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Never again! Lessons from Rwanda

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Tue Apr 8, 2013

Yesterday, in the central African country of Rwanda, solemn ceremonies were held to commemorate one of the biggest human tragedies since Hitler’s holocaust of the Jews. The moving ceremonies marked the 20th anniversary of the wholesale massacre of 800,000 Rwandans in 1994, a series of horrific killings, systematically organized, which were carried out in only 100 days and were ethnic-based.{{more}} It was a major blot on the history of African people and one of the worst tragedies to befall them since the days of slavery and colonialism.

The genocide had its roots in tribal divisions between the Tutsi and Hutu people and colonial policies aimed at exacerbating such divisions so as to make the people of the colonies more amenable to European rule. Whether in Africa, Asia or the Caribbean, minorities were often used as a buffer between the colonial rulers and the majority dispossessed people.

Rwanda was a typical example of this and it led to much bitterness between the two ethnic groups, which erupted in a deadly pogrom after the plane of the Hutu president was shot down on April 6, 1994. The minority Tutsi were blamed for this assassination and for three months after, there was systematic murder of Tutsis and even Hutus who dared to object.

Amazingly, there was little action on the part of the international community to try and stop the massacres. France and Belgium, once colonial powers in central Africa, did little to stop the genocide, which has prompted criticisms up to today, 20 years later. The United Nations looked on helplessly and the USA, licking its wounds from its misadventures in Somalia, was disinclined to intervene.

Fortunately, armed action brought the genocidal acts to a halt and Rwanda began the long and painful process of reconciliation and recovery. Much progress has been made since, but the scars are still there, and they are deep, not easy to heal, even after two decades.

We in the Caribbean are more fortunate than many of our brothers and sisters in Africa and Asia, in that there is not that same level of ethnic differences which can be exploited by unscrupulous forces for their own ends. But we have had racial tensions between people of African and Indian descent in Trinidad and in Guyana. In the sixties these racial differences were seized upon by external forces to foment mass violence.

What we need to watch in our region is the growing intensity of another kind of tribalism. This is not the ethnic type, but one which is politically based. Increasingly, especially since the advent of talk-shows on radio, political differences are heightened and inflamed almost to the point of hatred. One can disagree fundamentally with the politics of one’s neighbour, but that is no excuse for promoting hatred or trading insults to the point that all it takes is a spark to set fire to fury.

We may not be Rwanda, or Central African Republic or Sudan; we may not yet have descended into the internecine actions wreaking death and destruction in the Middle East or Pakistan; but we must learn from those events. Debate, peaceful political competition, ideological and political divisions must never be allowed to pit us one against the other, and to erupt in violent confrontation. Rwanda may be an extreme, but as we approach the election season, it is a tragic reminder of how easy it is to slip into needless warfare and killing. That lesson, no matter how far-flung it might sound now, must not be lost on us.

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