Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Required Reading: We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed

For a few years now, usually in winter, I’ve been reading books about war—novels and sometimes non-fiction. I’m not exactly sure why. In the most basic way, war books have exciting narratives—they are about life and death. War also instigates astounding actions and reactions, which make for interesting reading. I have mostly read books about Vietnam and World War II, but also Iraq and Bosnia.

Now, in what feels like a culmination and maybe a stopping point for a while, I’ve read Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (1998). It has shaken me, and in its way, shamed me. For World War II and Vietnam, I can assume the role of an historic observer. I remained more or less informed on and voted with a mind toward policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I think I ignored the events in Rwanda as they were happening and being reported.  During the genocide in Rwanda, I believe I was teaching an introductory course on epic, working on my doctoral dissertation, riding my bike, and generally lazing about. I neglected the pious Hebrew school adage about genocide—“Never again.” I didn’t even muster much awareness.

We Wish (I’ll use this shortened title) surely indicts my neglect. But certain actions—well-intentioned humanitarian actions—were worse than neglect in that they ended up aiding and abetting the genocidaires (the French term used for the Rwandan mass killers). It turns out, too, that the U.S. utterly neglected its obligations under UN General Assembly Resolution 260, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Clinton expressed regret that he had not intervened (and he was the first western leader to visit Rwanda after the genocide). Gourevitch writes that then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright’s “ducking and pressuring others to duck [intervention], as the death toll leapt from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, was the absolute low point in her career as a stateswoman.”

If American inaction is retrospectively reprehensible, then French support for Hutu Power is even worse. Belgian colonialism played a fundamental role in creating an environment for genocide. Many religious organizations and their leaders, at least within Rwanda, supported the genocide as well.

The UN was awful. The Canadian head of the UN force, Romeo Dallaire, was repeatedly thwarted in his effort to intervene more forcefully. Though the UN prevented the massacre of some people, Dallaire later asserted that 5,000 well-equipped soldiers may have been able to prevent a half million murders.

I think I might’ve held the common misperception that the genocide was a sort of uncontrolled spontaneous mob spasm of racial killing. Chaos in a failed African state. From this point of view, it is easy to think that military and political intervention would have been futile. In fact, Rwanda was a well-organized country with a government that planned the killing well in advance, promoted it on radio and in print, and enforced its execution. Consider this: in the months leading up to the genocide, the government imported machetes from China and distributed them to the majority Hutu population for the express purpose of exterminating the Tutsi minority. In 100 days, 800,000 to a million people were killed.

Dessicated bodies at the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre
The genocide ran its course—and civil and social order basically broke down. It ended when much of the killing had been completed and a force of primarily Tutsi exiles from Uganda drove Hutu Power out of the capital city of Kigali. This led to the formation of enormous refugee camps that sheltered war criminals along with genuine refugees. Cholera killed another thirty or forty thousand people in the camps.

Recovery in Rwanda, in Gourevitch’s account, is at least buoyed by compassionate and sensible leadership, embodied by then-General Paul Kagame (who has been Rwanda’s President since 2000). Gourevitch describes Kagame as part of a post-postcolonial era that views the west with healthy skepticism.

Late last year, I heard a presentation by Doctors Without Borders (Medicines Sans Frontieres or MSF), and its representatives spoke about the dangers of aid being used as a weapon of war. In Rwanda and cross-border refugee camps, this was certainly the case. Thus certain types of humanitarian aid are counterproductive—an argument that writer (and onetime Ugandan resident) Paul Theroux also makes in Dark Star Safari (which I reviewed back in 2002). So where does that leave a concerned westerner? I don’t know.