“I hear you’re interested in genocide,” the American said. “Do you know what genocide is?” I asked him to tell me. “A cheese sandwich.” he said. “Write it down. Genocide is a cheese sandwich.” I asked him how he figured that. “What does anyone care about a cheese sandwich?” he said. “Genocide, genocide, genocide. Cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich. Who gives a shit? Crimes against humanity? Where’s humanity? Who’s humanity? You? Me? Did you see a crime commited against you? Hey, just a million Rwandans. Did you ever hear about the Genocide Convention?” I said I had. “That convention,” the American at the bar said, “makes a nice wrapping for a cheese sandwich.”
The conversation Philip Gourevitch, the renowned American journalist, had at the bar with an American intelligence officer sums the story up pretty well. In his now-classic book “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families”, Gourevitch investigates the 1994 Rwandan genocide, one of the most disturbing events in recent history. In a period of just a few months, the “international community” witnessed the worst genocide since Holocaust, not only remaining passive and allowing about a million of Rwandans to be butchered, but actively supporting the “genocidaires”.
Roots of the genocide can be, indirectly, traced back to the system of colonial exploitation set up by the Belgians in the 19th century. Before the Belgian colonial rule, two main ethnic groups in Rwanda, Hutu and Tutsi, lived more or less mingled together, sharing common language and culture, though always with the Tutsi minority playing the role of aristocracy. The new colonial rulers readily started to exploit existing inequalities and ethnic distinctions to strengthen their rule – with the official mythology of Tutsi superiority, Hutus were subjugated and exploited in a slave-like manner; soon, with the introduction of ethnic identity cards, the ethnic divide was widened. Shortly after the Second World War, the oppressive system was overthrown by a Hutu revolution claiming to “democratize” the country. The ethnic cards continued to play a major role, but now with the roles reversed – if you were a Tutsi, often your only chance of getting education and social status was obtaining a counterfeit Hutu card. Hutu rule soon transformed into a dictatorship no less brutal than the one of Belgian predecessors, and the officially espoused ideology of ethnic hatred prompted several massacres, the fear of death becoming a constant part of Tutsi’s life. Although the president Juvenal Habyarimana, backed by help from Western powers, in particular France, managed to keep the violence under some control, in the late 80s he proved unable to contain the more violent and extremist wing of his political base, a group of fanatics calling themselves Hutu Power. With little risk of oversimplification, Hutu Power’s ideology can be briefly wrapped up as “eradicate all Tutsis from the face of Earth”. Virulent anti-Tutsi propaganda was followed by intensive preparations for an all-out killing fest, in an atmosphere reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. In the early 1990s, the inner group of Habyarimana’s court decided to assassinate the president (who purportedly died in a plane crash) and take the power. Almost instantly, the killings began.
There is little interesting to be said about the genocide itself, except maybe for the takeaway lesson that to annihilate a people quickly, you don’t need anything as fancy as a gas chamber – a well-organized mob armed with machetes and clubs will do. Grenades, maybe, if you want to do the job really fast. Killings proceeded rapidly all over the country for a few months, with the total death count estimated as about a million of dead ans several thousands displaced and forced to flee. Finally, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel Tutsi force which had been waging a guerilla war for a few years, entered the country and quickly reclaimed power, driving off thousands of Hutu Power extremists. With hordes of “genocidaires” forced to flee the country, the international community proclaimed a humanitarian crisis and set up refugee camps in neighbouring countries to accommodate the mass of refugees – which comprised ordinary Hutus and Hutu Power fanatics alike. This is where the biggest irony of the genocide unravels.
Up to this point, most Western powers were content with simply ignoring the genocide, with the notable exception of French, who nonchalantly sold arms and [provided mercenaries] for the Hutu Power. The UN-backed intervention force, UNAMIR, had a mandate so pathetically restricted and numbers so slashed down that it could basically only sit behind the sandbags and watch the killings. Now, with the refugee camps being the focus of TV news daily, the UN felt the need to act and started pouring millions of dollars in humanitarian aid into the camps – directly into Hutu Power’s leaders’ pockets. The leading “genocidaires” quickly seized control of the camps, turning them into military installations ruled by terror. With the wide stream of humanitarian aid funds under their control, they continued the pro-genocide campaign, with even more money to finance weapons and train militias. The camps became known as “death zones” and were rightly treated by Rwandans as a mortal danger. With the threat of the next genocide over their heads, Rwandas urged the UN to close the camps as soon as possible, but apparently the international community had no will or coherent plan to do so. Thus, while Rwanda was utterly devastated and in need of every international aid it could get, the Western powers instead happily continued to feed the killers.
As a reporter, Gourevitch narrates the genocide mostly via concrete events or individual people’s stories, painting the political landscape only in broad strokes. In this way, unfortunately, he leaves out arguably the crucial piece of the whole story – the details of the decision process behind the western countries’ choice not to get involved. The moral outrage at the world’s, particularly the UN’s and USA’s, decisions is justified, but sheds little light on why they chose to pursue such a weak and gutless policy. This is in contrast with one of my favourite books, David Halberstam’s “War In A Time Of Peace”, a book about the Yugoslavian conflict during the Clinton era, which does excellent job at explaining the nuts and bolts behind the American foreign policy in Yugoslavia – a policy with uncanny resemblance to the one employed in Rwanda.
At a certain point when the genocide was unwinding, the UNAMIR’s commander asked his superiors for more money and troops, fairly certain he could bring the genocide to a rapid halt with only 5000 soldiers. It seems that five thousand soldiers would have been enough to avert the murder of a million people. Naturally, the UN said no and instead slashed the intervention force down to 270 soldiers, a force unable to ensure its own safety, let alone protect the Tutsis. From now on, the Rwandans could be assured nobody in the world would help them in any way. What was the decision process behind such a ridiculous and cowardly move? The answer comes in the words of Bill Clinton, who summarized the whole US policy towards Rwanda and the refugee camps concisely: “We don’t want to look like chumps”. That’s the whole policy.
Come to think of it, the decision not to get involved is more than a bit puzzling. After all, the political risk of sending an intervention force (of 5000 soldiers) wasn’t really high at the moment – at least, nothing a determined and purposeful administration couldn’t handle. Of course, Clinton’s administration was anything but determined and purposeful – the whole US foreign policy about Yugoslavia or Africa was terribly incoherent and driven mostly by the fear of doing anything even slightly risky. Clinton was concerned more about winning the next election and keeping the domestic economy in reins – foregin affairs could wait. And, after all, Rwanda is some small distant country – and these Rwandans, are they really the same species of people as you and me? You’ve gotta be kidding.
An outrageous moral weak spot, lack of conscience, or plain incompetence as the world’s leader? Whatever the verdict, one wonders if things could have been different had Clinton been replaced with a politician of greater format. I don’t know the answer, but I find little comfort in observing that any country’s political system consistently filters out people with any empathy or moral sense. To make it to the top, you have to survive and win tough party infighting, engage in all kinds of scheming and manipulations – people who emerge from this process as the political leaders are more than likely to be psychopathic and devoid of any conscience. I should stress that in the case of Rwanda, in my opinion doing the “right thing” was more a matter of conscience and resolve than having the political calculations right – as mentioned above, the risk to US national interest was relatively small compared to the possible benefit, so there really was no legitimate reason not to act. The decision was more of a moral flaw than political necessity. Whether the society can grow political leaders of bigger moral frame, or more generally – is it possible to design a political system that results in politics slightly less immoral, is an interesting question in itself.
Much could be said here about how the UN seems to be a completely dysfunctional institution, how the West aggravated the situation in Africa by supporting any dictator, no matter how cruel or corrupt, who was seen as anti-Communist, or how this led to a similarly disastrous post-Cold War policy, with the “democracy” replacing “anti-Communism” as the new fetish etc. Instead of pursuing political analysis, Gourevitch concentrates on particular stories, raising interesting questions about guilt and moral responsibility or what post-genocide life looks like when your neighbour next door killed your whole family. This short review can’t do justice to the complex narrative Gourevitch presents, so really, go and read the book. I’m not sure, though, whether there are any lessons to be learnt from here – in view of the world leaders’ cluelessness, I’m rather certain that things similar to Rwanda (or labor camps, or Second Congo War, or insert your favourite atrocity here) will happen over and over and over again. Meanwhile, Rwanda remains an appalling shame for humanity. If anybody had doubts whether the Holocaust taught us anything, they have the answer on their plate now. Time for a cheese sandwich.