On Saturday the United Nations will mark its seventieth anniversary. Created from the ashes of World War Two, its founding aim was to build peace among the nations and ensure that the catastrophes of war would never happen again. But Saturday’s anniversary will not be celebrated on a bare hill in Rwanda that marks the darkest hour in UN history.
Here among tall pine trees in 1994, nearly 4,000 innocent people were murdered by Hutu extremists when UN peacekeepers abandoned them. They were sheltering in a school under UN protection in the first week of the Rwandan genocide. But orders came from New York for the peacekeepers to leave.
The people begged them not to go, kneeling on the red earth in front of their jeeps. Their pleas were ignored. As the UN troops drove off, the militiamen appeared. They separated the crowd into Hutus and Tutsis, and marched the Tutsis up the hill. The killing took all night. Mostly it was done with machetes. One hundred people survived.
Later, after a million people had been slaughtered in 100 days of ethnic violence, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan admitted, ‘The international community failed Rwanda.’
Today the hillside at Nyanza-Kicukiro contains the graves of 11,000 victims of a genocide the UN refused to recognise. That summer the Security Council did pass a resolution regretting events, but avoided using the word ‘genocide’ – which would have legally obliged it to intervene. Meanwhile it withdrew its troops, spooked by the militia murder of 10 Belgian peacekeepers.
Today’s UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has said: ‘The shame still clings, a generation after the events.’
I am shown the site at Nyanza by genocide survivor Jean de Dieu. He was a schoolboy aged 19 in 1994. He spent weeks hiding in a house in Kigali with his mother, listening to gunfire and scavenging for food. ‘We survived,’ he says, ‘because we were not from the city, and no-one knew who we were.’
Jean works now as a peacebuilder in Rwanda, where an official post-genocide programme has been running for 21 years to heal the trauma of the past. He runs a local charity called Shalom Educating for Peace and has dedicated his life to healing the divisions and damage caused by 1994. His organisation teaches people the skills and insights to avoid conflicts, reaching out through schools, farming co-operatives, community choirs and sports teams.
Like so many of the local peacebuilders we work with, Shalom struggles to achieve a vital mission on tiny funds. They are the antithesis of the UN system with its vast international agencies and remoteness from realities on the ground. Such organisations do not receive recognition or funding from the UN. Yet they may offer an alternative avenue to peace, located in the communities where violence happens.
Ban Ki-moon said at this month’s UN General Assembly that the seventieth anniversary of his organisation is an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and do more to promote peace and security. He could start by listening to local voices, in ways that the UN has failed to do before.