Film, professor address lessons learned from Rwanda |

Film, professor address lessons learned from Rwanda

Naomi Havlen

The terrifying genocide in the small African nation of Rwanda just 11 years ago is slowly becoming apparent to Americans.Films like the Academy Award-nominated “Hotel Rwanda” are bringing the horror to the United States through fictionalized accounts of the political conflict in Rwanda. Dr. Joel D. Barkan, professor of political science at the University of Iowa, spoke about the genocide and its implications for Rwanda today at Paepcke Auditorium Friday evening as part of the Aspen Institute’s summer speakers series.Barkan’s film of choice for putting the tragedy in historical context is “Sometimes in April,” an HBO film inspired by the true events of the 100 days of genocide that began in April 1994. Before Barkan’s talk Friday, an audience of about 150 people watched the film, which follows one man’s journey as he is separated from his family during the conflict and his brother, who is charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for propagating hate radio that incited the killings.Barkan served as the Regional Democracy and Governance Advisor for East and Southern Africa to the United States Agency for International Development from 1992 to 1994. He currently is the senior consultant on governance in the Public Sector Reform Unit of the Africa Region at the World Bank.As the film points out, the United States – as well as many other countries – did nothing to stop the mass killings, which may have resulted in as many or more than 800,000 deaths.”Sometimes in April” puts the incident in perspective by using real news clips from the time, as well as referring to pop culture in the United States at the time, from the scuttle between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan to Kurt Cobain’s suicide.A real-life speech made by then-President Clinton is part of the movie, in which the president reminds the country that genocide is not an African phenomenon; he uses hopeful “never again” statements that the world should be more vigilant in preventing genocide.Barkan isn’t so optimistic. The United States typically lends humanitarian relief to situations like Rwanda because it has widespread popularity among the American public. When action involves military intervention, Americans tend to hang back, he said. He also noted that the Rwandan genocide came quickly on the heels of an attempted U.S. military intervention in Somalia in 1993, when 18 Marines were killed in action. At the time, President Clinton was also down in the polls.”Domestic politics trumped intervention,” Barkan said, “and this was probably not the last time we sat on the sidelines.” Currently, the United States offers logistical and financial support for peacekeeping in Darfur, where ethnic cleansing has been reported as part of a conflict since 2003, but is depending on military troops from other countries to intervene.The history of the conflict in Rwanda begins with Belgian colonial rule, from 1916 to 1962, that pitted two ethnic groups – Tutsi and Hutu – against each other, creating a hierarchy and discrimination between the races. Barkan said that Tutsi-Hutu relations before the Belgians arrived in the country was “relatively harmonious within a traditional system of hierarchy and class.” By the 1950s, however, the Belgian influence led to a clear demarcation between the haves and the have-nots, he said.As for current-day Rwanda, according to notes at the end of “Sometimes in April,” only 80 people have been charged and prosecuted by the International Tribunal for their parts in the genocide. Gacaca courts in local villages are depicted in the film, but Barkan said witnesses there are subject to intimidation – the government pressures them to come forward and identify perpetrators, but witnesses are threatened by genocide sympathizers to stay quiet or be killed.”Unless a power sharing agreement can be negotiated, I’m pessimistic about the prospect of stability and peace in Rwanda,” Barkan said. Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is

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