FAO Quotables

"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."
-Anne Applebaum

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sometimes in April Review (footnotes incorporated)

BONUS LINK:  My entire (so far) grad school notes collection can be found here. 

I wrote an earlier footnoted version of this essay here.  In this version I incorporated the footnotes and made a few minor changes.


Sometimes in April: The Guilt of the Silent

            In 2004’s Sometimes in April, director Raoul Peck creates a graphic and 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), in the span of 100 days.  While the film’s examination 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 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 similar actual 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 actual events). 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.”  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, as Alison Des Forges notes in her seminal work Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda. 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.  In Africa Since Independence, historian Paul Nugent remarks that the disagreement among scholars centers on the argument that a better description of the Hutus and Tutsis is one of different ethnic groups living in the same society as part of a feudal or caste system. Regardless of the debate, what is clear is that they lived in the same region among each other for more than a thousand years.  In the book Genocide and Covert Operations in Africa, author Wayne Madsen relates that 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) over the region, creating an elite class that would evolve over the centuries.  Des Forges points out that not every cattle-herder was part of the ruling class, however, and some farmers (Hutus) also rose to prominence (especially those skilled in battle).  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, Des Forges notes that 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.  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.  Des Forges observes that the Tutsi ruling class came to define itself by 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.  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.  Madsen notes that 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.
            It is then unfortunate that this consolidation and modernization by the ruling class coincided with European conquest. Madsen shows that 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.  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 Madsen notes, Tutsis received the superior French education available through the Belgian government.  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.
            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.  Over the next several decades, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi would flee the country; Nugent states that by 1994 an estimated 400-700 thousand Rwandan Tutsis lived outside Rwanda.  It is in this long history that one finds the fuel for the fire that became the genocide. 
            And It is in his description of the international response to this fire that Peck falls short.  The film primarily focuses on the international responses 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.”  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 film shows an internal USG debate via teleconference regarding the possibility of jamming the radios (a measure that the DoD deemed “too expensive and illegal”), the viewer doesn’t know that this debate occurred, and is documented in a declassified DoD memo, on or about 5 May, nearly a month after the killings (roughly 200,000 dead by then) began.  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), 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.  As journalist Samantha Powers unveiled in her 2001 article “Bystanders to Genocide,” partly in response to a request from the Belgian government for “cover’ in their withdrawal, Christopher sent a cable on 15 April (64,000 now dead) to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.  Powers reveals that 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.  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.  Perhaps most damning, however, is a 21 April letter from Rwandan human rights activist Monique Mujawamariya to President Clinton; in the letter she writes that is genocide is occurring and that a UNAMIR drawdown would have a dire effect.  Clinton had met Mujawamariya the previous year and when she went missing in Rwanda in early April, Powers states that finding her became a central task for the president’s staff.  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.”  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 Jared Cohen’s observation in One Hundred Days of Silence: American and the Rwanda Genocide: 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.  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. Philip Gourevitch points out in his article, “The Life After: A Reporter at Large,” that the gacaca courts were instituted to address the backlog of 110,000 alleged genocide perpetrators in 2001.  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 counter Gourevitch’s claim 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).  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 Gourevitch’s point 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.  In one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, 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,” 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.   

Note:  For the sake of simplicity, and due to a wide range of dissonant sources, all facts and figures came from the PBS “Frontline: Ghosts of Rwanda, Timeline” and Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges’ definitive work, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda.

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