How I Rwanda What You Are

by Theodore Dalrymple (August 2014)

If ever there were a competition for the most cynical remark ever made, I think François Mitterand’s at the beginning of genocide in Rwanda would stand a fair chance of winning. ‘In those countries down there,’ he is said to have said, ‘a genocide isn’t too important.’

I came across this uplifting sentiment in a book that I bought at the Shoah Memorial in Paris recently, Gêneurs de survivants! (Annoying Survivors!), by Dominique Celis, a half-Rwandan woman living in Belgium. There was an exhibition at the Memorial to mark the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, perhaps the most democratic of all Twentieth Century genocides, or at any rate the one with the greatest popular participation. There were photos, recorded testimonies, even a few videos of the massacres themselves, though not too many to sicken the sensitive or satiate the sadistic. There was a pile of clothes of the massacred, from which I thought I could detect a characteristic smell (I am familiar with the smell of massacre), but my wife said that it was in my imagination. There were the instruments of genocide, from scythes and machetes to home-made mallets with which to smash skulls.

The exhibition of the Hutu genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda – to call it Rwandan without qualification raises all kinds of problems – was small but effective. I am not sure what exactly one learned from it, however, other than it is necessary always for prudent people to keep available to the mind the worst of which Mankind is capable, if not always present in it. No worst, there is none, wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in another context, and, alas, the subsequent century was to prove him right. No worst, there is none: the pit is bottomless.

The genocide in Rwanda, long mooted and eventually planned in full, took place in a context in which a predominantly Tutsi rebel movement was trying to overthrow the Hutu government in Rwanda (and soon afterwards succeeded, of course). It would be surprising if the example of what had happened in Burundi twenty years earlier under a Tutsi government had had no effect on the minds of the Hutu majority in Rwanda, though in fact the rebel movement planned no such conduct on reaching power. Shortly before the genocide, moreover, the first democratically elected Hutu president of Burundi Melchior Ndadaye, had been assassinated by Tutsi soldiers after only three months in office. The fact that the first president of Rwanda after the victory of the rebels would be a Hutu, as would be many of the ministers, was unsuspected at the time.

Why was Burundi not mentioned in the exhibition? It was not that the exhibition excluded historical context altogether: for example, much was made of the colonising power’s strict division of the population into the racial categories of Hutu and Tutsi, much favouring the latter for educational and economic advancement. According to the exhibition’s version, there was no real division between them before this, though as it happens the Mwamis, or Kings, of both Burundi and Rwanda were always Tutsi.

Often we fear to explain human conduct, however, precisely because, try as we might to avoid it, explanation slides into exculpation. It is surely remarkable that so many books have been written about Rwanda that do not mention Burundi, except in passing as a destination for Rwandan refugees. This suggests either that the authors think that events in Burundi had no psychological effect upon Rwandan Hutu, or they fear that readers will excuse the inexcusable.

There was one further irony in the exhibition that went quite unremarked. It was that the Hutu government, before its overthrow, had a firm policy of positive discrimination, indeed it justified its existence in part by that very policy. Without this policy the Tutsi would have dominated education, administration and commerce, just as they did before the imposition of a numerus clausus in business, schools, universities, government offices, even in the Church (some of the upper clergy not only failed to condemn the genocide but actively encouraged it.)

I do not suppose that supporters of positive discrimination will care much for the analogy between what they propose and the policy of the last Hutu rulers of Rwanda, but it is there nonetheless. Naturally, the analogy is a strictly limited one, for not even the most fervent of positive discriminators outside Rwanda is in favour of genocide. Visitors to the United States who favour positive discrimination can therefore still answer truthfully the question on the entry form about whether they have ever committed or conspired to commit genocide. But what they cannot claim is to be is against racial discrimination – not that they are asked, yet. 



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