A few months ago I met an interesting young woman named Fridah, who told me about the odd turn her life took in the mid-1990s.
She had been living the life of a normal, happy 18 year-old high school student: she lived in a house in a gated community with her parents and younger brothers and sisters. She loved Michael Jackson and never missed re-runs of "Cosby." She and her girlfriends thought Theo was "dreamy."
Then one morning--it was the day after her brother's birthday and Fridah remembers cleaning cake out of the living room carpet--she saw soldiers outside the gates of her family's home.
"I didn't know that anything was going on," she recalled to me. She became really confused when they started jumping over the gate and heading toward the house.
The soldiers came in, ordered everyone in the house to get down on the floor of the living room and trained machine guns on them. Then one of them ordered her to follow him out of the room. The soldier pointed to an adjacent room, and said: "take off your clothes and go in there."
When she hesitated, he started beating her. "It wasn't like he was slapping me," she said. "He was using his fists and really pounding me. I was screaming."
She remembers wondering why her father didn't come to her aid.
Then another soldier came in--an officer--and said, "We're not here to rape children we're here to kill these people. We have a job to do."
The troops left, but one soldier was left behind to execute them. He lined the family up on the couch. Fridah's mother begged the soldier to allow her to pray for the family's souls before he fired, and he relented.
Somehow, at the end of what Fridah described as an "almost endlessly long" prayer, the young soldier couldn't bring himself to do it and accepted a bribe from the family in exchange for not murdering them.
So began three months of horror and escape for Fridah and her family--Rwandan Tutsis--that she now recounts in an eerily detached way, as if it all was a dream. She says she couldn't believe she was awake and that it was really happening until her neighbors' bodies started piling up on the street in front of their house.
But Fridah was young. Others knew exactly what was going to happen in Rwanda before it did.
One of those people was Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, commander of the small UN mission in Rwanda.
A credible informant--someone inside the Hutu Power Party leadership--had tipped off Dallaire about plans for the 'final solution' to the 'Tutsi problem.' The tipster told the general who the leadership of the genocidaires were and where their weapons were cached.
Years later, Terry Allen wrote about the international community's response to the tip in AI's magazine, Amnesty International Now:
Dallaire and his troops were about to become spectators to genocide. As bodies filled the streets and rivers, the general, backed by a U.N. mandate that didn't even allow him to disarm the militias, pleaded with his U.N. superiors for additional troops, ammunition, and the authority to seize Hutu arms caches. In an assessment that military experts now accept as realistic, Dallaire argued that with 5,000 well-equipped soldiers and a free hand to fight Hutu power, he could bring the genocide to a rapid halt.
The U.N. turned him down. He asked the U.S. to block the Hutu radio transmissions. The Clinton administration refused to do even that. Gun-shy after a humiliating retreat from Somalia, Washington saw nothing to gain from another intervention in Africa, and the Defense Department, according to a memo, assessed the cost of jamming the Hutu hate broadcasts at $8,500 per flight-hour.That's the miracle of market forces at work, and now you know that the lives of 800,000 Africans aren't worth $8,500 bucks an hour.
And the article doesn't mention that the UN - under pressure from the Clinton administration -- actually pulled troops out of Rwanda when the genocide began to unfold.
Anyway, when you meet a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide--an incalculable human catastrophe--it becomes palpable. Suddenly, these aren't dark little backwards poor people in a faraway land linked by a satellite feed. They're people. They're teenagers and moms and dads.
And it makes you think about those distant reports you might have followed in April of 1994, but not too closely.
That's pretty much where we are right now with Darfur. Everyone agrees that what's happening there is horrific, but the response is like molasses moving on a cold day. During the summer, a couple of UN resolutions got the number of AU peacekeepers up to 6,000 - a woefully short number in a region the size Darfur.
Over the weekend, they came under fire for the first time. Five AU troops and civilian monitors were killed on Saturday. Over thirty more peacekeepers were taken hostage, but Reuters reports that all have been released after a brief gunfight between rival factions.
The violence in Darfur could be halted with 20,000 "peacekeepers." But tight budgets, the lingering fallout from Iraq, the U.S.'s all-time low in credibility on human rights issues and China's increasing reliance on Sudanese oil are keeping the world from moving to stop the killing.
It's April, 1994. Happy Columbus Day.