Some context for “Allons-y”

From this Twitter thread.

Trigger warning: murder, war, racial violence. Real and disturbing but not graphic.

I have an amateur interest in peace and conflict studies. Mass killing (war, genocide) itself is as boring as it is disturbing to me: what seems worth spending time on is how people get into and out of these situations.

Today I mentioned a document that tells us something about this, and people seemed interested, so I want to show it in slightly more context. I convene us under an umbrella of warning, however: we are looking at highly charged events, far more complex than any one person – eyewitness, academic, anyone – could ever understand. As globally wealthy people (i.e., voters in a country with offensive military capability), our misinterpretations can hurt people whom we’ve never met and don’t even know exist. The contexts I’m choosing, which may look neutral or natural in places, are within my interpretation. If what’s here interests you, please look behind it. Even besides issues of semi-deliberate bias, I am simply moving too fast to touch on more than a tiny fraction of the details that I think are most telling: for example, I think the coffee crisis of 1989 and the IMF’s subsequent structural adjustments are really important, but you will not see them below.

Rwanda is a small, densely populated nation in Central Africa. It was a feudal network of kingdoms centered on its present territory from the 1600s until the Germans colonized it around 1900 (a generation after Bismarck unified their kingdoms). They noticed that some families were pastoralists called tutsi, while most were agriculturalists called hutu, and decided that the Tutsi were the master race and used them as a violent puppet government. In WWI, it passed to the Belgians, who counted cattle to determine each person’s race, which, from the early 1930s, was listed on ID cards. (Race only ever has about as much scientific standing as ghosts, but in this case there wasn’t even distinguishable descent: cutting-edge DNA analysis can’t reliably tell Hutu from Tutsi.) This program was supported by arbiters of truth and human dignity such as Christian churches and phrenologists. The Belgians also caused the enormous preventable famines that are – I think it’s odd how few people realize – typical of colonialism.

In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, when the rich world was in a good mood after WWII and less eager to let hundreds of thousands of people die for the sake of coffee tax, king Mutara III instituted land reform and eased the grip of his Tutsi government on the Hutu majority. A complicated situation devolved, however, and there was a wave of mostly Hutu-on-Tutsi violence, although the Belgians’ only excuse for being there by then was to keep peace. Many Tutsi refugees went north into Uganda. With Belgian support, a Hutu revolution took over, and Rwanda was granted independence in 1962. Ten years later there was another period of anti-Tutsi violence, and Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu army officer, dissolved parliament and became the leader of the only party.

Among the Tutsi refugees in Uganda was a man named Paul Kagame, whose previously well-connected family had lived in exile, barely tolerated in their new nation, since he was a small child. He took part in Yoweri Museveni’s Tanzanian-supported war to overthrow Idi Amin in Uganda, then in the war to overthrow the new presdident in favor of Museveni himself. In the 1980s, Habyarimana, the Rwandan leader, picked a fight with Museveni over his appointing Kagame (et alia) head of Ugandan military intelligence (et cetera), and Museveni demoted them. Meanwhile, Kagame and his comrades had assembled the RPF, a core group ready to invade Rwanda. This they did in October 1990, while Kagame was getting military training (and Habyarimana and Museveni were attending a UN function) in the US, but they quickly gave up when Zaire and France sent troops toward them. The Rwandan government staged a false-flag attack on its own captial as an excuse for a crackdown and some mid-sized massacres of Tutsi, Kagame returned and led the RPF in a guerilla war over the next years, and France replaced Belgium as Rwanda’s major patron.

In Rwanda, the propaganda front against Kagame’s Tutsi-based guerilla invasion, and the internal Tutsi population, was called Hutu Power: a manifold, loosely coordinated campaign of broadcast hate speech. The most famous examples of Hutu Power are the Hutu Ten Commandments, the claim that the Tutsi came from Ethiopia, and the pervasive use of inyenzi, cockroach, to dehumanize them.

I have seen many Western European/Anglo-American observers miss or badly mischaracterize the importance of Hutu Power and its atmosphere, in my opinion, simply because their knowledge of history has no parallel to the intensity and sophistication of propaganda, manipulation, and political deception in this period. They think of Pravda and Goebbels as the upper limit, but Hutu Power and its various branches and oppositions were on another level entirely. Publishers and armed forces of different factions used confusion as their central strategy. The propaganda was full of mirror techniques: if accused of preparing militias for genocide, Hutu groups would ignore the charge and make a nearly identical claim about Tutsi groups, then accuse them of mirroring – and vice-versa. In 1992, the government organized the Interahamwe Hutu militia, and soon the Akazu, Habyarimana’s inner circle, created the more extreme Impuzamugambi militia partly as cover – to make the Interahamwe seem moderate.

It was perhaps the most effective information war ever waged, and the UN and the governments willing and able to intervene in humanitarian crises – France, the UK, the US – were on the whole much more duped than the general Hutu population. I think a lot of this was racism: the rich world was disinclined to believe that people in the poor world were intellectually capable of media manipulation beyond simple, one-layer-deep lies. Obviously many Rwandans saw what was going on, including expats, and some diplomats, soldiers, and academics (who tend to be happy to tell you how they saw it all coming in 1989), but by and large, Habyarimana and the Akazu fooled the world.

Watchdogs barked in the centers of power, but their keepers did not listen. In The Rwandan Genocide: Why Early Warning Failed (Journal of African Conflicts and Peace Studies, September 2009), Gregory Stanton writes:

On January 21–22 [1994], UNAMIR [the UN mission overseeing a peace accord between Kagame’s forces and the government] seized a planeload of Belgian arms (shipped on a French plane) purchased by the Rwandan Armed Forces, which were then kept in joint UNAMIR/Rwandan government custody. At the request of DPKO [UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations], [UNAMIR Force Commander Roméo] Dallaire provided confirmation of arms shipments and was finally authorized by the DPKO on February 3, 1994 to “assist the government of Rwanda” in recovering illegal arms. In mid-February, the Rwandan Minister of Defense requested landing authorization for three planes carrying arms, but General Dallaire refused. On February 27, General Dallaire repeated his request to DPKO for authorization to seize the caches of weapons the Interahamwe militias had hidden all over Rwanda. (General Dallaire had sent a Senegalese UNAMIR soldier to see some of the arms caches with his own eyes.) But U.N. authorities, including his direct superior, Canadian General Maurice Baril, again refused, referring privately to General Dallaire as a “cowboy.”

Radio Télévision Libres des Milles Collines [Rwanda is nicknamed the land of a thousand hills] amplified the hate propaganda from 1993 onward, and brought it to every corner of Rwanda using repeater antennae provided by Radio Rwanda, the government network. David Rawson, the U.S. Ambassador, said RTLMC’s euphemisms were subject to various interpretations and he defended its right to broadcast as “freedom of speech.” ([… After the war] I explained, as a former law professor, that incitement to commit genocide is not “protected speech.” Indeed if there were ever a case that met the “clear and present danger” test of U.S. First Amendment jurisprudence, this was it.)

Let’s go even wider in our context for a minute. Conservatives had embarrassed President Clinton after the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993, when 18 US soldiers died in a terribly botched anti-warlord operation stemming from famine relief, and after a review he drew what is called the Mogadishu Line: a general policy that the US is to avoid force in humanitarian operations unless a number of conditions are met including the US’s own interest. Although it wasn’t published and named until mid-1994, this was the thinking that, for example, kept US combat involvement minimal and strictly from the air in the Balkan wars of the 90s, even after widespead ethnic cleansing. (If you paid attention to the American mass media in the 90s, you will recall the bemusement that greeted the phrase ethnic cleansing. Was this the Political Correctess we’d all heard so much about? In fact it’s that genocide commits UN member nations to action, while ethnic cleansing, though indistinguishable, has no necessary policy implications.)

If I may switch registers here to one of ethical judgment, I believe that the isolationist conservative leadership and their proxies in Clinton’s first term, and Clinton for yielding when they painted him as irresponsible for using force to intervene in foreign mass violence, have blood on their hands – Balkan and Rwandan both. One of those parties apologized. Among the proxies, consider a Mr Pat Robertson, a wealthy broadcaster of the American religious right. He said he was using donations to airlift refugees from Rwanda to Zaire when apparently he was paying his non-profit to airlift for-profit mining supplies from Zaire to a blood diamond mine in Liberia, in cooperation with the warlord “presidents” on either end of the route. I see value in certain kinds of isolationism, but not this kind.

So, Rwanda in early 1994: the populace is swimming in violent, divisive, and dehumanizing propaganda. The Arusha Accord proposes to end the civil war by moving to a multi-party system with Hutu–Tutsi power-sharing and a ban on racial propaganda. Raceless ID cards are prepared for distribution. Prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana’s moderate Hutu faction favors this process. (President Habyarimana technically dismissed Uwilingiyimana three weeks after her appointment, but she stayed on as a caretaker. She was a math teacher and chemistry professor and it pleases me to imagine that this tenacity falls under the heading of classroom skills.) There are rumors of genocide, but there seems to be a path out of the situation.

Cut to Roméo Dallaire, commander of the UN forces overseeing the implementation of Arusha. On 11 January, a week or two before the plane-full-of-weapons incident quoted above, he sends a cable to headquarters – attn: Baril, who called him a cowboy – under the title Request for Protection of Informant. Remember that in real-world human intelligence work, infiltration is rare: most news comes from local sources whose loyalty is not inverted but merely mixed, and they inform in exchange for help with personal problems or protection from a disaster they foresee. This is, among other things, spy stuff (many sics elided):

  1. Force commander [i.e., Dallaire himself] put in contact with informant by very very important government politician. Informant is a top level trainer in the cadre of Interhamwe-armed militia of MRND [the President’s party].
  2. He informed us he was in charge of last Saturdays demonstrations which aims were [sic] to target deputies of opposition parties coming to ceremonies and Belgian soldiers. They hoped to provoke the RPF BN to engage (being fired upon) the demonstrators and provoke a civil war. Deputies were to be assassinated upon entry or exit from Parliament. Belgian troops were to be provoked and if Belgians soldiers restored to force a number of them were to be killed and thus guarantee Belgian withdrawal from Rwanda.
  3. Informant confirmed 48 RGF [Rwandan Government Forces] PARA CDO and a few members of the gendarmerie participated in demonstrations in plain clothes. Also at least one Minister of the MRND and the sous-prefect of Kigali [the capital] were in the demonstration. RGF and Interhamwe provided radio communications.
  4. Informant is a former security member of the president [sic]. He also stated he is paid RF150,000 per month by the MRND party to train Interhamwe. Direct link is to chief of staff RGF and president of the MRND for financial and material support.
  5. Interhamwe has trained 1700 men in RGF military camps outside the capital. The 1700 are scattered in groups of 40 throughout Kigali. Since UNAMIR deployed he has trained 300 personnel in three week training sessions at RGF camps. Training focus was discipline, weapons, explosives, close combat and tactics.
  6. Principal aim of Interhamwe in the past was to protect Kigali from RPF. Since UNAMIR mandate he has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali. He suspects it is for their extermination. Example he gave was that in 20 minutes his personnel could kill up to 1000 Tutsis.
  7. Informant states he disagrees with anti-Tutsi extermination. He supports opposition to RPF but cannot support killing of innocent persons. He also stated that he believes the president does not have full control over all elements of his old party/faction.
  8. Informant is prepared to provide location of major weapons cache with at least 135 weapons. He already has distributed 110 weapons including 35 with ammunition and can give us details of their location. Type of weapons are G3 and AK47 provided by RGF. He was ready to go to the arms cache tonight—if we gave him the following guarantee. He requests that he and his family (his wife and four children) be placed under our protection.
  9. It is our intention to take action within the next 36 hours with a possible H HR [start time] of Wednesday at dawn (local). Informant states that hostilities may commence again if political deadlock ends. Violence could take place day of the ceremonies or the day after. Therefore Wednesday will give greatest chance of success and also be most timely to provide significant input to on-going political negotiations.
  10. It is recommended that informant be granted protection and evacuated out of Rwanda. This HQ does not have previous UN experience in such matters and urgently requests guidance. No contact has as yet been made to any embassy in order to inquire if they are prepared to protect him for a period of time by granting diplomatic immunity in their embassy in Kigali before moving him and his family out of the country.
  11. Force commander will be meeting with the very very important political person tomorrow morning in order to ensure that this individual is conscious of all parameters of his involvement. Force commander does have certain reservations on the suddenness of the change of heart of the informant to come clean with this information. Recce [reconnaissance] of armed cache and detailed planning of raid to go on late tomorrow. Possibility of a trap not fully excluded, as this may be a set-up against this very very important political person. Force commander to inform SRSG [the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh] first thing in morning to ensure his support.
  12. Peux ce que veux. Allons-y. [Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Let’s go.]

(You can read a scan in Georgetown’s National Security archive, with some well-selected companion documents, or in the more comprehensive Rwanda Documents Project.)

The reply, under the name of DPKO director and later Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in part:

  1. We have carefully reviewed your situation in the light of your [cable]. We cannot agree to the operation contemplated in paragraph 7 [sic] of your cable, as it clearly goes beyond the mandate entrusted to UNAMIR under resolution 872 (1992). […]
  2. SRSG [Booh-Booh] and FC [Dallaire] should request urgent meeting with the President. […]
  3. You should inform him that these activities constitute a clear violation of the provisions of the Arusha peace agreement and of the Kigali weapons-free area. You should assume that he is not aware of these activities, but insist he must immediately look into the situation, take the necessary action to ensure that these subversive activites are immediately discontinued and inform you within 48 hours of the measures taken in this regard, including the recovery of arms which have been distributed. […]
  4. […] We wish to stress, however, that the overriding consideration is the need to avoid entering into a course of action that might lead to the use of force and unanticipated repercussions. Regards.

Pace Annan, the mandate, SCR 872 (1993), does provide for UNAMIR forces to contribute to the security of the city of Kigali, inter alia, within a weapons secure area established by the parties in and around the city and to monitor observance of the cease-fire agreement, among other things.

Dallaire follows orders, Habyarimana presumably has the good grace to gasp and fire someone, and the informant soon stops informing. We can see from Annan’s – really mostly his underlings’ – perspective: Dallaire is a cowboy, a soldier and not a diplomat, seeing no nuances, threatening a delicate peace process by wanting to commando up over some real or fake rogue element that may or may not have government knowledge. (I would say: we can imagine more situations where the DPKO orders would be the right thing to do than ones where they wouldn’t be; what we have to ask is whether it was worth the risk that they weren’t.)

Things happen pretty much as the informant feared, only three months later. Around dusk on 6 April, someone with a shoulder-mounted missile shoots down Habyarimana’s plane over Kigali – we don’t know who, after almost twenty years of various groups and their proxies holding long investigations and announcing with straight faces that they definitely didn’t do it, so we should all quit asking. It’s a measure of the complexity of the situation that we simply can’t tell who was seeing how many moves ahead to want to shoot down that plane, and we probably never will.

The prime minister – figurehead of the moderate Hutu – is given a guard of Belgian peacekeepers. They go to make a unifying radio broadcast that evening. The presidential guard drives up and asks them to hand over their weapons, so they do. Overnight, checkpoints go up all over Kigali, and Tutsi are diverted to certain places. Bangs and wet noises in the dark. In the morning, the prime minister and her husband surrender to divert attention from their escaping children, and are shot. The peacekeepers are killed in an exceptionally disgusting way, and Belgium, as the informant predicted, promptly bows out of the peacekeeping mission. In fact nearly everyone leaves who can, except Kagame’s RPF, who begin to advance from … but now we are in the genocide proper, which I can’t speak to.

As a single index of the international response, it is on 17 May that the UN says publicly that genocide may have ocurred.

If I may belabor this point, imagine that after the two WTC towers collapsed on 11 September, 2001, two equally sized buildings also collapsed in the afternoon, and then another one in the evening. Imagine that this happened again the next day. Five towers. Imagine that it happened again the next day. Imagine that it happened again the next day. Imagine that it happened again the next day. Imagine that it happened again the next day. Imagine that it kept happening, five skyscrapers every day, until 21 October 2001, when the UN said that terrorism may have ocurred. And imagine that, for another two months after this may, the planes did not stop hitting buildings, and they did not stop catching fire, and people did not stop jumping out of them instead of being crushed, and firefighters did not stop sprinting up thousands of stairs, and no one could know what it meant if their call to their spouse or child was not getting through, five towers a day, every day from 9/11 to 12/20. That’s the scale of this. Looking at it another way, Rwanda in 1994 had a population about 1/40th of the US’s in 2001, so in proportional terms it was about 200 WTC towers every day for 100 days.

There are many threads we could pick up. First, there are about 800,000 lives that break off here, and each one of them is the entire experience of a human being. That must be spoken of, but not by me.

More abstractly, there’s the reconciliation process, which if you compelled me to choose I would have to say is among the half-dozen most interesting and important things to happen in geopolitics, in its successes and in its failures, during the last fifty years. There’s the worrying way Kagame has run the country since 1994. There’s a fuller accounting of what went wrong with intervention. There’s the post-genocide refugee crisis, flowing smoothly into the Congo Wars (a particular area of interest for me), continuing right up to Rwandan funding of the M23 rebels today.

There’s the fragility we find in the génocidaires: the normality in them that tells us that doing these things does not require being inhuman, being an inyenzi. Conversely, there’s what we see in people like Paul Rusesabagina, Roméo Dallaire, and Mbaye Diagne – whose names I know, as bridge characters, among tens of thousands whose names I do not, anonymized by their numbers but also by wisps of the same Western racism that created the Rwanda of 1994 – people who looked both ways, paused or did not pause, and stepped between other human beings and death.

We know that most of the hero stories are gone. The sacrifices that happened among some people, whole towns and cities worth of people, are not mysteries that we might solve with enough interviews and forensic science: they are truly erased. No one can prove they happened at all. Except we know that they must have happened. And we can keep a place open in our hearts. It’s the place where certain knowledge – the wonderful things that those people did for each other in the worst time, and their names and faces and voices – would go.

I hope this helps you with the Allons-y cable.