Still getting away with murder

The killing fields of Rwanda are in full swing once more, and there doesn't seem to be much the international community can do about it.

By Vivienne Walt

Published March 20, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

| In politics, gestures are everything. And President Clinton has just made one that many believed was years overdue from the United States: He agreed to touch down briefly in Rwanda next week, during the first Africa tour ever taken by an American president.

Remember Rwanda? The tiny East African country, about the size of Rhode Island, broke into our consciousness for a few months exactly four years ago, when we sat watching on our television sets, horrified, as the brutal genocide exploded there. The scale and swiftness of the killings were unheard of: In a country with little more than 7 million people, more than 500,000 were slaughtered in 100 days, mostly minority Tutsis by the majority Hutus. Nearly 2 million others fled in terror.

Clinton's Rwanda stop -- probably no more than a few hours at the airport -- might seem a paltry response. But in Washington, Africa watchers have already taken it as his apology for failing to do a single thing to stop the 1994 genocide. But more than an apology is required if any justice is to be rendered.

Despite millions of aid dollars since, not a single Rwandan has been convicted of genocide by the international tribunal -- the West's grand response to Rwanda's misery. More than 130,000 Rwandans are sitting in jail, awaiting local trials. Hundreds are sprung from holding cells by armed insurgents in almost daily raids on the prisons.

As Clinton began packing for Africa, Amnesty International released a chilling report warning that in northwest Rwanda, hundreds of civilians were massacred by militias in January and February alone.

But it's not clear that the U.S. response will be very different this time if Rwanda's current conflict descends into another hellish war. The administration has relied heavily on the international tribunal convicting someone -- anyone -- for genocide. And Madeleine Albright has proposed spending millions on the administration's "Great Lakes Initiative," a plan to put some judicial structure in place in Rwanda. "Privately, they admit they don't quite know what they mean," says Jeff Drumtra, Africa policy analyst at the U.S. Committee on Refugees, whose report on Rwanda in February was as grim as Amnesty International's.

Events in the U.S. have not helped matters. Last month, a U.S. judge refused to extradite a Rwandan pastor living in Laredo, Texas, despite strong evidence that he'd masterminded the killing of thousands of people. There are also concerns that the Senate will refuse to ratify the establishment of a permanent, United Nations-backed International Criminal Court, which supporters say is crucial if war crimes in Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere are ever to be brought to book.

About 200 lawyers met in Los Angeles two weeks ago to discuss these developments. At one point, a survivor of the massacres cried in front of the lawyers as she described how her entire family was slaughtered. After the conference, Salon spoke with Elizabeth Farr, a federal prosecutor in Arizona, who until last September directed the U.N.'s genocide investigations in Rwanda.

Could we see a repeat of the genocide in Rwanda?

From news reports, it seems that the genocide is in fact ongoing. The
reports are very alarming.

How has your investigation worked so far?

We would fly survivors in from Arusha, Tanzania, who told their story to the
court. They'd describe how the violence escalated, how the government told
them to seek refuge in churches and schools, but they were surrounded by
militia, denied food and water. Finally, after days, they were macheted.

The testimony must have been extraordinarily grim.

One survivor, Thomas, was a farmer. He went to a stadium to seek shelter,
promising to return to get his young wife and new baby.
But he couldn't leave. Shooting started, with 10,000 people crammed in the
stadium. Only a few survived. He was blinded. He was
starving, his face was destroyed by the grenades. He went back to find his
whole family had been killed.

What became of him?

He's now blind, and has had to flee. There's a lot
of retribution against people who came forward to tell their stories about
what happened. But they came to us sad, dejected people, and left with
their heads held high. That's where the power of international justice lies.

And yet, not one person has been convicted for the 1994 massacres. Why
has there been so little redress?

In fairness, trials of this magnitude take a long time. The international
tribunal itself took a year
to become operational after it was created in November 1994. Add to that
the complicated factor of witnesses living in remote, dangerous areas. This
is a new exercise for the United Nations. There's a learning curve, which
has unfortunately caused delays.

What is being done to protect potential witnesses to the massacres?

I'm not aware of what kind of monitoring is done with respect to survivor
witnesses. In my set of prosecutions, there's little or no international
monitoring. I'm very, very concerned for their well-being and safety.

could a Texas judge let a Rwanda war crimes suspect walk away from U.N.

Extraditions are done by treaty between nations. Because the International
Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda isn't a nation, there can't be a treaty with
it. Although Congress, for the first time in U.S. history, enacted
legislation allowing for extradition to the tribunals, the pastor's arrest
was the first time it's been tested in an American court. The federal
government has appealed the decision. As a federal prosecutor, I have every
confidence that the right thing will be done.

What is he charged with?

He's charged with having organized a massacre of Tutsi civilians in an area
which included a church, school and hospital. Thousands of people perished.

You and other prosecutors believe that a permanent international
criminal court could make all the difference in these situations. Why?

By holding people accountable; so that people will know they won't be able
to act with impunity.

Do you honestly think the Rwandans would have responded to that kind of

The fact that they could literally get away with murder was a very
important aspect in the massacres. In some parts, those who were
orchestrating the genocide made deliberate efforts to get international
people out of the area before they began the killings.
They were very much aware that if the world were made aware they'd be made
to answer for those things. They wouldn't have done it.

Vivienne Walt

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

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