April 7, 1994 marked the start of one of the most horrific events of the past thirty years: the Rwandan genocide. In these gripping excerpts from her oral history (conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy starting in July 2005), Prudence Bushnell discusses her time as Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs during the genocide, her futile attempts to stop the propaganda that fueled the killings, and her frustrations with the lack of response from the U.S. government and the international community. She was also Ambassador to Kenya when Embassy Nairobi was bombed in 1998.
A colony of Belgium until 1962, Rwanda became dominated politically by the minority Tutsis. During the independence movement, the majority Hutus seized control of the government, killing thousands of Tutsis and forcing even more into exile. Many fled to Burundi and Uganda as refugees. Tensions between the two ethnic groups continued to fester over the course of the next two decades, culminating in the outbreak of civil war in 1990. Exiled Tutsis regrouped as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and led an invasion to overthrow the Hutu-controlled government and re-establish themselves in Rwanda. Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and the Hutu president of Burundi were then killed on April 6, 1994, when their airplane was shot down as it was landing in Kigali. Responsibility for the attack was disputed, as both the RPF and Hutu extremists were accused. The Rwandan military responded to the deaths of the two Hutu presidents by starting a murderous campaign to eradicate all the Tutsis they could reach. It is estimated that after 100 days of violence, at least 800,000 Tutsis were killed.
After its victory in July 1994, the RPF organized a coalition government similar to that established earlier by President Habyarimana. The first post-war presidential and legislative elections were held in the fall of 2003. The current government officially prohibits ethnic, racial and religious discrimination and has passed laws prohibiting emphasis on Hutu or Tutsi identity in political activity. Rwanda observes Genocide Memorial Day on April 7, and the week following April 7 is designated as an official week of mourning.
Civil war and political polarization
BUSHNELL: This was early summer of ’93. A good deal of my time was spent trying to get the interagency to agree to sending UN peacekeepers to Rwanda to implement peace accords that had put an end to a civil war between the government of Rwanda and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF. The RPF had fought the government to a standstill and the peace agreement, called the Arusha Accords, spelled out a political transition. UN peacekeepers were needed to ensure that it would be implemented peacefully. The members of the RPF and the Rwandan government came hand-in-hand to Washington and New York to ask for peace keeping troops. My colleagues and I had to make the case that it was in the interest of the United States to back the Rwanda request….
Eventually, the U.S. government was strong-armed by the UN and the French to support the Rwandan peace. We wanted to get out of Somalia and further internationalize the peacekeepers there, the UN needed a peacekeeping success, and the French wanted peacekeepers in Rwanda. As I observed from the sidelines, a deal was struck.
A small peacekeeping contingent made up of Belgians and African nations, under the command of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, would oversee the installation of an interim government that would hold democratic elections at some stated point in the future. They entered Rwanda under Chapter Six authority – i.e., to maintain rather than make peace. Weapons could be used only for self defense. The transition got stuck and I went to Rwanda in March of ’94 to tell all parties to the peace accords that they had to get on with it or risk the possible pull-out of peacekeepers. Little did I know at the time that this was precisely what the radical group of Hutus wanted….
The country was becoming increasingly polarized as politicians exploited Hutu fears and targeted Tutsis as the cause of all evil. During my visit, I met with all of the parties, counseling compromise. At the time we were aware of selected killings of Tutsis, but we held to the belief that if we could get the peace accords implemented, the killings would stop. These were individual deaths, not the mass slaughter we saw later. There were lists on both sides, but we were particularly aware of Tutsi deaths. When I met with the heads of the RPF, I was told that Hutus wanted to exterminate all Tutsis, but there was absolutely no evidence, or even hint of that, at least that we saw. We were proven tragically wrong.
In point of fact, we were distracted by concerns for violence in Burundi, where there was also a Tutsi-Hutu split. There, the Tutsis had retained power over the majority Hutu population through terrible killings. There were rumors of a coup d’état when I was in Rwanda, so my travel companion and I rushed to Bujumbura. We sat on the veranda of the Ambassador’s residence overlooking a beautiful, green city and hearing gunshots. People were terribly concerned about possible return of wide-scale violence, so we decided that I would speak publicly on radio and television to call for an end to the bloodshed. Our embassy had seen cease-fires work when outsiders came to town. After five years in Senegal, my French came back, so this was easy for me to do. I went on TV and radio and called for a halt to the killing. The next day when I went downtown, a couple of people came up and said, “Are you the woman who was on television? Thank you, the killing stopped last night.” I was very moved.
A couple of weeks after that March trip, back in Washington, I was Acting Assistant Secretary when the plane carrying both the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot out of the sky as it was landing in Kigali, Rwanda. Within hours, barricades went up in the streets, moderate Hutu and Tutsi politicians were sought out and killed, and the slaughter of Tutsis began. Had my husband, Dick, been given a medical clearance, I would have been in Kigali dealing with disaster. Instead, I was in Washington dealing with disaster. It was the first time I began to believe in destiny.
Kigali was in chaos
The first order of business was the welfare of American citizens. Kigali was in chaos. Parts of the military were going door to door with lists to kill the people inside. The RPF troops came out of their barricades; firefights began in the streets. We advised all Americans to stay home and stay down, so our information was limited….
We set up an emergency 24-hour task force, which I was to head…. The French were concerned about their nationals; there were many more of them than Americans. While they began to make plans to evacuate French citizens from the Kigali airport, we made the daring decision to send Americans out overland to neighboring countries. This was [Ambassador] David Rawson’s idea and a good one. Kigali was a killing zone. It made no sense to ask Americans around the country (many of them missionaries) to come into the city and wait to be rescued by the French, when they could more easily go over the nearest border to Tanzania, Burund, or Zaire (now Congo), whichever was closest….
I came to the Operations Center very early one morning, about day two after the crisis started, and three senior people stopped me to say “Pru, the President called Secretary [of State Warren] Christopher and the Secretary of Defense to say that he wants every American out alive. Good luck.” As if I needed an order from the President to bring people out safely. Anyway, I felt that the waters had parted and there I was. Fortunately, not alone. I had a great team.
It soon became clear, however, that decisions had to be made swiftly, much faster than our bureaucracy would allow…. While the overland evacuations were pretty nerve-wracking because we had no radio contact once the last convoy left the embassy, we got all Americans out alive…. It was awful, one of the worse periods of my life. As awful as the bombing of the embassy in Nairobi was. And not being able to do anything. I will never forget the look in the eyes of Kevin Aiston, the Rwanda/Burundi desk officer when I told him that the NSC and Secretary Christopher had made the decision to call for the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers. I mean, everybody knew, or at least suspected what was going to happen.
“I will go to my grave wondering why we didn’t see it coming”
There were already two dynamics occurring in Rwanda – a civil war between the Rwandan government military and the RPF, and the wholesale slaughter of civilians – mainly Tutsis – by militias and other civilians. Tens of thousands used machetes and farm instruments to kill their neighbors. This was a government controlled, systematic, and well-planned effort to use as many Hutus as possible to kill all Tutsis. The authors of the genocide deliberately induced an entire society to murder so that everybody would have life on his or her hands. The government structure was highly centralized. The infrastructure was excellent, thanks to the U.S. and other donors, and people were used to doing what they were told. Instructions would come from Kigali. The parts of the military that were not fighting the civil war took part. They used the radio, which was the primary means of mass communication as in many African countries, to exhort people to slaughter. Tutsis were taking refuge in stadiums, in schools, and in churches. In the past when Tutsis had taken refuge to the churches, they had been saved. This time, the Hutus used priests and ministers to call people into so-called safe havens. They’d pack them in, hurl a couple of grenades, then go in to hack survivors to death….
Q: Well, it sounds like almost going back to the Holocaust, the planning of this thing.
BUSHNELL: It was. It was planned by Hutu extremists as they participated in peace talks. And I will go to my grave wondering why we didn’t see it coming. Nor did we ever do an after-action review or anything like that to figure out what blinded us and what needs to change so it doesn’t happen again. Sometimes I think we don’t want to learn from mistakes so we will have the flexibility to employ them again…. Oh, there was every reason in the book why we weren’t doing what we could have or should have. Tony Lake, Clinton’s National Security Advisor, later said that the phones weren’t ringing. He was right, but I wonder why we should adopt that as a criterion for intervening in the mass slaughter of civilians. The Washington Post editorials were saying this sort of ethnic violence in an African country in which we had no interests was none of our business. Now mind you, the slaughter was taking place at an unprecedented rate. I mean hundreds of thousands of people a day. In a hundred days, I think eight to nine hundred thousand people were killed. And in the meantime we were listing reasons why we couldn’t do anything. That’s incredible!
Q: And most of it by machetes.
BUSHNELL: Up close and personal, right. I remember meeting with my team one day and asking how people could physically sustain the energy to keep hacking up human beings. The policy garlic and crucifixes were up all around the Department, and Washington, for that matter. I’d sometimes report what was happening at [Deputy Secretary] Strobe Talbott’s morning staff meetings and get looks of horror around the table but nothing else. My team and I were free to do whatever we wanted as long as we didn’t use any American resources, ask anyone to use theirs, or augment the tiny peacekeeping unit left behind when the UN pulled the bulk of them out.
Q: Well, even after the slaughter of the Belgians at the airport, was the UN saying hey, we can’t do this?
BUSHNELL: Well, General Dallaire was furiously sending messages and was, I think, dumbstruck at the decision to withdraw the peacekeepers. The only reason a few were left behind is that thousands of Tutsis had taken refuge in a stadium in Kigali – as they had all over the country – and to withdraw the limited protection they had would really be over the top. It was amazing the effectiveness of a very few. There were too few of them to save the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, but those who stayed were unharmed.
It was just so bizarre and horrible a period. A massive slaughter going on, a civil war going on, an international community sitting on its hands and watching in horror; and a tiny group of mid- level people at State frantically trying to think of ways to stop the killing. I called the men in the Joint Chiefs Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the “no way, no how, and not with our toys boys,” because they stoned-walled every effort. I chaired these God-awful interagency video conferences. We’d sit in this tiny airless room looking at four TV monitors – NSC, CIA, and two for DOD – and talk with clenched jaws about what could be done. I at least wanted the hate radio that was encouraging people to continue the genocide to be jammed…. The first thing I was told is that jamming is against international law. Then I was told it would be too expensive, then that DOD didn’t have the planes, and finally, that all of the jamming equipment was being used in Haiti, one excuse after another. At one point, a JCS colleague leaned forward to admonish me: “Pru, radios don’t kill people, people kill people.” I told him that I would quote him on that and actually did. When Debra Winger played me in the movie Sometimes in April, I had them put it in the script.
Out of total desperation, I got on every international radio network broadcasting to Africa that I could. I remembered what had happened in Burundi and thought I’d give it a try. What a pathetic thing to do. I kept wondering, where were the voices of the international community? And especially the Pope – Rwanda was predominantly Catholic. Why we heard nothing from the Vatican is another question I think deserves an answer….
One of the things I did was to contact the Chief of Staff of the Rwanda military to let him know that we knew what was going on and wanted an end of it immediately. My talking points were to call for a cease-fire and return to the peace accords. Under the circumstances, that was pretty ridiculous, but there you go. I would set the alarm for 2:00 a.m., because it would be 8:00 a.m. in Kigali. I’d go downstairs so I wouldn’t wake Dick and use the wall phone in the kitchen. We’d have these bizarre conversations. I’d tell him to stop killing people and he’d respond, “Oh, but Madame, there’s a civil war going on. I don’t have the troops to stop this spontaneous uprising.” When I advised him to at least stop the hate radio, he said, “But, Madame, we are a democracy. We have freedom of the press.” I mean he was really ridiculous.
I’d also telephone Paul Kagame, the commander of the Rwanda Patriotic Front. These were equally strange but very different conversations. I had the same talking points — urging cease-fire and return to peace accords. His reaction was astonishment: “Excuse me, Madame, there’s a genocide going on. At least we’re keeping the military occupied. You want me to stop fighting?” A cease-fire would only make it easier for them.” We will never know if that would have been the case, but I understood his position….
The genocide finally came to an end when the RPF, under Kagame’s command, soundly walloped the Rwandan military. At that point, the Rwandan government ordered a massive evacuation of the country. I mean the entire country! In Washington we went from watching in horror a genocide, to witnessing in shock the exit of literally tens of thousands of people, streaming across borders – especially to Zaire – with everything they could take. Communities stayed together as they installed themselves on the other side of the border. Everything remained highly organized…. These were Hutus. They emptied the countryside. Our interagency meeting took an abrupt turn to focus on what in the world we were going to do with thousands and thousands of people camped along volcanoes in Zaire, hardly a country known for its stability or government effectiveness.
Aftermath: A Soul Filled with Shame
Once the RPF took over Rwanda, I was sent to check things out. It was yet another surreal experience. The countryside of one of the most populous countries in the world was literally deadly quiet. Berries ready to harvest were rotting on the coffee trees; houses stood vacant. The man who served as the ambassador’s driver drove us. When we were stopped by child soldiers at checkpoints, I learned never to look them in the eye. As we drove we heard the story of how the driver had hidden and what happened to some of the other embassy employees. Many were dead.
I participated in a memorial service for the FSNs [local Foreign Service employees] who were killed. I will never forget looking into the stony faces of employees who had been abandoned by the U.S. government. American officers who came up to speak would weep, to a person. The Rwandans just looked at us. I can only imagine what they were thinking and the trauma that was still with them.
Kigali was a mess. The government had taken everything, including the cash. What role does the international community play now? Here is a devastated country in which the victims of genocide became the victors of a civil war. That had never happened before. No one wanted to be associated with a government that may want to take revenge, but not helping meant punishing the victims even more. I sat on the sidelines of some of these Friends of Rwanda meetings, watching one government representative after another asking, ” What are you going to do?” “Don’t know, what are you going to do?” For a while it just went in circles….
It was much easier and more straightforward to help the refugees who had fled to Zaire. That was something the international community was accustomed to. When cholera broke out, we rushed in. The Vice President’s wife even went over, to our horror. I’m not at all sure that she recognized that many of the people showing up for photo ops could have been among those who had hacked their neighbors to death.
By this point I was pretty miserable and getting burned out. The former government’s military and militias began to control the refugee camps and claim the food that was to go to the people. The intimidation of humanitarian workers and refugees was whole scale. Then raids into Rwanda from these camps began. Paul Kagame, who was now the Vice President of Rwanda, said repeatedly, “If you, international community, don’t do something to stop these guys, I’m going to.” We didn’t; he did. And therein lay the beginning of the conflict in the Great Lakes area of Africa, which continues to this day.
Q: In other words, his troops went in?
BUSHNELL: Yes. But first he had to get as many refugees as possible back in Rwanda. You can’t have a country with that proportion of population sitting across the border. Initially, the militias tried to stop people from returning, but Rwandans clearly understood there was no future for them on the volcanoes of Zaire. So many took the chance and returned. I think for the most part Kagame made good on his promise to create efforts of reconciliation, as well as to bring the perpetrators of the genocide to justice.
What an undertaking that was, bringing people to justice. Tens of thousands of people had participated; tens of thousands were in jail under deplorable conditions. I visited one of the prisons. All of the inmates, male and females – they were kept separately – were clothed in bright pink polyester. Some of the prisons were so crowded people had to sleep in shifts. How do you keep decent conditions in the jails when the country has no money? Should the international community help? I mean, we don’t “do” jails as a rule. The U.S. government did become very involved in establishing a tribunal in Arusha to hold accountable the authors of the genocide. Another irony here: under international law, the death penalty was off the table. In Rwanda, it was not. The people taking orders to kill could possibly be put to death, while those who gave the orders would not. Recently, I think Rwanda has done away with the death penalty….
Q: Do you have any of the rationale for that? Not to get involved, was that it?
BUSHNELL: “We had no interest in that country.” “Look at what they did to Belgian peacekeepers.” “It takes too long to put a peacekeeping operation together.” “What would our exit strategy be?” “These things happen in Africa.” “We couldn’t have stopped it.” I could go on….
I could and did make the argument that it was not in our national interest to intervene. Should we send young Americans into a domestic firefight, possibly to be killed on behalf of people we don’t know in a country in which we have no particular interest? From the perspective of national interest, people like Richard Clarke will argue we did things right. In terms of moral imperative there is no doubt in my mind that we did not do the right thing. I could have a clear bureaucratic conscience from Washington’s standpoint and still have a soul filled with shame.