Could Mobile Apps, Social Media And The Internet Have Prevented The Rwandan Genocide?

This week marks the tragic 20-year anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide.  On April 7, 1994, a Hutu organized effort was initiated to wipe out the Tutsis living in Rwanda and other neighboring countries.  During an approximate 100-day period nearly 800,000 men, women and children were massacred.

No outside international forces intervened to stop this genocide.  The UN peacekeeping soldiers, lacking authorization to intervene and protect, stood by as it happened within sight of their forces.  The lack of an effective response continues to weigh on international peacekeeping efforts to this day.

In Boise, Idaho we have a fast growing population of refugees from the Congo and Rwanda that were forever impacted by this event.  Many have spent the last 15 years living under plastic tarps on mud floors in refugee camps.  The tragedy of these events, and the personal stories of the victims are personal to me now.  It hits home weekly as our home is often filled with newly arrived refugee families and friends.  Many of our friends continue to suffer both mental and physical scars related to these events.

I often wonder if mobile devices with broadband Internet could have prevented or limited the Rwandan Genocide.  In 1994 letters were sent from fearful families and churches begging for protection.  Here is an excerpt from a letter sent by a Rwandan pastor to his organization’s leadership, “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.”  Tragically, the pastor’s words foretold their death. The world was not informed quick enough, or in a manner that rose above the noise to intercede effectively.  

In 1994 there was no real-time and mobile access to social media sites where citizen journalists with smartphones and broadband Internet could upload photos, videos and articles.  News leaked out slowly.  Facts were hard to come by. The scope and scale of the tragedy was difficult to measure.  News crews found it dangerous to venture out into remote areas.  It took weeks for the world to begin to learn the full scale of the violence and genocide and by then the tragedy had nearly run its course.

Today, with the proliferation of mobile devices with cameras, broadband Internet connectivity and access to social media sites these kinds of atrocities would be hard to hide and news would be shared instantly. Today, the world would know of these events.  The challenge is no longer informing, but competing for attention in a noisy and news saturated world.

In 1994, the perpetrators of the violence controlled the media. Many were later found by International courts to have been guilty of instigating and organizing the violence.  Today, with mobile technology and access to the Internet, it is easier than ever to share uncensored news and opinions.

I hope that the ubiquity of mobile devices today, will in small ways serve as inhibitors of violence.  When every person with a mobile phone has the potential to be a citizen journalist, there is more accountability.  Every act of violence has the potential of being documented and the location and perpetrators identified.

There are models today that demonstrate how mobile devices can be used to help prevent organized violence.  In Kenya, a small group of volunteer programmers have developed a website and mapping solution called Ushahidi, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ushahidi, where people with mobile phones can report violence and document the location of incidences on a map.  This information is instantly projected to a map on a website for the world to visualize, study and understand. 

Today, the ability to widely communicate news, knowledge and ideas has the opportunity to transform societies and peoples as never before.  Perpetrators of violence do not like the exposure and light of public scrutiny and debate.

In some circles it is popular to paint technology as bad, but I for one appreciate the value of information transparency afforded by these technological advancements.  I will celebrate the opportunity and freedom to know, and pray for the strength and courage to act.