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The Rhyming of History: Rwanda and Afghanistan

For roughly a year between 2013-2014, I resided in the neighbourhood of Kanombe in eastern Kigali. After nearly every day of work, I would walked home. The twelve kilometer journey allowed me to clear my mind. It allowed me to think of the work I was doing at the time, but also of grander questions of how Rwanda had and was continuing to influence my beliefs and opinions. 

Walking this route, I would travel around much of Kigali’s [at the time of writing this] only airport, the Kigali International Airport. As the airport stood on top of a hill, much of my walk would be around it. At one particular area, the arriving and departing airplanes were so close to the ground that if one threw a ball up, it would likely hit the plane! But it wasn’t until the near end of the walk, when I was in the new housing suburbs of Kanombe, that I would come across perhaps the most interesting part of the walk. 

Perhaps less than a kilometre from the end of my walk was the former Presidential Palace of Juvénal Habyarimana. During his Presidential reign from 1973 to 1994, his house was one of the most secure places in the whole country. Few would live nearby beyond his inner circle of political, economic and social power called the akazu. As guard towers surround the complex, I could not help but think of the horrific policies that originated from within the property walls. While Habyarimana’s predecessor Gregoire Kayibanda (1962-1973) was just as guilty of horrific atrocities against Rwanda’s Tutsi population, it was here that a quota system was created to establish a system of institutional racism within Rwanda. Additionally, it was here where a master plan to exterminate Rwanda’s Tutsi population would come to be in 1994. 

Around the corner, I would continue to walk on the dirt road. This area was largely empty during the time of Habyarimana in order to protect the privacy of the President. Now, it is filled with houses of a new middle class within Rwandan society. An old woman who lives nearby told me stories of what the neighbourhood was like back during Habyarimana’s regime. Still to my right, the old guard walls bare down on me with an abandoned service station to my left. From this angle, the house, largely left as a museum and a wedding venue, seems eerily abandoned. But I had yet to reach the true curiosity of the site.

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A corner of the wall from the Presidential Palace.

I would always stop at the same spot and just stare out at one of the most notable aspects of this house: the remains of the Presidential plane. The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis was ignited after the assassination of President Habyarimana. While there is great debate on who killed the President as he returned from Arusha, Tanzania one fateful night, the outcome was clear. After decades of anti-Tutsi propaganda and a failing Rwandan state, a genocide would erupt and kill an estimated one million Rwandan Tutsis and non-extremists Hutus. Unlike other genocides, this one’s primary weapon of choice was the machete and other farming equipment.

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A 2013 photograph [quickly taken] of the plane crash site from the street.

A strange yellow light would shine on the little remnants of the Falcon 50 plane during the night. Its tail wing was still upright with some engine parts, landing gear and fuselage still present. Much of the remains of the plane are in lands far away from here. Seemingly within minutes to a few hours after Habyarimana’s assassination, French, Zairian and Rwandan National Guard soldiers surrounded the crash site, preventing General Romero Dallaire, the commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) from reaching it. They collected much of the debris, seemingly being prepared for this event. Based on testimonies I’ve collected, within 45 minutes of the assassination, roadblocks were established in much of Kigali beginning a genocide that would continue until the 19th of July. 

At the time, there was little to stop me from just walking to the crashed plane site, a moment in history. While there were security guards at an outpost nearby, many had grown to know me as the smiling muzungu (foreigner) who would wave to them each morning and evening. For travellers now, there is a brick wall which prevents you from even seeing the crash site. You have to visit inside the museum to gain access to the crash. But for those twelve months, I would pass by this site and think of the ramifications everyday. It was this moment which triggered not only one of the most horrific genocides but also a pressing example of international abandonment. Some of those who sing, ‘Never Again’ turned their backs here and are doing so in Afghanistan.

For the last week, I have been talking to a close colleague of mine about the events unfolding in Afghanistan. Close to twenty years after the United States sent soldiers into the central Asian country to capture and kill Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies, the Taliban have returned to power. They gained their victory through the use of their weapons against a leader-less Afghan government on the graves of over 66,000 Afghan soldiers who tried to stop the Taliban.

The stories from around the country, with new videos and testimonies coming from Kabul remind me of the horror stories from Rwanda. While some researchers, focusing on Rwanda, are not particularly interested in conducting research in Rwanda with Rwandans, I have always felt it necessary as it brings a human element that often departs from narratives and experiences found within the Global North. Many in the Global North (thankfully) will never have to know the horrors and worst of humanity even if they claim to be ‘experts’ on them. But listening to Rwandans in Rwanda is a necessary experience to listen and perhaps try to understand the greatest horrors of humanity. They can be beacons for us to be aware of when chaos begins in another society so we can assist and prevent the loss of humanity. While two conflicts are never the same, there is always one similarity, the blood of innocent victims. The scenes at Kabul’s airport are some of the most graphic being displayed in news media outlets. 

The chaos at Kabul’s airport is filled with images of seemingly thousands of people desperate to try to flee the brutality of the incoming Taliban regime. With stories [and now video evidence] of Taliban forces torturing and killing any Afghan that engaged with not only foreign actors but anything that is seen as beyond their strict interpretation of Islam, people are growing desperate. Horrific scenes of people falling off of US military planes; families giving up their small children hoping that at least their children could escape; and the pleas for international help as the Taliban cut off roads to the airport. Rwanda didn’t exactly have a similar situation as during the genocide, Kigali International Airport was mostly under the control of the French during the early weeks of the genocide. People couldn’t flee for safety and escape. Rather, they would either try to reach UNAMIR locations or the incoming Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) army. This prevented any mass evacuation of Rwandans until the RPF took control over the airport and worked with UNAMIR to help people escape. 

However, there are multiple stories that follow closely with the scenes at the airport. In particular I remember some testimonies from the École Technique Officielle (ETO) school in Kicukiro, Kigali. It was here were Belgium UNAMIR troops protected over 2000 Rwandans. All were frightened that if the Belgium troops departed, they would all be killed. Interahamwe [genocidal murders] militias were known for shouting at the scared refugees that once the Belgiums left, they would all be killed. Their prediction came true with the removal of Belgium forces from UNAMIR shortly after the brutal murders of 10 Belgium forces. As news entered the ETO of the pending removal of Belgium forces, many refugees went to news media outlets begging for help. Similar to what we are now witnessing in Afghanistan, the news media seemingly took their pictures and videos and left. And like back then, the extremists, whether the Interahamwe or Taliban, moved right in.

The plane crash currently dominates my thoughts as I watch through news media as well as through social media sites of the hell engulfing Afghanistan. Despite not being a researcher on Afghanistan, as I focus on the African Great Lakes, I do feel some connection. Perhaps it is Mark Twain’s famous comment, History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. While staring at the Falcon 50 tail wing all those years ago, I would contemplate how the genocide would be different if the Global North, particularly the United States, sent some of its military might to help those who were going to suffer. If the Global North actually cared about one of their favourite slogans, Never Again, to go beyond their narratives to help their fellow human beings. 

We are now facing a similar situation and continuing to do nothing.  

While Afghans are being attacked by Taliban forces and pleading for help, President Biden is fumbling around the failures of the Afghan withdrawal. Very similar to his tweets during the collapse of Kabul, in a recent ABC News interview, he seemed to expose the reality of the situation. The Global North just simply doesn’t care despite all the window dressing that depicts it does. They don’t care about failing states like Afghanistan or Rwanda during the early days of the genocide. It is even more infuriating as President Biden campaigned as a foreign policy expert who would reintroduce humanitarianism in US foreign policy. 

While former President Trump acted in disgrace when he called some Global South nations as ‘sh-thole nations’, I find it even more disgraceful when President Biden claimed to promote humanitarianism within American foreign policy while completely abandoning Afghans. History does rhyme as President Biden held a similar position after the fall of Saigon. Even more disgraceful is what I am seeing from people who want to promote social justice but are applauding the horrors in Afghanistan. While I do not want to dive too much into the political dynamics within the Global North, especially in the USA, the hypocrisy of arm chaired ‘experts’ and ‘fighters for social good’ is even more disgraceful. Is fighting against what they perceive as Imperialism justified with the countless loss of life, massive curtailing of human rights, especially for women?

Are they so naive to ignore that everything they believe in will and currently is being violated by the Taliban? Or do they only claim these beliefs in the comfort of their safe and stable neighbourhoods thousands of miles away from the worst of humanity? Perhaps promoting their beliefs, in what some might call cultural Orietenlism or Neo-colonialism, is not that important when it comes to committing oneself beyond a few hashtags or protests thousands of miles away. Perhaps protesting for universal human rights is not worth it when the situation becomes more complicated than just a street protest or hashtags on social media? On the other side of the American political spectrum, why are many Republicans and Conservatives now fighting for Afghan refugees when they were so quick to turn a blind eye and even condemn the ones that were fleeing from nations just south of the US border?

I don’t want to be on a soapbox preaching my personal political opinions as very few people are interested in them. However, as someone who, while looking at the destroyed wreckage of the Presidential Plane, would speculate so much about humanitarian responses, I plead to anyone who will listen: the Global North and the world must not let Afghans fall into the worst of humanity. We cannot allow history to rhyme again. The United States alone has 5000 soldiers stationed at the Kabul airport. It has the largest military in the world with abilities that any historical empire would envy. It has the ability to save people. Let it use the military might for a humanitarian good and help evacuate as many people as we can. Unfortunately, there will be people left behind but saving as many as we can must be our goal. As the Jewish Talmud says: [paraphrasing] Save One Life, Save the Entire World. Let’s save as many worlds as we can. Let the detailed analysis, geopolitical consequences and so on be pushed to a later date as we cannot fail in Afghanistan as they did in Rwanda. Let’s stop the rhyming of history now so people won’t visit Kabul’s airport in the future and ask what could have been. 

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