Sunday, July 27, 2008

"Just another African mess"

What? Rwanda. Not my words.

I just finished watching Shake Hands with the Devil, a docu-drama about the Rwandan genocide. I'm not all that discerning when it comes to technical aspects of film so I won't comment on any of that. I was just happy to see a perspective from someone who was inside it all. "Happy" is not exactly the right word, however, since I'll probably be depressed for a few days after seeing all that.

Here are the highlights, to me:

When the genocide happened in 1994, I was 15. A year or two later I picked Rwanda as my country in a model UN debate. I took matters seriously, and did my research. There was already enough internet at the time, and I already had enough access to it, to find quite a bit that hadn't filtered its way into the available literature yet.

What I found that interested me most was that the Hutu government was propped up by France, and the Tutsi rebels were propped up by the good old USA. My conclusion at the time was that this was essentially a sort of neo-colonial proxy war. Perhaps evidence that a lesson learned in Vietnam was "don't go there yourself, just find a way to get the locals to do it for you". (And before the Afghanistan lesson: train them, arm them, mobilize them, and then cut them off when you're done? Bad plan.)

Anyhow, in the intervening half of my life I more or less forgot about those discoveries, or when I remembered them assumed that they were probably a product of some youthful naivety. The movie, however, supported my teenaged assessment, and it's worth noting that protagonist Roméo Dallaire - the Canadian general whose autobiography it was based on - was deeply involved with the film project.

His perception was that France's involvement took the form of evacuating the Hutu government leaders who had planned the genocide, providing weapons to their militias, and then attempting to bail them out when it was apparent that they were going to lose to the Tutsi RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front). There is also an unsourced claim in Wikipedia to the effect that French troops were directly involved on the Hutu side. Dallaire didn't have much to say about RPF leader (and current Rwandan president) Paul Kagame. He did, however, note that the USA was resolute in not getting involved until after the RPF was in control of the country.

Read a bit of Paul Kagame's Wikipedia bio (fairly well sourced), and something very odd may stand out. A Tutsi, born in Rwanda, raised and schooled in Uganda, later fighting in the Ugandan National Resistance Army. In 1986 he helped form the RPF, became head of military intelligence of the NRA, and joined the Ugandan military. And then "In October 1990... Kagame was participating in a military training program at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas...." Yes, four years later he was suddenly training in a US army facility involved in "leader development, collective training, Army doctrine, and battle command." What the heck? On top of that he is alleged by investigative journalist Wayne Madsen to have ties with the CIA. (I can't comment on Madsen's credibility; he does seem to be widely read, but his involvement in blaming the Bush administration for 9/11 paints him as a bit of a radical to my mind.)

So Kagame gets military training in the USA, goes back to Rwanda to take the helm of the RPF, and then wrests control of the country from its French-backed government while the rest of the world stands back and watches. Hmmm. We don't need to believe in the CIA ties in order to be suspicious here.

But enough of that. Somewhat more poignant and personal are the events leading up to Dallaire's request to be relieved from command. Throughout the unfolding of the genocide he was prohibited from firing on anybody unless fired upon, which often frustrated his attempts to protect Tutsi refugees. This being a movie, I repeatedly found myself half-expecting and hoping for a Rambo moment where Dallaire and his UN cohort just forget their god-damned orders, break out the machine guns, kill the bad guys, and save everybody. But they never did.

After successfully shipping most of the Tutsi refugees out to RPF-controlled regions, Dallaire began taking care of some goats on base, just in order to keep something alive amidst the corpses that seemed to be piled on every street. MILD SPOILER: At the end of the film a pack of dogs attacked his goats. At this point he drew his pistol and emptied the clip at them, and if I'm not mistaken this was the only time he fired a gun in the entire movie. I realized then that he must have wanted his Rambo moment too, but he was too disciplined a man to ever humour such an idea. It was only when faced with something that he was allowed to shoot at that the discipline cracked, and he let it all out on some dumb animals.


Jun Okumura said...

I know nothing about the international politics behind the 1994 genocide. What I know about the case are some of the history and the demographic pressures underlying the Tutsi-Hutu conflict. The latter comes, if my memory hasn’t failed me again, from Jared Diamond’s collapse. In his 1992 book The Third Chimpanzee, Mr. Diamond also briefly mentions the 1962-63 killing of Tutsi by Hutu in Rwanda and the 1972-73 killing of Hutu by Tutsi in Burundi. The tragic legacy of colonialism? Or, would massacres have happened anyway regardless of how Africa got dragged into the modern age? A subject for alternate history novels.

Michael Reimer said...

The tragic legacy of colonialism? Or, would massacres have happened anyway regardless of how Africa got dragged into the modern age? A subject for alternate history novels.

I was thinking about this a bit, and it seems pretty clear that there was a little of each. Unfortunately the Wikipedia article on Rwanda's history is totally unsourced, but if we believe it then Tutsis were actually the old nobility, and Hutus their serfs. Which makes some sense given the 10%-90% distribution of the two. Anyway, there were smaller-scale killings happening for a long time, as you mention.

I feel that the colonial aspect altered the scale and level of organization. This is my speculation: The existence of a Tutsi nation outside of Hutu control was what made it possible for a second nation to get involved in the matter. So with the RPF initially set up in Uganda, the USA could jump in to train their leader and arm them (source for the latter - not sure how reliable, but I've seen that claim bandied about so much without rebuttal that I tend to believe it). Justifiable in some sense, since they were defending refugees. But then, allegedly, the USA assisted the RPF in assassinating Rwanda's Hutu president, which was what set things off. With France training and arming the other side, it's pretty clear that both became much more effective at killing one another and the result was predictable.