In a small village in Rwanda there stands a church that is no longer a church. The church lies in ruins with weeds growing through the pock-marked walls. The church had been renowned as a safe haven during Rwanda's previous ethnic inspired troubles. When the killings started in 1994 many Rwandans sought cover in the church as they had done many times before. But this time would be different. This time the thousands of Rwandans seeking refuge in the church would be murdered. Murdered by their friends and their neighbours.
Today the church is an official memorial to the genocide. The back wall of the church still has bricks stained by the heads of the children that were smashed against it. The front wall contains a pledge written in 4 languages - 'Never Again.'
Two words that once promised so much yet delivered so little. Just 50 years after the Nazi- perpetrated Jewish Holocaust the world stood silent as almost 1 million Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in an ethnically inspired genocide. In between we had the politically motivated slaughters in Cambodia, the multiethnic slayings in Bosnia, and the independence crushing massacres of the Kurds in Iraq. Today we silently bear witness to new multiethnic horrors in Sudan.
Paul Rusesabagina is no ordinary man. He is the real-life hero of the award-winning movie Hotel Rwanda. Rusesabagina risked his life in order to save 1, 268 people by protecting them inside the hotel where he worked. I recently read his autobiography entitled 'An Ordinary Man'.
An Ordinary Man is a mournful illustration of the horrors of the Rwandan genocide as seen through the prism of a simple (but brilliantly intelligent) hotel manager in Kigali.
Rusesabagina provides a context for the genocide not presented in Hotel Rwanda. It is well known that the two main ethnic groups in modern Rwanda are the Hutus and the Tutsis, but it remains controversial whether these are indeed separate races or just an artificial political distinction created by the former colonists who propped up certain cattle owning clans (the Tutsis) and appointing them as rulers over the more numerous crop farmers (the Hutus). Rusesabagina believes that the distinction between the races is pure invention. He doesn't do enough to convince me of this but he does an excellent job explaining how the colonialist-inspired class distinction between the two groups eventually ignited into the genocide of 1994.
The book is filled with enriching old African proverbs which dispense simple yet powerful wisdom. It also contains many lessons in the psychology of negotiation. The lives of hundreds of people often depended on Rusesabagina finding the right words as he tried to convince interahamwe militias not to kill the people he was protecting. Money, liquor, cunning body language and ego-boosting wit combined to provide the tools that enabled Rusesabagina to negotiate with evil and live to tell the story.
The Rwandan genocide is a classic case of world ambivalence to the suffering of others; of placing diplomatic niceties above human rights. The bizarreness of the indifference is highlighted when the leader of the UN troops in Rwanda, Canadian Romeo Dallaire, requested permission from his superiors to raid Hutu arms caches. The UN denied the request. Dallaire was told that although the stockpiling of weapons violated the peace accords, raiding the cache went beyond the scope of the UN mandate. He was told to take his concerns to Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana - perhaps the last man in the world who would care.
The US and France come in for significant condemnation. Rwanda must certainly be the major regret of President Clinton's administration. The US declined multiple requests for help and even refused to jam the airwaves preventing the hateful RTLM radio station from airing its broadcasts which helped the militias to coordinate their murders.
The French were even worse. Worried about English-speaking rebels taking over their neocolony, they maintained close contact with their French speaking Hutu allies in the Rwandan government throughout the genocide. Unbelievably, the French did send a peacekeeping mission to Rwanda as the genocide was ending. The mission, sent for 'humanitarian' reasons, was dispatched to assist the genocidaire militias who were being repelled by the rebel forces fighting to end the genocide! The French created a scenario which allowed the genocidaires to look like victims instead of aggressors! The French have since embarked on a campaign of genocide revisionism.
(Not mentioned in the book but relevant to this blog is that Israel's participation in the relief efforts amounted to its biggest medical mission in its entire history. Read about Israel's relief efforts here.)
When the US finally decided to act they sent $320 million in aide to Rwanda; 16 times more what it would have cost to have jammed the hate radio which played such a part in allowing the genocide to reach its horrific proportions.
Rusesabagina is today a staunch critic of Rwanda's rebuilding efforts. He bemoans the slow pace of the criminal justice system. At the time that he wrote the book only 25 top government officials had been tried in the UN International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha.
Today Rwanda tries to deal with the criminal prosecutions by blending traditional notions of justice known as gacaca (justice-on-the-grass, as Rwandans call it) with a modern court apparatus. Rusesabagina calls these attempts a total failure. The traditional 'justice-on-the-grass' system was never meant to deal with anything as grave as genocide; it was designed to solve cases of missing goats and stolen bananas - it was meant to end not in punishment but reconciliation. However much trust you may have in the wisdom of common man, it is foolish to expect a village of laypeople to mete out real justice for something as horrific as mass murder.
Rusesabagina is also critical of the new Tutsi-dominated Rwandan government, feeling that the mistakes of the past are being repeated. He slammed the recent elections, in which president Paul Kagame (leader of the rebel forces) won 95% of the vote, as undemocratic. His criticism of Paul Kagame (he compares him to the typical 'African Strongman') has led to a situation where he is no longer welcome in Rwanda, and is in fact afraid to return. In his last chapter he writes "Rwanda is today a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis. . . . Those few Hutus who have been elevated to high-ranking posts are usually empty suits without any real authority of their own. They are known locally as Hutus de service or Hutus for hire."
You would think that Rusesabagina's outlook on the world is gloomy and cyncial; but this is not so. Despite all he has witnessed, he still believes in a positive natural state of man. "Human beings were designed to live sanely and sanity always returns. The true resting state of human affairs is not represented by a man hacking his neighbour into pieces with a machete. That is a sick abberation. No, the true state of human affairs is life as it ought to be lived."
Tragically, we have still not learnt the lessons of the past. Today, in Darfur, another genocide creeps along as diplomatic egos trump the right to life. Our own South African government opposed a recent resolution that will send a joint AU and UN force to Darfur simply because the resolution included a threat of sanctions.
Never again? If only.
Previously at IAS
Update at 20/07/2007
- Following a comment from a Rwandan living in Kigali, I thought I should add that there is opposition to Rusesabagina's negative outlook on the rebuilding efforts in Rwanda. Here's an article in the Guardian from blogger Jen Brea which encapsulates the achievements made by the New Rwanda.
- In addition, here's an article on how the economy in Rwanda's gorilla region is growing. Rwanda shares a section of a conservation park that is home to the mountain gorillas made famous by researcher Dian Fossey and the movie "Gorillas in the Mist." Rwanda is apparently a model for other war torn regions on how to ensure that valuable wildlife persists during and after a war. Rwanda reaps rewards of wartime nature conservation