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Remembering Rwanda: Ten Years after the Massacres
Mass grave of hundreds of Tutsi victims exhumed for reburial in 1995. Photo by Corinne Dufka, Human Rights Watch.

Remembering Rwanda: Ten Years after the Massacres

Award-winning photojournalist Corinne Dufka recalls her time in the midst of the 1994 genocide. She blames the Rwandan state, not tribal violence, for the killings, and castigates the U.S. and the world community for standing by while hundreds of thousands died.

Anson Musselman Email AnsonMusselman

"You could see the story of the chase in the ways the bodies fell."

"People talked about the situation being confusing, anarchy, and Rwanda being a failed state. Rwanda was anything but a failed state because the killing was so well choreographed and highly organized." So Corrinne Dufka recalled the slaughter of between 500,000 and 800,000 Tutsi citizens of Rwanda in April and May 1994 by Hutu militias and the Hutu-dominated national army. She saw much of this first hand as a photojournalist for Reuters. And she testifies a decade later to the callousness and disinterest of the international media, which chose not to tell the story, and the moral failure of the world community which evaded involvement.

Corinne Dufka worked as a photojournalist for the Reuters new agency from 1989 to 1999, first in Latin America and Bosnia, then in Africa. She covered the Rwandan genocide for Reuters in 1994, as well as the civil war in Sierra Leone. She joined the staff of Human Rights Watch in 1999 and is currently the HRW Sierra Leone and Liberia researcher and their West Africa team leader. She received a MacArthur "genius" award for her work in Sierra Leone in 2003, and serves as an investigator for the UN-sponsored Special Court for Sierra Leone. She spoke of her time in Rwanda in a talk April 20 in the Kerckhoff Grand Salon at UCLA to memorialize the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Her appearance was sponsored by the UCLA Globalization Research Center-Africa, Human Rights Watch, and the Regents of the University of California.

When Reuters sent her to Africa, she said, they gave her the title "Chief Photographer for East, West, and Central Africa." "I only had about thirty-five countries on my beat," she recalled. "Can you imagine a major news organization having one photographer responsible for covering East, West, and Central Europe?. . . Do I cover the war in Sudan or do I cover the war in Sierra Leone?"

Thousands of Reporters Nearby and No One Wanted the Story

The killing in Rwanda began on April 6, 1994. South Africa held its first elections in which blacks were able to vote April 26-29. Reporters flooded into South Africa, Dufka recalled, but ignored the slaughter in the north. She herself was sent from her regular beat in the continent's center to South Africa to photograph the elections. "There were thousands of journalists on the African continent during the genocide," she said, "but they were almost all in South Africa covering the elections -- which deserved to be covered but so did the genocide in Rwanda. So I was bugging my editors to let me cover this conflict."
Dufka had a hard time getting her editors to agree to send her to Rwanda, partly due to their belief that the public had little appetite for seeing dead bodies in their morning newspaper.
"I would tell my editors that news organizations are not for entertainment. 'You are providing a service.' 'It is your job to provide a menu of the day's news based on common elements of humanity, of suffering, of violence.' They would say no. I had this argument with Reuters all the time. They'd say 'people don't want to see this.'"
Her editors finally allowed her to travel to Rwanda after seeing a particular photograph that caught their interest. The photograph was not of the genocide, but of a massive exodus of refugees from Rwanda into neighboring Tanzania. "They finally said 'this looks impressive, you can go.'"

The Road to Rwanda

Dufka and her team chose a route to Rwanda from the southeast, passing through Tanzania and Burundi. Their assignment was to cover the refugee story. They were shocked at what they found. "There was a river that flowed between Tanzania and Rwanda. There was a large waterfall and there were bodies flowing over it. On the one hand there were refugees going into Tanzania and on the other hand we had these bloated bodies every couple of minutes flowing over this waterfall. It was horrific."

Crossing through Burundi, Dufka's team encountered checkpoint after checkpoint, not standard army or police way stations but chilling outposts of the slaughter. "These weren't proper military checkpoints manned by people with machine guns," she said, "they were checkpoints with two empty milk cans and a string across them manned by these militiamen with machetes and horrific nail studded clubs that they'd use to kill people."

In Burundi, Dufka and her team came upon an area near a subdelegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. She believes that this might have been why the Hutu militias hadn't killed all of the Tutsi in this area. There, she shot some of the most powerful photographs of the early conflict. "It was a heartbreaking place. We were told every night that militiamen would come in and kill ten or twelve people in the middle of the night."

When Dufka and her party finally arrived in Rwanda they went to the city of Kigali and stayed with the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). This small armed agency of the minority Tutsis had been waging a somewhat ineffectual armed struggle against the repressive Hutu-dominated government since 1990. In the spring of 1994 as the massacre of Tutsi swept the majority-Hutu areas, the RPF was advancing through Rwanda and they took Dufka and her team to recent massacre sites. This is the point where she began to realize that they were watching a genocide take place.

Dufka said she visited churches and schools, traditionally safe heavens for refugees, and found the aftermath of a slaughter. "You could see the story of the chase in the ways the bodies fell. Some of the churches were blanketed with bodies from one side to the next, several people high. In one of them I remember seeing a dead mother and her two dead children. You could see she was trying to protect her children and you could see she was huddled over these children -- they'd been dead for a number of weeks and you could see the machete marks on her body where the bone was shattered."

Dufka recounted her frustration as a journalist because her editors still seemed to have little appetite for printing these gruesome images. Refugee pictures were printed, she said, but not the genocide pictures. "The flight of refugees and the subsequent cholera epidemic were publicized, and they deserved to be, but they needed to be contextualized. These people were refugees because they were being slaughtered."

News coverage at the time, Dufka continued, was full of words that reflected the lack of understanding about what was actually happening. "They talked about tribal warfare. This language peppered the reporting at the time, which reflected the lack of true understanding of what was going on." This was a cold-blooded action by a government determined to carry out ethnic cleansing to strengthen its hold on power, she said, not a case of village-level tribal animosities.

The genocide was "a killing campaign organized by a small group of ruthless politicians as a strategy for holding onto power and eliminating their political rivals."

"In this way," she said, "I think that we have to see the genocide as the political exploitation of ethnicity in order to eliminate political rivals and to claim military victory during the war that was going on."

Preparation for Genocide

The immediate trigger for the massacres was the April 6, 1994, shooting down of the plane carrying Rwanda's Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana and the president of Burundi. Within hours after the downing of the plane, Hutu soldiers and militants began the slaughter of Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians. It is still unclear who was responsible for downing Habyarimana's plane. Some have accused Tutsi RPF leader and current Rwandan President Paul Kagame, while Kagame and others contend that the plane was downed by extreme Hutu groups with the aim of inciting genocide of the Tutsis.

A low-level armed struggle had been underway for some years between the Hutu-controlled government and comparatively small armed forces of the Tutsi minority. In October 1990, the RPF, made up of Rwandan Tutsis who had fled to Uganda in the 1950s during a previous conflict, launched an attack into Rwanda. Corrine Dufka said of this struggle:

"President Habyarimana had been in power for a few decades. He was increasingly corrupt, used nepotism, favored certain regions of Rwanda, and there was a lot of opposition from within his own Hutu majority. And of course the Tutsi minority had their own parties that were operating throughout Rwanda."

Dufka said that when the Tutsi RPF launched the war from Uganda into Rwanda, Rwanda's Hutu government leadership made a decision to exaggerate the RPF's threat as a way to pull the moderate Hutus back to their side and to alienate the political opposition. "At that moment, the Rwandan leadership began to blur the lines between what are civilians and what are combatants. In so doing, they revived the previous tensions between Tutsis and Hutus."

Dufka said the government used the media, especially the radio, to create the climate for genocide by whipping up hatred of the Tutsi "cockroaches" and their moderate Hutu allies.
According to Human Rights Watch, between 1990 and 1993 there were at least sixteen massacres in which thousands of Tutsi and opposition Hutu were killed. "The UN was watching and documenting this. In some ways the massacres were a trial run for the genocide."

In 1993 there was a dangerous confluence of factors. Rwanda's President Habyarimana recruited fighters for the genocide, blurring the line between civilian and military forces to create the so-called Hutu Power Movement. This was all done in concert with constant fear mongering on the radio and in print media according to Dufka. "Instead of preparing the army to react to a military threat, Habyarimana used his military officers to start preparing the youth for genocide. There weren't enough guns around so they started importing massive amounts of machetes."

Rwandan Genocide: A State Operation

By late March 1994, the plan for the genocide was in process. When the president's plane was shot down on April 6, a political vacuum was created, then filled by the organizers of the genocide.

"The genocide was a highly organized, complex operation using all the machinery of the state. The military, local civilian administration, and the political parties acted in concert. They all had separate roles to play within the genocide. The military, the national police state, in fact directed most of the major operations. They would use the local administrators to register people they wanted to kill. They knew where the Tutsis lived. They knew where the Hutu opposition lived."
Dufka said that the local administrators directed the effort to drive Tutsis from their homes into churches, schools, and community centers where the Hutu militias attacked. The military provided the militias with logistics and tactics, to drive Tutsis into a closed area for the slaughter.

Dufka outlined some of the motivations of the people who took part in the hacking campaign. "For the poor they were offered food and pay. For people with a bit more money they were offered the fields and resources that the Tutsis had. The elite were offered houses, computers, vehicles, and control of small businesses. Also of course, the organizers threatened and killed administrators who resisted. If they did not go along, militiamen would execute them."

The inflammatory radio broadcasts attempted to normalize the violence, she said, by referring to slaughter and the disposal of corpses as doing "the work" to protect the nation; machetes and firearms were called "the tools," and everything was cloaked within the context of self-defense.

The West's Failure to Act

The key international actors, the United States, the United Nations, the French, and the Belgians, all had diplomatic representations in Rwanda at this time. "They all had intelligence briefs going into the capital, so they knew what was going on."

Dufka cited the January 11, 1994, cable from Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, Force Commander for UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda), who told the head of peace keeping operations for the UN, now Secretary General, Kofi Annan, that he was going to do searches and take possession of arms caches that had been identified to him by his senior informant. The response Dallaire received was "no go." What the UN urged him to do, Dufka said, was to work through the National Police to urge President Habyarimana to control his domestic militias. "Not a very helpful suggestion seeing as he was the one perpetrating this."

General Dallaire had received a memo in December 1993 from a high-ranking Rwandan commander warning him of the coming massacres. Dufka read this commander's memo aloud:
"More massacres of the same kind are being prepared and are supposed to spread throughout the country, beginning with the regions that have the greatest concentrations of Tutsis. This strategy aims to convince the public opinion that these are ethnic troubles and thus incite the RPF to violate the ceasefire as they did in Feb. 1993, which would then give a pretext for the resumption of hostilities."

Dufka went on to list other warnings that the West received. She said that a Belgian intelligence report recorded a meeting on December 22, 1993, that claimed Belgian soldiers had been ordered to provide light ammunition and uniforms to Hutu extremists.

In addition, Dufka added, there had been a bishop in Northwestern Rwanda who forwarded a warning to UN intelligence officers from an informant who was one of the trainers of the killers in waiting. This informant told the bishop that his men "could kill up to one thousand Tutsis in twenty minutes," according to Dufka. This informant was opposed to the Tutsi extermination plan.

"As the arms distribution continued and the domestic tensions rose within Rwanda, General Dallaire repeatedly asked for a broader interpretation of his mandate. After his January 11 telegram, Dallaire sent five more messages specifying the need for action. On February 3, Dallaire wrote, 'Each day of delay in authorizing deterrent arms recovery operation will result in an evermore deteriorating security situation, and may, if the arms continue to be distributed, result in the inability of UNAMIR to carry out its mandate in all aspects.'"

Dufka said the UNAMIR mandate was slightly broadened, but not enough to allow them to act decisively to halt the genocide. Even when UNAMIR came into possession of a Hutu document listing 1,500 people who were to be murdered, they could not effectively act to stop it.
Corinne Dufka said that the United Nations Security Council was getting mixed information about the situation in Rwanda. While General Dallaire was sending cables about the coming extermination of the Tutsi, the UN Secretary General's representative in Rwanda, Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, sent upbeat cables about the situation.

"France and the US were aware of the coming genocide. UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Gali was aware. I don't think the other nonpermanent members were aware though. They were getting conflicting information."

According to Dufka, the United States government was so eager to avoid wading into another violent conflict in Africa after the unsuccessful mission in Somalia in which television news showed dead U.S. soldiers being triumphantly dragged through the streets by local mobs, that the State Department instructed all of its personnel to replace the term "genocide" with phrases such as "tribal killing" in order to avoid invoking the 1948 United Nations Convention that would have obligated the U.S. to intervene.

Could the Genocide Have Been Stopped?

Corinne Dufka said that she believes the genocide could have been stopped if the international community had had the will to act. She also quoted General Dallaire as saying that given the elite troops he had on the ground, and given the divisions of Belgians, French, and Americans who came in to evacuate their citizens, they would have had a good chance of halting the genocide.
"General Dallaire was quite convinced that they could have stopped it. The U.S. debated in the Security Council the complete withdrawal of the peacekeeping operation, and on April 21 the Security Council withdrew most of the UN troops. Some recently released documents show that Clinton and Gore clearly knew what was going on at that time. They were not willing to do anything."

The Mission of Human Rights Watch

Dufka explained that at Human Rights Watch, they "try to lift conflicts up to the surface" so that they get as much publicity as possible. She also had constructive words of advice for students who want to prevent atrocities like the genocide in Rwanda from happening in the future.
"Pick your area, get engaged in it, and get knowledgeable about it. Be proactive. Research these things yourself. Pick an issue that you feel passionate about. Take the time to write letters to the UN and to your congressman. Harness your own brand of activism."

Her final advice: "Make more noise."


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For more information please contact:
Human Rights Watch. 11500 West Olympic Blvd. #44, Los Angeles, CA 90064-1530. Tel: 310-477-5540 Fax: 310-477-4622 E Mail: hrwla@hrw.org Website: www.hrw.org

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