Shmuley Boteach

Rwanda’s genocide, and lessons America hasn’t learned for Syria

A difficult visit to an old killing ground prompt musings about a current one

Walking into the Ntarama Church outside Kigali and witnessing the scenes of mass slaughter that are all around, I instantly began to gag and ran outside lest I be sick in consecrated ground. I walked in several more times but could barely breathe. Never in my life had I seen something so utterly gruesome. Eighteen years earlier, in April of 1994, approximately 5,000 Tutsi men, women, and children had sought refuge in the church to protect them from genocidal Hutu militiamen. But God sometimes hides and does not protect. After throwing grenades into the church, the Hutu monsters axed, macheted, clubbed, and speared every last person to death. Today, their skulls, bones, coffins, and blood-soaked clothing decorate the church in a macabre orgy of death that left me dizzy and weak. I considered myself fortunate not to have gone to another church, two hours away, where nearly 500 lime-preserved bodies, in their crouching postures of death, lie strewn around the church after being found nearby in a mass grave. They remain there, unburied, silent witnesses to man’s brutality to his fellow man.

The author at Ntarama Church (photo credit: Courtesy)
The author at Ntarama Church (photo credit: Courtesy)

The night before I had sat with Marie-Jean, a Tutsi woman in her forties whose husband was hacked to death in front of her eyes when Hutu militiamen broke into their home. They ripped her eight-month-old baby from her arms and dashed her brains against a wall. Then it was her turn as she was savagely gang-raped by more than 10 HIV-positive men, leaving her with AIDs. I asked her, an attractive and bright-eyed woman,  if she would ever marry again. She answered that she would never allow any man to ever touch her again. She added that she stays alive only for her 20-year-old son who miraculously survived.

In Rwanda the scars of death are much fresher than the German death camps of Poland. The survivors of the fastest genocide in human history are not octogenarians from my Jewish community but vibrant twenty- and thirty-somethings. Each has soul-searing stories of entire families being dismembered by machetes, often by their own neighbors and family friends. The stories do not come naturally. Rwandans have not learned to easily talk about the horrors they experienced. It comes out only when they have learned to trust. One guide drove us around for two days. As he left us at our hotel in Kigali, he suddenly said, “My grandparents, father, mother, brother, and sister were all killed. I was 14. I survived living in broken down homes that the Hutus were not searching.” A few minutes later, he drove off.

Lt. General Charles Kayonga, commander-in-chief of the Rwandan army, whom I met through my daughter who is serving in the Israeli army and who is part of a unit that hosted him in Israel, witnessed the entire genocide as a young RPF officer stationed in Kigali. A soft-spoken man of probing intelligence and a deep listener, he is a hero who commanded a battalion that was surrounded by tens of thousands of Hutu killers yet still saved as many lives as he could. He told me that, given their experience, the Rwandans often see themselves as the Jews of Africa. As in the case of the Jews of the Holocaust, few nations cared that the Tutsis were being slaughtered. The United States and the United Nations were especially indifferent. President Clinton did not have even a single meeting with his senior staff through the three months of the genocide and refused to even destroy or block the RTLM radio antenna through which the genocide was broadcast. Kofi Annan forbade UN Peacekeeping Chief General Romeo Dallaire from taking any action that would prevent the genocide. Dallaire pleaded but Annan was resolute and ordered the bulk of UN peacekeepers out of the country. I discovered that the Rwandans are, like Israelis, highly suspicious of the UN and especially the French whom, they argue, aided and abetted the genocide by training Hutu militiamen. Rwandan enmity toward the French continues till today.

I met several Rwandan youth who had never left the country but told me if they did the first country they would visit would be Israel, which seems to be something of a role model to Rwandans steeped in their recent history. And a group of New York Jewish philanthropists, led by Anne Heyman, established a breathtakingly beautiful youth village an hour outside Kigali called Agohozo Shalom which houses and educates hundreds of youth, many of them genocide survivors. The teenage genocide survivors I met there there told me they believe in “Tikkun Olam,” the Jewish commandment to repair the world, which they quoted in Hebrew.

Also, like citizens of the State of Israel, the Rwandans feel they have unique security concerns given malevolent military forces on their Congolese border, whose commanders include many escaped militiamen who perpetrated the genocide and have never been brought to justice.

I felt an immediate and deep kinship with the Rwandan people, especially the survivors of the genocide. Having read many books on the slaughter, Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president who as commander of the RPF ended the genocide, has always been a hero to me. In the anti-genocide community Kagame is a man of towering stature. After seeing that the world was doing nothing to save his people, he launched a military offensive and methodically conquered the entire country, displaying a strategic genius that put an end to the genocide. When he came to power he did not take revenge against the Hutus who had slaughtered his people but instead instituted a policy making it virtually unlawful to even speak of Hutu-Tutsi ethnicity again. Virtually everyone I spoke to told me they are not Tutsi or Hutu but Rwandans and that they will never again submit to arbitrary classifications that were set up by Belgian colonialists.

Kagame has, of late, come in for significant criticism from human rights groups and even the American government for not allowing sufficient press freedoms, political opposition, and for assisting rebel groups in neighboring Congo, a charge which he strenuously denies. Further, there are allegations of political opposition leaders and even journalists who have disappeared and one opposition leader who apparently was found decapitated, although no link to the Rwandan government has been established. Kagame’s defenders – and they are essentially everyone I met in Rwanda who seem to revere him – argue that Kagame and his ministers live under the permanent trauma of having witnessed a million people massacred by opponents who have, in large measure, yet to be brought to justice and who foment Rwandan instability from both outside and inside the country. If he’s tough, they say, it’s because he has to be, in order to keep the peace and prevent another colossal slaughter.

What is certainly true is that Rwanda is flourishing as one of the cleanest countries I have ever visited and everything feels very safe. An economic miracle over which Kagame has presided has given Rwanda one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa. That a nation that less than a generation ago saw one million of its citizens’ bodies strewn in every corner of the country can be this orderly, peaceful, and prosperous is indeed an unthinkable accomplishment, for which President Kagame deserves the international applause he regularly receives.

But that would not excuse some of the government excesses that are being alleged – though I personally neither saw nor felt the government as heavy-handed – and it behooves President Kagame to address these allegations seriously and forthrightly for the many people around the world, like me, who consider him a giant for having stopped the wholesale slaughter of millions of defenseless men, women, and children, and then promoted an air of reconciliation in his country.

But it likewise behooves the Western leaders and the American government who are being critical of Kagame to learn from the Rwandan experience and finally agree to put an end to mass slaughter and to seriously punish all those who engage in it. Why are we doing nothing in Syria? Why have 3.5 million people died of starvation in North Korea with barely an American response?

State Department officials shared with me our government’s concerns about limited press and political freedoms in Rwanda. The United States must always stand up for liberty and democracy, and it is right to raise these as extremely serious issues with the government of Rwanda. We dare not be silent. But I also thought to myself that President Kagame no doubt considers our country hypocritical for lecturing him about freedom and human rights when he, as commander of the RPF, begged the US and the UN to assist him in stopping a genocide that was playing before the whole world and neither lifted a finger to assist – and might even be said to have impeded the actions of other African nations who wanted to help. Kagame may have concluded that no one will protect his people other than himself, and to rely on Western leaders is to wait through three long months of useless UN resolutions and deliberations while one million men, women, and children are hacked to death.

This would not, of course, excuse any human rights violations which, if they are indeed occurring in Rwanda, must immediately cease. Kagame is a hero to me and a hero he should remain. I am appealing to him, in the name of all of us around the world who look up to him, to remain true to his democratic ideals and totally committed to protecting human rights. He must think of his responsibility to be an accountable, democratic leader to his people as well as of his obligations to his legions of fans throughout the globe who do not wish to see the reputation of one of the only men alive who stopped a genocide tarnished by human rights abuses.

But if America were to take action to stop the slaughter in Syria, North Korea, and other nations where innocent people are being crushed by evil governments, it would give us in the West far greater credibility when speaking to our allies abroad about human rights and the infinite value of every human life.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the international best-selling author of 28 books, most recently “Kosher Jesus,” is the Republican nominee for New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District. His website is Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He is the author of Judaism for Everyone and 30 other books, including his most recent, Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.