Hutu vs. Tutsi. Neighbor vs. neighbor. Politician vs. politician. Military vs. rebels. Almost 1 million people slain in 100 days; bodies lining the streets. Hundreds of thousands of women brutally raped or sexually mutilated, innocents maimed, property destroyed…and the world stood by.

Such was the reality of the Rwandan Genocide 20 years ago, when members of the majority Hutu tribe mass slaughtered Tutsi and moderate Hutus in a political power struggle that shocked and shamed the world.

The international community this week observed the 20th anniversary of the racial conflagration which erupted April 7, 1994, after the assassination of Rwanda’s Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana.

“The genocide in Rwanda that targeted the Tutsi was one of the darkest chapters in human history,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a commemoration ceremony in Kigali, Rwanda, April 7. “…The blood spilled for 100 days. Twenty years later, the tears still flow. I express my solidarity with all Rwandans as you continue your journey of healing.”

Ki-moon also acknowledged the complicity of the UN and countries, such as the United States, Great Britain and Belgium, who looked on and didn’t act quickly enough to avert the tragedy.
“We could have done much more. We should have done much more,” he said. “…The shame still clings, a generation after the events.”

That failure, however, stands as a constant reminder of the cost of standing by, even 20 years later, he added.

“Since genocide takes planning, human rights violations must be seen as early warning signals of conflict and mass atrocities,” he said. “I have sent my own signal to United Nations representatives around the world. My message to them is simply this: when you see people at risk of atrocity crimes, do not wait for instructions from afar; speak up, even if it may offend. Act. Our first duty must always be to protect people — to protect human beings in need and distress.”

The genocide had devastating and lasting effects on Rwanda and the neighboring region.

At least 5,000 infants were born to women who were raped, causing stigma and ostracization to the mothers and the children; doctors also treated many of these victims for sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS and for the effects of self-induced abortions, according to a Human Rights Watch report produced in the genocide’s aftermath.

The warring Rwandan factions also brought their dispute to the countries where they took refuge, leading to Rwanda’s war with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And, for the past two decades, the country has been in travail as it attempts its rebirth in light of its broken infrastructure and diminished human resources.

President Obama praised the country and its residents for their resilience after such an astounding tragedy.

“We stand in awe of families, who have summoned the courage to carry on, and the survivors, who have worked through their wounds to rebuild their lives,” Obama said in a statement. “And we salute the determination of the Rwandans who have made important progress toward healing old wounds, unleashing the economic growth that lifts people from poverty, and contributing to peacekeeping missions around the world to spare others the pain they have known.”