U.S. Failed to Stop Rwandan Genocide

Roger Winter is the executive director of U.S. Committee for Refugees

A year ago, President Clinton traveled to Rwanda, where he acknowledged what I believe is the greatest moral failure of his administration. In a brief stopover at Kigali airport, during which the engines of Air Force One were never shut down, Clinton bit his lip in the mask of contrition that Americans have grown so familiar with during the last year.

“We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred in Rwanda,” he said. Later he added: “We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We did not immediately call these crimes by their right name: genocide.”

In fact, the Clinton administration studiously avoided dealing with the highly organized campaign by fanatical killers who were determined to exterminate a huge portion of Rwanda’s population in 1994. These killers achieved almost 80% of their goal. Between 800,000 and 1 million men, women and children were butchered, most by machete, many in the churches into which they had fled.


I was in Rwanda during the height of the genocide, traveling from village to village trying to document murder and mutilation on an unfathomable scale. Typically vibrant towns were unnaturally quiet; the Rwandan Patriotic Front or RPF--a primarily Tutsi rebel group that was fighting a one-party government that was exclusively Hutu--had finally chased away or killed the extremist Hutu Power forces who were massacring Tutsis and moderate Hutus. This was done in an attempt to abort a peace accord that called for political power sharing during a transition to democratic governance. The extremist Hutus reasoned that power need not be shared with those who no longer exist. Thus the genocide.

I traveled to one village, Musaza, to investigate assertions that the RPF had massacred 18 Hutu villagers there. After checking every building and homestead and finding no indication of life, I entered the large church at the village center.

The sanctuary was beautiful and empty, and the contribution box undisturbed. I began to breathe easier. I walked back into the warm sunshine and toward the school classroom buildings across the road. The unmistakable smell of dead bodies hit me like a wall.

The first body I saw was an older man who looked as if he had been murdered as he tried to escape by leaping through an open window. He was hacked to death. I could see through the windows the rooms were full of others. I entered each room, struggling to breathe, while photographing the bodies. They had clearly been dead for more than a week. All had been mutilated--genitals or breasts hacked off, limbs severed, skulls split.

Of all the dead, there was a little boy perhaps a year old who caught my attention. He apparently had been held by one arm while his other arm and a leg had been hacked off, then his crotch cut out. He had swollen and baked since death. It appeared rats had nibbled his torso.

Across Rwanda, nearly 1 million civilians were massacred like this in just 100 days. The human rights community, including my organization, were in Rwanda during the early days of the genocide. What we saw horrified us, and we rushed to Washington to report our findings to government officials at as many agencies and as many levels as we could.


In what I view as a willful act of negligence, the Clinton administration was afraid to label this wholesale massacre as “genocide.” By calling it genocide, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher would have had to acknowledge that the United States had a moral obligation to intervene.

As the Clinton administration feigned ignorance, thousands died horrific deaths every day. It insults their memory to pretend our government did not comprehend what was going on.

One year after the president’s apology and five years after the beginning of genocide in Rwanda, I still weep for that little boy, so near in age to my own grandson. And despite my usual pride in our country and its people, I am deeply, deeply ashamed of how we failed him.