It is April 1994. I’m a final year student at a university in South Africa—on the threshold of a career in journalism. It is eerily quiet on campus. Most of the students have left for home. I’m staying behind, in the small student town of Potchefstroom, to cover the first democratic election for the local newspaper. It is exciting and scary and exhilarating to write the first draft of history.
In 2014—20 years later—I am attending a class at Harvard’s Kennedy School on the leadership system. The system is all about leaders, followers, and context. We learn about different followers, and as part of the reading on bystanders, I discover Samantha Power’s essay on Rwanda in The Atlantic, “Bystanders to Genocide.”
It is beautifully crafted, telling the horrific story of the April 1994 genocide in Rwanda. While South Africa was on the brink of a new dawn, a nightmare was unfolding in Rwanda. What had been, to me, a vague piece of history of a country far away came alive in the words of the writer. It left me with an incredible sadness and an overall awareness of the roles of bystanders. As journalists, we can try to be objective. But one thing we should never be is silent bystanders.