Thursday, May 30, 2013

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed…

Genocide in Rwanda, 1994

Rockport History Book Club meeting at the Rockport Public Library
7 p.m., Wednesday, May 29, 2013. Subject: Africa, 1900-2013

Gourevich, Philip, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda,   1998 New York, NY: Picador; Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 286pp.

            Philip Gourevich followed the killings in Rwanda in 1994 from afar; he began visiting the country in May 1995.
            "We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families" are the first words of a letter from seven Rwandan ministers to the senior minister in the Seventh Day Adventist church in the country.  He was alleged to have encouraged thousands of Tutsis to take refuge in his church, then participated in killing them.
            In the spring and summer of 1994 a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda.  Although the killing was performed largely by machete, it was carried out with alarming speed.  Of an original population of about 7,500,000 at least 800,000 were killed in just a hundred days.  Seventy-five per cent of the Tutsis in Rwanda died.
            Rwanda and Burundi are two small countries located right south of the Equator in the heart of Africa.  They’re very similar, in that the majority of their populations are Tutsis and Hutus.  These two tribes seem to really enjoy killing one another, and author Gourevich likens this historic struggle as that of Cain and Abel.  Abel was the herdsman, just like the Tutsis, and Cain was the farmer.  Abel won God’s regard; Cain did not.  Cain killed Abel.
            Rwanda is a Francophone country, and like most countries that were once French or Belgian colonies, the old French connection still is strong, both ways. 
            In 1990 a Rwandan rebel army based in (Anglophone) Uganda started  to cause trouble, raiding targets in Rwanda.  Because these Rwandans were coming from a former British colony, the French were disposed to believe that they were wrong, notwithstanding the fact that they opposed a despotic Rwandan regime, headed by President JuvĂ©nal Habyarimana.  He was a moderate Hutu.
            In Ruanda, Tutsis have traditionally been the superior, ruling class.  As a rule, their facial features are more Caucasian, with thinner lips and narrower, longer noses and straighter hair.  Hutus generally have more African features.  Tutsis made up about 14% of the Rwandan population, Hutus 85%, and Pygmies 1%.
            However, it is not that simple.  Hutus and Tutsis have often intermarried, and some Hutus look like Tutsis and vice versa.  Then there are moderate Hutus or Tutsis who look kindly upon the other tribe.  Many Hutus look upon the Tutsis as cockroaches, who should be eliminated.  Some Hutus actually believe that by eliminating all Tutsis they can achieve peace in the country.  Nazis seem to have had the same feeling about Jews—if they could just wipe them all out, life would be much better. 
            Rwanda is a beautiful country, with steep volcanoes, rolling hills, green jungle, sweeping savannahs…. banana plants everywhere. Much of the arable land is under cultivation, in one of Africa’s most heavily populated countries.  In the northeast there is the Kagera National Park, right along the border with Tanzania.  In the west is a large inland sea, Lake Kivu, that contains the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  To the north is Uganda, and to the south is Burundi.

            Gourevich tells his story by interviewing a number of people, and the story that spills out is one of constant bloodshed, killing on a massive scale that went on and on until some 800,000--- mostly Tutsis --- were dead, and their bodies stacked and strewn everywhere. Corpses rotting polluted rivers and lakes.
            One rather amazing interview takes place in Laredo, Texas, where Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana has gone after the genocide.  He is said to have been responsible for the death of some 4000 Tutsis, but he denies it all.  He invited thousands to take refuge in his church, and then allegedly participated in the killing of them all. 

            How did the killings of April 1994 start?  What caused them?  Gourevich notes that the promise of material gain and living space may have been a factor, but why hasn’t Bangladesh, or any other poor and terribly crowded place had a genocide?
            Consider all the factors, the author says.  The precolonial inequalities; the fanatically thorough and hierarchical centralized administration; the radical polarization under Belgian rule; the killings and expulsions that began with the Hutu revolution of 1959; the economic collapse of the late 1980s; Habyarimana’s refusal to let Tutsi refugees return; the attack of the Rwandan Patriotic Front from Uganda; the extremism of Hutu power; the massive importation of arms; the threat to the Habyarimana oligarchy posed by peace through power sharing and integration; the extreme poverty, ignorance, superstition, and fear of a cowed, compliant, cramped—and largely alcoholic—peasantry; the indifference of the outside world. 
            On the day in April, 1994 when President Habyarimana was flying into Kigali, his plane was shot down.  The sudden death of this moderate Hutu, leader of the country, was the trigger for the mass killings that followed for the next 100 days.
            After the massacres in April and May, the RPF swept down from Uganda and began capturing locations in the north of Rwanda.  The Hutu leadership in Kigali urged the whole Hutu population to flee, many in fear of being found guilty by this largely Tutsi RPF.  A half million fled across the northwest border to Goma, on the shores of Lake Kivu, in what was then Zaire, and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.  These refugees took up residence in tent cities on barren volcanic plains on the outskirts of Goma, which is a huge shanty town.   The stories that came out of this camp in Goma continued the tale of unbelievable squalor, filth, murder and death of many thousands from cholera.
            Most of these refugees were Hutu, and among them were some who had been the worst killers of the genocide. 
            Now, the United Nations, which had been quite silent and inactive during the genocide, sprang into action, sending millions of dollars worth of supplies, tents, blankets, and many, many of the ubiquitous white Land Rover vehicles loaded with well-meaning but often ineffective human rights workers.
            Also in the south of Rwanda was a large camp of “Internally Displaced Persons”, mostly Hutu refugees from all over the country.  This camp at Kibeho, not far from the southern border with Burundi, was one of a dozen, but Gourevich had opportunity to learn of the massive killings by Rwandan army guards, and by some Hutu residents of the camp. 
            At the time, and after, many in the U.S. and the rest of the world blamed President Clinton for his failure to take strong steps to end the genocide.  On March 25, 1998, Clinton became the first Western head of state to visit Rwanda since the genocide. He listened to stories from genocide survivors, then issued his apologies for refusing to intervene during the slaughter, and for supporting the killers in their camps.
            In Gourevich’s account, the guilty are everywhere—Catholic priests, Protestant preachers, foreigners, Rwandans.  There are also wonderful heroes and brave, generous people.  But on every page you can feel the blood splashing from flailing machetes as children get hacked to death. Women are raped, then murdered. Men submit to their death like sheep, without an effort to fight back.  Bodies pile up and the stench fills the air. 

            The whole story of the Rwandan genocide isn’t over. 


            Our History Book Club next meets Wednesday, June 26th  to discuss the History of Women’s movements 1900-2013.   This can be the story of women in Muslim countries, or about the impact of women on the labor market, women’s suffrage, Temperance and Prohibition, NOW,  Right to Life or Women’s Right to Choose, or about a particular leader for women.             
            We invite you to prepare a review of your book, but this is not school.  If you’d rather come and simply brief us on the high points without the detailed reviews you see here, that’s fine!  And if you’d like to just sit in and share in the discussion, you are most welcome.
            In July (7/31) we’ll read and discuss BRIC ['Brazil, Russia, India And China’ ] BRIC is an acronym for the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China combined. The general consensus is that the term was first prominently used in a Goldman Sachs report from 2003, which speculated that by 2050 these four economies would be wealthier than most of the current major economic powers.  Read about any of the four countries, or all.
            In August (8/28) we’ll read and discuss Modern Capitalism—Capitalism Chinese Style, Capitalism in emerging economies, How Capitalism has evolved in the West—your choice.
            In September (9/25):  America and its wars or near wars with European powers viz.: France, Spain and England.  Starts with the French and Indian War.  Takes in the Monroe Doctrine.  Could go all the way to the Spanish American War.
            October, (10/30): History of the North Shore.  This opens the way to looking at the rich history of the Gloucester fishing industry, Essex boat building, the fashionable summer resorts in Manchester and Magnolia at the end of the nineteenth century, etc.
            November (11/27):  Labor Movement in America 1900-2013.
            There will be no meeting in December.

            We meet the last Wednesday of each month.  Contact me if you’d like more information.

Sam Coulbourn  978-546-7138

Topics for the future--- add yours! 

History of life changing inventions
Tribalism in the 20th-21st cents.
Political corruption and its effects on government

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