Written by Bethany Smith. Edited by Emma Ward.
At the minute, the media are not only publishing and producing headlines but are often featuring in them themselves. How much press have we seen over the past year with regards to the phone hacking scandal or with paparazzi photographers invading the privacy of others? The media in the 21st century are seen as being omnipresent and almost like vultures – eager to latch onto a story no matter how invasive or even irrelevant it may seem; does anyone really care if a ‘celebrity’ has been spotted on a beach with their family sunbathing topless? Therefore, I was surprised to discover that the genocide in Rwanda, a relatively recent atrocity, taking place in 1994, was neglected and ignored by the media, and indeed by the rest of the world. It has only really been recognised as such a catastrophic event after the film Hotel Rwanda was released in 2004. What is more shocking still is that there was no attempt to hide the genocide by the perpetrators, no secret ‘final solution’-esque code words nor written confidential documents. In a rather unusual twist, whilst the international media neglected this atrocity, announcements were made on the national radio in Rwanda encouraging the Hutu ethnic majority to kill the minority Tutsis. Perhaps some background information is needed at this point, as I would not be surprised if the reader was unaware, or just uninformed, of the events that took place in 1994 in Rwanda.
The people of Rwanda identify themselves as one of three different ethnicities: Hutu (around 85% of the population), Tutsi (14%) and the Twa (1%). These groups coexisted in Rwanda for centuries, until the rise of the colonial powers. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany held Rwanda as part of its Empire, and during that time, colonial officers began to make distinctions between the different ethnic groups living there. After Germany’s defeat in the First World War, Belgium grasped ownership of Rwanda and created a hierarchy in which the Tutsi were the superior ethnicity and made up the government, and the Hutu became subordinate to them. This structure largely remained in place until the Hutu Revolution of 1959 and the subsequent nationalisation of Rwanda. Even so, relations between the Hutu and Tutsi were relatively stable.
However, Rwanda suffered economic difficulties, experienced a short civil war and the land became increasingly overcrowded. Tensions rose, and became heightened still because of the civil war in the neighbouring country Burundi (which was between their Hutu minority and Tutsi majority). The trigger of the genocide appears to be the suspicious plane crash during which Rwandan President Habyarimana was killed. After that, Hutu extremists in government took to the radios and ordered Hutus to go out and murder their Tutsi neighbours, who became scapegoats for the problems Rwanda experienced. As Rwanda is a largely agricultural nation, the majority of killings were brutally carried out using machetes and in or around Tutsi homes. It was very much a ‘kill or be killed’ atmosphere and due to this no-one was spared. It is believed around 500,000 men, women and children were killed in around 100 days.
It is therefore absurd that these atrocities could have gone unnoticed by the international press and indeed the United Nations, who, believe it or not, were in Rwanda at the time of the genocide (negotiating the end of the civil war) and left during the massacre, as they had not arrived to end a genocide and seemingly believed that the atrocity was out of their hands. The Tutsis were left to fend for themselves.
It has been suggested that the reason the Rwandan genocide seemed so unimportant to the Western world is that it is an African country, and a relatively insignificant one at that. Rwanda is a small country, greatly overcrowded in the heart of the Congo, and has no source of significant income or wealth. It had no connections to any of the Western powers, its only link to Europe being Belgium, and ties had been broken between the two since the early sixties. Moreover, Western ignorance of the situation is demonstrated most pointedly in that many shrugged off the conflict as being a ‘tribal’ issue and therefore one that could not be resolved. The genocide only came to an end after the Rwandan Patriotic Front captured the capital Kigali, not due to international intervention. It is interesting to wonder how long the massacre would have lasted had it not been for these Rwandans living in the neighbouring country Burundi. Would the entire Tutsi ethnicity become extinct? It’s hard to tell. What we can be relatively sure of, however, is that this massacre would not have gone as unnoticed if it had happened in a Western country. Perhaps the United Nations is not as global or as neutral as it would like to think.
I wonder how many atrocities have taken place in the last decade or so and have been ignored in favour of a full page spread announcing that Kerry Katona is pregnant, or that Katie Price is getting divorced again. How many more people will go unnoticed until Hollywood thinks their story makes a good plot for a film, and their suffering finally gets some recognition? I am not by any means promoting the view that major powers should intervene in every conflict that takes place, but we shouldn’t ignore the suffering of others because the country is somewhat ‘unimportant’ within the global system. We need to stop prejudice towards these smaller nations, and referring to them as ‘backward’ or ‘tribal’, and help whoever is in need, whether their country is ‘valuable’ or not.