“April is the cruellest month.”
T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land begins with these words. This iconic poem, published in the aftermath of World War I, tells a tale of fragmentation, profound disillusionment, and the absence of all meaning. The senselessness that Eliot captures in his poetry persisted for decades after his publication of The Waste Land. The horrors of the Great War were matched, if not outdone, by those of World War II and the Holocaust.
Genocides are embedded in our history, a chronic illness that plagues the human race.
The Holocaust, along with the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, Armenia, and Darfur, all began in April, which we regard today as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. As we reflect, remember, and pay homage—today, tomorrow, this week, this month—genocide looms large in several pockets of our globe. The geographical distance and the subsequent empathy gap, though inevitable, are incredibly damaging. They serve as dehumanization’s right-hand man.
During the Rwandan genocide, General Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN peacekeeping mission, recalls receiving a phone call from a U.S. officer who inquired precisely how many Rwandans had been killed. When Dallaire questioned why he wanted to know, the officer replied: “We are doing our calculations back here…and one American casualty is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead.” While dehumanization can take on distinct forms and levels, here, it is appallingly overt and is perhaps a reminder of how little progress we have made. We can get angry, we can resort to studying genocide, or we can remain perplexed at the number of genocides that we have to reflect upon. At the root of the problem lies a preposterous and damaging mode of thought: that with ethnic or religious difference comes worth.
Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide in 1944. The Greek root geno signifies ‘race’ or ‘tribe’ and cide translates to ‘killing’ in Latin. A few years after its introduction into the international lexicon, it became tied to a set of legal obligations. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which Lemkin drafted, defines genocide as:
“…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”
Classifying a mass atrocity as genocide meant taking action, and yet, despite these legal obligations, the word evolved into a kind of taboo. In 1994, as hundreds of thousands of Tutsi were being massacred, the Clinton administration began to retreat from its use, forbidding unqualified use of the term, while the UN High Commissioner preferred to call the undeniable atrocities a “possible genocide.”
Twenty years since the horrors in Rwanda, the press is now drawing an eerie comparison. The Central African Republic (CAR) lies at the heart of the African continent. It borders South Sudan to its East, Cameroon to its West, shares its southern border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is bordered by Chad up north. For the past two years, religious violence has enflamed the CAR, placing it at the top of the agenda for human rights organizations and genocide prevention coalitions. The Rwanda-CAR parallel, in the wake of Rwanda’s 20th anniversary, has unearthed memories of the UN’s devastating futility and inaction and the swiftness of the massacre. The CAR, unlike Rwanda, is rich in resources such as gold, diamonds, timber, and uranium. In news articles, it has become enveloped by phrases like “brink of genocide,” “verge of genocide,” “potential genocide.” What does it mean to be on the verge of genocide? When juxtaposed with the intensity of the violence, these phrases fail to adequately capture the reality in the CAR. Rooted in political and religious tensions, this conflict has now descended into what Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, has called the “worst crisis most people have never heard of.”
A little over one year ago, in March of 2013, President Francois Bozize was overthrown by a rebel group called the Seleka. Bozize was a Christian and had ruled the CAR for the past decade. By September of 2013, Michael Djotodia, one of the leaders of the Seleka, declared the dissolution of the rebel group and pronounced himself leader of the CAR. The Seleka are a Muslim minority group in a nation that is 80% Christian. This disproportion has perpetuated the violence; Christians have begun to form vigilante militias called “anti-balaka” (meaning anti-sword or anti-machete), retaliating against the Seleka’s brutality. The use of machetes in this conflict is perhaps another unnerving element that evokes memories of the interahamwe’s methods of terror in Rwanda against the Tutsi.
We can make several comparisons and distinctions between the present conflict in the Central African Republic and the Rwandan genocide. In Rwanda, religious difference was not a factor, whereas in the CAR, it is at the very core of the conflict. While there was little interest in Rwanda due to its lack of resources, the CAR is rich in resources. Both share a history of colonialism and wavering political stability. As I read the multitude of news articles, I find myself questioning whether a compare and contrast scenario is useful or even relevant.
Each and every day, there is a new headline coupled with fresh descriptions of the CAR: “Virtually lawless,” “One of the most unstable countries on the continent,” “Chaos.” These truths have for too long been merely observed. Nearly half a million people have been displaced and, in January 2014, the UN warned that the number of displaced individuals has more than doubled in a single month. More than 100,000 people are living in a camp by the Airport in Bangui. Even today, as the peacekeepers make efforts to assuage the violence and rescue those in danger, the country is marked by lootings, killings, and disorder.
Three weeks ago, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for the UN Security Council to authorize a peacekeeping force of 12,000 (10,000 soldiers and 2,000 police) to protect civilians in the CAR. On April 11th, the Security Council passed this resolution. While Chad withdrew its troops earlier this month due to accusations that Chadian troops have taken the side of Muslims and participated in an unprovoked attack, this additional force of 12,000 will be joining the 5,000 African Union peacekeeping troops already there. Though this act will not remedy the inaction in Rwanda, there is hope in the fact that we are perhaps moving toward a time when “never again” will be more than a hollow, meaningless phrase.
The most crucial difference between Rwanda and the CAR is the one that is yet to be revealed. Will we allow inexplicable, inexcusable failure to occur once again—or will we find a cure for that unnatural sickness that we know as genocide?