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The Rwandan civil war ended almost 18 months ago, yet the country remains obsessed with what is known as 'the genocide'----an obsession shared by human rights and relief agencies, and a United Nations war crimes tribunal.
Just back from a visit to Rwanda and the refugee camps in neighbouring Zaire, Fiona Foster argues that the obsession with 'the genocide' has criminalised an entire community and obscured the real causes of the Rwandan tragedy

Massacring the truth in Rwanda

More than a year after Rwanda's civil war was supposed to have ended, Kigali airport still looks like a battlefield. The walls are spattered with bullet holes, broken windows have not been replaced and shattered glass has not even been swept up. Arriving at the airport gave me the first of many signs that this was a country determined to put the evidence of what is known as 'the genocide' on display for all who visit.

'The genocide' is the description given to the killings carried out last year by supporters of the old regime, dominated by the Hutu ethnic group, before it was overthrown by the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), run by Tutsis. Civil wars are usually followed by calls for reconstruction and reconciliation. In Rwanda, however, such talk is considered morally reprehensible. Here aid agencies and human rights organisations are the first people to tell you that it is too early to talk about reconciliation - first the killers must be caught. Here aid agencies are more likely to be found building prisons or training magistrates than providing food or medical facilities.

While my hosts - young aid workers from Ireland - had not been in Rwanda during the war, they immediately embarked on a guided tour of 'the genocide'. Few visitors to Rwanda escape the tour, a gruesome sortie around the sites of civilian massacres carried out by the militia of the former government. Under the new government's orders, the badly decomposing bodies of the victims have never been buried.

While it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the evidence of the horrific carnage, it was something I had not been prepared for which really struck me during my stay in Rwanda. On the three-hour drive from Kigali to Gicongoro, our car was stopped five times at Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) roadblocks. Waving their guns, the young soldiers made us get out of our car as they rummaged through our luggage, paying particular attention to written documents. Our hosts explained that a number of aid agencies had been thrown out of the country after documents critical of aspects of the new regime were discovered.

While we were detained I watched the hundreds of ordinary Rwandans forced to wait at the roadside as soldiers searched through the luggage of entire busloads. The atmosphere was tense, the people looked afraid, the soldiers were throwing their weight around. While my hosts told me that the RPA had stopped the genocide and saved the country, I was struck by the fact that the country's new army were not treated as saviours by the people.

Every day of my stay brought new reports of arrests and shootings by the RPA. One aid worker was visibly distressed to discover that, during her short holiday in Ireland, two Rwandans she knew had been killed and another thrown into prison by the RPA. When I asked whether she could do anything to help the one arrested, she looked shocked: 'But they might have been involved in the genocide', she said, muttering that it is impossible to be sure about anyone in Rwanda. On the day I was leaving news was coming through of an RPA massacre of 200 Hutus in a dawn raid on a village on the border with Zaire and similar massacres have been reported since then.

Many of those arrested for genocide are implicated on the word of one or two accusers. In Rwanda today, if you don't like your next door neighbour, or would like his land, the thing to do is accuse him of involvement in the genocide. The fate awaiting those accused is grim. If they escape summary execution, they are thrown into chronically overcrowded jails in which people are quite literally rotting to death for want of space.

In Gitarama Prison nearly 7000 Rwandans, including over 100 children accused of genocide, are being held in a building with space for 600. It has been reported that four prisoners a day are dying in appalling conditions in this prison alone (Amnesty International Urgent Action, 9 June 1995). While Western non-governmental organisations (NGOs) clamour for justice, the truth is that there is nothing resembling a judicial system in Rwanda. Justice in Rwanda today means revenge killings and internment without trail.

The official obsession with the need to punish those guilty of 'the genocide' has produced a polarised country gripped by fear and violence. When aid workers and human rights activists insist that it is too early to talk about reconciliation in Rwanda, they are echoing the line of the Tutsi-run government. In an interview with the British-based NGO African Rights, government minister Marc Rugenara summed up the official attitude to those accused of taking part in 'the genocide':

'Even death does not deserve them. But we cannot escape our responsibility to see them punished. If it is said that to have peace there can be no punishment, my answer is that there will never be peace in Rwanda.'

'The genocide' might be over in Rwanda, but there is no peace and there is certainly no justice.

One of the most disturbing things in Rwanda is the extent to which the moral certainties created by 'the genocide' have prevented any further investigation into the underlying causes of the civil war. By removing the massacres carried out by Hutu militia last year from their wider political context, NGOs have succeeded in replacing the search for real solutions with a one-sided search for punishment. This is reflected in the remit given to the Tribunal set up by the United Nations to try people accused of 'genocide' in Rwanda. While both sides committed terrible atrocities during the four-year war in Rwanda, the UN Tribunal will only investigate killings which took place between April and July last year - which means that the guilty will all be Hutus.

The other consequence of removing the massacres from the wider context of the war is that the blame is located in the pathological psyche of extremist Africans:

'Genocide is such a pathological political condition that truly unusual motives are required for people to contemplate it...Hutu extremism is a bland name for a political philosophy that is not only racist and fascist, but positively genocidal.' (Death, Despairand Defiance, African Rights, September 1994)

If this is really true, then clearly all that remains is to wipe out these pathological killers and we will have peace in Africa.

The brutal simplicity of this version of events, and of the narrow preoccupation with 'the genocide', ignores the complex factors behind Rwanda's civil war - most notably, the role played by outside powers in provoking and sustaining the bloody conflict.

In the popular version of events in Rwanda echoed by aid agencies and the Western media, the shooting down of President Habyarimana's plane in April last year was the green light for 'Hutu extremists' to unleash a pre-planned genocide against Rwanda's minority Tutsi community. This alleged attempt to exterminate an entire race was apparently only thwarted when the Rwandese Patriotic Front took power after the Rwandese Patriotic Army's military victory in July. The real story of the war in Rwanda is very different.

Sadly for the people of Rwanda, the RPA is not the saviour that the aid agencies and human rights activists would have us believe. And neither did the war in Rwanda start in April last year. The war began in 1990, when the RPA invaded Rwanda from Uganda, where it had been armed and trained by the Western-backed Ugandan government. The invasion had the support of Britain, the USA and other Western powers which had been trying to impose 'democracy' on Rwanda for some time. The RPA was made up of members of Rwanda's minority Tutsi tribe, which had been favoured by the former Belgian colonial regime, many of whom fled Rwanda after independence. The story of Rwanda from 1990 to 1994 is one of a bloody battle for power between the RPA, backed by the USA and Britain, and the country's Hutu government under President Habyarimana, backed by France and Belgium. Both sides were responsible for human rights abuses and massacres.

By 1993 Rwanda was being torn apart by the war and by Western-imposed economic austerity. Belgium had switched its support to the RPF, leaving the French as the only Western power backing the government. Under pressure, in August 1993 the government reluctantly signed the Arusha Accords on power-sharing with the RPF. The Accords were backed by the USA, Britain, the United Nations, the World Bank and the Western media. When by February 1994 the Accords had not been implemented, the UN threatened to pull out its forces and allow a final RPF offensive. It was clear that the UN was handing Rwanda to the RPF on a plate. The Habyarimana regime was isolated and cornered. When the President was assassinated on 6 April 1994, the final, desperate phase of the war erupted. While government militia massacred civilians in terrible circumstances, this was not a pre-planned genocide of one tribe by another. Those targeted by government militia were Tutsis and Hutus suspected of supporting the RPA invasion.

Structural adjustment

In their depiction of 'genocide', the Western NGOs and their friends in the media have ignored the political forces at play in Rwanda over the previous four years and concentrated on creating the spectre of the 'Hutu extremist', pathologically inclined towards murder. In so doing, they have also deflected attention from the material conditions which influenced the levels of barbarity and desperation displayed in wars in Africa.

Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa. Each square kilometre of agricultural land has to support more than 400 people; 85 per cent of people live beneath the poverty line and a third of children suffer from malnutrition. The war in Rwanda coincided with the shock therapy administered by the World Bank's structural adjustment programme which produced even more misery through massive cuts in health and education programmes. There can be no doubt that when neighbour killed neighbour in Rwanda, many did so as much in a desperate struggle for land and resources as in the battle for power. The war in Rwanda was particularly barbaric, but so were the conditions in which the Rwandan people were forced to live - conditions exacerbated by the very Western governments and international institutions which now sit in judgement on these people.

Unlike many other conflicts in Africa, the Rwanda story has continued to attract the interest of the Western media. Much of the recent coverage has been critical of France and Belgium for harbouring Rwandans accused of genocide. Documentaries and features have 'exposed' the well-known role played by France in arming and supporting the old regime. Yet the media have never questioned the roots of the RPA or investigated the role of Britain and America in backing the RPA invasion. The fact that Paul Kagame, head of the new Rwandan army, was trained by the Americans and was formerly chief of intelligence in the US-supervised Ugandan army does not seem to concern journalists obsessed with 'the genocide'. While the media have always stressed the pre-planned nature of 'the genocide', no reporter has pointed out that the RPA invasion was a carefully planned invasion carried out with the full knowledge of the West.

Not only has the obsession with 'the genocide' prevented any proper investigation of the forces which led to the bloodshed, it has also legitimised the imposition of a Western-backed minority regime on an African state. Before the war Rwanda was 90 per cent Hutu, 9 per cent Tutsi and one per cent Twa - yet the government and army is now almost entirely Tutsi. If that wasn't enough, the NGOs' obsession with genocide has also legitimised the call for even greater outside interference in the country. The term genocide was deliberately framed by NGOs in Rwanda in order to invoke the UN convention which obliges all signatories to 'prevent and punish genocide'. While the USA was reluctant to dirty its hands with a military intervention in Rwanda, the establishment of an American-run International Tribunal to deal with 'the genocide' has allowed Washington to intervene in Rwanda's affairs in a morally acceptable way.

One of the worst consequences of the exclusive focus on 'the genocide' is that massacres and human rights abuses by the RPA are now being tolerated and even justified by NGOs and journalists. When the RPA massacred over 1000 Hutu refugees while forcibly closing down a displaced persons camp in Kibeho in March this year, human rights activists went so far as to claim that many of those killed were really the victims of 'Hutu extremists' in the camp. Journalists reported these claims around the world. Other killings, like the RPA massacre of 13 priests and two bishops in June 1994, are presented as understandable acts of revenge. Indeed some human rights and relief organisations have even praised the RPF as champions of international law:

'The RPF has one enormous credit to its name. It succeeded in inflicting a decisive military defeat on a genocidal regime, and thereby halting the mass killings of civilians and opening the prospect of the trial and punishment of those guilty of crimes against humanity. In doing so it was fulfilling its fundamental moral and legal obligations under international law.' (Death, Despair andDefiance)

It seems that, so long as it can be presented as revenge against 'the genocide', anything now goes for many NGOs in Rwanda.

I flew from Kigali to Goma a day after the Zairian government had started forcibly to repatriate some of the million Rwandan refugees who fled to Zaire after the RPF victory. While the BBC World Service reported that 'Hutu extremists' in the refugee camps were pressurising refugees not to return home, you did not have to be an extremist of any kind to see that Rwanda is not a safe place - especially for Hutu men. Many refugees fled into the volcanic hills around Goma to endure life without food and shelter rather than risk being forced to go back. Yet despite the evidence of revenge attacks and arbitrary detention inside Rwanda, the official line of the UN High Commission for Refugees and other aid agencies in Zaire was that voluntary repatriations should proceed. In the refugee camps the atmosphere was one of terror. Of course these people want to go home, many long to return to seek out friends and family. But many also know people who returned only to find that they are accused of involvement in 'the genocide', often by people now living in their homes.

Awaiting judgement

By reducing the war in Rwanda to a genocide in which only one side participated, the NGOs have successfully criminalised an entire community - the majority of Rwanda's people. Aid agencies have even been attacked for providing food-aid to killers in the refugee camps. Some, including Mdècins Sans Frontières, have withdrawn from the camps on this basis. Others like Oxfam have defensively argued that they must stay because there are innocent women and children among the killers. As I flew out of Goma, reports were coming through that the RPA had set up a screening centre on the border and had already arrested several hundred young men believed to be involved in 'the genocide'. The knowledge of what awaits them sickened me.

The lesson I would draw from my visit is that we must reject the term 'genocide' in Rwanda. It has been used inside and outside Rwanda to criminalise the majority of ordinary Rwandan people, to justify outside interference in the country's affairs, and to lend legitimacy to a minority military government imposed on Rwanda by Western powers.

Many of the people I talked to in Rwanda were convinced that they and their families would soon be killed. The sad reality is that while the obsession with 'the genocide' lives on, there will never be peace.


Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 85, December 1995

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