Sunday, June 11, 2006

Literature Reviews on Rwanda and North America and Genocide

Peress’s The Silence

In 1994, when the genocide ravaged Rwanda, I was oblivious. Years later, in Germany, I came across the book, The Silence, by Gilles Peress, and was exposed to what had occurred in that small African country. I’d chanced upon Peress’ book in a library. I remember the images bled off its pages, uncontained by borders. I remember the perfection of the presentation. And I remember the words waited, respectfully, until the annotated time line (housed in a pocket of the book’s back cover). There is no forgetting the image of a child’s skeleton wearing a pair of disintegrating shorts or the photographs of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves.

When I first saw Peress’s book, as horrible as it sounds, I was in awe. I wanted to make a book like that. Only now do I think about Peress, his eye, and how he, a French man, photographed this African genocide (not to mention how he comparatively photographed the later genocide in Bosnia). What does it mean to attempt to render genocide’s face? And why does the name “Rwanda” remain, today, despite all the other books and films I’ve read about its history and its genocide, the talks I’ve gone to, and even the African refugees I’ve tutored and whose stories I’ve listened to, Peress’s book of photographs? Is it possible that Rwanda can never be a place – but will remain a representation of the violence of its past?

Peress photographed Rwanda pornographically, laying bare the shock of violence. His images of the Bosnian genocide are tame – seen through windows, grey, bleak, partially veiled – in comparison. According to Peress, Africa is still other, still seen as a pit of hopelessness, a place rendered invisible by everything except suffering.

Peress’ The Silence calls attention to the speechlessness of disaster, as well as to the lack of world intervention. If one reads his time line, one also comes across a deeper silence – one in which world players aided and abetted the furthering of this genocide; the French, for example, knowingly armed the murderous Hutu Power regime…

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families informs us that our guilt supplies us with a moral imperative to look. “The best reason I have come up with for looking closely into Rwanda’s stories,” Gourevitch writes, “is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence and my place in it.”

Like Peress, Gourevitch also suffers from a largely racist, pornographic ‘western gaze.’ I am perplexed by Gourevitch’s portrayal of Tutsi Sergeant Francis and his “high, rolling, girlish hips” – the guide who leads Gourevitch around the Nyarubuye memorial. Francis “walked and stood with his butt stuck out behind him,” Gourevitch writes. This description of Francis is the first Gourevitch gives in his book, of an African who isn’t either drunk or dead. Haven’t white Americans made African body parts the topic of their racist imaginings at least ever since the slave era? Gourevitch’s description of Francis hasn’t even reached its hideous crescendo, however. Gourevitch, seemingly obliviously, plows on, narrating how Francis speaks to him of the women at Nyarubuye who were “raped before being murdered” and then mentioning Francis’s “oddly purposeful posture…” By wording the passage this way, Gourevitch suggests Francis is inviting rape. Francis happens to be a Tutsi and regardless of the fact Tutsis comprised the majority of the victims of this genocide, he is not asking to be raped, nor asking to be a victim, yet this is what Gourevitch’s word “purposeful” implies.

Peress’s and Gourevitch’s Idea of Justice

After witnessing the Hutus’ mass murdering of the Tutsis, both Peress and Gourevitch assign the narrative of retribution to the Hutus subsequent deaths in refugee camps from starvation and unsanitary camp conditions. Peress divides The Silence into biblically titled sections: “The Sin,” “Purgatory,” and “The Judgement.” Gourevitch also draws on biblical references, but expends his breath boldly critiquing the outpouring of international political sympathy and aid relief awarded Hutu refugees post-genocide. Peress and Gourevitch, in other words, consider Hutu deaths a ‘natural’ justice.

Although Gourevitch does paint a historical picture of the oppression suffered by the Hutus, he doesn’t ever pose the question of justice pre-genocide. To mention years of oppression pre-genocide is to excuse, rend innocent the murderers, it seems. Peress and Gourevitch are, however, surprisingly good at blaming U.S. and European (particularly French) powers for instigating, playing a direct role in, and then largely ignoring the genocide.

Wamwere and Justice

What is lacking, I suggest, in both Peress’s and Gourevitch’s portraits of Rwanda is the humanity of both perpetrator and victim. Kenyan author and political activist Kiogi Wa Wamwere writes, “When we see thousands of Tutsi bodies floating in the Kagera River, all our hearts should bleed for the Tutsis. When we see an endless exodus of Hutu refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo, all our eyes should shed tears for Hutus…. humanity should cry for them no less.” Wamwere, in calling for a revised look at violence and racism, isn’t losing sight of the guilt accorded the perpetrator of any crime; however, he is rendering the perpetrator human, not a monster to be executed. Peress and Gourevitch, meanwhile, have distanced themselves from the perpetrators (and sentenced them all to the death penalty) by suggesting death in refugee camps is a ‘natural’ justice.

I understand the need for justice to be accorded. I know, too, that the new Rwandan government has executed several of the guilty Hutu elite and criticizes the U.N.’s tribunal for lax, anti-death penalty sentences, and for spoiling criminals with luxurious facilities and medical attention. I am not a believer of putting anyone to death, even though I believe Rwanda, if it is in Rwanda’s best interest, should handle how justice is served its genocidaires. I’m also not convinced prisons work – they don’t seem to help rehabilitate and, at least in the U.S., the entire judicial system is racist. Prisons are populated predominantly by persons of color; lawyers are predominantly white, rich… Essentially, as Angela Davis argues in Abolition Democracy, U.S. state death penalties are reminiscent of slave-era lynchings…

What I best understand is the need to establish courts and truth commissions to account for who is guilty, and to hold those who have wronged accountable; however, I don’t have a definition of what justice should look like in Rwanda or if any government (especially one that is or has recently been also guilty of human rights violations – such as Kagame’s RPF army’s crimes committed while fighting the genocidaires) can fairly try a national enemy.

In Rwanda there is presently a huge backlog in the judicial system. The African Great Lakes Initiative website reports that to try every convicted criminal of the genocide would take two-hundred years. To aid in the struggle for justice, there has been a continued a practice (present before the genocide) of trying criminals in community courts called gacacas. “Locals gather together to rehash the killings,” writes Marc Lacey for The New York Times. “They are encouraged to point fingers at suspected killers. The accused are given a chance to stand up and defend themselves, or to apologize. Confessions can sometimes bring the most extraordinary result: a hug from the accuser and an offer of forgiveness. More often, though, there are arguments.”

I have read varying accounts of the worthiness of such trials. Some say the gacacas were never meant to handle cases of such extreme violence and have been malfunctioning due to a lack of neutral judges; others say that such truth and reconciliation efforts can seem like a slap in the face to those who have suffered the massacre of their families, their people. Others say systemic, global, political and economic institutions are rarely held accountable for their investment in crimes against humanity in today’s courts and truth commissions... Shouldering the guilt of being a white North American whose country does not intervene to stop any atrocity unrelated to its national interest and whose national interest depends on exploiting (even ‘aiding’) poorer nations, challenges me to prove I can, as an individual, act in other ways, acknowledge suffering of all parties, and question how best to respond – how best to hold myself, my country, and others (forgivingly?) accountable.

I acknowledge the genocide in Rwanda as one of the results of colonialist rule; but I know this is not the genocide’s only cause. Wamwere’s Negative Ethnicity has helped me see racial and ethnic hatred is fueled by, but may not only be caused by, white supremacy. As Wamwere attests, “hate and discrimination by white against black is no worse than hate and discrimination within the same color.”

Lawless Humanity

My decision to go to Rwanda to help build a classroom for orphans of the 1994 genocide stems from a need to see Rwanda myself, so as to revise images I’ve seen and opinions I’ve read. Following a genocide caused, at least in part, by just such issues of how ideology and representations of otherness have poisoned the world, I identify with prior ‘first world’ witness’s need to look at Rwanda. Any ‘first world’ gaze (especially, usually, the gaze of the white and middle-to-upper class) is colonialist and limiting, my own included. There may be no way to ethically or morally represent or talk about genocide – perhaps because of its absolute immorality. Yet, perhaps, too, ethics and morality are too restrictive, just as Derrida argues laws are essentially inhibitors of ‘true’ justice; the question, then, is how to craft a just, rather than genocidal, lawless humanity? Is there some kind of lawless humanity to be found in the building of a classroom? (What will building – not to mention the process of building – the physical structure within which teaching occurs facilitate?)


I finished Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers and yesterday Peress’s The Silence arrived. I’d ordered it; having not seen it for some time. Rereading Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You… and looking again at Peress’s book, I feel amiss to have been initially so critical of these two. Peress is more condemning of the French government (at least in his timeline) than I’d realized. Still, I’m overwhelmed by Gourevitch’s and Peress’s notions that the suffering of the camps be seen as revenge for genocidal wrongs. Mamdani is a clearer read; he focuses on the political aspects of what he insists is a regional disaster. He argues no justice can be had until a survivor’s justice is implemented in Rwanda. Survivor’s justice, as defined by Mamdani, would either entail a separation of peoples along ‘ethnic’ lines in the region or a new way of identifying people by way of regional presence, rather than race, idigeneity, ethnicity, etc… The Rwandan government, Mamdani argues can never again be comprised primarily of either the majority (Hutu) or minority (Tutsi); Mamdani isn’t arguing, however, for a multi-party government or for accords, he is simply predicting another genocide should the government remain in the hands of one group or the other.

Mamdani’s treatment, historically, of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity is the best I’ve read on the conflict. His point is that race kills as soon as a people are labeled indigenous or alien to a region.


The clearest, briefest economic critique of international dealings with Rwanda preceeding, during, and after the genocide that I’ve read is Yifat Susskind’s “US Partnership or Pillage.” Susskind, the communications director of Madre, an international women’s organization, elaborates on World Bank and IMF stats and is quick to condemn international aid and loans, in particular Clinton’s foreign policy in Africa.

According to Susskind, Clinton’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) reinforced IMP Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) by cutting social spending and privatizing utility companies and coffee plantations and other enterprises. This recolonization of Africa, Susskind argues, is partly to blame for Rwanda’s genocide. In Africa more than one-hundred percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is owed to debts. In 1980, the debt crisis was such that IMF imposed SAPs that required interest payment, taking money from national healthcare and education budgets by 50% and 25% respectively. In 1989, coffee prices plummeted, and still US retailers were selling Rwandan coffee for twenty times the price paid to farmers. Then a famine swept the country when bans restricting cheap food imports were lifted and Rwanda’s farmers went out of business. Subsequently, in 1992 the World Bank ordered Rwanda privatize its utility services. In 1994, international aid money financed the buying of arms for the genocide, creating a new debt survivors today have to repay. “After the genocide,” writes Susskind, “the new Rwandan government had to accept another SAP to service its massive debt and win loans to rebuild the country. Today, Rwanda’s economy…remains tightly supervised by the same Northern institutions that funded the genocide. The structural violence that their policies create is still the order of the day.”

Susskin’s main point is that for every dollar we spend on aid to Africa, we receive four dollars in return. Why don’t we begin, Susskind asks, paying off the debt we owe to Africa from getting rich off its people and its resources. A great point. And I agree with Mamdani that genocide is not just a historical, or a cultural, or an economic problem, but I don’t think it’s just a political one either.


The 2006 Human Rights Watch reports land the Rwandan government deems not well-managed can be taken by government/private businesses. This seems a return to the loss of land rights experienced before, during, and after the genocide. In Corrupt, Jared Diamond argues one of the reasons for genocide in Rwanda is its population problem. There is too little land, he argues. The genocide, Diamond concludes, was perpetrated primarily by those without shoes, as they targeted those with shoes, looting as they killed. Too little land and population problems don’t breed genocide. But reading Diamond does force me to ask what, exactly, is the relationship between those of differing economic classes in Rwanda? Each account I read dances around this issue – most say it isn’t an issue, those killed weren’t necessarily better off – Hutus had climbed the social ladder…

Outlawing Ethnicity

In 2004, I cut out a news article from The New York Times, the headline of which read, “A Decade After Massacres, Rwanda Outlaws Ethnicity.” Accompanying the article is a picture of the photographs of genocide victims that decorate the walls of the memorial museum in Gisozi. Can outlawing ethnicity ever be a healing process? What can such a law do to right the wrongs already perpetrated? According to the Human Rights Watch report this year Rwanda refused to allow the Twa to organize and receive rights around their indigeneity; they were to change this, but hadn’t; outlawing ethnicity’s consequences.

Because the genocide was primarily perpetrated by those who had been oppressed ethnically within Rwandan society – at least historically oppressed for generations, and was supposedly born out of fear of their being oppressed again, it’s particularly hard for me to take any side. I’ve always felt something, a certain empathy, perhaps, for the underdog. And yet here is a situation (like Israel’s current genocidal regime) that capitalizes on a peoples’ historical suffering (as a result of tremendous oppression) to motivate them to commit atrocities, human rights violations, etc…

Fear (not unlike our largely propagandistically spoon-fed fear of terrorism) of Tutsi take-over became the emotion exploited by Hutu Power. Is such extremist fear – fear of the historically oppressive ‘other’ – what bred Hutu Power? Was Black Power in the United States and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa bred fundamentally from teachings of self-love, rather than from fueling an oppressed peoples’ hatred of their oppressors? If so, is this why, instead of a movement in violation of human rights, Black Power was a movement, for the most part, toward human rights?

Do all separatist, extremist movements contain the fuel that can so easily be lit and burn so severely genocide is the result? And if this is the case, what is the difference between revolution and genocide? The difference between the good and bad of social movements, like the fine – sometimes indistinguishable – line between good and bad in people – intrigues me. The balance, like so many things in life, is so critical and the boundary between good and bad so faint, so unknown, so situationist, so seemingly unplanned. Are there really any recipes for good and bad, teachings that can only be used to perpetuate good?

Part of me is the cynical Sontag of I, Etc… Part of me is staying in the U.S., not going to Rwanda. I am watching (me) with critical eyes – checking how I see, wanting the full story – the things I can’t, don’t yet, and maybe never can understand because of my identity, my ethnicity, my one-ness.

Identity is largely – if not entirely – socially constructed, but impossible to un-experience; rather, to re-identify oneself and to become, for example, anti-racist, one has to reconstruct inherited notions of self and other, but even after doing this work a white person cannot ‘become’ brown, regardless of the amount of reconstructing he or she does, as lived experience in a racist society cannot be reconstructed (beyond passing – complete with its own complications) without the reconstruction of society itself.

Thus, one’s lived experience remains (i.e., as privileged and/or oppressed; everyone an ever-changing mixture of power relations and situations, but never-the-less socially located, identifiably mapable). Being white, therefore, places limits upon what can be ‘reconstructed’ (learned through radical consciousness restructuring).

This conclusion makes me incredibly sad and reminds me of the breaking point with my friendship with _____. Her mistrust of me is historically rooted; just as the benefits I received from her teaching me (because of my white privilege) outweighed the benefits and the rewards she received for embodying this knowledge. This fundamental discrepancy undermined our friendship. I’ve since wondered whether any conscious relationship across the color line is possible without an enormous amount of pain – pain that is not necessarily present in relationships of those of like-raced peoples.

Genocide and North America

Today three inmates committed suicide at Guantanamo. Forty-one have already tried, if you don’t count the hunger strikers, eighteen of whom are still on strike and are now being force fed. I read this news and it hurts. I bought the New York Times today, because there's a photo of a girl on its front page screaming over the death of five Palestinians - killed by an 'errant' Isreali attack. Now Hamas has said it will resume its war.

It’s storming and forty-four degrees in Iowa City. I left Tucson four days ago at night to escape the desert heat. Drove all night, slept for a few hours at a gas station, then was back on the road, witnessed a police man shooting an elk point blank, the animal rearing in pain in my rearview mirror, then hiked into Canyon de Chelly. I sat at its base with Carl Begay, a man I met on the trail who motioned me over, said, “Ask me questions,” and then spoke of his 102 year old mother who had never gone to school or left the canyon, but raised her sheep and wove there. He’d been sent to boarding school every year when the fruit on the trees turned ripe, he told me. Some eighty years old, I guessed he was, hiking into the canyon to water his horse… I asked him how he felt about tourists. He laughed, said he was thankful for the Works Progress Administration providing the path to the White House, as it gave the Navajo another way in and out of the canyon. We listened, then, to his friend Marie herding her sheep. The animals, he said, liked the Russian Olive – which was good, because it wasn't native and was sucking up the water, erosion becoming a big problem...

That evening I camped at Canyon de Chelly. There, I opened Irene’s going-away package filled with photocopied readings she’d annotated. I slowly read the Rumi poems. Two of his lines about twenty more loves coming (after heartbreak), Irene’s marginalia about the strength of fighting with art, and her underlined portion of Arundhati Roy’s essay about how genocide is all around us, all so apropos to my journey.

The following day I reached the Badlands and drove through Wounded Knee. The impoverishment of the reservation gnawed at me, especially after I got out of the truck at to read a doctored plaque that had once read 'Battle’ and now read 'Massacre' and was approached by Melvin – a man who smelled of alcohol, needed money, and asked me for a date. I gave him my Lichee Black Tea tin full of quarters and my water. And I thought, then, of the image of Big Foot reaching out of the snow, dying – This was the spot Native peoples danced in ghost shirts for renewal, for the spring's first green to erase the white peoples' presence. Danced, believing they were invincible. (And perhaps they were and are; so much of the country, the uninhabited-by-human landscape, belongs to Native peoples. Perhaps they, if we don’t steal it all first, will inherit the earth we’ve polluted…) My name is Spring; I was named after a poem my father wrote entitled “Spring Is When New Life Comes.” Can I rid the earth of white people and rebirth myself? Instead of rebirthing life, death was reborn here when five hundred Native peoples were murdered systematically after the protests for Native rights and the subsequent imprisoning of Leonard Peltier... I don’t understand this country’s history. How can I begin to understand another’s?


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