California Bar Journal
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California Bar Journal

The State Bar of California


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Front Page - May 1999
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Lending compassion to a difficult situation
Legal specialist exam set Aug. 29
Board to meet June 25-26
Domestic violence group seeking volunteers
Northern California legal services board to fill five vacancies
Court statistics report now available on CD
For Y2K advice, link through bar's web site
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Trials Digest
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Hear the cries this time
A single letter, a big increase
Train time at the ABA
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From the President - Door to justice must be open
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Letters to the Editor
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Legal Tech - Litigation library great for attorneys out of office
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New Products & Services
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MCLE Self-Study
The Disabled Practitioner
Self-Assessment Test
MCLE Calendar of Events
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Ethics Byte - What to do when a client goes missing
Attorney charged with exposing clients to deportation
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Public Comment


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Hear the cries this time
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As a Tutsi, I sympathize with the people of Kosovo. I feel their pain. I relate to their anguish. I thoroughly understand what they are going through.

Last month marked the fifth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, when at least half a million people were butchered by Hutu extremists with the backing of the Rwanda government. Kosovars are experiencing the same.

I have seen thousands of people on television, fleeing Pristina heading for the borders of Montenegro and Macedonia. I am reminded of the thousands of Tutsis who were hacked to death in 1994 while fleeing the carnage of Kigali. Few made it to the borders of neighboring Uganda and Burundi. Among the dead were many relatives and childhood friends.

I have seen pictures of mass graves where Serbian death squads have buried their victims. On my visit to Rwanda last year, I saw the same all across the land where my forefathers are buried - in Kigali, Gikongoro and many other upcountry towns and villages. The remains of those massacred inside the Nyamata Catholic Church were never interred, turning the church into a shrine, lest we forget. As I stood there paying my respects, I knew then, and I am sure now, we should neither forget nor forgive.

Television pictures keep showing Serbian soldiers going from house to house in search of ethnic Albanians. Those death squads remind me of the Hutu militia known as Interahamwe ("Those who attack together"), roaming the Rwandan countryside five years ago - raping and slaughtering Tutsi women, and hacking to death all male children using machetes.

Willis ShalitaThe absence of men of fighting age among the fleeing refugees in Kosovo is a sight all too familiar. Hutu extremists, too, were determined to wipe out Tutsi men of fighting age in Rwanda. They said they wanted to ensure that future generations would only know about Tutsis through history books.

While the world slept, Rwanda bled to death. The international community stood by and watched. France, Belgium, and the United States, my adopted country, sent troops to rescue their own. They abandoned locals who had worked for them for years. Most were dead in a few days.

The United Nations was forewarned that genocide was about to take place, and U.N. Commander Canadian General Romeo Dallaire sent a fax to New York seeking permission to intervene and avert a human catastrophe. Permission was denied. Instead, the U.N. force was reduced from 2,200 to a little over 200 - as if giving the Hutu militia the go-ahead.

When it was all over, more people had been slaughtered in Rwanda in a hundred days than in any conflict in recent memory. Yet international conscience remained unscathed. Shamed by the lack of response, the U.N. and western powers moved to set up tribunals. In almost five years, these tribunals have tried only 37 people. Over 130,000 accused killers remain in Rwandan jails due to lack of funds to revive the justice system destroyed by the frenzy that erupted on April 6, 1994.

Five years later, here we go again. Kosovo is bleeding to death, like poor little Rwanda five years before. Serbian death squads, just like the Hutus in Rwanda, have a license to kill. Their madness has a frightening agenda.

NATO's powerful military show of force in Kosovo got me wondering, however. How come there was no such spirited response and outcry over the genocide in Rwanda? What is the difference? True, Kosovo's proximity to U.S. allies (Turkey, Greece and Italy) may be a cause for concern. The U.S. may well indeed argue that national interests are at stake. But surely nobody is arguing that Milosevic is a threat to world peace.

Let's not kid ourselves. Race is a factor. The Tutsis in Rwanda and their moderate Hutu sympathizers killed in 1994 were mostly poor, and all-black Rwanda is not strategically situated. It has no minerals. No oil. And after all, have we not seen these upheavals before in Africa?

Other issues have caught my attention. In Rwanda, the U.N., the United States and European allies refused to define what was taking place in Rwanda as genocide. And for a hundred days, while they deliberated and argued, ad nauseam, thousands perished. Acknowledging genocide would have put the burden of stopping it in their lap. In Kosovo, there has been no hesitation to characterize Milosevic's war as genocide. And I wonder why.

What happened in Rwanda was described in news reports as "tribal conflict." In Kosovo, it is "ethnic cleansing." I guess that sounds more civilized? The Serbs and Kosovars are tribes, too.

There is always a tendency to use demeaning and patronizing phrases when describing African conflicts. Remember the fighting in Somalia? The generals on both sides were referred to as "war lords." In Kosovo, they are generals.

At the height of the genocide in Rwanda, I pleaded with my elected representatives to hear the cries of the Tutsi. No one paid attention, at least not until it was all over. Even my president, whom I voted for twice, visited Rwanda and would not leave the airport. I hope Rwanda was a lesson for all humanity. I hope, and pray, that we do not abandon Kosovo, like this, my adopted country, abandoned my country of birth.

Willis Shalita, who is Tutsi and was born in Rwanda, is now a U.S. citizen and works as a special investigator for the State Bar of California.