Preparing a class for the morning, “P Tang Yang Kipperbang,” Jack Rosenthal’s 1982 television film set in the Post-War Britain of 1948, came suddenly to mind.
“Quack Quack” Duckworth, the shy and awkward fourteen year old who loves the prettiest girl in the school, walks along with Tommy, the school groundsman as Tommy marks the boundary of a cricket pitch. He believes Tommy has been a soldier serving in battle after battle, not knowing he is wanted for desertion. Quack Quack tells Tommy that the soldiers have brought in a new age:
“From now on, there’ll never be any more wars, never again, for the simple raison d’etre that the United Nations will insist there’s no more wars. Any country wanting to invade another, well, hard cheddar . . the United Nations will vote against them, QED”
Reflecting on the book of Esther, which made its triennial appearance in the church’s bible readings on Sunday, the textbook concludes with optimism worthy of Quack Quack.
“There have been many situations where people of a different race, tribe or religion have been slaughtered. This is often known as genocide. Share any knowledge you have of when or where this could have happened. Find out what the United Nations does to protect the rights of people. What do you think are basic human rights?”
It seems astonishing, in the light of the United Nations’ record in Srebrenica and in Rwanda, that anyone should still believe that the United Nations could do anything to protect people. Unless the United States decides to intervene, the United Nations is no more than a talking shop. In 2000, the New York Times carried Linda Melvern’s graphic description of the United Nations turning its back on defenceless people:
“People tried to hang on to lorries. The Belgian soldiers brandished their weapons, and fired into the air. The French soldiers prevented others from getting too near to the peacekeepers. The French promised the people that they would stay. At 13.45 the last Belgian soldier pulled out of the school. Then the French soldiers left. People started to cry. The bourgmestre, a member of Rwanda’s Parti Social Démocrate (PSD), the centre-left opposition party, tried to calm everyone, and told them that they must defend themselves. `But we had no weapons, not even a stick,’ someone said.
Soldiers and militia started firing at the people and throwing grenades into the crowd. Some people recognized as Hutu were put to one side. The vice-president of the national committee of one of the militia groups, an agricultural engineer, Georges Rutaganda, was in a jogging suit, standing guard at a small entrance located on the side of the athletic field. He was carrying a gun. In the crowd were pro-democracy opposition politicians and human rights activists but the vast majority of people carried identification cards with the designation Tutsi. There were both young and old people, and some who could barely walk.
Most of the people decided to try to escape to UN headquarters but instead they were herded along the road by militia and soldiers. `As we walked … the soldiers and militia terrorized us with their grenades and guns … they slapped and beat people up, stealing their money … it was a long walk and the militia were everywhere.’
At one moment the Presidential Guard ordered the people to sit down and cursed and insulted them for being Tutsi, telling them they were going to die. Then the convoy moved on again. `As we walked along, the militia were hitting people with machetes. Some of the people who were wounded fell down and were trampled upon.’
They came to a crossroads that led to Nyanza-Rebero and when they reached a gravel pit near the Nyanza primary school they were told once more to sit down. A witness said that Rutaganda was instructing the militia how to proceed; there were militia coming from different directions and they had machetes. `The Presidential Guard were watching us from a place that was higher than where we were.’ Then the soldiers started firing and threw grenades. Some people tried to break through the militia but were struck down with machetes. `We were so stunned that no one cried out … it was only afterwards that you heard the voices moaning in agony … then the Interahamwe [militia] came in and started with the machetes, hammers, knives and spears.’ People in pain were told that they would be finished off quickly with a bullet if they paid money. There were children crying over the bodies of their dead parents.
The next morning militia came back to kill anyone still alive. Survivors of Kicukiro were mostly children who hid under the bodies.
In the next few days Lemaire and his men were deployed helping to escort Europeans to the airport. Told that their UN mission was over, they were the first to fly home. On the tarmac and in front of television cameras, one of them slashed his blue beret with his combat knife. Lemaire wore his beret. He still believed in the UN ideal”
The ideal world is inhabited by Quack Quack Duckworth and school textbooks; it’s not inhabited by a man I met in July, who lost his family in those horrific weeks of 1994, or by the millions who shared his experiences.