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Rwanda, the Yazidis and all genocides


When the plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, the president of Rwanda, crashed on the evening of 6 April, 1994, all hell was unleashed, a hell that had simmered for decades. This year, on April 6-7th,  the world will remember the 30 years that have passed since the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. On the anniversary, on the streets of Kigali, the capital,  you can hear the silent screams of between 800,000 and 1 million Tutsi and moderate Hutu and Twa victims who were murdered — many by their neighbours, relatives, and friends.

Nothing can happen without the neighbours, as the Yazidis also discovered on the Plains of Nineveh when ISIS began their onslaught in 2014. On 3 August, it will be ten years since we witnessed the barbaric murders, kidnapping and the biblical slave markets that sold women for sex.

The conflict between Israel and Hamas has brought the issue of genocide and the precise definition of the word into focus. The word genocide inflames passions, and recently, it has become the leitmotif in a genocide competition. It is also being used as a weapon of political rhetoric, which it has been since the Cold War.

But at the end of the day, it’s the human suffering, the killing of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions, that should jolt the international poolcommunity into a realisation that the victims of war, however justified, are inevitably innocent civilians: men, women and children who bear no responsibility for the carnage.

As Professor Menachem Rosensaft, an expert on the law of genocide, has observed, “Hamas’ brutal murder of 1,200 Israelis, the rape and violation of Jewish women, the killing of children and infants, do not become more or less heinous because they are or are not categorised as genocide. And the Palestinian civilians killed, displaced, or starving in Gaza do not suffer more or less depending on whether South Africa succeeds in getting the International Court of Justice to declare Israel’s war against Hamas a genocide.”

The 7 October attack by Hamas in Israel has opened the floodgates of what could turn into the beginning of a third world war. If Ukraine fails to prevail against the Russian onslaught, it could lead ultimately to the collapse of democracy. The Houthis are holding the world to ransom by their pirate tactics in the Red Sea. Even the Taliban in Afghanistan spend half their budget on defence. On a bad day, the world seems on a path to oblivion. Some days bring more hope.

My book, Genocide: Fear Greed Propaganda (Yellow Press) comes out in June. When I began writing, shortly after the outbreak of Covid-19, I had no idea that a subject that had interested me for decades would once again be front page news. Yet here we are, not only with multiple genocides and other crimes against humanity occurring around the world, but also the politicisation of the very word “genocide” itself.

Five years before the 1994 genocide, Dr Gregory Stanton, Founder & President of Genocide Watch, predicted the massacre that played out over 100 days in Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills. Now Dr Stanton, who created the “10 Stages of Genocide”, considers India to be in great danger of genocide. Genocide Watch declared in its 2022 country report that it considers Syria at stage 9.

On 12 December 2022, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accused Azerbaijan of planning genocide in Nagorno-Karabakh. With the war in Ukraine in full flow, the disappearance of Ukrainian children, abducted by the Russian authorities, already constitutes genocide. North Korea is between stages 9 and 10.

In April 2023, the former Janjaweed militia targeted the Masalit people in West Darfur, a vast and lawless area in Sudan of about 10 million people. Reports surfaced of men being lined up and shot because of their Masalit ethnicity.  Baby boys carried on their mothers’ backs were shot. The policy was that no male could cross the border into neighbouring Chad, regardless of age.

The Fulani militias, Boko Haram, and Islamic State West Africa have murdered 62,000 Christians in the “Silent Slaughter”, another genocide that has not received the attention it needs and deserves.  One can’t help but despair at the situation in Gaza, where tens of thousands have died and where Israeli hostages remain captive by Hamas.

I was fortunate to interview the mighty Ben Ferencz in 2022 when he was 101 years old and as incredible as when he tried Nazis officials at Nuremberg aged only 27. An American who grew up on the mean streets of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, he was originally from Romania and only learned to speak English when he was eight. He was so brilliant that he got a scholarship to Harvard to study law. The Einsatzgruppen trials after the end of World War Two were his first. His mantra till the day he died was: “Never give up”. Given that imperative, what choice do we have?

Genocides are prepared and planned, not spontaneous, and useful for an autocratic leader, of which there are many. The terms of dehumanisation — cockroaches or vermin, infidels or subhumans — justify to the genocidaire that what they do is legitimate, that they are killing for the greater good. This is what the Nazis did to the Jews in the Holocaust and the Ottomans did to the Armenians in the 1915 genocide, what the Hutus said about the Tutsi and Twa and what ISIS said about the “infidel” Yazidis.

But, as Menachem Rosensaft points out, “crimes against humanity are every bit as heinous as genocide, and civilians who are killed in war are no less dead, and their suffering and anguish are no less intense, if they are ‘merely’ the victims of the brutality and violence inherent in any war, regardless of whether a genocide or a crime against humanity can be proven.”

Peering into hell was what Ben Ferencz said of the Nazi crimes he witnessed and prosecuted. The word genocide was coined by Raphael Lemkin even as the Holocaust was being carried out.  We were silent then, but we must never be silent again. Never again, at some point, needs to be now.