07.14.10 Rwanda Questions

First a note on the hazards of being a blogger.  You not only try to write.  You try to keep writing.  You build up a pipeline of story ideas and force yourself to have inspiration to pursue them one-by-one on a regular basis.  You build momentum and gain followers.

And then something happens to throw off your rhythm.  The news turns so awful that you can’t bear to read it any more, nonetheless seek it out, analyze it, and spit out your analysis.  You catch a bad cold that keeps you from thinking straight for a week.  You leave town/the country/the continent for a week.  Or two.

The latter is what just happened to me.  With very little advance warning, my job sent me to Rwanda in June.  And since I’d travelled all that way, I added on vacation time to go on safari in Kenya.  The latter was magnificent, in its own right, but hardly worthy of consideration in this vehicle.  Rwanda, on their other hand. . .

I’m finally ready to overcome my travel-induced inertia and share some thoughts.

You don’t have to be a student of international affairs to know something about Rwanda.  The country burst into our consciousness quite suddenly in 1994, when a genocide-by-machete appeared on the front pages of the Western world.  It was almost as if a country and society that had never existed became a supernova overnight.  We couldn’t keep straight who the good guys and bad guys were.  But the utter barbarity of hand-to-hand slaughter held us transfixed for a few weeks.  And then disappeared.

Nearly a decade later, the hit movie “Hotel Rwanda” reminded us of the horror.  The film, which according to IMDB tells “the true-life* story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who housed over a thousand Tutsi refugees during their struggle against the Hutu militia in Rwanda,” was nominated for three Oscars.  It reminded us of (or realligned for some of us) the good-guys-vs.-bad-guys morality tale.  And, as everything Hollywood (indeed all art) does, it simplified a tale far too complex for facile telling.

It isn’t and can’t be my intent here to introduce you, dear reader, to Rwanda’s bloody (or, surprisingly unbloody, depending on your perspective) history and the antecedents to genocide.  If your fancy is piqued, as mine has been, you’ll start out with Wikipedia and graduate to book-length treatments of the topic.  I encourage you to, if you have the time and the interest.

My trip to Rwanda took 24 hours: Washington Dulles, to Amsterdam, to Nairobi (a very unpleasant airport) to Kigali.  The Greatest Travel Tool Ever (aka iPad) was loaded with six books and two movies, not running out of juice the whole time.  On the way to Kigali, I read God Sleeps in Rwanda, by Joseph Sebarenzi, who was speaker of the Rwandan parliament for a couple of years shortly after the genocide.  On the way home, I read A Thousand Hills by veteran NY Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer.

Along with avoiding a recounting of Rwandan history, I am also going to avoid the temptation to review these two books.  Suffice it to say that the two authors offer radically different perspectives.  Sebarenzi —  who fled Rwanda in 2000 fearing persecution and even murder at the hands of (now)-President Paul Kagame — describes the danger posed by a thoroughly unreconciled country suffering under a brutal dictatorship.  Kinzer — on the other hand —  was granted 30 hours of interviews by Kagame and freedom to publish without Kagame’s review.  He describes a country undergoing a near-miraculous recovery under the steady hand of an authoritarian, but possibly benevolent regime.  (To be fair, Kinzer’s account is not really “hagiographic,” as Publisher’s Weekly describes it.  Kinzer takes care to present the unsettling aspects of Kagame’s temperament and rule, not to mention the real risks that Rwanda’s apparent progress may prove to be fleeting or illusory.)

So where’s the truth?

Were Rwanda’s ethnic tensions a creation of the Belgians who used 1930s racial theories as an excuse for a divide-and-conquer policy, creating violence where none had previously existed?  Or had Hutu and Tutsi been at each others’ throats forever, notwithstanding the utter lack of religious or linguistic differences between them?

A couple of books read and a week in-country don’t begin to answer that question for me.

And what about the regime?

Is Paul Kagame a visionary leader who understands the importance of stability über alles, providing a context for economic development and slow healing?  Or is he the despot that Western human rights organizations denounce?  (One of my NGO contacts calls Rwanda the most dictatorial country she has ever spent time in.)  Even if he means well, does his (thus-far) failure to prepare the country for any political leadership after him presage an eventual, inevitable meltdown?

Are Western human rights organizations playing a constructive role in the fight for freedom or are they dangerously naive about the risks a truly unfettered political environment could bring?  And isn’t it offensively patronizing for the the West — the same West that created racial division and economic exploitation; that provided succor to the genocidaires (yes, you, France — who furthered the slaughter of 800,000 plus people so that you could win the global battle against . .  . Anglophones!) — to be prescribing anything at all to the Rwandans?

Who has the greatest amount of blood on hands and conscience?  Is it the Hutu?  The Belgians and French?  What about the Americans and Bill Clinton, who worked with the French and British to absolutely cripple the ability of the United Nations to take the very small steps that would have stopped the genocide in its tracks.  (Remember, the US had just been shamed in Somalia, health care reform hung in the balance, and the monumental 1994 elections loomed.)  And what about Kofi Annan, who as head of UN Peacekeeping Operations at the time of the genocide prevented the already reluctant Great Powers from knowing the truth about events on the ground (and then went on to be UN Secretary General)?

And what to make of “genocide ideology,” a high crime in modern Rwanda?  Is this a libel purposely manipulated by Kagame to delegtimize and prosecute potential political rivals?  Or is it the proper label for the twisted thinking holding that the 80% of the Tutsi population killed in a matter of weeks in 1994 (the pace of killing far exceeds all of the other cases of documented genocides) was merely part  of a civil struggle in which all Rwandans were victims?

And what constitutes justice?  How do you move forward as a society when over 90% of your population was either perpetrator or victim or both?  Where are you going to find objective juries?  How are you going to address guilt without unleashing paroxysms of violence that escalate in perpetuity?  And if you don’t punish the guilty, how do you expect their victims to go to work and school with them every day?

You can’t bring back 800,000 dead.  And you can’t expect the memories of their brutal deaths to fade in a mere 16 years.  (With hardly any Holocaust perpetrators or survivors left, how many Jews still can’t forgive or forget German crimes, 70 years later?) But, somehow, life has to go on.  And, to the untrained observer, it is going on.  Kigali is clean and crime free.  Buses run on time. Infrastructure is decent.

But is the development real?  There’s surely a lot being built in Kigali.  But statistics still show Rwanda far down the rankings of human health and longevity.  My contacts told me that Kigali is an illusion — that the countryside remains mired in abject, unrelenting poverty.

What is Rwanda’s truth?

I clearly don’t know and don’t pretend to know.  Rwanda is for me symbolic of a world that isn’t black and white. Things aren’t either-or.  They’re both-and.  Every potential answer to the questions I have posed in this little essay has passionate proponents.  They are all right.  And wrong.

My fancy is piqued.  I will never stop caring about the new friends I made in Rwanda and never stop being fascinated by the horror and potential amidst the thousand hills.


*Was Rusesabagina the hero the movie painted him to be?  Some claim he cynically manipulated his story after the fact to create the appearance of heroism where none existed and has parlayed his fame into a life of empty comfort in — of all places — that old colonial overlord, Belgium.  Yet another mysterious question with no satisfying answer.

©2010 Keith Berner

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One Comment on “07.14.10 Rwanda Questions”

  1. jerry berner Says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful essay. It certainly conveys your perplexity at trying to sort out truth in the midst of the horrible genocide. Glad that you had the experience to visit there and to see how the small segment of Kigali you interacted with are functioning. Hope that your contribution will be able to have a positive impact on some of their lives.


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