By Okot Nyormoi, Editor, novelist, retired cell biologist

Tutsi Victims of GenocideAs always, I appreciate Jonathan Power for sharing his weekly columns on foreign affairs. While I acknowledge that he has the right to have an opinion as he once told me, I, too, have the right to have one. This time, I found his column titled, “IT IS NOT ETHNIC SLAUGHTER IN YUGOSLAVIA AND RWUANDA” jarring to say the least.

When I began to read the article, I kept expecting to find a convincing explanation for the title. However, I did not find one. If anything, he contradicted his claim in the title when he talked of ethnic tension which to me forms the basis of the very notion of ethnic slaughter which he sought to deny. Moreover, he talks of genocide in the same context.  

Jonathan’s article reminded me of what Whoopi Goldberg, an American TV talk show personality, who said on the show, THE VIEW, the day I received the article, that the Jewish Holocaust was not about race because it was a crime against humanity. Her reasoning was that the holocaust was committed by one group of white people against another group of white people. She quickly did a double take and apologized that she misspoke when she was reminded that crimes against humanity includes ethnic genocide or ethnic cleansing. 

While I do not claim to be an expert on the slaughter in Yugoslavia and Rwanda,  I will unreservedly say that Jonathan “mis-wrote” when he reasoned that the slaughter in Yugoslavia and Rwanda were not ethnic slaughter because only a tiny percentage of the ethnic group in Yugoslavia and in Rwanda did the killing. His argument is that in the case of Rwanda, the majority of the Hutus were not killers. While that was true, it is hard to know what the sentiment of the majority of the people was and to know for sure if they did not sympathize with the intent of the killers, much less if they were aware of the killing until the evil deed was already done.

First, it is absolutely true that in most wars, only a small percentage of people do the killing of the enemy. It is never the majority of the people. A small group (leaders) decide when and why they want to go to war and a small group of people (regular military, thugs, ex-prisoners, militia, etc.) execute the war on behalf of the decision makers or the majority of the people. After all, most people are too young, or too old to fight. Besides, women generally were left behind to care for the young and the old.

Secondly, the leaders (government or rebels) always claim that their decision to go to war against the perceived enemy is in the interests of the group (national, ideological, religious, ethnic, race, etc.). The decision to slaughter the enemy is never decided by vote, and much less by a majority vote. In fact, in many situations, even if the majority of the people are opposed to the decision to slaughter the perceived enemy, they often fear to speak up until it is too late. Often, it also takes time for the news about the atrocity to get out, to convince the public of the atrocity and to organize national and international opposition to it. In the case of Rwanda, the UN and the USA did not even believe or accept that a slaughter was going on until it was almost over. The reaction of most people when horrific crimes happen was best articulated by Pastor Martin Niemoller in 1946 when he said:

First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Hutu Victims of GenocideThird, usually, if not always, there is tension between two or more groups over injustice, domination, exploitation, etc. of one group by another. I admit that I do not know the details about the Yugoslavian situation, but I know about the situation in Rwanda where for years the minority monarchist Tutsi dominated the majority Hutus. Even when the country was colonized first by Germany and then later by Belgium, the colonialists used the monarchists minority Tutsis to rule over the majority Hutus and the Twa, a smaller group, in apartheid-like style. Individuals had to carry identity cards showing their names and ethnicity. It is this type of relationship between groups identifiable by whatever criteria (race, color, religion, ideology, etc.) which lead to tension and in the worse situation, slaughter of one group by another.

Whether the underlying causes are real or fictitious is immaterial. Leaders often either create the perception of or seize on real existing underlying causes as the justification to try to vanquish their perceived enemies to consolidate their power. The slaughter in Yugoslavia and Rwanda have been accepted by the international community as genocide, which I paraphrase here as the deliberate killing with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. If so, it is very hard to accept that the slaughter in Yugoslavia and Rwanda were not ethnic slaughter.

Do underlying causes of ethnic tension inevitably lead to war, much less genocidal war? My answer is no. War is not the answer.