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Reading between the lines

Rwanda's dark secret

As yet another book recounts the well-known story of genocide in Rwanda, Bernadette Gibson asks why another side of the tragedy never gets a hearing

  • We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, Philip Gourevitch, Picador, £16.99

Since the mass slaughter of Rwandan Tutsis in 1994, this previously unknown little African country has proved a powerful draw to feature-writers seeking to record the compelling, agonising stories of those who survived the brutal violence which swept through Rwanda, killing more than half a million people in less than 100 days.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker, follows in the mould of Fergal Keane's Season of Blood, Dervla Murphy's Visiting Rwanda and many other moving testimonies from Rwanda, which continue to appear five years after the events they describe.

All of these accounts are remarkably similar in style and political analysis. Gourevitch, like many of the others before him, spent a day in one of the official genocide sites carefully preserved by the Rwandan government for such visitors. Despite protests from relatives, the government still refuses to bury the bodies of Tutsis massacred at these sites, to demonstrate that Rwanda is still a country coming to terms with a genocide. While Gourevitch is moved by the grisly sites, he says that he did not need to see them to form a view on the rights and wrongs of Rwanda:

'I had come to see them - the dead had been left unburied at Nyarabuye for memorial purposes - and there they were, so intimately exposed. I didn't need to see them. I already knew and believed what had happened in Rwanda.'

Gourevitch spends the rest of his superbly written book trying to convince us of his interpretation of events in Rwanda - which is odd, given that virtually everybody agrees with his analysis anyway. In fact it is notable that the few individuals who have questioned the accepted version of the Rwandan genocide have been denounced and labelled 'genocide apologists'.

The accepted version of events, reproduced by Gourevitch, runs like this: the killings of April to July 1994 were a pre-planned genocide of the minority Tutsis by the majority Hutu population. They were, according to Gourevitch, 'the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki'. The Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) that stopped the genocide has now formed a government which faces an ongoing genocidal campaign from the Hutu 'genocidaires' operating both inside the country and from eastern Zaire, where they fled after the RPA victory. The international community that turned its back on Rwanda during the genocide has effectively supported the genocidaires - its aid effort established refugee camps on the Rwanda/Zaire border, which were promptly turned into military bases by genocidal forces intent on finishing off the job.

Those who endorse this version of events in Rwanda reject talk of reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis as vastly premature and insensitive. Gourevitch makes no secret of his disgust at an appeal made to the Rwandan people by Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa to 'stop crying and keep quiet'. For Gourevitch, 'It was an astonishing message to a people whose country had run with blood'. In May 1998 the UN secretary general Kofi Annan learned the hard way that certain views are unacceptable in Rwanda, when an off-the-cuff comment about the need for reconciliation resulted in the country's leaders boycotting the official state reception they had arranged in his honour.

Instead the world is asked to support the ending of the 'culture of impunity' by supporting the current government in bringing the genocidaires to justice - no matter how long that takes. Clare Short, Britain's secretary of state for international development, used a recent visit to Rwanda to condemn those human rights groups who had ventured some tentative criticisms of the judicial process. Describing Rwanda's critics as a 'disgrace', Short demanded support for an African government coming to terms with genocide.

Also beyond the pale in relation to Rwanda is talk of democratic elections. With a population made up of 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi, majority rule is seen as unacceptable. While many African countries face international sanctions for failing to move towards democracy, an exception is made for Rwanda, which enjoys strong political and financial support from powerful nations like the USA and Britain. In the conclusion to his book, Fergal Keane says: 'I am a passionate believer in democracy but am forced to accept that it is not a viable option in Rwanda for the foreseeable future.' Gourevitch, meanwhile, presents us approvingly with the alternative model as practised by Rwanda's close ally, Musevni in neighbouring Uganda, quaintly described as 'non-party democracy'.

There is another version of events in the Great Lakes region of Africa which goes like this: the massacres of April to July 1994 were the bloody and brutal climax of a four-year civil war in which the French-backed Hutu regime fought to maintain power against the British and American-backed Rwandan Patriotic Army, made up of Rwandan Tutsi refugees based in Uganda, which invaded Rwanda in 1990. The massacres of Tutsis, far from being a pre-planned, 'efficient' and centrally organised campaign of genocide, were the result of a conflict careering beyond anybody's control.

Far from supporting the two million Hutu refugees who fled to neighbouring countries after the victory of the RPA, the international community, aid agencies and human rights groups successfully criminalised these refugees by accepting the label 'genocidaires' and pressurising the refugees to return to Rwanda. When all of their efforts failed, the international community gave the green light to the Rwandan government to invade Zaire, close the camps and join ranks with opposition activists to seize control of Zaire from the ailing President Mobutu. (General Paul Kagame, head of the RPA and effective leader of Rwanda, admits for the first time in an interview with Gourevitch that Rwanda led the 1996 invasion of Zaire. That this admission, coming after repeated and emphatic denials of any Rwandan involvement, seems to have done little to dent Kagame's credibility with Gourevitch is testament to the uncritical support enjoyed by Rwanda's current leaders.)

Since taking power in July 1994, the Rwandan government has killed many thousands of Hutus - in the camps of Zaire as well as in Rwanda. It currently has over 130 000 Hutus, including women and children, packed into overcrowded prisons, accused of taking part in the genocide. Many have been held without charge for several years. Those found guilty of genocide in dubious trials have been publicly executed. And last year, the government launched the second invasion of its neighbouring state (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo) when their erstwhile ally President Kabila bowed to popular pressure to order Rwandan soldiers out.

So why has an African government that is killing people, abusing human rights and has unleashed two civil wars in a neighbouring state in the space of a year continued to enjoy the financial and political backing of Western governments which now espouse moral and ethical foreign policies? The reason is clearly outlined in Gourevitch's book: since this country has suffered a genocide, there is a moral basis for the Rwandan government's actions. Gourevitch, Fergal Keane and others dismiss anybody who might try to compare the violence of Hutus and Tutsis. In a long chapter on the events in Kibeho in 1995, when forces of the new Rwandan government killed thousands of Hutus by shooting into the crowd at a camp for the internally displaced, Gourevitch spells out why this massacre should not be compared with the killings of Tutsis a year earlier: 'What distinguishes genocide from murder, and even from acts of political murder that claim as many victims, is the intent. The crime is wanting to make people extinct. The idea is the crime.'

For journalists like Gourevitch, the moral certainties provided by the Rwandan genocide are irresistible. Like Tony Blair's moral crusade in Yugoslavia, the Rwandan tragedy appears to present a clear case of right and wrong, good and evil. If the 'idea is the crime' then no amount of violence from the current Rwandan government can be compared to the killings of 1994, because these killings are carried out in the name of genocide survivors and with the stated aim of preventing an ongoing genocide.

The great panjandrum of Bosnia

  • Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton, David Chandler, Pluto Press, £14.99 pbk, £45.00 hbk

'As High Representative, I have to take decisions now and in the future with your best interests in mind, should your leaders fail to take them.' Under the Dayton accords Carlos Westendorp is the United Nations' own governor general of Bosnia: 'If you read carefully, Annex 10 gives me the possibility to interpret my own authorities and powers.' Westendorp comes across as a figure of grotesque self-parody, like a cross between President Ceaus,escu and Groucho Marx's Rufus T Firefly, the American chancer who accidentally becomes first minister of Freedonia in Duck Soup.

'You do not have power handed to you on a platter, you just seize it - I have already achieved this', says the unelected dictator Westendorp. Elected leaders 'have a wrong perspective. They are not serving the population properly, the real interest of the population which is to cooperate with the international community, because the interest of the international community is that the country is prosperous and democratic'. The Washington Post writes of his 'kingly powers...right down to determining who will live in which house'.

Westendorp's megalomaniac fantasies are shared by his deputy Hanns Schumacher who thcreamth and thrcreamth, 'I don't care! I am not interested in who does not want the Federation. This is a concept that we will implement, despite resistance on the field, which undoubtedly exists!...We dictate what will be done...we simply do not pay attention to those who obstruct!'.

David Chandler's Bosnia: faking democracy after Dayton stands apart from the hundreds of books written about Bosnia. Where they tend to wallow in atrocity stories, Chandler addresses the most interesting subject and the one that everybody else shies away from: what happened next. As this fascinating book shows, Bosnia is not independent, but dominated by an array of Western institutions.

Chandler's examination of the Dayton settlement shows it to be a practical experiment in 'democratisation', and a laboratory for liberal theories of constitutionally enforced pluralism. The experiment is a failure.

The bizarre actions of the high representative and his minions include banning the mention of Radovan Karadzic's name in elections, suspending candidates who oppose Westendorp's policies, appointing a mayor who does not even live in the city, funding a TV station that nobody watches and political parties that nobody votes for. Most eccentric of all, this colonial administration insists at one and the same time on institutionalising the ethnic divisions in the country, and then blaming the Bosnians for being divided. If you want to know what a UN protectorate in Kosovo will look like, read this.

Will Deighton
Friends of LM can buy David Chandler's Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton at a reduced price. Phone (0171) 269 9224 for details

Compensation culture

  • Courting Mistrust: The Hidden Growth of a Culture of Litigation in Britain, Frank Furedi, Centre for Policy Studies, £7.50 pbk

The Law Society's vast advertising campaign, and the news that the NHS bill for medical negligence claims is rising at the rate of £100 million a year, make this pamphlet a timely publication. Frank Furedi presents impressive evidence of the huge increase in claims for compensation in England over the past 20 years.

He suggests that the role of the law of negligence is being transformed. Its traditional purpose has been both to allocate liability to somebody who is at fault, and to compensate the victim of that wrong. However, Furedi argues that courts now seem so willing to find fault that the doing of justice has given way to a simple compensation system. To illustrate the point he quotes bizarre cases like the holidaymaker who successfully sued a travel company because it failed to prevent the sexual harassment she suffered in Tunisia.

Despite its title this pamphlet is concerned less with the growth of litigation as such and more with this underlying 'culture of compensation'. The real problem is not the headline-making absurdities, but a 'society where complaining and blaming has been transformed into a culturally acceptable form of behaviour'. Many see this development as empowering active citizens to stand up for their rights. Furedi characterises it as a passive response to the sense that we have little control over our lives. It is a response that seeks solace in putting the responsibility for every misfortune on to somebody else, and reinforces a vicious circle of mistrust and suspicion. The culture of compensation atomises society and corrodes the capacity to change anything.

Furedi proposes reforming the legal system to discourage negligence litigation. But he concludes that changes in the law alone will not be enough 'to reverse a trend which is now running deeply through British society'.

Peter Ramsay
Friends of LM can buy Frank Furedi's Courting Mistrust at a reduced price. Phone (0171) 269 9224 for details

Contradicting the counterculture

  • White Noise: An A-Z Of The Contradictions In Cyberculture, Andrew Calcutt, Macmillan, £14.99 pbk

  • Cult Fiction: A Reader's Guide, Andrew Calcutt and Richard Shephard, Prion, £9.99 pbk

'What could be more arbitrary than attempting to comprehend the information superhighway...under a series of headings which slavishly follow the letters of the alphabet?', asks Andrew Calcutt in his preface to White Noise, an A-Z guide to the 'contradictions in cyberculture'.

Calcutt takes us on a journey through the debates and disagreements which have surrounded the internet since it became a worldwide phenomenon in the early 1990s - starting with a chapter on 'Anarchy/authority' ('Cyberspace is regarded as both the end of the state and the extension of state surveillance') and ending with 'Zero sum game/everything to play for' ('There is currently a prejudice against progress....But the internet demonstrates the potential for humanity to enjoy unlimited future history').

For Calcutt, such contradictions in cyberspace are born out of contradictions in society. He looks at the internet not as some kind of autonomous entity - 'an expression of de-centred nature reasserting itself over the flawed foci of human civilisation' - but as a potential 'problem-solving tool'. White Noise is a challenge both to those who accord the internet too much importance, who claim that it can help build new communities separate from our cruel world, and those who are worried about the internet's anti-human authoritarianism. Calcutt envisages the net as 'a mechanism which could play an important role in helping humanity to mediate the laws of nature and gain greater control over our circumstances', but which is held back by society's cautiousness.

In response to so much pap that masquerades as critical analysis of cyberculture, Calcutt points to one of the advantages of his 'slavish' A-Z guide: 'the requirement to begin at A and finish at Z goes very much against the contemporary flow; and indeed it is intended as my personal rejoinder to the current hostility towards linearity.' In Cult Fiction, written with Richard Shephard, Calcutt uses the A-Z model to provide a reader's guide to modernist writers - a model which would be anathema to some of the unconventional writers included. Nevertheless, Cult Fiction is a pacy, sharp, invaluable dictionary of modern writing, with entries on all the major figures of the counterliterature, from Kathy Acker through to Rudolph Wurlitzer. Like White Noise it has the main element of being a good guide - it is readable as well as referable. Both these guides reveal Calcutt as one of today's least 'slavish' cultural commentators.

Brendan O'Neill
Friends of LM can buy Andrew Calcutt's White Noise and Cult Fiction at reduced prices. Phone (0171) 269 9224 for details

Read On Read On Read On Read On

  • Nor Shall My Sword: The Reinvention Of England, Simon Heffer, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £12.99 hbk

Right-wing journalist Simon Heffer's book is not so much a celebration of English nationalism (he clearly hates most popular expressions of national pride for their loutishness) as a coded and waspish assault on Scottish nationalism. 'Let them go', he says, 'and we'll be rid of their welfare payments and Labour voters'. In the left's darkest days they decided to support Scottish nationalism because they despaired of ever winning a majority in Britain. Heffer's support for English nationalism is comparable. He projects everything he does not like about the country on to the Scots and wishes them farewell. For an astute and educated man, he seems strangely unaware that the Scots have never voted for independence, despite scores of opportunities, and show no signs of doing so in the future.

James Heartfield

Read On Read On Read On Read On

  • The Higher Jazz, Edmund Wilson, University of Iowa Press. $17.95 pbk

Edmund Wilson was the critic whose Axel's Castle helped to make sense of modern writing. He cut his literary teeth alongside Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and in To the Finland Station expressed some of his generation's disillusionment with changing the world. Wilson's non-fiction has long since eclipsed his reputation as a novelist (and rightly so). The Higher Jazz is a restored 'lost novel', based on the patient work of Professor Neale Reinitz, fashioning coherence from long-forgotten manuscripts. It details the efforts of Fritz, a German-American businessman and music buff, to develop a classical yet popular sound for the 1920s.

The novel - which neared completion in 1939 - often slips into pen portraits of Fritz's (Wilson's) peer group. Directionless in places, Wilson made few concessions to the demands for 'relevance' confronting contemporary writers. His discussions involving the 'New Music contingent' and its compositions are highbrow stuff. Likewise, the 1929 Wall Street crash ends the novel without making you want to jump off a window ledge.

Graham Barnfield

Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999

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