in a vacuum. The forces perpetrating crimes against humanity are backed by governments, and governments are susceptible to international pressure.

Will we allow genocides to continue? As we look back several decades from today, will we lament our inaction, the way we have with Rwanda? On the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, it’s time to answer these questions.

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