It is the 20th anniversary right now of the start of the Rwandan Genocide. In Yugoslavia, in the same time span, there were many massacres and ethnic purges occurring as well, as the country continued to disintegrate over the the 1990s. (Next year will be the anniversary of the worst European massacre in postwar history.) There have been a number of compelling and important perspectives and accounts surfacing now, two decades later, from both episodes.
In Rwanda, there was very little outside intervention until the very end, when it was already over. In Bosnia and the wider Yugoslav conflict, there was some intervention off and on by outside powers to try to halt the violence, but it was generally too little too late. Certainly much of the external narrative focuses on those who failed to stand up — inside and outside the countries — to protect the innocent civilians. I think that’s important and justified, in that we should not forget and must do better. But it’s also important to remember and honor those who did intervene in these crises, at great personal risk — because their stories are the ones that remind us we could have and should have helped.
Here are two accounts I’ve read this week that I wanted to highlight. I’ve pulled just one paragraph from each, to encourage you to read the full articles.
Background: As the cowardly UN Security Council voted to start pulling hundreds of peacekeepers out of Rwanda during the genocide, a Ghanaian general decided on his own (for which he would be scolded by his president later) that he would not withdraw his last 454 troops from the country. They were young, inexperienced, and barely armed. The militias had already brazenly executed Belgian peacekeeping troops with impunity. And still the Ghanaians stayed. They are credited with saving as many as 30,000 lives, often simply by refusing to move out of the way and talking and talking until the militiamen left in frustration. There were only 5 casualties.
Excerpt from “Ghana peacekeepers remember Rwanda’s genocide” by Chris Stein for Al Jazeera:
The colonel demanded that they call their commanders, going back and forth with the leaders of the assembled mob for hours. The militiamen would threaten him with grenades, going so far as to pull out their pins in front of his face. [Col.] Yaache would pick the pins up off the ground and put them back in the grenades himself.
“I Found the Man Who Saved My Family From a Balkan Death Camp” by Kenan Trebinčević for Slate.
I realized that Pero never had the power to stop the massacres. Yet he’d carry our murdered citizens on his conscience. I could never forget: He saved my family. I decided he was a noble man trapped in a depravity he didn’t ask for. While I was a bilingual world traveler nearly able to move on, history held him hostage, keeping him from rest. I wondered for the first time if he’d suffered more than I did.