Apocalypse Two

R.W. Johnson

  • A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide by Linda Melvern
    Zed, 272 pp, £16.95, September 2000, ISBN 1 85649 831 X

Jean de Dieu, 11, was curled up, a ball of flesh and blood, the look in his eyes was a glance from nowhere … without vision; Marie-Ange, aged nine, was propped up against a tree trunk … her legs apart, and she was covered in excrement, sperm and blood … in her mouth was a penis, cut with a machete, that of her father … nearby in a ditch with stinking water were four bodies, cut up, piled up, their parents and older brothers.

Sights like this – recorded by an observer with Médecins sans Frontières – were common in Rwanda in April and May 1994, when Hutu extremists butchered up to a million people, mainly Tutsis but also Hutu moderates who were seen as ‘sell-outs’. The small United Nations force under Major-General Roméo Dallaire and the gallant contingent of the International Committee of the Red Cross under Philippe Gaillard had to confront them over and over again. This was one of the few real genocides of modern times. Apart from the Armenian massacres and the Holocaust, Pol Pot killed around two million people in Cambodia and the German administration of South West Africa killed 90 per cent of the Herero people in the early years of the last century. Part of the horror of Rwanda is that we think of genocide as belonging to an age we had left behind.

Gaillard, a medieval scholar, said that the apocalypse in Rwanda was prefigured in the works of Breughel and in the cast of characters consigned to the Inferno in The Divine Comedy. Each night at supper he would read to his Red Cross workers from Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer, hoping that the poem would have the calming effect of prayer. Rimbaud was a friend sitting with them, he insisted. Though she resists the temptation to mount a soapbox in this excellent and tersely written book – which was turned down by twenty British publishers and, until now, has not received a review in the UK – Linda Melvern believes that the Rwandan tragedy represents the unravelling of the new international order built on the defeat of Nazism. The Convention on Genocide was, she points out, the world’s first human rights treaty and if the UN was founded with one aim, it was to prevent things like this.

Melvern is indignant that the conflict between Tutsi and Hutu is so often seen as tribal. The two groups share the same language and cosmology and have no distinct areas of residence. The Tutsi minority – Hutus make up at least 80 per cent of the population of Rwanda and Burundi – were simply the traditional ruling caste, historically controlling the monarchy, the army and the administration. But rather as in Northern Ireland, these differences of caste have gradually assumed tribal importance to the extent that the protagonists believe they can recognise one another on sight – Tutsis are taller and thinner – and because there is a historical accumulation of resentments against the entire group. Tutsi simply means ‘rich in cattle’, while Hutu means ‘servant’, and Hutu resentments are typically those of any underclass: an anger against past social injustices, a partly justified belief that all Tutsis condescend to them and prevailed on their Belgian colonial masters to do the same, and a neurotic anxiety that perhaps they are, indeed, inferior.

Once Rwanda and Burundi became independent democratic states in 1962, the fact that the Hutus had a natural majority meant that Tutsi dominance could hardly continue. The Tutsis remained in control in Burundi and the result was an attempted Hutu coup in 1972 in the course of which 200,000 Hutus were massacred – the Tutsis carefully targeted educated people, who might threaten their position in the future. Neither the UN nor the Organisation of African Unity had anything to say. In Rwanda, Hutu dominance produced repeated Tutsi attempts to reverse the status quo, often with outside help; in each case – in 1962, 1963, 1967, 1990 and 1993 – this resulted in reprisals against Tutsis. The 1994 genocide was simply a repetition of that pattern on a far greater scale, Hutu extremists having decided to do away with the ‘Inyenzi’ (the Tutsi ‘cockroaches’) once and for all.

As Melvern shows, the 1994 genocide was planned in detail. Elaborate lists were drawn up of those to be massacred; half a million machetes and huge numbers of axes, hammers and razors as well as guns were purchased in advance and stockpiled – the costs were met by cunningly diverted aid funds. Belgium and France, both countries with expert knowledge of Rwanda, were aware of what was coming; the Belgians issued horrified warnings. As early as the spring of 1992 the Belgian Ambassador, Johan Swinnen, told Brussels that the extremist Hutu clan, the Akazu, was ‘planning the extermination of the Tutsi of Rwanda to resolve once and for all … the ethnic problem and to crush the internal Hutu opposition’. One of the organisers of the genocide, Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, boasted that he was preparing ‘apocalypse deux’.

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