Books: Does humankind deserve a future in the 21st century?

Leave None To Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda by Alison Des Forges Human Rights Watch (New York, Washington, London, Brussels) International Federation of Human Rights (Paris) pounds 24.95
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In Rwanda between 6 April and June/July 1994, anything between 500,000 and 1 million minority Tutsis were systematically targeted and exterminated in the name of "Hutu Power". In addition, tens of thousands of the majority Hutu were likewise hunted down and massacred, either because they were political opponents of those in power or, married to Tutsis, wished to protect or rescue their loved ones. While guns and grenades were freely used to dispatch the victims (including children and infants), a large majority suffered horrendously by being clubbed or macheted to death, often having had their Achilles tendons severed first to prevent them running away. Moreover, as in Serbia's wars against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo (unlike that of the Nazis against the Jews), the mass rape of women and girls - one as young as two years old, as documented in this book - was also used as a weapon of moral and physical destruction.

Although it joins a growing body of authoritative literature on the subject, much of it in French, Alison Des Forges's detailed and harrowing account of that horror is still guaranteed to shock and sicken. In certain respects, it goes farther than the similarly detailed and shocking 1,200 pages of the London-based African Rights publication, Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance (Revised 1995 edition). That volume, like the present one, contains page after page of testimony from survivors of the genocide, the terrible nature of which makes one ashamed at many of the petty foibles and obsessions of people in western societies today. Yet, as a later publication, the Des Forges book has benefited from important political changes in Rwanda itself, how punishment of the crime of genocide has developed internationally, and the availability of key evidence from the United Nations.

Since the final victory of the predominantly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front by July 1994, the new Rwandan authorities have co-operated with the United Nations and humanitarian organisations in order to "redeem" the good name of Rwanda. Part of that co-operation involved making available to Alison Des Forges and her indefatigable team of researchers key government, prefectural, and communal documents of the genocide. That process was undoubtedly prompted by the needs of the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda at Arusha in Tanzania, and the Rwanda government's own tribunal for the genocide, to unearth documentary evidence essential for the prosecution of those accused of genocide.

The many internal Rwandan documents of the genocide reproduced or cited throughout the volume thus substantiate the charge made more generally in other accounts, that the genocide was organised and directed on the basis of the centralised bureaucratic administration that was Rwandan political society. Indeed, so clear and incisive is the analysis on this point that one has a sneaking suspicion throughout that Alison Des Forges has a keen understanding of the Nazi way of things insofar as the organisation and utilisation of the modern state by genocidal forces is concerned. At one point, for example, she unmistakably paraphrases for the Tutsis in Rwanda the familiar Elie Wiesel point about not all victims of the Nazis being Jews but that all Jews were victims of the Nazis.

In this respect, it is interesting to note how in the Rwandan case, as in the Nazi Third Reich, one of the problems of the genocidal authorities was how to obtain the "participation" of community leaders and "ordinary people" in the exercise of genocide. Such participation was not absolutely guaranteed, before or even throughout the genocide, despite the extended and vicious anti-Tutsi propaganda pursued by radio and the press well before the assassination of Hutu President Habyarimana on 6 April 1994.

How more general participation in the genocide was attained is thus an essential component of this volume (and a salutary lesson for all of us about the power of the modern state). Given that in Rwanda, unlike in the Nazi case, the majority of those who participated in the genocidal programme would do so face-to-face with their victims, Des Forges makes the key (and modern) point that the genocidal machine "grew" in two ways: bureaucratic and human.

First, in the degree to which those genocidal forces in control in the capital city of Kigali and other important centres gradually extended their power and influence over the state bureaucratic machine throughout Rwanda after 6 April 1994. That process was far from being immediate or straightforward, given that many of those expected to jump into line - senior administrators, military and police officers - opposed the policy of exterminating the Tutsis. Ultimately, their opposition was overcome by threats of dismissal, bribery and even assassination.

Second, Des Forges emphasises that the early stages of the genocide were well organised in Kigali and other major towns where many victims were listed on pieces of paper and hunted down by special groups of killers. However, the practice of extending the genocide throughout the country was more complicated. Different forms of "persuasion" were necessary to get the thing moving in many local communities, especially where Tutsi and Hutu generally lived in harmony with one another and intermarriage was common. The most awful cases involved partners of mixed marriages who were confronted with impossible choices: to kill loved ones (again, including children and infants), or be killed. Yet, when all the power of the state and society controlled by genocidal forces bore down heavily upon individuals, it is hardly surprising that few individuals were brave enough to act altruistically to save those threatened with extermination (although many did).

Most importantly, the Des Forges volume has been able to utilise valuable documentary and testimony evidence on the controversial role of the international community that was previously unavailable for the African Rights publication. Inevitably, much attention will be focused on the author's account of the "failure" of the international community to prevent or stop the bloodshed in Rwanda, and especially her well-based strictures against the United States, France, and Belgium (nor does the United Kingdom escape criticism). However, the danger of overemphasising such criticism is that it diverts attention from where the blame for the Rwandan genocide clearly lies: with those exponents of "Hutu Power" who seized control of Rwandan society after 6 April 1994. It was they, not the others, who conceived, initiated and executed genocide.

The author makes the point that when some important elements of the international community eventually made known their displeasure at the genocide, this tended to slow or stop the activities of the killers. Yet far more research (and time) is required to establish the validity of her central argument, that more strenuous efforts by the international community would have stopped the genocide. Ultimately, such arguments tend towards speculation, primarily because most genocidal practices have a murderous and quite unpredictable momentum of their own.

So utterly sickening are the subjects of Rwanda and genocide in general that, finally, one really is forced to consider whether humankind actually deserves a future in the 21st century. To help answer that, this volume and the Africa Rights publication deserve the widest readership possible. In that way, too, the victims of Rwanda will never be forgotten.