TOURING A RWANDAN CHURCH, site of unimaginable genocidal horror, the newly arrived U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda, Robert E. Gribbin, heard a “crunch underfoot,” revealing a human jawbone. Hours earlier, he visited a Kigali prison teeming with over 10,000 men accused of committing the very horrors that led to one of the most efficient and well-planned genocides in modern history. Space was so tight men sat and slept in shifts.
And that was Gribbin’s second day on the job.
Gribbin, a former Kenya Peace Corps Volunteer who actually sought the position in which he served from 1995 to 1999, recounts his many macabre and insightful stories in his book, In the Aftermath of Genocide: the U.S. Role in Rwanda.
“There are not a lot of secrets to tell,” he humbly confides, but then proceeds to reveal candid political and diplomatic details that 20 years of experience with the country makes him eminently, and perhaps uniquely, qualified to tell.
Following Peace Corps service, Gribbin joined the Foreign Service and served as a State Department desk officer for Rwanda. He then served as deputy chief of mission in Rwanda and Uganda, among other postings in Africa, before taking the Rwanda ambassadorial position one year after nearly 1 million Rwandan Tutsis were slaughtered by the majority Rwandan Hutus. When offered the position, he did not hesitate.
“I pondered over and over how the peaceful land I once knew could have descended into such a hell,” he said. “Now it seemed I might find out.”
Shortly after the U.S. military’s debacle in Somalia, the Clinton administration had little stomach for another African entanglement where no vital U.S. interest was at stake. A cookie-cutter noninvolvement “policy” quickly held sway. Gribbin was appalled.
“U.S. officials danced around trying to make the circumstances conform to the policy,” he said. More “inexcusable,” he continued, the United States refused to let the UN Security Council act. “We have never been shy of trying to make UN policy reflect American policy.”
The plot to exterminate the Tutsis of Rwanda began when a missile downed the plane of the Rwandan president on April 6, 2004, and was only stopped by advancing Tutsi opposition fighters. Fleeing Hutu hardliners encouraged over a million Hutus to flock into neighboring Zaire and Tanzania where the hardliners maintained control over refugee camps that stretched as far as the eye could see.
In the aftermath, humanitarian teams soon herded into Rwanda and Zaire. Over 100 arrived in Rwanda alone. Gribbin’s opinion of these UN and non-governmental organizations was both admiring and disdainful. Without them, many more people would have died. But lured by money, they inadvertently deterred the earlier return of Rwandan refugees and allowed the Hutu killers to regroup and continue atrocities.
“I called it the ‘humanitarian industrial complex,’” he said. “Thousands of jobs and lots of contracts depended on the presence of refugees.” While their hearts were in the right place, “. . . the system served them and their organizations as much as it served their impoverished clients.”
In his four years as Ambassador, Gribbin witnessed the sudden return of one million refugees, monitored two wars in neighboring Zaire (both abetted by Rwanda), and reported on scores of “terrorist” attacks by unrepentant Hutu killers who infiltrated back into Rwanda with the refugees.
Through it all, Gribbin never lost his love for the country or its people.
David Lillie worked with the American Refugee Committee in Rwanda and Goma, Zaire, from 1995 to 1996. Currently, he is a program officer with USAID in Washington, DC.