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As the war in Ukraine continues, a look back at the 1994 Rwandan genocide

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Do Russian atrocities in Ukraine amount to genocide? Human rights organizations point to a slaughter 18 years ago when the world failed to intervene. Hutu militias in Rwanda used machetes and clubs to murder their fellow countrymen, mostly Tutsis. Nearly a million people were killed. Philip Gourevitch writes for The New Yorker. He's also the author of "We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda." Gourevitch spoke with our co-host, Leila Fadel.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: The killing began on April 6, 7, and within weeks, hundreds of thousands had been killed. Rwanda's small. It's important to keep in mind that Rwanda is about the size of, say, West Virginia. And it had a population of about 7 1/2 million people when this started. So you had a complete decimation within a very short period of time.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: And yet the world did nothing in these weeks. I mean, there were Belgian forces and UN peacekeepers in Rwanda at the time, if you could just talk about what happened to them.

GOUREVITCH: One of the very first moves was that - the perpetrators of the genocide are generally known as Hutu Power. That was sort of the name of the movement. They killed some Belgian peacekeepers in the first days. And Belgium's response was to withdraw the force. And the United States, which, of course, is always a very big power on the Security Council - the Clinton administration was smarting from its debacle in Somalia.

FADEL: With "Black Hawk Down."

GOUREVITCH: "Black Hawk Down," the Somalia killing of American soldiers in the streets - and this - and there was this idea that Clinton had come in saying, we're going to be robust post-Cold War peacekeepers and had completely reversed course to saying, we don't want to get involved in any of this sort of thing. But also, therefore, because we also want to lead the world, nobody else should unless we do. So it became a kind of stalling by all the global powers. And, you know, when people debate whether there's a genocide in Ukraine...

FADEL: Right.

GOUREVITCH: ...The terminology was defined after the Holocaust in a UN resolution. And it was always understood that if you saw a genocide happening, that it carried a burden and an obligation to take preventative action. Now, that doesn't always mean military, but it certainly means very, very, very intense response.

FADEL: Right.

GOUREVITCH: Right? And for that reason, America went - and many others were very reluctant to call it genocide.

FADEL: And that's so different than what we're seeing today when the U.S. speaks about Ukraine. There has been military aid being funneled into Ukraine, although many saying it's not enough. Why the difference?

GOUREVITCH: There are a lot of reasons. I would say that it is as geostrategically off everybody's radar as Ukraine is on it - on the front lines of NATO and Putin's power. You have a nuclear power with a person who is dedicated to destabilizing the post-Cold War order. There was no sense that, like, we get involved in wars in Africa except as proxy wars during the Cold War, which was now over.

FADEL: I also am curious about your take on the media coverage of these two very different moments - obviously, one an invasion, one a civil war. But my producer, Marc Rivers, looked through NPR's archives and found only 19 stories related to the killings in Rwanda from April to August 1994. I mean, on MORNING EDITION alone, we've already exceeded that amount on Ukraine by a lot as we enter month two of the war. Does that number surprise you, the difference?

GOUREVITCH: It always shocks me because it is one of the defining events in the late 20th century. It was very much underreported. The way I see it is the attention that's being given Ukraine is merited.

FADEL: Right.

GOUREVITCH: And it should be that way...

FADEL: Right.

GOUREVITCH: ...Elsewhere.

FADEL: When I was in Ukraine, I was struck by the same thing, how merited the coverage was but how different it is, and how merited it is in other places for other people and isn't the same or hasn't been the same.

GOUREVITCH: The really striking thing to me is when you have mass atrocity and communal violence and sort of systematic killing of civilians and so forth in an African civil war or conflict, you have people sort of saying, my goodness, this is what happens in these places.

FADEL: Right.

GOUREVITCH: And when I hear about Ukraine, I hear so many people saying, I cannot believe in the 21st century...

FADEL: Right.

GOUREVITCH: ...We are seeing such a thing in Europe. What did I miss that happened since the last time this happened in Europe and the time before that and the time before that...

FADEL: Right.

GOUREVITCH: ...And the time before that in this century? What makes people think that this is not something European people do?

FADEL: Yeah. I want to ask you about the impact. You mentioned the way that Ukraine has been covered, seen as central in a battle with Russia and NATO. And at the time, there was a sense in the U.S. that the Rwandan genocide didn't affect the average American, while today we often hear of the global impact of the war in Ukraine. What was, in fact, the impact of the Rwandan genocide worldwide?

GOUREVITCH: Once the immediate violence of extermination inside Rwanda in those months was over, you had a massive movement. Basically, Hutu Power changed its sort of orders to the Hutu population that it could influence from kill to flee. So they basically bolted and said, we're going to come back after regrouping in refugee camps. And the world then went in to support these camps and to support the refugees, leaving the survivors really quite untended.

But then you have more than a decade of wars that mostly took place outside of Rwanda. The war continued inside Rwanda with infiltrations from Congo. And those wars continued for a long time at terrible cost and suffering, mostly to the Congolese people. And there also was a kind of geopolitical consequence, which was this realization that there was this delinking of a certain sense of obligation to atrocity. Many people say, oh, the lesson of Rwanda must be that we will respond better next time. But really, what - the lesson was clear, was that in much of the world, people who depend on the West, anyway, for protection are unprotected.

FADEL: Philip Gourevitch is a writer for The New Yorker. He's also the author of "We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda." Thank you so much for joining us.

GOUREVITCH: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN MCBRIDE'S "TOIL THEME PART 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.