Thursday, September 23, 2010

Stories From Rwanda

I first heard about We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda (by Philip Gourevitch) in college. Somewhat predictably, it was Aaron who suggested I read it and, like so many suggestions I receive, it took me years to get around to reading this book. I finally have, finishing it up last week and now I am passing on the suggestion to anyone who happens to check my blog and have an interest in such things, even if that thing is genocide in Rwanda. Even before opening the book up, I was trying to prepare myself for what I would encounter on the pages within. I was also trying to put into words why it was that I wanted to read about an event I already knew didn’t end well and then Gourevitch presented me with this paragraph:

Like Leontius, the young Athenian in Plato, I presume that you are reading this because you desire a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. Perhaps, in examining this extremity with me, you hope for some understanding, some insight, some flicker of self-knowledge—a moral, or a lesson or a clue about how to behave in this world: some such information. I don’t discount the possibility, but when it comes to genocide, you already know right from wrong. The best reason I have come up with for looking closely into Rwanda’s stories is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence and my place in it. The horror, as horror, interests me only insofar as a precise memory of the offense is necessary to understand its legacy.

This was the best-worded explanation of my desire to know about the genocide in Rwanda and similar tragedies. So, I read on, learning so much about the history of Rwanda, its people, and the players in the genocide, which proved to be the most efficient mass killing of human beings in modern history. Some estimates put the number of dead at one million, but it is clear that at least 800,000 people died in a three and a half month stretch in Rwanda.

From what I understand, the roots of the conflict—at least one of them—can be traced back to white Europeans, who, upon arriving in Rwanda, treated the minority Tutsis like they were significantly better in all ways than Hutus because they [Tutsis] more closely resembled—at least according to John Hanning Speke—a “Caucasoid tribe of Ethiopian origin, descended from the biblical King David, and therefore a superior race to the native Negroids.” From there on, things only get more complicated and it is pointless to elaborate when Gourevitch does it so well.

As a whole, the Western world is guilty when it comes to the genocide in Rwanda, but I didn’t know how France essentially enabled and prolonged the conflict by providing arms that they knew were being sent across the border to the interahamwe, a Hutu paramilitary organization responsible for much of the slaughter in 1994. Gourevitch points out that “In 1994, during the height of the extermination campaign in Rwanda, as Paris airlifted arms to Mobutu’s intermediares in eastern Zaire for direct transfer across the border to the genocidaires, France’s President Francois Mitterand said—as the newspaper Figaro later reported it—“In such countries, genocide is not too important.” By their actions and inactions, at the time and in the years that followed, the rest of the major powers indicated that they agreed.”

Perhaps I am na├»ve in assuming it is common knowledge that the West ignored the genocide in Rwanda. So it shouldn’t be shocking when the reader is reminded again and again of the West’s blunt refusal to aid Rwanda and to call what was going on within its borders genocide, but it was, both genocide and disturbing that everyone just stood by. Gourevitch keenly reminds us of this, all the while highlighting the Westerners who attempted to stop the genocide, like Lieutenant-General Dallaire, the Force Commander of UNAMIR, the United Nations peacekeeping force for Rwanda in 1993 and 1994, who went on Canadian television in 1997 and said, among other things:

Essentially, how many people really still remember the genocide in Rwanda? We know the genocide of the Second World War because the whole outfit was involved. But who really is involved in the Rwandan genocide? Who comprehends that more people were killed, injured, and displaced in three and a half months in Rwanda than in the whole of the Yugoslavian campaign in which we poured sixty thousand troops and the whole of the Western world was there, and we’re pouring billions in there, still trying to solve the problem. How much is really being done to solve the Rwandan problem? Who is grieving for Rwanda and really living it and living with the consequences? I mean, there are hundreds of Rwandans whom I knew personally whom I found slaughtered with their families complete—and bodies up to here—villages totally wiped out … and we made all that information available daily and the international community kept watching.

In fact, the international community paid little attention until the peak of the genocide had passed and thousands of Rwandans had wound up in refugee camps. These refugee camps were exactly what the Western media were looking for in terms of something they thought would make great television. Relatively accessible and not too graphic to show on TV, the refugee camps became the popular cause, raking in thousands of dollars in support and hundreds of volunteer organizations. What wasn’t reported is that a very large percentage of the refugees were Hutus who had fled Rwanda after killing their Tutsi friends, neighbors and co-workers. The camps were packed with murderers and now they were the ones benefitting from Western aid and support while their dead Tutsi compatriots fertilized Rwandan soil. No one reporting on the refugee camps knew the whole story or that Hutu Power organizations were allowed to flourish within the refugee camps. So the genocide continued and volunteers tended to many who committed the worst atrocities.

At one point in the book Gourevitch tells a story of a reporter “who was sent into Goma directly from Bosnia” to report on the refugee camps. The reporter told Gourevitch that “he knew what Hutu Power was and that he looked up at the volcano and prayed, “God, if that thing erupts right now, and buries the killers, I will believe that you are just and I will go to church again every day of my life.”

You could write a lengthy paper surmising about all the reasons for the West’s ignoring the genocide in Rwanda. There are many, but one from the book that stuck out is this, given by Bonaventure Nyibizi, “You cannot count on the international community unless you’re rich, and we are not. We don’t have oil, so it doesn’t matter that we have blood, or that we are human beings.” This is worth pondering. If Rwanda were rich in oil and if it was a big exporter to the United States, would the genocide have been allowed to go on for months? I highly doubt it.

The United States was slow to confess that they were guilty of inaction. Toward the end of the book, Gourevitch offers up this tale of Clinton’s visit to Rwanda in March of 1998:

If Rwanda’s experience could be said to carry any lessons for the world, it was that endangered peoples who depend on the international community for physical protection stand defenseless. On the morning of Albright’s visit to Rwanda in December, Hutu Power terrorists, shouting “Kill the cockroaches,” had hacked, bludgeoned, and shot to death more than three hundred Tutsis at an encampment in the northwest, and in the days before Clinton’s arrival in Kigali, as many as fifty Tutsis were killed in similar massacres. Against such a backdrop, Clinton’s pledge to “work as partners with Rwanda to end this violence” sounded deliberately vague.

Really, We Wish To Inform You…, is a book about two atrocities: the genocide in Rwanda and the West’s inaction to stop that genocide. You become familiar with the stories of many Rwandans, Hutus and Tutsis, and how they survive now, trying to move on and how some find that to be impossible. And by the end, there is a hint of a generation who makes no distinction between Hutu and Tutsi, a generation who calls themselves Rwandans and nothing else.

Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. New York, NY. Picador, 1999.

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