"Pru, it's Rwanda on the phone!"
Prudence Bushnell, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, was expecting the call, but not on a Saturday afternoon, while having a drink in her friend's kitchen.
They were rewarding themselves after a walk when Bushnell heard the shout from her friend's teenage son. Paul Kagame, the commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front rebel group, wanted to discuss the government's genocide campaign against his countrymen.
Organized bands of ethnic Hutus were systematically executing their political opponents and sworn enemies, the Tutsi, largely by hacking them apart with machetes. Kagame had tracked Bushnell down by calling her husband at home in suburban Virginia.
"It was surreal," she recalls of that April day in 1994. "There I am with a beer in my hand, shorts and walking shoes, pacing up and down the kitchen. Can you imagine?"
The U.S. government had promised no troops-only talking points, which Bushnell had to deliver. The killing must stop, and Kagame and the Rwandan government must return to stalled peace talks. Kagame, usually dispassionate, burst out: "Madame, they are killing my people!"
"I was so seized by what he was saying," Bushnell reflects. "But I couldn't say, 'Oh my God, I'm appalled. Help is on the way.' " So she said the only empathetic thing she could think of: "General, I wish you peace."
Peace has largely eluded Bushnell in her career as a senior diplomat. She has managed crises in some of the most suffering places: Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Guatemala. The Rwandan genocide claimed 800,000 lives. President Clinton said that even a modest U.S. troop commitment-maybe 5,000-could have stanched the killing. But the administration, fearful of U.S. casualties, balked at intervention. And this haunts Bushnell.
"We chose our national interest," she says. "And how can you argue with that? This was a domestic fight. . . . [But] the choice was to watch hundreds of thousands of people, innocent people, be slaughtered by their neighbors using hand tools. And that's what we chose to do."
Bushnell is credited by historians, journalists and her colleagues as the only high-ranking U.S. official to keep attention focused on the killing. Today, she is heralded. Ten years ago, she was dismissed. "People were making fun of me," she says. "Like, 'How naïve can you be? Don't get so emotional.' " It was just Rwanda.
But Bushnell saw the genocide in starkly human terms. She recalls "the relentlessness of the killing." One day, at a meeting, she asked her colleagues how long someone could physically go on killing with a machete until he got tired and had to stop. "It takes a lot of work," Bushnell reasons.
But later, Bushnell learned that some of the Hutus rested while others went out butchering. "That made me believe in evil," she says.
A Foreign Service brat, Bushnell thought she'd never enter her father's profession; he was an administrative counselor with the U.S. embassies in France, Pakistan and Iran. But in 1981, Bushnell entered the diplomatic corps under a program to admit women and minorities at the midcareer level.
She rose to the top, becoming ambassador to Kenya in 1996. She laughs recalling her rather inauspicious beginning: When she arrived in Nairobi, the embassy staff at the airport didn't recognize her. The second in command was stuck in traffic, and the others apparently hadn't seen Bushnell's picture.
But others, whom Bushnell had never met, would soon be watching her.
On Aug. 7, 1998, members of the upstart terrorist group al Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It was learned later that al Qaeda had picked the Nairobi embassy partly because a female ambassador was in charge. They believed a woman's death would draw greater publicity. "They wanted me dead," Bushnell says.
Whatever heroics she couldn't exercise for Rwanda, she showed in Nairobi. The bombing survivors have characterized her as the glue that held them together. She and her staff never closed the embassy. They moved to temporary quarters, where she hung a quotation "to remind people of how I viewed their efforts," she says. The passage reads, "Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, 'I will try again tomorrow.' "
Today, Bushnell keeps that quote on a shelf in her office at the Foreign Service Institute, where she is dean of the leadership and management school. Her lessons from Nairobi form the core curriculum of a class for senior officials on leading in a crisis.
Though she's stared down evil twice, Bushnell doesn't overestimate her reach. "My control, if I'm lucky, ends right here," she says, extending her arm and pointing to her index fingertip. "I can't beat myself up, because God knows I have, for things over which I have no control."
Maybe not control. But there is satisfaction. During the genocide, in a phone call with Augustin Bizimungu, the chief of staff of the Rwandan army, Bushnell lashed out when Bizimungu claimed he couldn't stop the killing. She knew he was an active participant.
"I really wanted to let him know that, 'I know who you are; I know what you're doing,' " she says. "I said, 'Well, general, I want you to know that President Clinton is going to hold you personally accountable. . . . His answer was, 'Oh, Madame, how nice of the president to be thinking of me.' "
Today, Bizimungu is in jail. Eight years after their phone call, Bushnell crossed paths with an international team on its way to arrest the deposed official. She requested they give Bizimungu a personal message: "Remind him what I said."
Telling that story, resoluteness overtakes Bushnell's face, and she seems to realize that, sometimes, the tip of her finger reaches farther than the space in front of her.