"But being right, even morally right, isn't everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It's important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It's important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist."
Thursday, February 23, 2012
The Guilt of the Silent: An Analysis of Raoul Peck's "Sometimes in April"
BONUS LINK: My entire (so far) grad school notes collection can be found here.
In the spring and summer of 1994, I was 15 years old and a freshman at Bedford High School in Massachusetts. Searching my memory of that period, I can't recall even a quick polaroid recollection concerning almost a million people's murder.
I remember working as a bagger at the grocery store on Hanscomb Air Force Base.
I remember fleeing the base theatre with my friend CJ after we lit up cigars during a movie.
I remember the field where I would play soccer by my school.
What I can recall
I close my eyes and I can smell the dusty paper of the grocery bags.
I close my eyes and I can feel my heart racing as we were chased out of the theatre.
I close my eyes and I can see the long and overgrown green grass of the soccer field.
That same spring
Nearly a million people's last breath and smell was rotten and rife with sweat, urine, and blood.
Murderers crushed and ripped apart nearly a million hearts.
Murderers smashed shut nearly a million sets of eyes.
That same spring
Millions of people
And millions of people did
I trudge with the grief of my own ignorance like a iron yoke on the shoulders of my soul.
The Guilt of the Silent: An Analysis of Raoul Peck's Sometimes in April
In 2004’s Sometimes in April, director Raoul Peck creates a graphically accurate account of the genocide that began after Hutu extremists and members of the Presidential Guard shot down a plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana and Burundian President Ntaryimira on 6 April 1994. This event ignited a killing spree that spread from Kigali throughout the country, claiming the lives of over 800,000 people—507,000 of them Tutsis (77% of registered Tutsi population), [i] in the span of 100 days. [ii] While the film’s details of these 100 days reflect years of careful research by the director, Peck neglects several key elements whose inclusion would strengthen his story’s purpose. From the start, the movie falls short in offering deeper context to the relationship between the Hutus and Tutsis throughout Rwanda’s history. While the film captures the inaction of the international community throughout the genocide well, the director’s decision to ignore the negligence and lethargy of specific individuals and administrations is a disservice to all those killed. Lastly, the film fails to address the significance of current Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s decision to initiate countrywide gacaca “grass courts” in 2001 in the midst of continuing deliberations by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
There is little to criticize, however, in the Peck’s portrayal of the events occurring in Rwanda during the genocide. The movie’s action hinges on the relationship between fictional characters Augustin, a moderate Hutu captain in the Rwandan military (married to Jeanne, a Tutsi), and his brother Honoré, a popular “Hutu Power” radio DJ for Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM). During the genocide, the international community protests RTLM as “hate” radio; its DJs regularly list the names and addresses of Tutsis and moderate Hutus so they can be targeted and killed. As violence erupts, Augustin fears for his life and that of his family. After much pleading, he convinces his brother to take his family to the Hotel Mille Collines where they will be safe, deciding that his brother’s reputation gives them the best chance to make it through the deadly roadblocks in the capital city Kigali. After successfully negotiating a few roadblocks run by civilian militia, Honoré comes to one run by the military that he is unable to pass or bribe his way through. Helpless to intervene, he watches in anguish as Rwandan military soldiers murder his brother’s family. Honoré sneaks back to the pit under the cover of night—miraculously finds Jeanne alive, and carries her to a local church. Jeanne survives and is later taken by Rwandan soldiers and gang-raped repeatedly. In a fitting piece of justice (one based on real events), she grabs a soldier’s grenade and kills herself and a group of them after a brutal rape session, to include a complicit priest (also based on real events).[iii] This narrative draws to a close as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by General Paul Kagame, defeats the Rwanda military and militias, restores order and brings the genocide to an end. The other story told by the film, in parallel, focuses on Honoré’s trial at the ICTR ten years later, and the two brothers’ reconciliation. The director uses their rapprochement to illustrate the complex nature of Rwanda’s post-genocide growth and progress toward normalcy.
The film itself begins by tracing the onset of ethnic conflict in Rwanda from the post-World War II handover of colonial control from Germany to Belgium, noting that for centuries Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa “shared the same culture, language and religion.”[iv] While it is true that they all shared a common language, Kinyarwanda, whether all three are part of the same ethnic group is a matter widely debated by scholars.[v] Furthermore, this opening statement paints too rosy a picture, as it fails to acknowledge the Tutsi’s marked centuries-long subjugation of the Hutus. While these details do not excuse the genocide, including them would offer insight into the psyche of the Hutus and the way in which it was manipulated, ultimately leading to decades of horrific violence. The disagreement among scholars centers on the argument that a better description of the Hutus and Tutsis is be one of different ethnic groups living in the same society as part of a feudal or caste system.[vi] Regardless of the debate, what is clear is that they lived in the same region among each other for more than a thousand years. As different groups (belonging to different families and following different leaders) settled into the area, the cattle-herding pastoralists (the Tutsi people) consolidated power and militarily established a rule (under mwamis, or kings)[vii] over the region, creating an elite class that would evolve over the centuries. Not every cattle-herder was part of the ruling class, however, and some farmers (Hutus) also rose to prominence (especially those skilled in battle).[viii] In general, a Hutu could become a Tutsi if he bought enough cattle to elevate his social position. Although even if a Tutsi lost all of his cattle, he would not then become a Hutu. So until the 1800’s, the terms Hutu and Tutsi retained a degree of fluidity, and people were more apt to define themselves by a specific region or lineage than by the term Hutu or Tutsi.[ix] It was at the end of the 19th century, as society in Rwanda became more developed and complex that a degree of rigidity emerged in how the ruling class defined itself. The Tutsi ruling class came to define themselves by their power and wealth (typically measured by the number of cattle owned). The masses and peasants did not own cattle and were thus defined as subjects, or Hutus.[x] It is worthwhile to note, that while historians typically recount the relationship between ruler and ruled with a degree of ambivalence, conquest and violence was an essential part of it. In the next century for instance, Hutus would call for a ban on the Kalinga, the royal Tutsi drum decorated with the testicles of defeated Hutu princes.[xi]
It is then unfortunate that this consolidation and modernization by the ruling class coincided with European conquest. In an effort to maintain control and maximize economic benefit, the Belgians torqued the system already in place, choosing to conduct official communication only with the ruling class, this belief stemming from their own warped ideas about racial superiority.[xii] This interaction carried over to the religious side as well until the 1930’s when Flemish priests replaced Belgian Catholic ones. These typically poor Flemish priests more closely related to the Hutus economically. So while educational opportunities came, they were the second tier ones available through the Catholic church. In contrast, Tutsis received the superior French education available through the Belgian government.[xiii] It is at this point that the film describes well the racial classification system put in place by Belgium, one that included identity cards that listed the bearer as “Hutu” or “Tutsi.” In removing any chance for upward mobility among those ruled (Hutus), the Belgians fostered a growing resentment that would fester for several decades.[xiv]
This bitterness manifested itself in 1959, when Belgium rule ended, and power was turned over to majority rule. On 28 January 1961, the majority (Hutus) spoke and deposed Tutsi King Kigeli V, replacing him with Hutu president Grégoire Kayibanda.[xv] Over the next several decades, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi would flee the country; by 1994 it was estimated that there were between 400-700 thousand Rwandan Tutsis living outside the country.[xvi] It is this long history that one finds the fuel for the fire that became the genocide.
It is in his description of the international response to this fire that Peck falls short. The film’s primary focus for this is through the actions of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Prudence Bushnell, and through her efforts to influence the United States to act to intervene. True to the historical record, she is roundly rebuffed by the administration above her when she tries to motivate action. The film never names those squelching her effort, however; nor does it delve into the specific details of President Clinton’s blind eye. These details are important because they offer insight into the U.S. decision-making process and the efficacy of the United Nations. A day after the president’s plane is shot down, the film shows Bushnell referring to a 9-week-old CIA report that warned of the potential for widespread violence. Bushnell is reprimanded by an older white gentlemen (one assumes this to be Secretary of State Warren Christopher) “not to bring up the CIA report again.”[xvii] The pacing of the film’s cuts to the inaction in Washington exacerbates the lack of detail. In offering only infrequent cuts, Peck fails to tell the viewer the scene’s place in the genocide’s timeline. Thus when the films shows an internal USG debate via teleconference regarding the possibility of jamming the hate radio stations (a measure deemed “too expensive and illegal”)[xviii], the viewer doesn’t know that this debate occurred on or about 5 May, nearly a month after the killings (roughly 200,000 dead)[xix] began.[xx] Other than a few news clips of State Department officials playing semantics with the term genocide on Day 65 of the crisis (620,000 killed),[xxi] and a final shot of a nameless White House official thanking Bushnell for her team’s work on the U.S. belated humanitarian response (which actually aided the escape of many of the murderers), no other evidence of America’s action is investigated.
This omission is unfortunate because there are hundreds of previously classified documents (all available at the time of the filming) that make it clear that the U.S. was aware of the slaughter and murder of civilians at the highest levels, and not only did nothing, but in some cases made efforts to ensure others did nothing as well. Partly in response to a request from the Belgian government for “cover’ in their withdrawal[xxii], on 15 April (64,000 dead)[xxiii] Christopher sent a cable to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. In it he stated the U.S. position that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) must be withdrawn, an imperative that would be echoed during a Security Council meeting at which the Rwandan ambassador was present and able to communicate the information back to the genocide’s perpetrators.[xxiv] The Clinton administration, through National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, continued to receive intelligence reports on the killing to include a 26 April one stating that at least 100,000 had been killed.[xxv] Perhaps most damning, however, is a 21 April letter from Rwandan human rights activist Monique Mujawamariya to President Clinton; in the letter she writes of the genocide occurring and the dire effect that a UNAMIR drawdown would have.[xxvi] Clinton had met Mujawamariya the previous year and when she went missing in Rwanda in early April, finding her became a central task for his staff.[xxvii] After she managed to escape Rwanda and was found, however, her pleas—and her letter, went ignored by the White House. At the United Nations, the U.S. continued to stymie efforts to intervene. In a 28 April memo to Madeline Albright from Deputy Political councilor to the UN John Boardman, he cautions her to remain “mostly in listening mode… not commit [the] USG to anything.”[xxviii] Early wording in the same memo makes it clear that the U.S. was aware of “atrocities” being committed in Rwanda. The ambivalence and impotence of the White House is best shown in that Rwandan assets in the U.S. were not frozen, and diplomatic relations with the genocidal government were not cut off until 15 July, 11 days after the genocide’s end.[xxix] During the films final seconds, the words, “Of those who watched the genocide unfold and did nothing to stop it, no one has been charged” appear on the screen. By using these documents, and countless others available, Peck could have made clear exactly who those who watched the genocide unfold were.
Finally, the film shows both the ICTR, as well as the gacaca courts taking place in the countryside villages where the genocide occurred. The gacaca courts were instituted to address the backlog of 110,000 alleged genocide perpetrators in 2001.[xxx] Widely criticized by human rights activists, the informal courts (led by ‘judges’ with only a modicum of legal training) were held in the villages where the crimes occurred, and allowed victims to confront their attackers directly. Peck fails to show these controversies, however; nor does he show that in some cases the criminal’s confession itself was his only punishment (in many cases it was a combination of confession and time served).[xxxi] While the competing ideas of retribution and justice in post-genocide Rwanda may have been too large a project to address in an already long (2 hour and 15 minutes) film, the director could have made clear that the gacaca courts were a deliberate effort by Tutsi President Kagame to help rebuild a sense of normalcy and an ability for Rwanda to move forward.[xxxii] In one of the most densely populated countries in Africa,[xxxiii] it was clear that Hutus and Tutsi would have to live amongst each other as their country recovered.
Given an event as large and complex as the genocide in Rwanda, Peck does an admirable job in addressing the ways in which the extremist elements of the Hutu military and political militias took advantage of the Tutsis’ past systemic subjugation of Hutus. The pervasive power of this propaganda is well illustrated in the character of hate radio DJ Honoré. As Peck superbly captures the graphic and explicit imagery of genocide, he is in his element, creating scenes that cannot be ignored, nor ever forgotten by the viewer. Thus it is all the more unfortunate that the film’s beginning words by Martin Luther King Jr., “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”[xxxiv] are not fully honored by naming those silent offenders in the United States. Perhaps by holding these mute transgressors accountable, future atrocities can be prevented.
[i.]. Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), 15.
[ii]. Frontline: Ghosts of Rwanda, “Timeline,” last modified April 1, 2004, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/ghosts/etc/crontext.html.
[iii]. Sometimes in April, “Director’s Commentary,” directed by Raoul Peck (2004; HBO Home Video, 2005), DVD.
[vi.]. Paul Nugent, Africa Since Independence: A Comparative History, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 51, 499.
[vii]. Wayne Madsen, Genocide and Covert Operations in Africa, 1993-1999, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999), 100.
[xi]. Madsen, Genocide and Covert Operations, 101.
[xii]. Ibid., 100.
[xiii]. Ibid., 101.
[xiv]. Sometimes in April, Peck.
[xv]. Madsen, Genocide and Covert Operations, 103.
[xvii]. Sometimes in April, Peck, 41:08.
[xviii]. Ibid., 1:18.
[xix]. Frontline, “Timeline.”
[xx]. Frank G. Wisner, “DoD Memo, Rwanda: Jamming Civilian Radio Broadcasts,” The National Security Archive, The Genocide and the US in Rwanda, edited by William Ferroggiaro, last modified August 20, 2001, http://www.gwu
[xxi]. Sometimes in April, Peck, 1:38.
[xxii]. Samantha Powers, “Bystanders to Genocide,” Atlantic Monthly, September 2001, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2001/09/bystanders-to-genocide/4571.
[xxiv]. Warren Christopher, “Talking Points on the UNAMIR Withdrawal,” The National Security Archive, The Genocide and the US in Rwanda, edited by William Ferroggiaro, last modified August 20, 2001, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv
[xxv]. Bureau of Intelligence and Research Report: “Rwanda: Genocide and Partition,” The National Security Archive, The US and the Genocide and Rwanda, edited by William Ferroggiaro, last modified March 24, 2004, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv
[xxvi]. Monique Mujawamariya, letter to President Clinton, April 21, 1994, The National Security Archive, The US and the Genocide and Rwanda, edited by William Ferroggiaro, last modified March 24, 2004, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv
[xxvii]. Powers, “Bystanders to Genocide,” VII.
[xxviii]. John S. Boardman, United Nations Memo to Ambassador Albright, April 28, 1994, The National Security Archive, The US and the Genocide and Rwanda, edited by William Ferroggiaro, last modified March 24, 2004, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv
[xxix]. Jared Cohen, One Hundred Days of Silence: American and the Rwanda Genocide, (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefied, 2007), 148.
[xxx]. Nugent, Africa Since, 484.
[xxxi]. Philip Gourevitch, “The Life After: A Reporter at Large,” The New Yorker, May 4, 2009, http://search.proquest.com.libproxy.nps.edu/docview/233155205
[xxxii]. Gourevitch, “The Life After.”
[xxxiii]. Des Forges, Leave None, 31.
[xxxiv]. Sometimes in April, Peck.