Fall 2013 Confronts Rwandan Genocide
The 1994 Rwandan genocide is one of the darkest chapters in modern history. Nearly a million people were killed in 100 days while the world decided against intervening.
As dark a chapter as it is, the genocide provides a remarkable learning opportunity for SEGL students. Through studying the individual and governmental responses to the violence, they can better understand effective leadership in times of crisis.Our study began on Friday evening with a showing of the PBS Frontline documentary Ghosts of Rwanda. The documentary is challenging to watch and fostered an intense discussion afterward about the proper role of the U.S. government when a compelling national interest is not clearly present.
As the week progressed, we met with three leaders interviewed in the documentary. Each of these leaders provided a unique perspective that gave students a nuanced, more complex understanding of the genocide. We also benefited from a special tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which shows the causes and effects of the world’s most notorious genocide.
We began Sunday evening by videoconferencing with Carl Wilkens, the only American to remain in Rwanda during the genocide. Wilkens was a missionary aid worker who felt called to protect the Rwandans in his home and, later, hundreds of orphans and other at-risk genocide survivors. Wilkens, the 2012 recipient of SEGL’s Golden Mug Award (which goes to the guest speaker whom graduates feel has made the biggest difference in their lives), spoke intensely and with spirit in response to difficult questions about faith, family, and ethics.
On Wednesday (coincidentally also the twelfth anniversary of September 11, 2001), we journeyed to the Holocaust Museum for an exclusive tour that began an hour before the museum opened. (Thanks to SEGL Board Member and the Museum’s Director of Youth and Community Initiatives Jesse Nickelson for arranging the memorable visit.) The tour prompted solemn reflection and many connections to Rwanda.
We then traveled to the United States Institute of Peace, a Congressionally-funded institution that seeks to promote peace throughout the world, which is located in its stunning new home across from the State Department on the National Mall. There we met with Ambassador George Moose, Vice Chair of USIP’s board, who was Assistant Secretary of State for Africa during the genocide. Moose helped students see the complex factors that made intervention in Rwanda far from an obvious choice. Was it right to risk American lives months after the Black Hawk Down debacle in Somalia? Could we really have sent troops to help quickly enough to help? What American interest would justify such an outlay of resources? These are the sorts of questions that policymakers like Moose faced, and the same gauntlet through which our students will run should they ever face a similar circumstance.
On Thursday we visited UPS’s DC headquarters (just a block from our residential building) to meet with Laura Lane. Now UPS President of Global Public Affairs, in 1994 Lane was a 26 year-old foreign service officer effectively in charge of evacuating all Americans from Rwanda. Her testimony–including her regret for not doing more to keep a U.S. presence in the country and her deep respect for Wilkens–was animated and compelling, and many of the students sat in impressed silence after she left. (One vignette from her talk: one of her mottos now is “life is uncertain; eat dessert first” because at the moment the genocide began she was serving dessert at a dinner party; when she returned to the country after the genocide the now-inedible dessert was still on the table, uneaten.)
Throughout the week the students made numerous connections between Rwanda and the current crisis in Syria. They asked each of our speakers to weigh in on the topic, and one student wondered aloud if “Syria is the Rwanda of our time.” Most also watched President Obama’s speech to the nation on Tuesday evening, debating the soundness of his policy. These are tough questions indeed, but also questions they must be prepared to answer when they take the reins of American power.
So far, this group’s dedication and insight should give us hope that those reins will be held with thoughtful confidence.
Our next case study: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.