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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.

Twenty years ago this week, the Rwandan genocide began when the political ideology of ethnic hatred gave license to thousands of Hutus to slaughter Tutsi families. But this ideology may not have unleashed a genocide if the international community had stepped in and stopped it from happening.

NPR's Gregory Warner tells the story of how one episode of stepping aside forever changed the role of the U.N. peacekeeper.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Early in the morning of April 7, 1994, thousands of Tutsis began arriving at a school on the outskirts of the capital Kigali. They were seeking the protection of Belgian soldiers stationed there for the United Nations.

VENUSTE KARASIRA: We believed in those brave soldiers.

WARNER: On a memorial stage set up this weekend on a soccer field of that school, Venuste Karasira described how Hutu militiamen had surrounded the school, but they were blocked from entering because of their fear of the Belgians. Imagine our panic, he said, when one afternoon, the Belgian soldiers packed up to leave. The Tutsis, including men and women and children, begged them to stay.

KARASIRA: I remember one of us asking them to give us few guns so that we could protect ourselves. But still they refused.

WARNER: Some asked the peacekeepers to shoot them to avoid a worse death at the hands of the militias. But the soldiers drove off. And the massacre that unfolded was so horrific, it inspired a feature film called "Beyond the Gates." After Karasira's survivor testimony, the next to address this crowd is a retired Belgian colonel, Jean Loup Denblyden, who was not there at the school but at the airport where the soldiers were next sent. He says the young soldiers told him they saw the killers in their rearview mirrors

JEAN LOUP DENBLYDEN: (French spoken)

WARNER: The soldiers had been ordered to leave, he says, to help escort European nationals to the airport so they could flee the country. Meanwhile, a larger contingent of Belgian soldiers just a short flight over in Nairobi were left idle.

DENBLYDEN: (French spoken)

WARNER: We waited for them to be ordered to arrive, the colonel said. But those orders never came.

DAVID SIMON: The soldiers knew that the killing would happen. The decision makers did not have it in their calculus.

WARNER: David Simon, a political science professor with the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, says the United Nations of 20 years ago was much more respectful of state sovereignty. It didn't see civilian protection as its job, especially protecting civilians against their own government.

SIMON: And so it was really just a non-thought about who might be protected, who - what lives will be lost.

WARNER: But the abandonment at that school, and in Rwanda as a whole, affected the U.N. It especially affected Kofi Annan, who was then in charge of peacekeeping. Professor Simon says you can draw a line between what happened in Rwanda and the rewriting of the U.N. mandate in 2005, to say that states bear a responsibility to protect their own citizens.

Rwanda's foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo, whose brother was among the hundreds of thousands killed in the Rwandan genocide, told scholars in Kigali today that there is still a wide gulf between having those intervention tools on the books and having the will to use them.

LOUISE MUSHIKIWABO: It's a big mistake to believe that when you see the five permanent members of the U.N. Security council and the 10 non-permanent members at any given time in New York that they are sitting there to save the world. They are not. They are not.

WARNER: To prevent future atrocities, she says, we need to allow big countries to preserve their political interests while not abandoning our fellow human beings.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Kigali.

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