Thursday Book: The genocide we could ignore

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The Independent Culture
This review is of a book roughly 160,000 words long which describes the genocide five years ago in the central African country of Rwanda. That works out at about one word for every five people who were killed, at the rate of approximately one every 20 seconds, during the three months the rampage lasted. Multiply it out and you arrive at a total of 800,000 dead, a slaughter not even the Nazis matched in so short a time. The events Philip Gourevitch recounts are the first genocide to be categorised as such by the United Nations under the 1948 Genocide Convention, signed by virtually every UN member. How come then, no one paid much attention at the time?

This story of the massacres of Tutsis by Hutus in April, May and June of 1994 is an astonishing feat of reportage and wise humanity which made me curl with shame. Not a day goes by without some reminder of the Holocaust - all, we comfort ourselves, in the noble cause of "Never Again". Yet, less than a year after President Clinton inaugurated the Holocaust Museum in Washington as "an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lurks ahead," insanity was unfolding in central Africa under the eyes of the world.

Unlike Cambodia's killing fields (which, since a race does not set out to exterminate itself, do not count as genocide) what happened in Rwanda was no secret. It had been planned for months. Those who would die watched their killers practising. All that was needed was a pretext, provided by the shooting down of the plane carrying Rwanda's President on 6 April 1994.

As the slaughter unfolded, desperate messages reached the State Department and the UN. Every day Hutu radio, which must have been monitored, urged listeners to go and kill the "cockroaches,"and leave no empty spaces in graves already dug. The "cockroaches" were under no illusions. Gourevitch takes his title from a letter written by seven Adventist pastors, all Tutsis, to their church's president, a Hutu: "We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families." They were.

But pleas from Rwanda went unheeded even though outside intervention, as laid down by the Convention, would have stopped the genocide then and there. Most scandalous was the French role, in providing succour for the genocidaires. France chose sides because it opposed the Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front, which had been fighting a long civil war against the Hutu government. Had the RPF prevailed (as in the end it did) Paris feared Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, would have been lost to Francophone Africa.

But that does not solve the central mystery: how can people who have lived together and intermarried for centuries, sharing the same language and religion, do such terrible things to one another?

There are some heroes, like the Kigali hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, a Tutu who protected the hunted of whatever race, or Paul Kagame, Rwanda's Vice-President, a Tutsi who has embraced reconciliation rather than vengeance. "People are not inherently bad," he tells Gourevitch. "But they can be made bad. And they can be taught to be good."

Perhaps that is the only way. How do you punished hundreds of thousands of people for murder? When everyone is guilty, nobody is. And faced with the sheer volume of killing, the mind short-circuits. One murder is a tragedy but, as Dylan Thomas wrote, "after the first death there is no other". Rwanda's low-tech Holocaust was the banalisation of evil, down to the Hutu councilwoman who offered 50 Rwandan francs (20p) for severed Tutsi heads. The practice was known as "selling cabbages".

For us, it was all too complicated, too far away. Had the present civil war in ex-Zaire (directly caused by the Rwandan genocide) happened in Europe, dragging in half a dozen countries, we would speak of a world war. Instead we mostly ignore it: another primitive, incomprehensible struggle in a continent we have written off long since. "In such countries, genocide is not too important," President Mitterrand remarked of Rwanda - oblivious of the blow that France's huge misjudgement would deal to its prestige and influence throughout Africa.

But his views were widely shared, among others by an American intelligence officer who held forth to Gourevitch in a Kigali bar. "Do you know what genocide is? A cheese sandwich. Write it down: Genocide is a cheese sandwich. Genocide, genocide, genocide. Cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich. Who gives a shit? Crimes against humanity? Who's humanity? You? Me? Did you see a crime committed against you? Hey, just a million Rwandans."

In the cynicism of the spook lies the precise and shaming truth.