REMEMBERING THE TRAGEDY: A Rwandan genocide survivor visits the Gisozi memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, where he views pictures of some of the 800,000 people killed in his nation's 1994 massacre. (Photo: Radu Sigheti/Newscom)
When I studied abroad in Rwanda in July, friends and family expressed concern for my safety. To them, Rwanda conjured images of genocide that tore through this small African country in 1994.
Now, after learning about what happened during the genocide, their concern seems terribly ironic. Because if anything like the genocide were to happen again, my American passport would have gotten me a seat on the next plane home. I never would have been in any danger.
But I can’t say the same for the people I met in Rwanda: fellow students I took classes with, pastors I interviewed, street children I gave food to, and the leaders and scholars who lectured for our class. People who were like me, sharing my passion for ministry or my hope to make a difference, but without the American passport.
When the Rwandan genocide began in April 1994, Americans and other Westerners were immediately evacuated, while the most vulnerable people—the Tutsi being targeted, and the Hutu moderates who stood up for them—were abandoned.
The international forces that poured in to evacuate foreigners could have stopped the genocide right then if they’d teamed up with UN peacekeepers and other nearby troops. But they didn’t. And 100 days later, a million people were dead.
Seventeen years after the genocide, Rwanda is now one of the safest countries in Africa. But in other parts of the world still experiencing conflict, this scenario is not so far from the horrifying truth of what could happen when crisis hits: foreigners are saved, and Africans are not.In Rwanda, the killers were sharpening their machetes and waiting for the evacuation team to do their job, so they could close in on their victims without interference. The message to Rwandans was disturbingly clear: you were only getting on a UN rescue truck if you had that passport—or, in plainer words, if your skin was white.
“Mass slaughter was happening, and suddenly there in Kigali we had the forces we needed to contain it, and maybe even stop it,” UN General Romeo Dallaire told journalist Samantha Power in The Atlantic’s “Bystanders to Genocide.” “Yet they picked up their people and turned and walked away.”
ABANDONING RWANDA: The extremist Hutu militia killed 10 Belgian soldiers at this site to scare Belgium out of Rwanda. Belgium pulled its soldiers from the UN peacekeeping mission, severely reducing its force. The bullet holes are still visible at this former military camp, now a memorial in Kigali. (Photo by Tyler Hutcherson)
You can’t help but ask the difficult questions: Why were foreigners saved and Africans abandoned, when their lives are just as valuable? Why didn’t the rest of the world pull their troops together to save a million lives, rather than just rescuing the Westerners, calling the mission a success, and getting out?
I think of watching Beyond the Gates, a fictional movie about the Rwandan genocide, and listening to a white journalist compare her experiences seeing death in different countries. “When I was in Bosnia, I cried every day,” this character said. “I looked at the white faces of women dead in the gutter and thought, ‘That could be my mother.’ In Rwanda, I look at the bodies and I think, ‘It’s just dead Africans.’”
Looking back at what happened in Rwanda, I can’t help but wonder if a similar lack of empathy enabled the rest of the world to turn its back on Rwanda, reasoning that the people they left behind after the evacuation were “just dead Africans.” Has American culture become so numb to the suffering of Africans that it sees their continent as a lost cause? How can we help Americans see Africans as brothers and sisters in Christ, people who could be our family?
As I left the genocide memorials, I often felt empty, dead inside. I wasn’t sure I was capable of feeling even a fragment of the horror that happened there—let alone put it into words. Because there are some things that can’t be put into words, that are so mind-blowing that to even begin to describe them would be to trivialize the truth.
In such moments, it can be tempting to shut down emotionally, because although we may feel empathy, it seems that there’s not much we can do to put it to use. And so it’s all too easy to discard it, and move on.
I wonder what would happen if we instead clung to our empathy, aching and trusting that God can understand even when we have no words and don’t know what to do. As Romans 8:26 puts it, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
Because if we hold on to our empathy and cry out to God when we feel helpless, maybe we won’t give up so easily. Maybe we’ll open our eyes and see that a million lives could be saved. And then maybe we’ll use our voice as a church to do something about it.
CONFLICTS IN AFRICA TODAY:
• South Sudan’s foreign minister is warning that Sudan and South Sudan are “on the brink of war” after border violence, and the UN said Tuesday the fighting has displaced about 417,000 people. “If that conflict explodes, it would easily become the largest conventional war on the face of the earth,” wrote George Clooney and John Prendergast in a TIME article about famine as a weapon in Sudan.
• In Somalia, 250,000 people are still facing famine. The Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab has worsened the crisis, recently ordering 16 humanitarian aid agencies to leave Somalia, including the World Health Organization and UNICEF. The New York Times has disturbing photographs of the crisis—and one glimpse of hope, a photograph of one child giving another child a drink.
What’s the duty of the American church now? Is your church taking action to help stop violence and famine in Africa?
This year we observe the tenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001, a day in our nation’s history that changed everything. Before 9/11, most Americans had never heard of Osama Ben Laden or the Taliban, nor could they easily point to Iraq or Afghanistan on a map. The event was indeed a game changer, not only for the United States and the West, but for the entire world. The tightening of security in air travel, the creation of Homeland Security, and the forced collaboration of once competing agencies like the FBI, CIA, and local agencies are but the tip of the iceberg. Not to mention the “military action” we initiated with other members of the global community in this ongoing “war on terrorism.” The West received a rude awakening: “You cannot continue your dealings with the Arab nations with a ‘business as usual’ attitude.”
Such was the case when a 7.2 earthquake struck the island of Haiti a year ago in January, tragically setting off what some have called the “Haitian 9/11.” Before the earthquake most Americans couldn’t point to Haiti on the map, but the most devastating earthquake in the small nation’s history killed nearly 250,000 people and left more than a million homeless, and countless scores maimed and injured. Like our 9/11, Haiti’s earthquake was a game changer for the hundreds of missions and relief agencies and other NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) on the ground in Port-au-Prince.
NATION IN NEED: Haitians wait for the distribution of emergency supplies following the 2010 earthquake. Photo from Wikipedia.
One need only take a brief scan of the media outlets to hear pundits express their shock as to how little has been done in the past year in terms of relief, aid, and development. As Reuters reports, “despite billions of dollars of donations and aid pledges from some of the world’s most powerful leaders, a 12,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping presence and an army of relief workers, the debris that clogs much of the city and a million homeless people living in tents are blunt testimony to the unfinished recovery task. Meanwhile, the nation’s cholera epidemic, which began this past fall, continues to run rampant.” Oxfam, the British based charity organization, offered more staggering statistics and an even sharper critique of the relief efforts, saying that various projects had been crippled by lack of leadership and cooperation from the Haitian government and the international community.
“At the anniversary of the earthquake, close to one million Haitians are reportedly still displaced. Less than 5 percent of the rubble has been cleared, only 15 percent of the temporary housing that is needed has been built and relatively few permanent water and sanitation facilities have been constructed,” the report said. According to a Chronicle of Philanthropy survey of 60 major relief organizations, the same dire facts were revealed, stating that of the more than $1.4 billion donated to Haitian relief through such organizations, by Americans alone, only 38 percent of these funds have actually been used to provide recovery aid. But these statistics are faceless until you hear the voices of the Haitians themselves. Mackenzy Jean-Francois, a 25-year-old university student in Port-au-Prince is quoted as saying, “When you go around the country and through the tents (in the survivors’ camps) and you look at the situation people are facing one year after the disaster, it’s hard to see much sign of how that money was spent.”
This seems to be the question at hand, “Where has all the aid money gone?” However, I think this raises an even deeper question: How is it that, prior to the earthquake, thousands of aid organizations from the international community operated in Haiti for decades, spent billions of dollars, and yet failed to transform an island the size of Maryland into a prosperous nation? Despite the best of intentions, Haiti remained the poorest country in the Western hemisphere even before the earthquake.
HOMEGROWN RELIEF: While international efforts received significant media coverage, much of the rescue effort was conducted by Haitians themselves. Photo from Wikipedia.
Before our 9/11, it was commonplace in the U.S. to witness, even in our movies and television shows, the competition and lack of coordination and cooperation between agencies who existed to “protect and serve” — CIA, FBI, and local authorities. It seems to the average citizen, because of the ongoing threat of terrorism, that this has ceased to a large degree. However, it appears in general that “business as usual” continues in Haiti; insufficient coordination, lack of cooperation, exclusion of indigenous input, focus on quick fixes, it is with good reason that Haiti earned the moniker of the “Republic of NGOs.” “It seemed the more NGOs that came to Haiti, the worse off Haiti became,” said Pastor Louis Pierre, a Haitian expatriate living in Chicago. Indeed, Timothy T. Schwartz’s 2008 book, Travesty in Haiti, takes a graphic look into the world of food aid, orphanages, Christian missions, and fraud that is, quite frankly, frightening.
Of course, not all aid work is intended to harm or wreak havoc on those they serve, but sometimes our good intentions can create a “pathway to hell” for those whom we meant to help. Fonkoze.org, Haiti’s alternative bank for the organized poor, and CHFinternational.org, whose goal is to “to build the capacity of local partners, governments and the private sector to create communities who are economically, socially, and environmentally self-sufficient,” are but two NGO’s that need to be modeled. Empowerment, sustainability, and self-sufficiency appear to be the very things they are accomplishing. Every organization will “say” the latter is their goal, but outcomes are what tell us the truth. How many times have we personally made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight and at the end of the year found out that we actually gained? Goals and outcomes are not the same.
When completely unexpected catastrophic events occur, the world reacts in horror, chaos unfolds, and there is a generous outpouring sympathy, not to mention cash. Will we continue to donate funds to aid organizations for whom it is in their best interest to solely “feed” people in crises rather than to, at some point, equip them to feed themselves? Furthermore, will we support “development” organizations that use funds to exclusively fund American-owned and operated “contractors” so as to keep the funds flowing through their organizations and to their own, while under-developing the communities they are claiming to help?
By not calling them to accountability, we are only continuing a state of dependency whereby the beneficiaries are never equipped to build, sustain, or grow their communities and economies independent of Western oversight and funding. This was the state of Haiti before the earthquake, and it seems to be the case a year after this tragedy.
Is development about the nation being saved, or about the development of the organizations and corporations that are ostensibly there to serve? To many of us watching, it seems they are serving themselves rather than those who are suffering. Just as our extended “war on terror” has dragged on with no assurance that there will ever be victory, the prolonged aide to Haiti that we foresee must also have a definitive exit plan, one in which this nation is not further crippled but truly “aided” and “developed.”
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