April 29, 2004

Jean-Hervé Bradol, MD, President of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who headed MSF's programs in Rwanda in 1994, reflects on the genocide and its implications for the humanitarian aid movement.

Jean Hervé Bradol

Photo © MSF

Jean-Hervé Bradol, MD, president of the French section of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), headed MSF's programs in Rwanda in 1994, and spent several weeks assisting the surgical team that struggled to remain in Kigali during the genocide. In a recent interview, he reflected on the genocide and its implications for the humanitarian aid movement.

What did the genocide in Rwanda mean for the humanitarian movement in general and for MSF in particular?

The genocide itself tore to shreds the humanitarian movement's famous neutrality. Even when emergency aid saves lives, it cannot justify neutrality when faced with a political movement determined to exterminate an entire group of human beings. The only way to oppose such a movement is to call for armed intervention against the aggressors. That is what MSF did in June 1994 with its call, "Doctors can't stop genocide." Genocide is that exceptional situation in which, contrary to the rule prohibiting participation in hostilities, the humanitarian movement declares support for military intervention.

Unfortunately, an international military intervention against the genocide never came to pass and the Rwandan Patriotic Front did not win its military victory until after the vast majority of victims were killed. The United Nations, which was present militarily in the country at the time, bears the heavy burden of failing to try to protect the Rwandan Tutsis, but France is guilty of supporting a genocidal regime for far too long and, when it finally responded, of conducting a "neutral" military intervention (Operation Turquoise) that helped provide the perpetuators of genocide a sanctuary in the Zairian refugee camps.

In early 1994, MSF and other humanitarian aid agencies developed a response plan to treat many of the wounded. Ultimately, after the massacres began, they realized that doctors were not capable of stopping genocide. Was that a misreading of what was being planned?

In early 1994, people familiar with the situation in Rwanda expected that the pogroms would resume based on overwhelming evidence, including increased political killings and weapons shipments to the Interahamwe militias. In 1993, the International Federation for Human Rights published an alarming report on the risk of genocide. Although information was circulating that the militias were preparing to carry out large-scale killings, no one predicted that 800,000 people would be exterminated in fewer than three months.

But the relevant question to ask humanitarian organizations is not whether they predicted developments in Rwanda correctly or whether they saw the genocide coming. Rather, the question is, "Did you do what had to be done before the genocide was unleashed to ensure that your aid did not support the extremist militias already involved in massacres?" The most painful question-because it bears on their direct responsibility-raises humanitarian organizations' complicity with the government and its militias, a complicity that allowed them to massively misappropriate aid.

Before April 1994, the extremists in Rwanda had insinuated themselves into the aid system, diverting both goods like vehicles and food and aid symbols. For example, food aid diversions were massive enough to starve 300,000 Burundian refugees who arrived in October 1993 and some of the 800,000 internally displaced Rwandans who gathered in camps before the genocide. This contributed to maintaining alarming mortality levels in the camps. In March 1994 alone, 9,000 refugees from Burundi died.

What do you think of the way in which the Rwandan genocide is being recalled on this "anniversary"?

It's unbearable to see an attitude re-emerging that attributes the genocide to an unavoidable ethnic conflict. This trivializes political extremism by treating it as if it were a widespread, spontaneous bent that all Rwandan Hutus shared. It is an attitude that shows contempt for Rwanda's social and political life: one that, regrettably, colors the view of a country's political life when that country happens to be in Africa.

It is also an opportunity for self-righteous observances in which people solemnly utter statements like, "Never again." Let's remember that in 1994, during Prime Minister [of France] Edouard Balladur's visit to Auschwitz, he made those kinds of firm pronouncements at the very moment that 800,000 people were being exterminated in Rwanda. Unfortunately, certain organizations have participated in this kind of commemoration.

Mourning the dead is not enough, especially for those who did not lose their own loved ones. To me, remembering is first and foremost about recalling the events and each party's particular responsibilities. Emergency humanitarian aid may well have contributed to saving thousands of people, however, the organizations providing it also let themselves be drawn into supporting the most murderous extremists under pressure of violence, and through foolishness and a kind of cowardice. It's still an open question because a government guilty of major crimes has made this commemoration the central theme of its propaganda. Should we associate ourselves with such an undertaking?

The French section of MSF has not worked in Rwanda since 1996. Have there been efforts since that time to open new programs?

In 1995, the French section of MSF was expelled for confronting the new Rwandan regime fairly early on. We had condemned the new regime's violence - like the massacre of at least 4,000 people in the Kibeho camp in April 1995 that occurred right in front of the MSF team and Zambian soldiers from the United Nations. Government ministers, as well as Paul Kagame, told us to keep quiet. We refused to do that.

For 10 years, the regime in power has used violence to limit every form of opposition, often resorting to political assassination. It is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda and the Congo. It's not that we do not want to work in Rwanda. Rather, we were expelled by a regime that hides its crimes by evoking the memory of the Rwandan Tutsis' genocide and by silencing every dissenting voice inside the country, including those of international organizations.