Humanitarian and geopolitical chronicle: Rwanda, Afghanistan, Armenia-Artsakh

Genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, photos of the victims, Gisozi memorial in Kigali.

Ibuka means “remember” in Kinyarwanda, the language of the Rwandans. Let us remember that 27 years ago, on 7 April 1994, the genocide of the Rwandan Tutsis began, killing 800,000 of them under the machete blows of the Interahamwe, a sinister Hutu militia.

Before and after this tragedy, there were many developers and humanitarians in the country of the “thousand hills”. I was there in May 1994 with Solidarités International because of the genocide, because we couldn’t not go there to help. We did not know much about this beautiful country that was suddenly going to hell, nor about the policies of France, the UN and other countries.

Few humanitarians witnessed the massacres at first hand and many left Rwanda helplessly, as did almost all the forces of the United Nations Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) at the worst time!  There were however some exemplary organisations and individuals including the ICRC, Father Blanchard, Marc Vaiter and others. Let us also remember the MSF campaign of the time: “You don’t cure genocide with doctors”, which remains to be meditated on.

Then there was the French military operation “Turquoise” under a United Nations mandate, which came to “protect civilians and allow humanitarian aid”. It was the military victory of the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by Paul Kagame, that put an end to this war-genocide with a fractured country, 800,000 Tutsis massacred, millions of displaced persons and refugees, infrastructures destroyed and prisons full.

The report by Vincent Duclert and his research commission is without appeal. France has heavy and damning responsibilities but was not an accomplice to the genocide. He mentions the “blindness and indigence of political analysis” and the intellectual and cognitive incapacity of a small group of disconnected men to think about the preparation of the genocide despite the warnings from the top of the State.

As the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, rightly said at the Gisozi Memorial in Kigali on 27 May 2021, “Only those who have gone through the night can perhaps forgive, give us the gift then of forgiving ourselves”. Finally, after 27 years, came the recognition of a heavy political responsibility as a prerequisite for the healing of memories and for any future cooperation.

In this editorial, I could have avoided talking about the genocide because it is so difficult to talk about. Instead, it is once again a time to remember. Like many other humanitarians, I came to help the survivors in Rwanda and I wonder if we really took the measure of the genocide, in its intention, its organisation and its scale. It is true that most of us were not present at the scene of the massacres and we were too absorbed in the task at hand.

Rwandan families fleeing the fighting. Some will die on the way. AFP

I learned a simple lesson. The mission of humanitarians is to rescue to save lives. But it is not forbidden to try to understand why lives are cut short. In the name of the principle of impartiality, I am not inviting you to do anything other than humanitarian work when we are already failing to do everything we should.

But being lucid should enable us not to be instrumentalised and, above all, to be closer and more useful to the victims. I remember that, like so many other humanitarian actors, between 1994 and 2000 Solidarités International rebuilt and relaunched nutrition centres in Kibuye, we distributed hundreds of thousands of bricks with our trucks to rebuild dispensaries, hospitals and other public service buildings, we evacuated wounded people and lost children in Kibeho, we fed hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Gikongoro, simply because the suffering of others is unbearable and to try to save lives. IBUKA.


Again and again, for 42 years, war has been the daily life of several generations of Afghans since the Soviets and the Afghan communists started an endless conflict. Now, 20 years after their intervention, following the destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, the last American troops will leave Afghanistan by 11 September 2021. This is a page in Afghan history that is being turned before another one follows. It has already begun.

The time to take stock of these 20 years will soon come, but here too it is worth asking a few questions beforehand. After the longest war the United States has ever fought, after spending 2000 billion dollars, after mobilising up to 130,000 NATO soldiers, 90,000 of whom were American, what is the balance sheet, where are we now? One is tempted to say, all for this!

US soldiers joined by the Afghan National Army during Operation Shir Pasha in the Spira Mountains (21.11.2008) ©DAVID FURST / AFP – AFP

How could anyone have thought at the end of 2001, after the retreat of the Taliban from Kabul and Kunduz, that they had definitely lost and disappeared. How could they have believed that they had no social base and no support among the population? One must never have set foot in the countryside of southern or eastern Afghanistan to be so blind.

Here too, as with Rwanda, I could avoid this sensitive subject. But there too, I have witnessed too many errors of judgement, blindness and even propaganda and infox, “fake news” not to think that these errors of analysis or bias are not part of the problem and of the political failure to find a negotiated alternative putting an end to an endless war.

It seems clear today that the original mistake was not to invite the Taliban to participate in the Bonn Accords on 5 December 2001, when all Afghan parties and factions were present and among them many participants were as much if not more radical than the Taliban themselves, not to mention some well-known criminal warlords. The Bonn Agreements had two main objectives, one of which was reconciliation between Afghans! It is clear today how central the invitation was. At the time, the Taliban were weakened and some of them could have initiated a movement to join the process.

I say this because I have Afghan friends on all sides fighting each other and because this endless war, which makes all friends of Afghanistan despair, is a collective failure, both for the Afghans and for their respective allies. My point here is simply to remind you that you don’t make peace with your friends, but with your enemies.

Afghan soldiers in the streets of Kabul after an attack. Rahmat Gul/AP/SIPA

I would like to conclude provisionally by quoting Louis Gautier, Director of the Chair of “Major Contemporary Strategic Issues” at the Sorbonne. “The failure of external operations always stems from errors of appreciation of the political aims of military action. And also: “If the intervention does not succeed in creating the conditions for a compromise between belligerents and drags on, failure is assured. If you are part of the solution, you are part of the problem. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the withdrawal of foreign forces then becomes the key to a negotiated settlement.

We can only hope for a negotiated settlement between Afghans, without forgetting the other hypothesis which is the continuation of the war. With what consequences? In any case, humanitarians must be prepared to adapt by being very close to the populations, their needs and expectations, their involvement and their way of life.


How can we understand the Armenians if we forget the genocide of which more than a million of them were victims, more than a century ago. Genocide decided and executed by the Turkish government of the time, which, even today with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, continues to deny its very existence. Denying the genocide is not basically denying the Armenians and their country.

This is certainly what Armenians were thinking when, on 27 September 2020, Azerbaijan suddenly launched a vast military offensive against the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, now called Artsakh, with the active support of Turks and Syrian jihadists.  This is a fact.

Classroom in Stephanakert, Artsakh after a bombing. ©Alain Boinet

Artsakh is this small territory inhabited by Armenians for so long, with its monasteries dating back to the 12th century, and which, after being attached to Armenia, was detached from it by Stalin in 1923 in order to better divide and rule. Are Stalin’s territorial decisions still international law today in the face of history and the right of peoples to self-determination?

To say this is not to deny the rights of the Azeris or the suffering they too have endured. I have personally met some of them in Baku, peasants driven off their land and living miserably in slums. It is just to consider that today we cannot deny a people on an ancestral territory, despite the fracture lines, as in the Balkans. Today, the Russians, who have negotiated a cease-fire and a temporary agreement, ensure a fragile peace with their peacekeeping force.

So, is this war lost by the Armenians really over? Nothing is less certain as incidents multiply along the demarcation line. Nothing is less certain as Azeri President Ilham Aliev declared Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, Lake Sevan and the Armenian province of Sunik to be “historic Azerbaijani lands”!

In the immediate future, on the small territory of Artsakh where 150,000 Armenians live, surrounded and connected to Armenia by the umbilical cord of Latchin, the future is so uncertain.

Certainly, for humanitarians, this is not an emergency like in Syria, the Sahel or the CAR, but rather like we experienced in Romania after the revolution in 1989 or in Bosnia after the war in 1995.

Armenian nurses in training in Stephanakert, capital of Artsakh. Many are forcibly displaced by the fighting.  ©Alain Boinet

It is necessary and possible to support the Armenians of Artsakh, as we have seen on the spot: demining, rehabilitation of the disabled, construction of houses for the families driven out of their villages, education, support for hospitals.  This has begun, and must be expanded if we are not to despair of solidarity with those who feel very alone in their mountains over there!  As Eline, Arminé, Alina, Mariam testify with “The Armenian letters from Artsakh” that we publish in this edition.

Provisional conclusion.

As readers of Humanitarian Challenges know, one of our objectives is to promote humanitarianism, another is to establish the geopolitical reasons for conflicts and the links with humanitarianism, and the last is to seek to identify the major challenges. This humanitarian and geopolitical column shows this.

As a humanitarian, I say to humanitarians, preserve your principles of humanity, impartiality and independence, which are the very conditions that make humanitarian aid possible in conflicts.

As an observer of these conflicts and of international relations, I believe that in order to be close to the people we are helping, we need to understand the roots of these conflicts in order to be more lucid, efficient, safe and not be instrumentalised.

We have often seen how “poor political analysis” can trigger or fuel the worst. All the more reason to avoid it at our level in humanitarian action.

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Alain Boinet. 

President of Défis Humanitaires.