March 26, 1998 in Nation/World

‘We Did Not Act…,’ Clinton Tells Rwanda President Admits U.S., Others Stood By During Genocide

John F. Harris Washington Post
 

Four years ago this spring when Rwanda suddenly became awash in blood, Clinton administration officials resisted appeals for intervention and spent weeks debating whether the mass killings carried out by Hutu extremists should be called “genocide.”

Wednesday morning, President Clinton came here and acknowledged that the answer should have been simple.

In just 90 days, more than a million people died in what Clinton called the most rapid “slaughter in this blood-filled century we are about to leave.” It was a tragedy, he added, for which the United States and other members of the “international community” must share blame.

“We did not act quickly enough after the killing began,” Clinton said. “We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.”

Clinton’s acknowledgment, during a three-hour stop at Kigali’s airport, came shortly after he and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had listened to a cascade of painful recollections from people who had survived the campaign by the Hutu-extremist government that then ruled Rwanda to exterminate the country’s Tutsi minority.

There was the Catholic relief worker who suffered the murder of her parents and four siblings, witnessed the rape of a friend by 10 soldiers and saved herself by hiding for several days at the home of a neighbor, huddling under a chair covered by a pile of clothes.

There was the priest who said he sometimes feels guilty about being alive when so many family members and friends perished.

And there was Venuste Karasira, who told Clinton that when the killing began on April 6, 1994, he joined some 4,000 people who fled to a local college, confident that United Nations peace-keeping soldiers there would protect them. When the U.N. troops departed, he was one of just 400 people left alive after a gun and machete rampage.

“I lost my right hand,” Karasira said. “We died because we were left by the United Nations soldiers.”

Clinton swallowed and clenched his jaw. But he said nothing, apparently unable to respond. He simply nodded for the next speaker to begin.

The stories, Clinton later declared, showed anew “the capacity of people everywhere, not just in Rwanda, and certainly not just in Africa, to slip into pure evil.”

While acknowledging that the world had been slow to confront the evil, Clinton took only an indirect responsiblity himself. The problem, he said, was one of information. “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.”

But some Rwandans in the audience, as well as some American human rights activists, said Clinton was letting himself off too easily. “The information was there” about the extent and the nature of the killings, said Janet Fleischman, an Africa specialist with the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. “What was lacking was the political will. And there is still a question of whether there will be political will in the future.”

Fleischman said, however, “the president obviously deserves credit for going to Rwanda and speaking directly about the genocide.”

But human rights activists, as well as the several hundred Rwandans applauded Clinton’s assessment of the origins of the Rwandan genocide. It resulted, Clinton said, not from centuries-old tribal antagonisms but from a deliberate policy pursued by Hutu leaders of inciting their followers to violence.

“The ground for violence was carefully prepared, the airwaves poisoned with hate, casting the Tutsis as scapegoats for the problems of Rwanda, denying their humanity,” he said. “All this was done, clearly, to make it easy for otherwise reluctant people to participate in wholesale slaughter.”

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