During April 1994 a sombre looking Michael Palin and Helen Mirren appeared on British television to make an emergency appeal for the victims of the war in Rwanda. In one hundred days close to a million people were hunted down and butchered for the crime of being Tutsis; no mercy was shown to the old, the sick, or even to new born babies. Thousands fled to churches in the hope of sanctuary, but their Hutu neighbours forced their way in and transformed the churches into killing centres where children’s heads were broken against walls, baptismal fonts were used to collect the blood of those whose throats hand been cut, and where thousands were shot or hacked to death by machetes. Often the priests and religious sisters and brothers could do nothing to stop the violence, and some simply opened the gates or handed the victims over to their killers. In Britain the government and the media were careful to avoid the word ‘genocide.’ Where we were this was nothing more than another war in deepest darkest Africa – a war of savages killing savages, and we were being asked to send money to save the children. Nothing was said of this being the wholesale slaughter of unarmed civilians by their neighbours who thought of their victims as “cockroaches.” Nothing was said of this conflict being rooted in the history of European colonisation.
We were never told while the nightmare was unfolding that this was genocide, not because the government and the media didn’t know. They knew all too well what was happening, as did every dog on the street, but this was too close to home for Britain. European empires just like Britain’s had brutalised Africa and had subdued and dominated its people by fuelling ethnic hatred, and now what was happening right before our eyes were the consequences. In no way would Britain be prepared to stand to account for its actions, and to ensure this did not happen it would stand with its imperial partners to make sure Belgium walked away scot free from what it had done in Rwanda. At home we were never told to be racists; we never needed to be told. It was in our education, our national pride; our greatness was in our bones. We were Great Britain. Barbarism was what we expected from the animalistic Africans, and so when we saw them killing one another we were not surprised. What else could we expect? So when we were asked for money to patch up their cuts and bruises we happily commented that charity begins at home. It’s all different now. We have learned from Rwanda. It won’t happen again… Syria? Charity begins at home!