Who cares about Africa? A lesson in Rwandan genocide

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By Frank Lipscomb

Last month, the United Nations paid tribute to the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps by the allied forces in January 1945. Between 1942 and 1945, over six million Jews were dispatched to gas chambers and killed in these camps. This genocide of the Jewish people is known as the "holocaust." After the genocide against Jews in Europe, the international community, headed by the United States, created the United Nations, assisted in the birth of Israel and collectively promised "never again" to allow such atrocities to occur in the world.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said last month that the world didn't lift a finger to stop the holocaust. He went on to say, "Jews learned a lesson from the genocide that they can rely only on themselves." Sharon is right. "No one can save us, but us" said Jesse Jackson. I agree with that, too.

In Austin and the entire city of Chicago, blacks can only rely on themselves when it comes to promoting Africa, our "motherland," as we celebrate Black History Month. "Never again" must have fallen on "death ears" when it comes to Africa. In the spring of 1994, one of the most brutal events of the 20th century unfolded over a period of three months in Rwanda. In the course of about seven weeks, the Hutu government of Rwanda nearly succeeded in exterminating the country's Tutsi minority, murdering nearly one million ordinary citizens, mainly children and women (officially over 800,000). It was the fastest, most efficient genocide of the 20th century. Where is Rwanda and who are the Hutus and Tutsis? Here's a brief history lesson for the students in Chicago public schools on the West and South sides:

Rwanda is a small central African nation the size of the state of Vermont. (Rwanda is 10,166 sq. miles; Vermont, 9,273 sq. miles) It is located near the eastern part of the Congo. Geographically, it is located in a region called "land of a thousand hills," once called "Ruanda-Urundi" under Belgian rule until July, 1962, when it gained independence as two separate countries: Rwanda and Burundi.

Before the Belgians, the northern part of Rwanda, which consists mainly of grasslands was ideal for raising livestock. The inhabitants were mainly Bahutu, the majority, the Batwa (pygmies, one percent) and the Batutsi, the famous "giants" of Africa now called "Tutsis." They owned over a million head of cattle. Although they were only 10 percent of the population, the "Tutsis" are one of the tallest human groups in the world. The Batutsi were the aristocrats of the region under an arrangement similar to the feudal system in Europe. It was their political and military achievements rather than their height that distinguished the "Tutsis" historically.

Rwanda had withstood decades of civil strife?"a legacy of colonial rule and influence, a textbook case of divide and conquer. In 1959, the majority Hutu population overthrew the ruling Tutsi king (the Mwami). Three years later, Rwanda gained its independence from Belgium. The Tutsis, who made up 15 percent of the population then, had enjoyed a privileged aristocratic status.

But independence ushered in three decades of Hutu rule, under which Tutsis were discriminated against and periodically subjected to waves of killings and ethnic cleansing. Many thousands went into exile in bordering countries. Over a period of 20 years, the children of the exiled Tutsis formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group that began a civil war in 1990 against Hutu government forces.

The war, and other economic and political crises, exacerbated ethnic tensions. In 1993 Tanzania brokered peace talks, which resulted in a power-sharing agreement known as the "Arusha Accords." Under its terms, UN peacekeepers would be deployed to patrol the cease-fire and help provide a secure environment so that exiled Tutsi families could return. Hoping that Hutu and Tutsi would at last be able to coexist in harmony. A year later, on April 6, 1994, Juvenal Habyarimana, the Hutu Rwandan president, who had led a Hutu dominated govermnent for nearly 25 years, was killed in a plane crash. The Hutus started their genocide campaign against the Tutsis the next day.

Few of those who died were shot and none were sent to gas chambers or concentration camps. Machetes, ordered from Asia in the months before the attack, were the weapons of choice. Families, neighbors and co-workers who existed alongside each other for years turned on one another at the instigation of radio broadcasts and elected leaders and even ministers (men of God?). The world and Rwanda's African neighbors stood by as the Tutsi deaths grew daily and millions left their homes, fleeing to nearby countries that bordered Rwanda. Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, housed the Tutsi refugees.

The United States, wounded by a humanitarian mission to Somalia the year before in which several dozen soldiers died, not only refused to send troops to stop the killings in Rwanda but also blocked action by the United Nations. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who was then director of the organization's peacekeeping forces in Rwanda at the outset of the killings, withdrew United Nations forces. Only the intervention of the children of Tutsis, the RPF forces, stopped the wave of death. One hundred days had elapsed and more than 800,000 innocent people were killed.

As we enter the last week of Black History Month, honoring our fallen heroes, here is something to ponder: What value do we put on life? And do we, as an African America, really care about Africa our "mother country?"

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