I saw this picture at the Forthspring 5 Decades Exhibition showing in the City Hall, Belfast. It is thought-provoking, punchy and heart-rending. I was reminded of pictures I had seen in Rwanda and of people I had met. So many people determined that what happened in Rwanda in 1994 would not happen again. 10 people were killed every minute. 10 000 people were killed every day. Over 1 million people were killed in 100 days. Staggering. Ethnic division and demonisation preparing the way for extermination.
In a recent Panel Discussion held by the United Nations to Mark 20 years after the Rwandan Genocide, the Deputy Secretary General of the UN, Jan Eliasson, said that when we continue to speak of ‘never again’ we are expressing continuing failure. I think I would prefer to say that we are admitting we have not yet got it right and there is much work to be done.
So how might we know that we have not yet got it right? Beyond the continuing need to speak of ‘never again’ how might we know?
General Romeo Dallaire was the Force Commander UN Mission to Rwanda at the time of the genocide. There was no one who had given more stark and clear warnings to the International Community of what lay ahead for that country. His warnings went unheeded until it was too late, until, in the words of Eugenie Mukeshimana of the Genocide Survivors Network, the crime was ‘too great to punish.’ These days Dallaire works to prevent conflict and expends his energies in defining warning signs. The clearest warning sign, says Dallaire, is the use of children and young people as the instruments of war to acheive the ends of adults who are intent on destroying one another. He speaks of child soldiers, of youth used to provide the supports needed for conflict, of young lives dehumanised and the debasing of all humanity as long as conflict continues. He does not shirk the failures of the International Community – ‘and we watched.’ Those words become all the more moving when set alongside the words of Eugenie Mukeshimana, ‘we waited and nobody came.’
All of this got me thinking about our situation in Northern Ireland. We spend so much time thinking about young people but do we take it seriously when we hear that paramilitary groupings are recruiting young people? Do we take it seriously when we hear that young people who were moving away from being ‘at risk’ are being pulled back into the types of crime that will generate income for those paramilitary groupings? Do we take it seriously when children and young people are found in the vanguard of protests and violence? Or are we inclined to say that’s only to be expected in certain areas or certain communities?
Dallaire would argue that the flagrant use of youth as the weapons of conflict should be viewed as a warning that must not be ignored. In his own words, you, ‘don’t neutralise a weapon by picking up the pieces afterwards.’