The Ghosts of Rwanda and the Responsibility to Protect

This weekend marked the somber anniversary of the beginning of a crime against humanity that continues to haunt a global community that had vowed genocide would never again happen on its watch.

Eighteen years ago, 100 days of terror started in Rwanda when Interahamwe, or Hutu militias, began hunting down minority Tutsis, while Hutus who opposed the slaughter were branded traitors or collaborators. "All Tutsis will perish. They will disappear from the earth," cooed the sinister, incendiary Hutu radio broadcasts that swallowed the airwaves. "Slowly, slowly, slowly, we kill them like rats." That included putting a priority on killing Tutsi children: "When you kill rats, you don't spare the babies," militia leaders said.

In that 100 days, some 800,000 people were killed -- a fifth of Rwanda's population. The landscape was literally littered with bodies hacked to death.

It was not a tragedy that caught the world by surprise. In January 1994, Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian serving as United Nations Force Commander in Rwanda, warned his bosses about a plan fomenting for Tutsi extermination. Kofi Annan, then the director of UN peacekeeping operations, said they wouldn't take any actions that would put the UN in the position of having to use force.

Annan would later say they chose that route because letting the involved parties know that "we are monitoring, we are going to deal with you harshly and we know what you are up to" can be "a very good deterrent."

Dallaire begged for troops to no avail, even though it was a matter of putting soldiers armed with guns and heavy weaponry against men armed with machetes. At one point, he tried negotiating with some of the killers when he noticed blood spots still on the clothes of the Interahamwe leaders.

"All of a sudden, something happened that turned them into non-human things. And I was not talking with humans, I literally was talking with evil. It even became a very difficult ethical problem. Do I actually negotiate with the devil to save people, or do I wipe it out, I shoot the bastards right there?" he said on the PBS "Ghosts of Rwanda" Frontline program.

"My mission failed and hundreds of thousands of people died," said Dallaire, who spiraled into depression and drinking after the genocide. "And that -- I can't find any solace in statements like, 'I did my best.'" He is now a senator from Quebec and advocate to stop similar atrocities.

Calling it "genocide" would have compelled the U.S. to act, so the White House danced around the world as much as possible. "As to the distinctions between the words, we're trying to call what we have seen so far, as best as we can, and based, again, on the evidence -- we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred," State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelley said on June 10, 1994. "How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?" Reuters reporter Alan Elsner famously asked.

"I have phraseology which has been carefully examined," Shelley would say when pressed on the administration's terminology.

The Clinton administration was still stinging from the "Black Hawk Down" deaths in Somalia. Belgium was stinging from the mutilation and murder of 10 of its peacekeepers in Rwanda after a mob tricked them into giving up their weapons, and was lobbying the UN to close the entire operation. Upon hearing that the UN could leave at any time, Rwandans were actually asking peacekeepers to shoot them so they wouldn't face a more painful death by machete.

The Rwandan genocide stands as one of humanity's greatest failings. That massive death toll was preventable.

Former President Bill Clinton told a crowd in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1998 that "we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred."

"It may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror," Clinton said.

However, documents unclassified in 2004 showed that Clinton had decided early on not to intervene and proved that the White House was receiving detailed reports almost daily of the carnage during all three months of the genocide.