The only TV set in my West African hotel was blaring at high volume. Crowds gathered around it early the morning of April 27, 1994. An event of global significance had started.
Cameras moved from one polling place in South Africa to another. After centuries of brutal racial discrimination and denial of rights, every person in South Africa enjoyed a new dawn of freedom. As a University at Buffalo professor who specializes in human rights and Africa, I shared their exultation. Now the entire continent appeared poised for a far brighter future.
Less than three weeks earlier, however, a far less noticed event occurred in central Africa. A small jet went down as it prepared for landing in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Two prominent politicians, Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, died in the crash. Each served as president of his state. Their two countries – Rwanda and Burundi – were marked by the highest population densities in Africa.
Decades of colonial rule had privileged about 15 percent of the population, although Rwanda and Burundi were socially homogeneous in almost every respect. Single crops dominated their exports markets, making both countries liable to swings in commodity prices.
Rwanda experienced a major revolution in 1959 that ousted the longtime ruling dynasty from power. Following independence on July 1, 1962, each country underwent several violent political transitions, with military coups, occasional elections and the bitter aftermath of widespread social upheaval compounded by ambitious leaders anxious to establish or reinforce their group’s dominance.
For the world as a whole, such periodic switches in two remote republics passed unnoticed. A few exceptions existed: people concerned about occasional outbursts of violence; human rights and humanitarian aid organizations; governments wanting stability in the heart of Africa.
Few people anticipated the genocide that followed the April 6 plane crash. Killings started immediately, turning rapidly into genocide. In 100 days, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, the overwhelming majority Tutsi but also numerous Hutu were murdered. Many were burned inside churches or other places of refuge. Others were singled out and attacked by machete-wielding people, perhaps their neighbors. The average daily rate of death exceeded Hitler’s genocide against Jews.
Alison Des Forges, a Buffalo resident for decades, became the authoritative chronicler globally of the Rwandan genocide. Her 1999 book, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” provided details presented nowhere else. It led a year later to her receiving a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
I had the privilege of meeting Alison in a freshman language class. Her quiet demeanor belied her brilliant mind and her commitment to others. When she, her husband and (in due course) their two children moved to Buffalo, our entire community profited.
Alison helped establish the Bennett Park Montessori Center. Such a commitment to the public schools, born of her dedication to the highest-quality education for all, testifies to Alison’s special qualities. Many other examples exist.
Alison died, like Habyarimana and Ntaryamira, in an unexpected plane crash, in Clarence, not Kigali. She was returning home after an overseas trip, intended to inform global audiences about continued human rights issues in Rwanda.
The lessons Alison’s too-short life teach us all include:
Genocide can be prevented, if prompt action based on detailed information and political will exist.
Neither the euphoria expressed in South Africa’s first free election nor the despair engendered by the Rwandan slaughter accurately describes the continent. Remember: Africa consists of 54 states, each with its own dynamic.
A dedicated person can make a difference. The situation can be as basic as giving our children better education – or ensuring their survival.
Anyone wishing to learn more about the 1994 explosion of mass killing is welcome to attend a free, day-long conference at UB on April 24 – 20 years after the Rwanda genocide started. Information about the free events can be found at the following website: alisondesforges.org.
Claude Welch is a SUNY distinguished service professor in the Department of Political Science at the University at Buffalo. He has taught at UB since 1964, specializing in Africa and in human rights. Welch has published 14 books and is now completing another, titled “Protecting Human Rights Globally.”