Exactly fifteen years ago today, the three-month massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutus began.
While South Africa was celebrating the end of 40 years of apartheid, a mass extermination campaign in Rwanda was in full swing. The Hutu ethnic group, comprising 90 percent of the population, efficiently executed a campaign of ethnic cleansing that resulted in a genocide that the world noticed too late. The United Human Rights Council estimates up to 800,000 deaths.
“Why was there no intervention?” is the question many ask.
Also, why wasn’t this tragedy listed in Newseum’s 100 most newsworthy stories? Finally, how does media coverage and hesitation to use the word “genocide” compare to the situation in Sudan’s region of Darfur now?
One reason for the limited awareness of the enormity of the situation, in both Darfur and Rwanda, is the lack of journalists and foreign presence in the country. The Star Tribune’s article, “Americans, other foreigners flee Rwanda violence,” was published April 11, five days after the Rwanda violence started.
The article details the evacuation of foreign citizens and United Nation employees early on in the genocide, stating that “ethnic violence appeared to slacken” but that a rebel advance on the capital could “tilt the country into a full-scale civil war.” Without reporters present to witness the turmoil of the country, and the use of words like “civil war”, the severity of situation is not fully communicated to the international community.
Currently, it is difficult for foreign journalists to obtain visas in Sudan. Also, as U.S. Marine Brian Steidle wrote in his book “The Devil Came on Horseback”, the African Union forbid him from photographing victims and burned villages in Darfur because his high-end camera was “too imposing”. In both Rwanda and now in Darfur, the misunderstanding of the severity of the situation can be attributed to the lack of reporters on the ground, partly because of the government’s attempts to hide the reality.
Finally, I looked at an article in the Journal Bulletin Washington Bureau: “Pell decries Rwanda’s ‘genocide’ but opposes U.S. invasion”. Published June 14, 1994, the article describes Sen. Claiborne Pell’s belief that the violence in Rwanda was indeed genocide, despite the Clinton administration’s hesitation to classify it as such. However, he believed intervention should be left to the U.N.
“Rwanda is a more remote part of the world than Europe (where the Holocaust took place), and more of our citizens' ancestors came from Europe” he said, in reference to his support for U.S. intervention of the Holocaust but not of Rwanda.
“African solutions to African problems” is an ideology some follow, but no matter what one’s beliefs, the media underestimating the extent of a situation, intentionally or not, can be detrimental to efficient international response. (Which is arguably a reason why the U.S. and the U.N. initially hesitated to call Rwanda a genocide).
I believe this should have been on the list of Newseum’s top stories not only because of the magnitude of the event, but because of the media’s specific role in the interpretation, which arguably didn’t prompt enough international response. The Rwandan genocide is a clear example of how the angle and extent of coverage can effect the public's awareness and understanding of a tragedy.