“Imagining” genocide

Rwandans living or travelling in the West must, I imagine, hate encountering the casual question, “So where are you from?” The answer will surely evoke either polite confusion or else impertinent enquiry. Were you (or your parents) among the killers or the victims, the interlocutor is too likely to wonder, so notorious is the Rwanda genocide brand. And are you a Tutti or a Frutti, or whatever they’re called? If I were Rwandan I would definitely make a habit of claiming to originate from Burundi—a place so few people outside of Africa have heard of that you could be fairly sure of keeping the conversation on an innocuous keel.

Having this year happened to become a temporary resident of Rwanda, I felt the need to situate myself with a bit of reading. And it’s impossible to get away from the genocide as the defining publishing event. So here’s my response to five of the most readily available texts—one ‘novel,’ one memoir, one work of ‘reportage’, one of journalistic analysis, one of scholarship. I review these in the order I read them. Four were written by white North American men, so there was a clear risk that they might say more about North American men, and their way of seeing, than about Rwanda. That’s certainly the case with the first, which disturbed me most but taught me least.


A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali
by Gil Courtemanche (Translated by Patricia Claxton)
Canongate (Edinburgh) 2003, 258 pp

Gil Courtemanche is a competent enough writer to construct some vivid sentences, and his sentiments in this work of reportage-cum-fiction appear impeccably liberal—full of moral indignation and barbed contempt for aid bureaucrats, diplomats, UN peacekeepers etc, who did nothing to prevent the 1994 genocide. An example from the opening scene, a few weeks before the killing starts in earnest:

Around the pool, Québécois and Belgian aid workers vie in loud laughter. The Belgians and Québécois aren’t friends: they don’t work together, even though they are working towards the same goal: ‘development.’ That magic word which dresses up the best and most irrelevant of intentions. The two groups are rivals, always explaining to the locals why their kind of development is better than the others’. [p. 3]

Although rather easy, this kind of critique is fair enough and perhaps helps explain how the book topped Québec’s best-seller lists for a year after its publication in 2000 and earned numerous plaudits including the Prix des Libraires du Québec.

The point of turning a genocide into an adventure story is, I guess, to reach distant readers who want to understand what happened but feel daunted by a work of ‘non-fiction.’ Indeed, while Courtemanche was penning his, genocide novels were becoming something of a fin de siècle literary genre: see, eg, Matthew Kneale’s engaging English Passengers (2000), which starts lightly enough but ends with imperial Britain’s decimation of aboriginal people in Tasmania in the late 19th century; or André Brink’s more relentlessly dark The Other Side of Silence (2002), which recounts the early 20th century slaughter, by imperial Germany, of the Herero and Namaqua peoples of South West Africa. Reading these, I had moments of serious doubt about, especially, the proffered ‘insights’ into the way the slaughtered people saw things. But these were events and places of which I previously knew next to nothing, and of which I might have remained ignorant had these books not appeared in my Christmas stocking. So the task of literary infotainment was more or less accomplished.

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, however, casts little light on events of which no semi-educated person could have remained entirely ignorant at the close of the 20th century. Worse, for all its surface political correctness, the book’s cultural subtext is far more offensive than anything written by, say, Conrad.

Courtemanche’s hero is Bernard Valcourt, a veteran Québécois journalist who has covered the Vietnam war, the Cambodian genocide and the 1984 Ethiopian famine. He has been in Rwanda for a couple of years and, although he doesn’t speak Kinyarwanda, he has somehow developed deep insight into Rwandan culture, politics and everything else.

He has also developed a passion for a 24 year old waitress at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, where he lodges. Fair enough, that happens to old hacks. Less plausibly, however, Gentille, the waitress, returns Valcourt’s affections. And thus begins a life-affirming affair, which is both a foil to the surrounding hate and gore and the literary vehicle for exploring it.

We learn through an account of Gentille’s family background how fluid the Hutu-Tutsi distinction is. Many families shifted identity over time. Hers is half Hutu and half Tutsi because a wise, Hutu great- grandfather had seen which way the wind was blowing and began to prepare a Tutsi identity for his descendants. His reasoning was that the European colonialists decided that the Tutsi minority were of ‘Hamitic’ descent—that is, were white or nearly white once upon a time— and therefore favoured them for development and re-civilisation. Tutsifying one’s family was thus a clever ruse—except that in the 1950s the wind changed direction: the colonial church and state began to sympathise with the Hutu masses (the overwhelming majority), who gained political power on the eve of independence in 1962.

This historical background is alright as far as it goes (which is not far), but it is not supported by any sense of Gentille as a real person. She’s just a pretty, soon-to-be-victim thing. We hear often enough how delightful her breasts are, the nipples pertly pushing up against various kinds of cloth. (A sure hint that later on they’re going to be sliced off with a machete). And we hear about other parts of her body. When sitting on a friend’s terrace one night, just after “The staccato sounds of a volley of gunfire cascaded down the neighbouring hill,” [87] Valcourt confesses his love and “As if in eruption, all the juices of life ran between her trembling thighs. An orgasm from tenderness and words.” [88] Hmmm. Being neither a woman nor experienced in courtship under fire I can’t say for sure if this is physically possible. But it doesn’t strike me as very likely.

Another spontaneous orgasm comes when Valcourt reads Gentille verses by Paul Éluard (1895-1952). Éluard is a favourite of mine too, but I’m inclined to doubt that his lyrics could be quite such a potent aphrodisiac. Gentille certainly gets addicted, though. When she can’t sleep at night she sits out on Valcourt’s hotel balcony reading Éluard. Naked. Makes for a prettily erotic picture, but not a convincing one. Do young Rwandan women really sit outside naked at night? I don’t think so. Too cold, for one thing.

And what exactly does she see in this old guy who, to judge by how often he is found drinking warm beer or “half-corked Côtes-du-Rhône,” almost certainly has a pot belly? (We have to guess that, because the text dwells on his body far less than on hers.) The answer, it seems, is that he tried a little tenderness. Life is so tough, so filled with hate, and everyone has used her so hard, that Gentille is overwhelmed by Valcourt’s gentillesse.

So much so that, when she ends up being imprisoned and repeatedly raped by a policeman, she notes in a journal—and what a clumsy literary device that is!—that:

I wanted to caress him [the rapist] the way Bernard taught me to, not to caress him but to close my eyes and bring back memories with the tips of my fingers. [243]

I don’t find that a convincing report of repeated rape. The message I’m getting, rather, is that it takes a Québecois to bring better sex and higher culture to darkest Africa—and so great are these gifts they can blot out any amount of local savagery.

Valcourt has a professional interest in sex because he is making a film about HIV/AIDS. (As did his creator, in real life.) We are therefore treated to quite extensive descriptions of the Rwandan sex trade. These often display chivalrous sympathy for the women and contempt for their clients (especially Belgian soldiers). Yet they also display something more like virile admiration for Cyprien, a tobacco vendor in the central market whose stated and all-but-accomplished aim in life is to bed every female stallholder, and who is also a regular visitor to low-end brothels.

Sex features as liberation too. Bizarrely, when Valcourt and Gentille publicly announce their engagement, Émérita, “a member of the fundamentalist Baptist church, dropped to her knees and intoned several verses from the Bible.” [152] A lifelong teetotaller, she then promptly downs a glass of champagne and willingly surrenders her virginity to the barman, Célestin, who has been harassing her for years. The next day she reports to Valcourt:

Freedom, that’s what making love is. And last night, with my legs wrapped around Célestin’s body, nearly squeezing the breath out of him, and with his sweat on my breasts, I felt freedom. And I thanked God for letting me sin. I told him that I loved him even more than before, but I’d keep my distance from his pastors who tell us all our troubles are part of the divine Order. I told God—I was talking to him while Célestin was tearing my little veil and torturing me, before giving me pleasure like I’d never had before—I told him that his churches were using his divine Word to make us accept the injustices being done to us and the death being planned for us. [156]

Wow! The novel is full of improbable, political speeches, but these can at least be seen as a clumsy effort to let Rwandans—or Courtemanche’s version of them—‘tell their own story.’ But this speech is on quite a different level. A fundamentalist Baptist is suddenly turned on to liquor, wanton sport and spouting half-baked existentialist claptrap to random foreigners. How could that be? Maybe it’s the magical influence of the only other book, alongside Éluard’s collected poems, that Valcourt brought with him to Rwanda: a collection of essays by Albert Camus.

All of this sex has the unfortunate consequence of high HIV prevalence. Valcourt ends up offering hospice facilities in his hotel room to Méthode, a bank clerk who has lived life to the full and is now dying of AIDS. In what seems like an anticipation of the fine film from Québec, The Barbarian Invasions (2003, directed by Denys Arcand), Méthode asks Valcourt and his buddies to ease him out with an ‘assisted death’. A Canadian nurse, Élise, supplies the morphine.

Before the lethal dose is administered, there has to be a life-affirming party. Buddies arrive with liquor and bar girls, one of whom is designated to give the bank clerk a final blow job. But Méthode is too near death to get it up. He requests instead that the woman sit on his face so that he can have a last drink from the life-bearing canal. His mother, a peasant woman from upcountry who has come to Kigali for the party, helps out. “Without a word, Mathilde undressed, and supported by his mother and Rapahël, applied her crotch to Méthode’s mouth.” [55]

This is preposterous. If I try really hard I can just about imagine some loopy, drugged-up, North American hippy mom participating in such a rite. Well, no, actually I withdraw that: I can’t. And I find it easier to imagine that the world is flat than to imagine a rural Rwandan mother, Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa, behaving like this.

The central problem here is that Courtemanche is inviting us to see a moral chaos which can be overwritten with any kind of story. Yet chaos is always in the eye of the beholder. The word fits most comfortably into the facile language of TV journalism: I’ve just landed, there’s a lot of shooting going, a lot of politics I can’t see, so it’s pretty chaotic, and it’s back to you in the studio, Kirsty. If you understand what’s going on, it’s not chaos, it’s just complicated. Courtemanche evidently does not understand what is going on; he’s just seeing an exciting background on which to paint a weird kind of wish-fulfilment porn.

An inescapable comparison is with Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955). Greene’s central character is Fowler, a 50-something, worn-out British journalist covering the Indochina (Vietnam) war, as Europe’s morally exhausted imperial powers prepare to pass the baton to the innocent Americans. Fowler is besotted with a 20 year old who fills his opium pipe and meets his sexual needs. We don’t learn anything about Phuong’s trembling thighs or life juices. Fowler does not introduce her to Auden or MacNeice. The narrative at no point tries to get ‘inside her head’—we see and hear only her gestures and her words. She is, clearly, both a sex object and a symbol of oriental ‘inscrutability’ and ‘passivity.’ Yet, for all that, she is a far more real person than Gentille, to the extent that when she forsakes sleazy old atheistic Fowler for a clean-living and God-fearing CIA youngster we can read this as a wrench for her, not just a predictable ‘cultural’ or mercenary reflex.

I am not sure what, if anything, to make of the fact that such a remarkable novel, pinpointing a fulcrum of history long before the world at large had noticed, came out of a time when news from far off places still reached us largely through newspapers. (Does all of today’s relentlessly chaotic TV footage in fact in some way encourage us to read anything we want into the pictures?) I am fairly sure, though, that if the world does not return to mass illiteracy, The Quiet American will still be read a century from now. Whereas, if I am the last person ever to read A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali it will be a fate well deserved.


Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire
Arrow (London) 2004, 562 pp.

Roméo Dallaire commanded the UN peace-keepers sent to Rwanda in September 1993 to oversee an unpromising cease-fire and political accord. He and his troops ended up witnessing genocide. One might expect Dallaire’s account, written ten years later, to work hard at exculpating himself and shifting the blame. To some extent it does; yet it reads as a painfully honest, and therefore credible, account.

The main mark of honesty is the lack of any systematic or successful attempt to conceal an unfortunate quality of indecisiveness in the commander. At several key points when his own instinct was to act firmly—and when, on the analysis he presents here, he could have done so without flouting his mandate—he instead called New York for orders. He was invariably told to sit back and do nothing. For Dallaire’s own sake as well as for Rwanda’s, one wishes that he’d had the confidence to consult New York less. A court martial and jail term would have been preferable to what he has suffered since.

Indecision appears from the outset, in a short preface (which is stylistically so different from the rest of the text that it may be the only section written without the aid of research assistants.) Here we learn that, following the mission, the commander suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and attempted suicide. We also learn that during the writing his main research assistant became depressed and did in fact kill herself. And we learn that Dallaire had trouble deciding who to dedicate his book to. He deals with the quandary by dedicating it simultaneously to his family, to all the families of those who served with him in Rwanda, “to the Rwandans, abandoned to their fate, who were slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands,” to the 15 UN peacekeepers who died under his command, and to Sian Cansfield, the dead researcher. It’s the kind of decision that might be taken by a UN committee.

Dallaire was dealt an almost impossible hand. He was first sent to Rwanda in August, 1993, to assess what it would take to monitor implementation of a peace and power sharing agreement signed two months before in Arusha. He proposed a force of 5,000 well-trained and equipped troops. But, preoccupied with the Balkans and stung by a recent peacekeeping debacle in Somalia, the UN Security Council decided to send barely more than 2,000 men, equipped with a small fleet of clapped-out armoured personnel carriers.

Nevertheless, Dallaire disarmingly admits, he was proud to at last have a command of his own—for this had been his dream ever since lining up toy soldiers in a Montreal sand pit in the 1950s. As a young officer cadet he had a few tense moments in the 1970s, when the Canadian army was deployed, at the height of Québecois demands for independence, to keep the peace by pointing guns at angry civilians. (Dallaire sees this as a test of conscience and commitment—for he was a lower middle class francophone serving a predominantly anglophone ‘upper Canadian’ state. This, he implies, also helped him understand the rifts in Rwandan society.) But, in the main, he rose to high rank in Canada’s peaceable military through a series of managerial roles such as directing the army’s equipment and research programme, “a job I relished, since once of the overwhelming problems facing the Canadian military was the lack of expenditure and rational plan for the acquisition of the systems we needed to remain operational.” [37] The plans he conscientiously developed were basically ignored—just as his recommendations were ignored in Rwanda.

The UN force Dallaire eventually commanded included a substantial contingent of Bangladeshi soldiers, most of whom spoke neither English nor French and who arrived with nothing—sent by a government, Dallaire implies, that was mainly concerned to divest itself of responsibility for feeding them. He soon suspects that, when ordered out on a mission, the Bangladeshis are driving out of the camp, parking round the corner, lying low for a couple of hours and then coming back saying they couldn’t get past the roadblocks erected by local militias. When the bloodshed began in earnest, the Bangladeshi government insisted that their men be kept out of harm’s way. Commander Dallaire was never entirely in command even of his own force.

So too with a smaller Belgian contingent. They at least arrived with weapons and ration-packs, but also with the political baggage of the former colonial masters. They refused to stay in an army camp because Belgian protocol considered it humiliating for Belgian troops on African soil to lower themselves by sleeping in mere tents. So they filled up the hotels around town. And then they partied:

My staff soon caught some of them bragging at the local bars that their troops had killed over two hundred Somalis and they knew how to kick “nigger” ass in Africa.” [113]

The Belgians were constantly being caught out of bounds in nightclubs that had been restricted for their own safety. They drank on patrol and got into barroom brawls, seemingly taking their cue from the French troops [sent to support the government in the civil war] who went dancing and drinking . . . with their personal weapons. One night, several drunken Belgian soldiers completely trashed the lobby of the Mille Collines, which was Kigali society’s favourite watering hole . . . There were Belgian soldiers who went absent without leave into Zaire and got up to heaven knows what . . .” [183]

Inside Rwanda what they got up to certainly included “fraternising with Tutsi women” as Dallaire primly puts it. [183] This led to the local press publishing “obscene cartoons that implied that I, too, was involved in such behaviour.” [184] Next:

A group of Belgian soldiers in civilian dress forced their way into the home of one of the heads of the extremist CDR party, Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, and assaulted him in front of his family. The CDR had close links to the RTLM [a notorious Hutu ‘hate-radio’ station] which often carried negative stories about the Belgians. The soldiers badly beat the politician on his own doorstep and, just before they left, one of them aimed a gun at his head and warned him that if he or his party or the local media ever again insulted or threatened Belgium, Belgian expatriates or the Belgian contingent of UNAMIR, they would return and kill him. Barayagwiza immediately went public and wiped out any of the hard-won public sympathy we had achieved . . .” [184]

Yet when the going got really tough, the Belgian government ordered its well-armed hooligans home.

This left Dallaire heavily dependent on a couple of hundred Ghanaian troops and a few dozen Tunisians. He repeatedly praises both contingents for their courage and discipline. Those accolades were likely deserved—and, if true, it’s an important truth that African troops did a more professional job than men from other continents. Yet Dallaire’s praise is undermined by how much of himself he has already revealed to us: those tales of toy warriors deployed across the living room floor. He must have so much wanted to make speeches about soldierly valour. He needed someone, in this horrible mess, to praise.

If the tools for the job were hardly adequate, the task itself was daunting, for the peace agreement was built on less than firm foundations.
The Arusha accords established an immediate ceasefire between the (overwhelmingly Hutu) government’s Rwanda Defence Forces and Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) fighters drawn mainly from Tutsi exiles whose families had fled the country during pogroms in 1959 and 1963, when political power was transferring from Tutsi to Hutu. For thirty years, the government of Rwanda showed no inclination to allow them back. In October 1990 an armed group of exiles entered the country from Uganda, where many of them had grown up and gained military experience by enlisting with Yoweri Museveni’s guerrilla National Resistance Army, which fought its way to power in 1986.

At first, Rwandan government and French troops easily repelled the RPF offensive, inflicting heavy casualties. The RPF military commander, Fred Rwigyema, was among the first to fall. But then the command went to Paul Kagame, who Dallaire describes as “possibly one of the greatest practitioners of manoeuvre warfare in modern military history.” [288] (More indecisiveness: why the double qualification: “possibly one of?”) Kagame regrouped, expanded and trained the RPF in the inhospitable terrain of the Virunga volcanoes, led assaults against military positions, steadily occupied slivers of the north and, by 1993, looked well placed to take over the country, if only the French would go away.

The Arusha accords proposed a transitional government in which the ruling party and the RPF would each have five cabinet seats, and a further eleven would be distributed across a constellation of recently-created, internal opposition parties. The national army would be reconstituted in a ratio of 60:40 of original government troops and RPF fighters. This was—to anticipate somewhat the analysis of the last of the five books considered here—a massive win on paper for the RPF, a massive power give-away by the government of Juvénal Habiryama and, at the same time, a clear opening for Hutu factions who were bitterly opposed to ceding so much to the RPF. With hindsight, the Arusha agreement looks no more likely to secure lasting peace than the Treaty of Versailles, and in the event none of its provisions were implemented.

Dallaire admits—with, again, disarming honesty—that when first contacted with news of his command, he didn’t know where Rwanda was. Mugging up on the place was made difficult by the daily demands of the UN system, which “forced [him] to fight a petty internal war over vehicles and office supplies.” [107] He is too prim to say outright that he couldn’t abide Per Hallqvist, the Norwegian UN logistician who “made it clear to me that he was a stickler for process and that he expected it to take upwards of six months before UNAMIR’s administrative and logistical support system was fully functional.” [99] By then nearly a million people would be dead.

The Lt-General makes less effort to conceal his contempt for the UNAMIR (UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda) political head, Jacques-Roger Booh Booh (a former Cameroonian diplomat and friend of then UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali):

A proper gentleman who kept diplomatic working hours . . . rarely in his office before ten, took a full two-hour lunch and left the office before five. He made it clear he was not to be tracked down and disturbed on the week-ends unless there was a dire emergency. He seemed to bring nothing new to the table in the way of expertise on Rwanda, knowledge of the conflict, familiarity with the Arusha accords, or skill at identifying and dealing with the political intrigues of the nation.” [118]

And when the flow of blood became a torrent, Booh Booh simply ran away.

So there was Dallaire, doing his level best not just to keep his troops fed, sober and mobile, not just to observe and keep the peace, but also running round the country trying to nudge the two sides towards keeping to the Arusha timetable. Farcically, he ended up serving as an interpreter in several meetings between francophone Rwandan army chiefs and anglophone RPF leaders.

In January 1994, Dallaire received credible evidence that a mass slaughter was being planned. An officer in the Presidential Guard, hoping to receive safe passage into “a friendly Western nation,” revealed that death squads were being trained, lists of victims drawn up, and weapons cached at various points around Kigali. (When Dallaire later shared this information with Western diplomats in Kigali, “None of them appeared to be surprised, which led me to conclude that our informant was merely confirming what they already knew.” [148]). On first receiving the information, however, Dallaire immediately “made the decision to go after the weapons caches. I had to catch these guys off guard, send them a signal that I knew who they were and what they were up to . . . it was well within my mandate and capabilities.” [144]

Before doing so, however, he sent a cable “informing New York of my intentions,” partly, it seems, to cover his back in case this was some kind of elaborate trap. Kofi Annan, the head of UN peacekeeping operations at the time, immediately instructed him on no account to take action. Instead, in order to demonstrate neutrality, he was told to pass on the information he had received to none other than President Habyarimana. And thus was lost a—perhaps, who knows, only slight—chance of nipping the genocide in the bud. Kofi Annan bears the major responsibility for this catastrophic omission, but Dallaire is still “haunted” by his “failure to persuade New York to act.” [147]

Over the next three months sporadic violence against Tutsis spread while the most extreme forces in the Hutu political structure steadily won ground. On April 6, Habyarimana’s plane was shot down as he returned from a meeting in Tanzania. According to most evidence, including a recent ruling by a French court following a detailed investigation, the missile came from the government’s army base: this was an extremist coup. Within hours, the presidential guard began assassinating moderate Hutu political leaders, and then the Hutu militias set about the mass slaughter of Tutsis—a process that did not stop until Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front resumed its offensive and, within a couple of months, established control over most of the country.

Speaking to New York on April 7, Dallaire, who had frequently wanted at least to fire warning shots over the heads of marauding mobs, was told “UNAMIR is not, repeat not, to fire unless fired upon.” [229] Eight days later, when the scale of the ensuing massacre was beginning to penetrate the UN bureaucratic fog, he received a cable from New York saying “In the abnormal circumstances prevailing, these orders [to do nothing unless shot at] may be overridden at the discretion of the . . . FC [Force Commander], for humanitarian reasons.” [299] Not surprisingly, Dallaire “felt sickened as I read.” Nausea at the bureaucratic backpedalling was in itself understandable. For Dallaire, it must surely have been infected with the thought that, had he exercised a “prerogrative to take offensive action for humanitarian reasons” he might have saved many lives and won the argument later.

By now it was too late, because the Security Council decided that the peace agreement had broken down irretrievably and therefore the UN force should withdraw altogether. The US government of Bill Clinton and the UK government of John Major led the way in arguing that the best plan was to do nothing.

The UN sent Dallaire on one last wild goose chase, to look for Hutu ‘moderate’ leaders (who by then had all been killed) and try to broker a ceasefire between the RPF and the Rwandan army, much of which was already fleeing, along with the orchestrators of the genocide, to Zaire. The dutiful soldier tried his best, before finally cracking up and shooting at scavenging dogs that were pestering his pet goats in the UN compound.

It feels almost tasteless, given the scale of the Rwandan holocaust, to dwell much on the lot of just one protagonist, but my heart went out to this rather prim and pompous but evidently kind and decent man.


We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
byPhilip Gourevitch
Picador (New York) 1998, 356 pp

“[T]his is a book about how people imagine themselves and one another—a book about how we imagine our world,” its preface tells us [6]. Oh dear, I thought, steeling myself for a hefty dose of ‘postmodern’ literary conceit. The word ‘narrative’ would doubtless speckle the text.

The first chapter finds Gourevitch tramping around Nyarubuye church in 1995, a genocide memorial site where massacred corpses were left to rot into testimonial skeletons. He examines his own feelings as he accidentally treads upon and crushes a human skull. And he invites us to admit that we are accessories in this act of ghoulish voyeurism:

Like Leontius, the young Athenian in Plato, I presume that you are reading this because you desire a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. [p. 19]

I was tempted at this point to plead innocence and close the book forever. (Leontius! Give us a break! And I’m actually only reading this because I happened to pitch up in Rwanda, Pip!) I soldiered on partly because Gourevitch’s own family were Nazi holocaust refugees—which, I had to admit, contextualises his voyeurism—but mainly because there were signs of intelligence, not just erudition, beginning to break through the Platonic veil of fine writing.

One virtue of the book is that, once settled in, Gourevitch tells the story through testimony from just a handful of survivors. (Mostly now doing rather well; but he does make the effort also to track down and talk to perpetrators, including an Adventist priest who received the doleful handwritten note from which the book takes its title, who apparently responded by guiding the militias toward their victims, and who later ran away to America where he was, at Gourevtich’s writing, living in material if not moral comfort). This approach is more intimate and coherent than trying to grapple with the whole, and it is competently delivered.

Gourevitch has also read enough to begin placing the events of 1994 in historical context, which he does quite elegantly (in Chapter 4) without making too many demands on the reader’s attention. Historians, of course, might justly complain that where there’s no pain, there’s no gain. Gourevitch tells us, for example, that Rwanda has a long record of the ‘orderly’ neatness and social organisation that visitors find today —and which outside commentators too readily now ascribe to the ‘authoritarian’ or, more generously, ‘effective’ nature of the Kagame government. This seems a relevant observation to me, but also, without further analysis, a rather risqué one: for it invites a cultural template story—of a kind that is still, oddly, intellectually permissible in an officially post-racist world—to help explain the genocide: people were just doing what they were told, as usual, because obedience was their cultural default mode. Not far down that road lies a world of stagnant, ‘timeless’, ‘mediaeval’ oriental and African culture, inured to despotism and needing to be energised by a good dose of European enlightenment: precisely the world that European imperialism ‘discovered.’

Talking of which, Gourevitch gives too much weight to John Hannington Speke in authoring the racist, ‘Tutsis are Hamitic’ thesis. Those 19th century pith helmeted explorer chaps were, surely, only ‘confirming’ instances of the general race theories spawned by the ‘Enlightenment.’ But Speke was a colourful and energetic racist, and journalists need colourful characters, so Speke ends up as spekesperson for the then prevailing, white worldview.

With at least some historical background, and the foreground of multiple visits and interviews, Gourevitch easily dismisses “theories of collective madness, mob mania, a fever of hatred erupted into a mass crime of passion . . . the blind orgy of the mob . . .” [17] as in any way explaining or even describing the genocide. Like many other commentators, he points to the fact that it was implemented as “work”; gangs slaughtered in the mornings, went home for lunch, and then back to work in the afternoon. Instead of frenzy, he argues compellingly that “it required a dogged uphill effort for Habyarimana’s extremist entourage to prevent Rwanda from slipping toward moderation.” [95] In place of the ‘mass bloodletting’ account, he arrives at his own genocide thesis:

Genocide, after all, is an exercise in community building. A vigorous totalitarian order requires that the people be invested in the leader’s scheme, and while genocide may be the most perverse and ambitious means to this end it is also the most comprehensive. In 1994, Rwanda was regarded in much the rest of the word as the exemplary instance of the chaos and anarchy associated with collapsed states. In fact the genocide was the product of order, authoritarianism, decades of modern political theorizing and indoctrination, and one of the most meticulously administered states in history. And strange as it may sound, the ideology—or what Rwandans call “the logic”—of genocide was promoted as a way not to create suffering but to alleviate it. The spectre of an absolute menace that requires absolute eradication binds leader and people in a hermetic utopian embrace, and the individual—always an annoyance to totality—ceases to exist. [ 95]

This is thoughtful and there may be sense in it—although the emphasis on a ‘totalitarian’, ‘authoritarian’ and ‘meticulously organised’ state tends to suggest that the ghost of Nazi Germany, as well a dash of cultural determinism, are colouring the analysis.

The significant added value and interest of Gourevitch’s book, though, is that it goes beyond the genocide to consider events unfolding as he wrote, in the late 1990s. This forces him into acts not just of political imagination but of political judgment.

Poor Lt-General Dallaire devoted a lot of space and suppressed rage to the immediate aftermath of the genocide. While the UN Security Council dithered, France burst centre stage with a ‘humanitarian’ Operation Turquoise to establish a protected zone in the west of the country, along the border with Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) towards which the Rwandan army and genocide perpetrators were fleeing the advance of Kagame’s forces. The ostensible aim of the French ‘operation’ was to prevent a counter-massacre. Its effect was to guarantee safe passage for the killers. Well over a million people made their way into camps across the border into the DRC, where UN agencies and NGOs received and succoured them. While Kagame’s forces took control of a devastated and depopulated country, the command structures of the ousted regime and militias were preserved intact within the camps. While fed and supplied by ‘the international community’, the political leadership in these camps not only plotted and dreamed of recapturing power in Rwanda but also launched forays within the DRC to terrorise and eliminate Tutsi farming families who had settled there many generations previously.

Dallaire was writing about these events in the early 2000s. Gourevitch, with less benefit of hindsight, did not shrink from exercising judgement at a time when many international NGOs and media—bowing to the gods of ‘human rights’ and ‘balance’—were still spreading and equalising blame with an ‘atrocities on both sides’ story that underpinned “the logic” of Operation Turquoise and the humanitarian effort to aid the génocidaires. Gourevitch accurately captures and implicitly rejects this moral comfort zone:

The safest position is the human rights position, which measures all regimes on a strictly negative scale as the sum of their crimes and abuses: if you damn all offenders and some later mend their ways, you can always take credit for your good influence. [188]

And he bars no holds in describing the “unbearable” spectacle of:

. . . hundreds of international humanitarians being openly exploited as caterers to what was probably the single largest society of fugitive criminals against humanity ever assembled.

Aid agencies provided transportation, meeting places, and office supplies to the RDR [Rassemblement Democratique pour la Retour, a front organisation of genocide leaders] and paramilitary groups that masqueraded as community self-help agencies; they fattened the war coffers of the Hutu Power elites by renting trucks and buses from them, and by hiring as refugee employees the candidates advanced through an in-house patronage system managed by the génocidaires. Some aid workers even hired Hutu Power pop star Simon Bikindi—lyricist of the interahamwe anthem “I hate these Hutus” [intended to inspire dread of the Tutsi threat]—to perform with his band at a party. In the border camps in Tanzania, I met a group of doctors, recently arrived from Europe, who told me how much fun the refugees were. “You can tell by their eyes who the innocent ones are,” said a doctor from—of all places—Sarajevo. And a colleague of hers said, “They wanted to show us a video of Rwanda in 1994, but we decided it would be too upsetting.” [266-7]

Nevertheless, Gourevitch does due diligence in investigating allegations of Tutsi atrocities, and finds charges that stick. Kagame at the time was pressing the UN to close the camps so that the refugees could return to Rwanda and be integrated into the ‘one-nation’ society he was seemingly determined to create—although for many fugitives this would mean facing either judicial or reconciliation tribunals, depending on their degree of guilt. When the UN prevaricated as usual, Kagame sent in Rwandan troops to close those camps that had been established within Rwandan territory. For the most part, Gourevitch finds, this was done peacefully enough. But there were abuses and, in one instance a serious massacre, of perhaps several hundred people, which Gourevitch painstakingly documents through eye-witness reports. He is clear, though, that this ‘human rights abuse’ did not even begin to suggest any moral ‘equivalence’ in ‘bloodletting.’

Does this make him partisan? The following portrait of Paul Kagame does border on panegyric:

He always sounded so soothingly sane, even when he was describing, with characteristic bluntness, the endless discouragements and continued anguish that surely lay ahead. He spoke of all the woes of his tiny trashed country as a set of problems to be solved, and he seemed to relish the challenge. He was a man of rare scope—a man of action with an acute human and political intelligence. It appeared impossible to discover an angle to the history he was born into and was making that he hadn’t already reckoned. And where others saw defeat, he saw opportunity. He was, after all, a revolutionary; for more than fifteen years, his life had consisted of overthrowing dictators and establishing new states in the harshest of circumstances.

Because he was not an ideologue, Kagame was often called a pragmatist. But that suggests an indifference to principle and, with a soldier’s stark habits of mind, he sought to make a principle of being rational. Reason can be ruthless, and Kagame, who had emerged in ruthless times, was convinced that with reason he could bend all that was twisted in Rwanda straighter, that the country and its people truly could be changed—made saner; and so better—and he meant to prove it. The process might be ugly: against those who preferred violence to reason, Kagame was ready to fight, and, unlike most politicians, when he spoke or took action, he aimed to be understood, not to be loved. So he made himself clear, and he could be remarkably persuasive. [224-225]

This seems tinged with a young reporter’s awe—spiced too, perhaps, with a dash of satisfaction at his own access to big men. (He also had good access to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who he treats with similar respect.) But Gourevitch is not just star-struck here. “A soldier’s stark habits of mind.” That’s a perceptive phrase. More importantly, he shows insight into “the continued anguish that surely lay ahead.”

One issue he confronts is the influx of Tutsi exiles returning from Uganda, DRC, Tanzania, Europe, Canada, the USA. Many were arriving with bright ideas, some with bright coins to invest in rebuilding a new version of the nation. Not surprisingly, though, Gourevitch found that Hutus who strenuously denied any involvement in the genocide felt a bit left out of the forward plan. So, it seems, did many of the genocide survivors, who found themselves regarded as ‘traumatised,’ not quite balanced enough to assume duties of office, needing ‘psycho social counselling’ instead.

Diasporan Rwandans have continued to return, bringing administrative and managerial skills that are in clear demand. It is not easy for the outsider to get much sense of the composition of this influx. For, while earlier post-independence regimes maintained the colonial practice of issuing identity cards that classified people as Hutu or Tutsi, the ruling party line now expressly disavows any notion of difference: everyone is simply Rwandan and further enquiry is, if not quite prohibited, definitely frowned upon.

A ‘one nation, one people, one citizenship’ story was perhaps the only kind the post-genocide government could begin to tell. Yet, granted that Hutu and Tutsi identities were burnished into divisive significance by European imperial greed, narcissism and stupidity, they surely can’t be dissolved by an act of political imagination without, at least, demonstrable delivery of equal rights and opportunities.

By nearly all accounts, Kagame’s government has done well both in growing the economy and in making sure that the rising tide lifts all boats to at least some extent. Yet a half-hour drive round Kigali nonetheless reveals the familiar hallmarks of an elite building comfortable nests.

Who are the nest-builders? I don’t know. However, in April this year, while reading Gourevitch’s book, I picked up a shard or two of local perspective from less privileged folk by tagging along with a ‘genocide memorial march’ through our upper-crust neighbourhood. (Conjugal circumstance has placed me in a street once known as the ‘Avenue de Ministres.’ Ours is a spacious but relatively modest bungalow with dysfunctional plumbing; much like the one, a couple of blocks away, where Roméo Dallaire stayed during his unhappy residence. But along the avenue some distinctly ostentatious mansions are sprouting out of the red earth, backing on to the lawns of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As far as I know, public service salaries are now too low, and opportunities for graft too few, for these to be ministerial residences. But it’s clear enough that there’s a fair bit of money about our neighbourhood.)

Genocide memorial marches are now an established part of an annual, 100 day period in which the events of 1994 are commemorated and reflected upon. Major employers, public and private, organise their own events, as does every neighbourhood. Ours comprised a kilometre trudge from the local ‘cell’ headquarters, newly built on a patch of land quite a way downhill from the Avenue de Ministres, to the nearest memorial site (a school campus where hiding Tutsi families were slaughtered). Prayers and speeches there were followed by a more disorderly romp back to the cell HQ, where more speeches would be rounded off by an all-night bonfire, flames being a symbol of mourning. I didn’t stay for the second round of speeches, partly because they were all in Kinyarawanda—a language of which I remain entirely ignorant—but also because I didn’t much like the style of an evangelical preacher who assumed the podium early on. You didn’t need any Kinyarwanda to recognise the Bible-thumping style. And where were he and his Bible, I couldn’t help wondering, while the killing went on.

During the initial trudge I was befriended by several pleasant young men who spoke a smattering of English or French. They were not well-heeled enough to pace the atriums of the nouveau rich mansions, appearing more representative of the downhill classes who made up the ‘masses’ that day. I was interested in the fact that altogether we numbered rather less than 200 people, which didn’t feel many to me. Yes, they agreed, numbers were disappointing, very low, it was a real shame. (None, however, was able to give a confident estimate of our neighbourhood catchment area: guesses started at 5,000 people—which would mean that our commemorative march captured less than 5% of the local populace). Every house had received a photocopied notice appealing, in a mixture of English, French and Kinyarwanda, for “funds, ideas and participation” in the event. (This was the flyer that mobilised me). What about all the big houses we were trooping past, I enquired, where were their occupants? “They’re all too busy,” said one of my new friends. “They weren’t here during the genocide,” said another.

Is the ongoing process of capital and class formation evenly distributed between Tutsi and Hutu? I don’t know. But it seems like a relevant question to ask.


A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth And The Man Who Dreamed It
by Stephen Kinzer
Wiley (New Jersey) 2008, 380 pp

By now I’ve got the gist and, unless Kinzer offers a radically different reading of the genocide, all I can pick up here is additional anecdote. His story does not in fact differ much in detail from those of Dallaire (whose book he quotes at length) or Gourevitch, but he takes us ten years further forward and weaves in a biography of Paul Kagame, who he interviews and quotes copiously.

This makes for a very large canvas that is covered in a punctiliously accessible style—more Newsweek than New York Review of Books—which makes it a quick and easy read, but also a rather shallow one. I experienced moments of nostalgia for Gourevitch’s fine writing.

The portraits that emerge—of Kagame and the national “re-birth” he “dreamed”—are highly sympathetic, indeed admiring, and at times breathless. Yet this is offset by a frequent reflex of ceding ground to opposing views. For example, in the closing chapter, Kinzer discusses whether groups like Human Rights Watch are unfair in their relentless critiques of ‘human rights abuses’ in Rwanda under Kagame. He initially concludes:

Rwandan leaders have sought to shape a governing system that meets their country’s unique needs in an unimaginably delicate period. Under the umbrella of authoritarian rule, they have stabilized their country and set it on a path toward a better future. That is what ordinary Rwandans care about. They have little interest in politics or ideology. Most sense that their lives are slowly improving. They are happy that President Kagame has centralized so much power in his own hands and are not fearful that he is becoming a dictator. [331]

That seems unequivocal even if one may legitimately wonder how Kinzer knows what “ordinary Rwandans care about,” given the amount of time he spends assembling a cast of foreign enthusiasts as key witnesses: “Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor . . . Kevin Terry, British-born mining engineer . . . Tim Schilling, agronomist from Texas . . . Peter Shchonherr, ambassador of the Netherlands . . . Alicea Lilly, director of a project to protect Rwanda’s mountain gorillas . . . Raj Rajendran, Indian-born businessman.” [3-4] Applause also comes from evangelical American Christians (who Kagame seems to welcome, or at least not much to mind), numerous Western business leaders and pundits who consider Kagame an exemplar of ‘leadership,’ and “almost every non-Rwandan in Rwanda” [333]. Perhaps this is a tactical move: writing for a middle-brow American readership, Kinzer maybe thinks they will find such sources more credible than the rabble of “ordinary Rwandans” who can only “sense” that things are getting better.

In addition to Kagame’s, the Rwandan opinion Kinzer cites on these matters comes largely from a few individuals, such as the returned émigré owner of La Republika, a “chic” restaurant whose 2004 opening “may be seen as a turning point in Rwanda’s modern social history.” (314—an example of Kinzer’s breathless streak.) In her view:

People need to understand that if there are controls in terms of security it’s because of what happened in 1994. We need it. We want it. We’re happy, so leave us alone. I’m not even remotely political, but Rwanda is free and secure. That’s all I require, so who is human-rights whatever to tell me I’m not free?” [331]

She may be “arrestingly statuesque” and “impeccably stylish, with eyes that sparkle even more brightly than the silver bracelets she favours” [312], but hers is, by definition an elite, returnee view, not necessarily representative of “ordinary Rwandans.”

And only two pages after telling us what ordinary Rwandans care about, Kinzer delivers a counter-punch in the quoted words of “one former cabinet minister”:

Hutu resistance has floundered up to now for reasons related to the genocide. It’s easy to say ‘Those génocidaires! ’ But with time that will seem a flimsy argument. There is intense resistance in Rwanda—not publicly, but in the minds of people. If avenues are closed, there will be violent change at some time.” [333]

Kinzer seems to endorse this view, at least to the extent that he repeatedly mentions the risk of future conflagration. (“Huge numbers of onetime killers and their supporters live [in Rwanda] . . . In this climate, permitting European-style democracy would be sheer folly.” [337]) But he can’t have it both ways. Either ordinary Rwandans are gratefully following their leader, or huge numbers have minds filled with “intense resistance.” Not both.

A similar ambiguity runs through the whirlwind coverage of events in the closing years of the 20th century. The refugee/fugitive camps across the border in Zaire/DRC gave the ousted regime a base for launching a counter-offensive. The UN, ‘international community’ and Zaire’s then president, the avaricious dictator Mobutu, showed no inclination to disarm and dismantle the camps, so Kagame took on the job, sending in troops to partner with a Congolese rebel warlord of long standing, Laurent Kabila. Their combined force attacked the camps, routed the armed resistance and sent at least 550,000 Hutu refugees walking back to their former homes in Rwanda. The Kabila-Rwanda force then marched a thousand kilometres to Kinshasha, deposed Mobutu and installed Kabila as president of a new Democratic Republic of Congo.

This was nothing if not audacious and for a while it ensured a Kinshasa government sympathetic to Rwanda under Kagame. But the honeymoon was short. Within less than a year Kabila “switched sides. He would not have come to power without help from Rwanda, but after a remarkably short time in office he turned against his patrons and embraced their sworn enemies.” [206] He allowed and probably abetted the former Rwandan army and militias to regroup on the Rwandan border. From there, “more than thirty thousand insurgents” [207] poured back into Rwanda, plunging the north of the country back into a gruesome civil war of several years’ duration.

In response, in 1998, Kagame sent a punitive military expedition into the DRC, initially in alliance with Ugandan forces. But this did not go well. This time they met fierce resistance from Kabila’s army, supported by troops from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe. “Most unexpectedly, allied Rwandan and Ugandan forces turned against each other and fought battles around the prized Congolese city of Kisangani.” [211] Rivalry to control the region’s precious minerals was the presumed reason for those battles. The invading forces did not leave the DRC until 2002, following the assassination of Laurent Kabila and the accession to the presidential throne of his son, Joseph, who “turned out to be a skilful conciliator.” [218]

These events are sketched only in brief outline, but leave Kinzer in no doubt that Kagame’s troops committed “gross human rights violations” [215] in their eventually successful campaign forcibly to pacify northern Rwanda:

Soldiers saw every civilian as a potential enemy, and in threatening situations they shot first. When they were attacked, they often returned in force to conduct murderous revenge sweeps. They herded tens of thousands of people into guarded camps and turned large areas into free-fire zones. Bodies of some victims are said to have been burned or buried in mass graves. [213]

Kinzer is also at least implicitly critical of the second incursion into the DRC, where he evidently suspects (against Kagame’s adamant denials) that Rwandan as well as Ugandan forces were involved in looting minerals.

Yet, at this stage of the plot, Kinzer seems largely to accept Kagame’s argument that the notion of human rights was specious in the real-world mess of the genocide’s aftermath. Establishing security and stability within Rwanda’s borders was the absolute and overriding imperative, the sine qua non of any other development or right.

As to destabilisation of the Eastern DRC—the violence and lawlessness that have wracked the region for more than a decade—Kinzer is able, with Kagame, to point the finger at an “ultimate” culprit:

If the Rwandan invasion of 1998 was among the factors that provoked this holocaust, ultimate responsibility lies with those who allowed the defeated forces of Rwanda’s genocidal regime to re-group in the Congo (then Zaire). France was their chief patron. French intercession with the Mobuto regime made it possible for the defeated army to enter the Congo with all its weaponry. France then encouraged that army to believe it could fight its way back to power in Kigali. [219]

Altogether, then, Kinzer seems to be assessing Kagame and his “dream” for Rwanda, on results (within Rwanda) rather than adherence to any metaphorical or literal human rights convention. In short, classical utilitarianism dressed in the new language of ‘pragmatism.’ And he is in no doubt that the results are impressive.

[Kagame] has accomplished something truly remarkable. The contrast between where Rwanda is today and where most people would have guessed it to be today in the wake of the 1994 genocide is astonishing. [337]

By 2000, the country was more or less at peace. Hutu soldiers were incorporated into the new Rwandan Defence Forces, and a Hutu genocide suspect was appointed governor of the northern province in a classic, realpolitik compromise. Having formally won the presidency in 2003 (by a 95% margin that Kinzer feels was dubious), Kagame set about creating a new administrative culture, stripping ministers and senior public servants of their luxury SUVs and sacking those who failed to deliver on performance management targets or who smelt even slightly of graft. By 2007, when Kinzer was writing, the country was winning plaudits from many international sources for its developmental success, and it has continued to do so.

In sum, Kinzer appears to believe that the end justified means that, although not squeaky clean by Human Rights Watch’s book, were not merely venal or massively murderous. This is a coherent and defensible position. (Although, understandably, when writing for a primarily American audience it would not be politic to slaughter the holy cows of human rights and democracy too casually. This may account for some of Kinzer’s equivocation.)

Yet, in the closing pages, he appears suddenly to back off, or at least point to a ‘catch-22’:

One of President Kagame’s themes is the need for Rwanda to develop strong institutions. If such institutions emerge, though, they will inevitably challenge him. There is no prospect of this happening soon. From lowly submayors to generals and Supreme Court justices, officials tremble at the prospect of his wrath. [333-334]

Kinzer’s plaudits for Kagame must thus remain—not least for the author’s own credibility—an interim judgment. For the intellectual difficulty with the utilitarian position is that the story is as yet far from over, so it is not possible to judge purely from “results.”


When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda
by Mahmood Mamdani
Fountain (Kampala) 2010 (first published by Princetone University Press, 2001); 364 pp

After Courtemanche’s fantasising, Daillaire’s remorse, Gourevitch’s elegance and Kinzer’s hagiography, it is refreshing—although also sometimes hard work—to find the genocide treated with academic rigour.

This is also an important antidote to the lazy generalisations of hindsight. For it is easy to allow the genocide to dominate the retrospective horizon, obscuring the context which gave rise to it and thus “severing[ing] it so completely from the civil war that the act of killing would become devoid of motivation.” [268]. Kinzer, whose book is the most recent of those considered here, certainly veers in that direction when he casually gives Kagame and the RPF credit for “overthrowing a dictatorship and stopping a genocide.” [Kinzer, 336].

For Mamdani, genocide was the culmination of a regional “crisis of citizenship” which, seeded in colonial rule, was nourished by events in Uganda and Burundi, rolled through Rwanda and finally spilled into the DRC. If that sounds excessively theoretical and remote, Mamdani also insists that we confront the fact that the genocide was genuinely “popular” in nature—not just a few bad guys at the top manipulating the culturally herd-like masses—but a collective action that involved probably hundreds of thousands of killers and accessories. How could that be? Mamdani’s answer is that the genocide needs to be seen not as ethnic but as “political violence.” [268]

In a chapter on The Origins of Hutu and Tutsi, Mamdani sifts the academic literature to weigh both the separate origins thesis (in the colonial and Hutu Power variant, that ‘the Tutsi were conquerors from outside’), and the neo-Marxist claim (‘they were the same people; it was just a class difference’). He suggests that these are best seen as “complementary, rather than alternative accounts, each highlighting a different aspect of history” and recommends a “‘weak’ version of each.” [p. 57] “Ancestors of Hutu and Tutsi most likely had separate historical origins” [74], with Tutsi ancestors migrating over time into Rwanda from the east coast (maybe present-day Kenya), intermarrying and coexisting with the people they found there. In the process of Rwandan state formation, starting from the 15th century, Tutsi clans gradually predominated and established a kingdom under aristocratic lineages. This reached its height in the late 19th century reign of Mwami Kieri Rwabugiri, when there was “spectacular expansion of the boundaries of the Rwandan state” [69], with the people of incorporated “statelets” cast as ‘Hutu’ – “For Hutu, it appears, were simply those from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who came to be subjugated to the power of the Rwandan state.” [69-70] Although there were always poor Tutsi, “To be a Tutsi was . . . to be in power, near power, or simply to be identified with power—just as to be a Hutu was more and more to be a subject.” [75] Nevertheless, both Tutsi and Hutu formed a single cultural community (Banyarwanda), with a common language (Kinyarwanda). The Tutsi/Hutu distinction was thus essentially political. And even during this most bifurcated pre-colonial period, identities remained fluid to at least some extent. In addition to many earlier generations of intermarriage, the subject Hutu did have some political, administrative and military powers and, importantly, it was possible both for out-of-luck Tutsi to be ‘demoted’ into Hutu identities and for some Hutu to be ‘promoted’ to Tutsi status.

Then came the colonialists, who promptly ‘racialised’ Rwandan identities and “hardened Tutsi privilege . . . giving it an apartheid-like quality” [269]. Here, Mamdani highlights the distinction between settler colonial rule and indirect rule. In the former case (South Africa, Kenya, Rhodesia), political and civil rights were distributed according to race, as defined in civil law. This conferred a degree of ‘virtual’, albeit hierarchical, citizenship. Under indirect rule, by contrast, populations were divided according to ethnicity, whose ‘customary’ economic and social rights were overseen by ‘native authorities.’ Yet:

Colonial Rwanda was a half-way house between direct and indirect rule . . . Belgian power constructed ‘customary law’ and ‘native authorities’ alongside civic law and civic authorities. But neither this law nor this authority were ethnicized. . . [The] colonial state in Rwanda produced bipolar racial identities and not plural ethnic identities . . . A single, binary opposition split the colonized population into two: a nativized majority opposed to several non-native minorities.” [34-35, emphasis in original.]

Tutsi political power was formalised, extended, entrenched and legalised—with local Tutsi chiefs for the first time directly administering Hutu people—at the same time that the Tutsi were constructed as ‘non-native’ people (who, by implication, had no ‘customary’ or ‘ethnic’ entitlements.)

Small wonder that resentments would begin to develop among the Hutu majority, who over time came to see themselves as subject to two ‘foreign’ powers: Tutsi and colonial. As colonial sentiments became more ‘democratic’ (after World War II), church and colonial state authorities began to foster a Hutu “counter-elite” that led a 1959 revolution. This brought to power Grégoire Kayibanda, who “championed a racialized nationalism—of the Hutu,” [32] leaving the disempowered, ‘non-native’ Tutsi minority effectively barred from political participation. Yet, although Kayibanda’s rule saw anti-Tutsi pogroms and an outflow of refugees, most notably in 1959 and 1963, it did not result in a genocide. How come that would take another 35 years to brew?

Here, Mamdani’s account departs significantly from those of the less scholarly observers. If Kayibanda’s government brought majority rule, it did not deliver widespread prosperity or opportunity. Regional intra-Hutu rivalries emerged and, over time, popular dissatisfaction led to greater victimisation of the Tutsi. In 1973, Major General Juvénal Habyarimana displaced Kayibanda in a bloodless coup. In journalistic accounts, Habyarimana is widely disparaged as the man who led Rwanda to the brink of genocide. Mamdani, however, argues that Habyarimana’s ‘Second Republic’ brought “a shift in the political identity of the Tutsi from a race to an ethnic group. While the First Republic considered the Tutsi as a ‘race,’ the Second Republic reconstructed the Tutsi as an ‘ethnicity’ and, therefore, as a group indigenous to Rwanda.” [138] “From being banished from the political sphere under the First Republic, the Tutsi were brought back within the political fold. When Habyarimana announced the formation of his cabinet on June 1, 1974, it included, for the first time since 1964, a Tutsi . . .” [140]

Even if limited and qualified, Tutsi participation in the political sphere continued. In October, 1990, when the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda, there was one Tutsi minister in a nineteen-member cabinet, one Tutsi ambassador, two Tutsi deputies in a seventy-seat national assembly, and two Tutsi in the sixteen-person central committee of the country’s only party, the MRND. The flipside of the Tutsi presence in the central state was that the Tutsi were carefully kept away from the organs of power: the army and the local state. While there was one Tutsi officer in the army, members of the army were prohibited by regulation from marrying Tutsi women. Similarly, there was an almost total absence of Tutsi from the local state: there was only one Tutsi prefect, the prefect of Butare, who was killed in the genocide, and not a single Tutsi burgomaster. [141]

Nevertheless, “no major anti-Tutsi political violence was reported from Rwanda between the time Habyarimana came to power in 1973 and the onset of the war with the RPF in 1990,” [142]

Although Habyarimana’s rule was distinctly autocratic, its closing years did see—under pressure of economic downturn and the insistence of Western patrons—a political opening, a move towards multi-partyism (with one of the newly formed parties headed by a Tutsi) and even a qualified commitment to allow Tutsi refugees—those who could support themselves—to return. To Rwanda’s Western patrons, pre-eminently France and Belgium, this would have seemed like evidence that things were moving in the ‘right’ direction. So what went wrong?

A citizenship crisis in Uganda, according to Mamdani. There, around 4,000 Rwandans fought alongside around 10,000 Ugandans in the prolonged bush war that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986. Most of the Rwandan guerrillas were Tutsi refugee-exiles, who had grown up in Uganda with limited civic rights, and had no place to call home. Mamdani, comparing them to Palestinians, suggests that they fought for Museveni in the hope of gaining full civic rights—a political home—in Uganda. During its ruling honeymoon, Museveni’s National Resistance Army/Movement appeared to vindicate that hope by according political rights—notably, the right to participate in local National Resistance Councils—on grounds of current residency, not on grounds of ethnicity or ancestry. The new Uganda, it seemed, was set to break the colonial mould of ‘customary’ and ‘ethnic’ citizenship, “sublat[ing] this colonial inheritance by altering the line that distinguished the political subject from the nonsubject.” [171].

Yet “the reform was both partial and tentative.” Under popular pressure for “noncitizens” to be weeded out of the Ugandan army, senior Rwandan officers were sidelined. In mid-1990, a land conflict involving Rwandan cattle keepers in western Uganda claimed public and parliamentary attention. The eventual settlement, in favour of Ugandan ‘natives,’ sent a clear message that Rwandans were not welcome as equal citizens in Uganda. The consequence “was to swing the balance of opinion, among both refugee commoners and refugee leaders, decisively against naturalisation in their countries of residence and tilt it in favour of an armed return to Rwanda.” [182] For, “Having embraced the Banyarwanda refugees as ‘comrades-in-arms’ during their hour of need . . . Uganda guerrillas-turned-government did not hesitate to ‘solve’ their first crisis in power by dispensing with the same comrades.” [268]. The armed return began that October.

Whatever its military skill, Mamdani is emphatic that the RPF arrived as an army of occupation, not liberation, in the areas it seized. There was some reported pillaging and, on many accounts, the RPF encouraged people to leave, presumably in order to increase pressure on Kigali. “The object of this kind of liberation was no longer the people but the territory” [189], such that RPF appeared to represent nothing more than Tutsi Power. In this, and in their tough negotiating position in Arusha—with the peace deal widely seen as confirming the defeat of a greatly expanded, but essentially humiliated national army—Mamdani also stresses the “naiveté” of RPF “leaders who were mostly born outside the country and whose sense of possibilities was shaped by their experiences in Uganda and not in Rwanda.” [214]

By February 1993, an estimated 950,000 (overwhelmingly Hutu) people had fled the occupied areas; many were displaced more than once as the RPF advanced. That same year, some 200,000 Hutu refugees entered Rwanda from Burundi, following massacres there by the (overwhelmingly Tutsi) Burundian army. These refugees were to play a leading role in spreading the genocide to parts of the country where it did not take immediate hold.

At the same time, the various political parties formed in the space opened up by Habariyamana’s reforms each created a youth wing that soon turned into a militia in an atmosphere of generalised militarisation. These, like the local self-defence militias also formed in areas close to the occupied territories, would become key genocide actors. Mamdani points out that “the instruments used to perpetrate genocide [were] not created for that purpose from the outset, but were turned to that purpose in the face of defeat in the civil war.” [217]

The political parties all split internally over how far to compromise with or stand firm against the RPF, with the odds increasingly stacked against compromise. For “the invasion literally reversed the dynamic of the Second Republic. By highlighting the distinction between the struggle for rights and the pursuit of power, it once again polarized Hutu and Tutsi as political identities.” [231]

This greatly empowered the most extreme Hutu Power faction, indeed engendered them: “The génocidaires were a political tendency born of civil war.” [217] Illustrations include the fact that the notorious RTLM ‘hate radio’ station “began broadcasting from Kigali . . . four days after the signing of the Arusha Agreement.” [190] With more than a million people having fled the RPF and the atrocities of a Tutsi army in Burundi, and with increasing economic distress “the core message of Hutu Power began to sound credible to ordinary Hutu ears in Rwanda: power sharing was just another name for political suicide.” [216] The Hutu masses became convinced that it was necessary to kill in order to avoid serfdom or annihilation. Cumulatively, however ‘unimaginably’ horrific it was, this is a credible account of the genocide, in terms of making it a comprehensible outcome of prior events and processes, without recourse to imaginative leaps or ‘cultural’ stereotypes.

Writing in 2000/2001, Mamdami was on the whole gloomy about Rwanda’s prospects. He was clearly right about the “crisis of citizenship” spilling into the DRC. There, Banyarwanda residents of many generations’ standing, some of whom had become known as ‘Banyamulenge’ (named after a mountain range) in a shift towards “ethnic citizenship” of the Congo, found themselves regarded as foreigners again, and once again further polarised along the Hutu/Tutsi divide. Rwanda had become, and arguably remains “the epicenter of the crisis of the African Great Lakes.” [265] (Only “arguably” because the weakness of the DRC state is also, arguably, a major component of regional instability.)

Within Rwanda, Mamadani describes the key challenge as “how to build a democracy that can incorporate a guilty majority alongside an aggrieved and fearful minority in a single political community.” [266] But, at the turn of the century, he did not see much progress towards this. Rather, he concluded, “structures of power [are] being Tutsified,” driven by the conviction that “Tutsi Power is the condition for Tutsi survival.” [270] In a somewhat admonitory tone, he suggests that:

Like the Arabs of Zanzibar, and even the whites of South Africa, the Tutsi of Rwanda may also have to learn that, so long as Hutu and Tutsi remain alive as political identities, giving up political power may be a surer guarantee of survival than holding on to it. [279]

Is this analysis now outdated—given the RPF’s apparent determination to transcend the binary, minority/majority opposition of Tutsi/Hutu identities by dissolving them altogether?

To all appearances, Rwanda today is more stable, peaceful and ‘developing’ faster than almost anyone would have predicted thirteen years ago, and Kinzer is far from unique in his admiration for what has been achieved. Political scientists, David Booth and Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, characterise the RPF strategy as “building support on a broad base by demonstrating an ability to provide more and better public goods” and delivering fast enough “economic and social progress” for “a new generation [to] emerge who are capable of fully assuming their national identity as Rwandans rather than privileging what divided them in the past.” (‘Developmental Patrimonialism? The Case of Rwanda’ in African Affairs vol. 111, 2012)

This sounds plausible, but will it work? I don’t know enough to have an opinion. But even if I knew a lot more I suspect I’d still find it too soon to say.