Humanitarian Intervention

— B. Skanthakumar

In 1994 IN one of the most horrific events of this century almost one million Rwandans, mainly members of the Batutsi minority, were the victims of a genocide.(1) That blood bath ended not through "humanitarian intervention" but when the advancing forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front defeated and expelled the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR), the Bahutu chauvinist militias (interahamue) and the politicians and intellectuals of Bahutu supremacist ideology.

These criminals fled justice when they and their families and the tens of thousands of civilians who collaborated in the murder of their Batutsi neighbors and kinspeople marched across the border to eastern Zaire. It is in this and subsequent events, and not the television pictures on our screens ("disaster pornography" as some dub it),(2) nor the claims of relief agencies that we must begin to unravel the human tragedy.

In camps near the Zairean towns of Goma and Bukavu one million Rwandan Bahutu, including the FAR and interahamue, were fed and protected by international NonGovernmental Organizations (NGOs).(3) The Rwandan government had made clear that all its citizens were welcomed back but that those who had committed crimes would be punished.

Meanwhile the aid agencies were content to allow the camps to become permanent fixtures and their inhabitants residents of Zaire. This wasn’t a popular idea with local people, who accused the refugees of thieving and cattle-rustling and of driving up the prices in the local markets.

Hundred of thousands of Zaireans displaced through state and militia terror for many years – and themselves living in makeshift camps – were envious of the material resources and attention showered on the Rwandans. Bahutu chauvinists were given passports to travel, had arms delivered to them at Goma Airport, and imposed on the refugees to finance their operations. They also policed the refugees to prevent those who wished to return to Rwanda from doing so.

However the Bahutu supremacists were not content. They used the camps as training and recruiting grounds to launch crossborder raids into Rwanda. Their motive was to kill, maim and sow terror particularly against the survivors of the genocide who might identify and testify against them in the war crimes trials. They were making plans to raise an army and plunge Rwanda into renewed civil war.

Meanwhile along with the Zairean Armed Forces (FAZ) and ethnic militias the genocidaire attacked the Banyamulenge, whose sympathies for the Rwandan government were obvious. When in September 1996 the Banyamulenge began fighting back, the refugees (whom the genocidaires used as human shields) were trapped in the middle.

It was at this point that the NGOs began demanding foreign military intervention to protect the camps and secure safe passage of food and supplies. They invented mortality figures in the camps and plucked out of thin air the "fact" that one million people would die. They claimed the right to speak for the silenced and the suffering but would one wonders would they have also accepted the consequences of protecting the genocidaires and propping up the Mobutu regime? This—and not the saving of lives—would have been the outcome, and indeed the objective, of Western "peacekeeping."

Free of the control of the militias, 700,000 refugees made the trek back to Rwanda. A few hundred thousand—some of their own will and others not—were pushed into the interior and western Zaire. "The interahamwe were trying to stop us from going back to Rwanda. They said we would soon be attacking Rwanda and we would all go back together" said one woman refugee.(4)

These NGOs are the new missionaries. The old missionaries brought the Bible and demanded that the colonial government "civilize the natives." The new missionaries bring food and diarrhoea kits and demand "humanitarian intervention." Their mission is one of redemption and representation, for Africans cannot represent themselves. Every disaster is an opportunity for more money from Western citizens and governments and a chance to create and legitimize their institutional presence in Africa.

The media and relief agencies feed off each other. The media wants a sensational story or a horrific picture; the agencies crave attention and recognition for their work.

Are there only white people who do relief work in Africa? Are supplicant black hands always outstretched to them? Around them are stacked sacks of grain marked "Gift of the United States" or "Gift of the European Union." How kind of them to send us their surplus cereal. We used to grow our own until colonialism made us cultivate coffee, cocoa and cotton instead. Pity about that last consignment being contaminated by Chernobyl fallout.

Its true that NGOs can play a constructive or obstructive role, but in eastern Zaire they have been part of the problem.


  1. Francois Vercammen, "Rwanda: Anatomy of a Genocide," International Viewpoint (Paris) No. 260, October 1994.
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  2. Nicholas McBride, "The Tyranny of Compassion," International Viewpoint, No. 274, February 1996.
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  3. For clarity and commonsense I would strongly recommend Alex de Waal’s, "No bloodless miracle," The Guardian, November 15 1996 and his colleague Rakiya Omaar’s, "A bitter harvest," The Guardian, April 30 1997.
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  4. Quoted by Chris McGreal, "Hunters pursued human shields," The Guardian, November 11 1996.
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ATC 69, July-August 1997