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.


Anonymous said...

sounds riveting! I'll have to check it out.

Dennis McMillan said...

"Imported machetes from China to carry out the slaughter." [to paraphrase] This just about takes the cake, in my opine, as one of the most grossly base and disgusting examples of human stupidity in killing one another stemming from totally made-up tribal- or group-"identity" horseshit that I've ever become aware of in a (fairly, so far!) long life of such awareness. The context the average humanoid sees him/herself in is SO fucking miniscule, because (apparently) the big, bad universe is so incomprehensible to them (which they simply can't accept--there MUST be an answer, goddam it, to and for my pathetic existence here in [fill in the blank]; "By cracky, Ah think Ah'll identify mahsef with THIS group and hate THAT group;" even though they're made of exactly the same molecules that I am, act the same way I do in every respect that "means" anything to our kind. Plus, more than just HATE "them," my entire base[pathetic pun intended]-identity will be grounded in that hate; I will cling to it until my dying day as my raison d'tre (pardon my bad French); until this thing we call "consciousness"--which in most of us doesn't deserve the cognomen--fades away, and we become nothing again. By all means, let's kill and maim and cause as much pain to each other while we're here as we possibly can, because, if we cause the deaths of Others (our "enemies," made-up from whole-cloth though they all be), somehow we've "triumphed" over our own death, which we know, in our guts--even the magical thinkers who fantasize some kind of "heaven" that awaits them--is simply going back to what we were before we were born; that is, nothing. And causing Nothing for some other creature is certainly better than facing it ourselves . . . isn't it?

Doug Levin said...

Thanks, Dennis. The Hutus and Tutsis lived side by side and had a common language -- and they live together again now. The divisiveness had aged causes but was badly exacerbated by colonialism. The other issue, in part (and theoretically), was land availability and population density. That density issue may become more of a tipping point in, say, the West Bank. Speaking of density, at one point, a prison in Rwanda had four prisoners per square yard. Think about that. Hope you are well. Still in the states, I take it.

Ambrose Nzeyimana said...

Dennis, I notice in your review of the book by Philip Gourevitch Philip how powerful the narrative and the writer are. It appears like fiction and very enthusing to read. I see even through above comments that the author gained another buyer of his book by you talking about it briefly. But how truthful is what the writer talks about? How is it close to the reality of what happened? Doesn't the style used fit the stereotype when westerners write about Africa? How far is he guided by profit or integrity in telling the truth and only the truth even if that could contradict his prior beliefs about the reality on the ground? I find that in his book he has written half truths: who killed who and how and even why? You only see bad guys on one side of the story when killings which fueled the genocide had been happening for almost 4 years of civil war starting from October 1st, 1990. Does Gourevitch mentions anywhere in his book that prior to April 6th 1994, the day the president plane was shot down and the event trigger the genocide, there were almost 1 million internally disp[laced people who were living under horrible conditions in the vicinity of Kigali the capital. They had fled the Rwandan Patriotic Front ethnic cleansing targeting Hutu populations in the north of the country that they occupied already. Colonialism which is blamed for everything does not have as much weight in the tragedy as some sources want people to believe. But for example Geo-politics of post-Cold War are played down deliberately in Gourevitch narrative. As machetes are household tools in Rwanda as one would find a screwdriver in most western houses, has the country stopped importing them because of the genocide? And half truth is worst than a lie, because its intention is to make it looks like the whole and only truth around. I hope you've heard about the danger of a single story. I was there when the tragedy unfolded. I saw it coming. I lost people some under the hands of Hutu militias, others killed by RPF soldiers. The most close account of what happened in Rwanda in 94 and again written by a westerner is - "Rwanda 1994: Colonialism dies hard," by Robin Philpot.