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Prudence Bushnell
Prudence Bushnell

April 6 marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide; yet, in light of the current conflict in Syria, many question the lessons learned from history. 

Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the time of the Rwandan genocide, gave a Levitt Center-sponsored lecture on April 2, with Emily Willard, project coordinator for the Genocide Prevention Project. Bushnell served as the 2010 Linowitz Visiting Professor of International Relations, and also founded and leads the Levitt Leadership Institute.

Bushnell began by posing the question of destiny. She was skeptical before beginning her work in sub-Saharan Africa. Moving to another continent, Bushnell found herself ameliorating cross-national issues and meeting with warlords across Africa. Her experience made her aware of the growing threat in Rwanda, yet her advice and warnings fell on deaf ears. Later, former President Clinton would admit that his inaction in Rwanda was the biggest regret of his presidency.

Bushnell described the historical early roots of the Hutu-Tutsi conflict that led to the genocide.  Both parties signed the Arusha Accords in August, 1993, and the U.N. enacted a 90-day peacekeeping mandate to allow for a transitional government to be organized.

Then, in October of 1993, three U.S. soldiers were killed and dragged through the streets of Somalia. In response, the U.S. decided that it would only provide peacekeepers to countries that are at peace and pulled its troops out of the U.N. Security Council. Bushnell contacted then-Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, warning him that the U.N. mandate was almost expired and that the multiparty transition government needed to be installed.

Continuing her work with Hutu and Tutsi violence, Bushnell then went to Burundi fearing a militaristic coup.  She was still in Burundi on April 6, 1994, when the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, returning from a meeting of the African Union, was gunned down.

Rwanda erupted, leading Hutu radicals to slaughter would-be members of the transitional government and 10 Belgian peacekeepers. All eyes then turned to Rwanda, as Bushnell was responsible for safely evacuating American citizens.  With the successful evacuation, U.S. interest in Rwanda immediately dissipated and the French took control.

Bushnell was ordered to “do something” about the genocide; yet, not only was she denied the use of U.S. resources, but the government also refused to request aid from other countries. To make matters worse, the U.S. then asked that the U.N. withdraw all peacekeeping troops in response to the murdered Belgian soldiers. Only a couple hundred peacekeepers, the sole remaining source of legitimate authority, stayed to protect a stadium filled with several thousand Tutsi refugees.

Viewing the disengagement of U.N. forces as auspicious, the Hutus moved to “finish the job,” capitalizing on radio propaganda to spread the violence. Bushnell quickly moved to jam the radio stations but found that it was illegal, even in times of crisis. Denied but not deterred, she got on the radio herself, broadcasting the hope of peace and democracy to a bloodstained country. Only minimally successful, Bushnell subsequently decided to make calls directly to the leaders of the RPF, but they claimed to believe in democracy and freedom of the press and refused to stop the broadcasts.

The genocide lasted 100 days and saw the deaths of 800,000 people. Bushnell drove home the number: a population four and a half times the size of Hamilton’s student body was massacred every day for 100 days. Even more horrific, the genocide was committed almost entirely with machetes, demanding remorseless, personal encounters with each victim. The RPF eventually won the war, scattering Tutsi refugees to nearby countries in the African Great Lakes region, mainly Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda.

The U.N. maintained efforts by delivering supplies to these refugee camps, yet many were being led by rebel leaders who sold the supplies to buy guns and ammunition. Zaire, Tanzania became iconic for this black market trade, disheartening members of the U.N., who soon stopped sending refugee supplies altogether.
Although she was once mocked for her opinions and warnings, Bushnell is now recognized for her heroism and action. In 2013, she was contacted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), requesting her participation in a forum with leaders from France, the U.N., Belgium and the countries in the African Great Lakes region. The group is compiling a complete account of the genocide from several perspectives, with the hope that learning from the past will bring us closer to “never again.” 

To accomplish this, the USHMM partnered with the National Security (NS) Archive to found the Genocide Prevention Project (GPP). Willard joined the NS Archive in the fall of 2009, working to use the Freedom of Information Act to request that government documents be declassified and released. To avoid making the same mistakes in the future, and to address the current genocide in Syria, the GPP works to collect and analyze these historical documents.

The GPP has expanded from the U.S. and is now collecting data about the Rwandan genocide from the French, Belgian and Canadian governments, and the U.N. But the process of gaining access to national documents is lengthy, and some foreign governments have even stricter laws. Although the GPP is trying to obtain Rwandan documents, none are available online and many were lost during the wars.

By arranging the research of documents around the turning points and major decisions made during these conflicts, Willard’s team can see the factors contributing to the genocide.

Willard claims that primary source material has been invaluable, helping her team understand the opinions and mindsets of people who were present. “What we’ve been doing [in regard to genocide in the past] isn’t working,” Willard stated. “We need new ideas and perspectives so that we can change how we approach these situations in the future.”

While their research is yielding substantial results, the information uncovered isn’t always easy to handle. Willard recalls reading a three-paragraph letter from the Department of Defense that curtly detailed how jamming the radio stations would be too expensive, but that the Department would allocate resources to help, after the violence subsided.

During the Q&A Bushnell was asked how she managed to maintain her faith in the State department and keep going even after the genocide. Without hesitation she answered, “I was not ready to throw in the towel, because this is my country and we’re better than this. I was not going to walk away in a hissy fit. I was angry and I was going to stay!

“Management is stability, while leadership is change,” Bushnell explained. “You cannot manage your way out of a genocide.”

Bushnell concluded the discussion as she had begun, by posing a question to a captivated audience; however, now it wasn’t destiny she offered, but rather a choice. “There are two ways of running the world,” she asked, “do you want to manage it, or lead it?”

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