It was Zaire then. As I sat along the shore of Lake Tanganyika in Bujumbura, Burundi, I marveled at the moment. Baby hippos splashed playfully in the water as their adults looked carefully from across the way. The sun set with purples and yellows and pinks, in rays shooting up to the sky in sharp ascent. It mirrored the jagged mountain across the lake, sharp daggers in the sky, in what I mused as a dare and a warning.
Those peaks and sky and incredible horizon said “We are seducing you to a world that is none like you have seen before, and it is horrific. And there is nothing you can do about it.” It was Zaire mocking.
I thought I was already there. As one of the very few reporters to make it into Burundi during that nation’s bloodbath — then in December 1993, this very month, it was “Africa’s bloodiest war”– jagged and sharp were terms I was already became familiar with.
There was a chilling evil in the wind, a scorching dénouement in the heat and a scary sprit that hovered throughout. It led me to wrap up that story noting, “Peace in Burundi is crucial beyond its borders. In nearby Kenya, which has six major tribes, worried news commentators fear government preference for certain tribes will “create a Burundi here. In neighboring Zaire, a collapsing economy is fueling tension between the six major tribes. In Liberia, a war has raged since 1990; in the Congo, one is brewing today; in Rwanda there is an uneasy peace. The wrong spark could set half the continent on fire. Now in Burundi, in the hospitals, the hills and the villages, there is one thing in common for all tribes: the bandaged bodies of the wounded, the bloated stomachs of the starving infants and the soft whimpers of those slowly dying.”
My, how prescient I was. Sadly.
Rwanda did come next and then Zaire. The name changed back to Congo but nothing changed on the ground. Everyone who could put their fingers in the pot, to stir the killing and the horror, did so in a competition to out horrify the others. The world remained seemingly powerless to stop it or could-care-less-ness about it.
Susan Rice knows. Had she continued her quest to become secretary of state, her role as the African point person for the Clinton administration would have been scored harshly. She was among those who urged that the word genocide NOT be used to describe the slaughter in Rwanda in 1994. That would require legal steps and action — something the U.S. and the world wanted to avoid. It was not Benghazi that would do Rice in with Democrats and others; it would be Africa.
Rice’s “now” part came this fall, when the U.S. delegation at the U.N. was busy blocking any mention of the support of Rwanda and Uganda in a U.N. Security Council statement regarding evidence of who is helping the horrific M23 rebel group in eastern Congo. That followed a June attempt by the U.S. to delay the release of a U.N. Group of Experts report alleging ties between Rwanda and M23.
It just gets worse.
While the world obsesses once again over the never-ending complexities of the Middle East, Romeo Dallaire, who led the U.N. mission in neighboring Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, told the CBC the Congo has descended again into “absolute anarchy” and the United Nations should do more to offset the collapse of government behind it. “This has been an exercise that has simply gotten worse as we’ve seen less engagement by both the [UN] Security Council, and in my opinion the international community,” said Dallaire. He says the U.N. could provide a “forceful paramilitary” unit that could be “establishing roadblocks, establishing secure sites, guarantee the security of the different displaced camps in the area, and taking control of the radio” and organize negotiations. But that would require will, which would in turn require that the world cared enough.”
For years, the United States and Rwanda’s other Western friends turned a blind eye to this meddling. Like Israel, Rwanda has succeeded in leveraging the guilt that other countries feel for not intervening in its genocide — in which almost a million people were killed when Hutu militias targeted Tutsis in 1994 — to blunt criticism of itself. But recently the United States and Britain have been presented with such a mountain of allegations about how Rwanda funneled arms into Congo and even directed the recent capture of Goma that they had no choice but to change tack.
An October report by the International Crisis Group, a think tank, called on the international community to suspend assistance to Rwanda, which relies on foreign aid to support its budget, and to consider a weapons embargo against it.
Jeffrey Gettleman,the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, proffers one thought: Congo could learn from Somalia, of all places. There, after two decades of civil war, the green shoots of a functioning government are finally sprouting, a result of grass-roots empowerment, a motivated business community and the steely resolve of African peacekeepers willing to absorb hundreds of casualties — which the U.N. mission in Congo has shown time and again that it is unwilling to do, despite having nearly 20,000 peacekeepers. Those peacekeepers sat riveted in their seats in their armored personnel carriers as the rebels marched into Goma on Nov. 20. Western powers pressured the rebels to leave, and they did less than two weeks later, but only after cleaning out the central bank and all the ammunition dumps and assassinating some enemies.
People complained in 1993 that the front page article on the Burundi war ruined their holidays. It made them uncomfortable. What was the point USA Today was trying to make, running that on the front page?
How about — to do something?