April 6 is one of those rare days that demonstrates both the heights that mankind can reach through acts of courage and the depths to which it sometimes descends. In this case, the acts of courage were Robert Peary reaching the North Pole and Mahatma Gandhi salt protest and the depths were the brutal war in Bosnia and genocide in Rwanda.
PEARY REACHES NORTH POLE
In September 7, 1909, readers of the New York Times awakened to a stunning front-page headline: “Peary Discovers the North Pole After Eight Trials in 23 Years.” The North Pole was one of the last remaining laurels of earthly exploration, a prize for which countless explorers from many nations had suffered and died for 300 years. And here was the American explorer Robert E. Peary sending word from Indian Harbour, Labrador, that he had reached the pole in April 1909
Gandhi Harvests Salt
On this day, Mahatma Gandhi completed a 25-day 241-mile march across western India to the coastal city of Dandi where he illegally collected salt from the seaside as a symbolic act of defiance against the British Raj (which prohibited the Indians from harvesting salt to force them to buy the heavily taxed product from the British). Gandhi declared “with this I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” His action sparked wide-spread civil disobedience and defiance of British rule. The British arrested Gandhi and approximately 80,000 others in response, but Gandhi was now a global figure and was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year that year.
Gandhi’s march inspired Martin Luther King’s Selma to Montgomery March.
BOSNIAN WAR BEGINS
The third chapter of the Yugoslav Wars took place in Bosnia from April 6, 1992 until its resolution at the Dayton Accords in December 1995. It became the most devastating conflict in Europe since World War II, killing over 100,000 people. The war was marked by “ethnic cleansing” and massacres such as what occurred in Srebrenica which led to over 60 convictions for War Crimes.
100 DAYS OF MADNESS IN RWANDA
In April 1994, amid ever-increasing prospects of violence, Rwandan President Habyalimana and Burundi’s new President, Cyprien Ntaryamira, held several peace meetings with Tutsi rebels. On April 6, while returning from a meeting in Tanzania, a small jet carrying the two presidents was shot down by ground-fired missiles as it approached Rwanda’s airport at Kigali. Immediately after their deaths, Rwanda plunged into political violence as Hutu extremists began targeting prominent opposition figures who were on their death-lists, including moderate Hutu politicians and Tutsi leaders.
The killings then spread throughout the countryside as Hutu militia, armed with machetes, clubs, guns and grenades, began indiscriminately killing Tutsi civilians. All individuals in Rwanda carried identification cards specifying their ethnic background, a practice left over from colonial days. These ‘tribal cards’ now meant the difference between life and death. Amid the onslaught, the small U.N. peacekeeping force was overwhelmed as terrified Tutsi families and moderate politicians sought protection.
Out of a population of 7.3 million people– 84% of whom were Hutu, 15% Tutsi and 1% Twa–the official figures published by the Rwandan government estimated the number of victims of the genocide to be 1,174,000 in 100 days (10,000 murdered every day, 400 every hour, 7 every minute). It is estimated that about 300,000 Tutsi survived the genocide. Thousands of widows, many of whom were subjected to rape, are now HIV-positive. There were about 400,000 orphans and nearly 85,000 of them were forced to become heads of families
And then world watched and did nothing during the second genocide of the decade. In Washington, the Clinton administration tried to split hairs between “acts of genocide” and genocide itself, the latter would trigger treaty obligations to respond.