Last Thursday evening I attended a small, private screening of the HBO original film, “Sometimes in April.” The film is a fictionalized account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide as experienced by two Hutu brothers. One, Augustine, is a Hutu military officer married to a Tusti woman, who is also the mother of his three children. The other, Honore, is a disc jockey/journalist for Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines (RTLM), or “hate radio,” as it would come to be known because of its incessant spew of anti-Tutsi propaganda.
As the film opens in April 2004, Augustine has just received a letter from his estranged brother, presently being tried as a war criminal at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Tanzania. The letter implores Augustine to visit his brother, who wishes to come clean. The remainder of the film consists of two interwoven story lines taking place a decade apart, one in which Augustine attempts to face the past, and one in which he lives it.
The Rwandan genocide took place 11 years ago last month. If you don’t know what happened by now, I see no need to belabor the point by describing the hellish atrocities here. Nor do I intend to make any moral condemnations and sanctimoniously declare, “never again.” If you are looking for any of these things, then I suggest you watch the film or read one of the number of excellent books that have since been written about the subject.
But I would like to share a few of my thoughts after having had a few days to digest what I saw.
Several adjectives spring to mind whenever genocide is mentioned. Terrible. Most certainly. Hellish. Without a doubt. Tragic. Yes. Evil. You bet. Preventable. Perhaps. Anarchic. No.
To describe the state of affairs that unfolded following the downing of Rwandan President Habyarimana’s plane by Hutu militants on April 6, 1994 as anarchic would be a mistake. These killings were carefully planned well in advance. And, at least in the early days, they were carried out with frightening efficiency.
Hutu militias had been trained. Guns, grenades, machetes (by one account, enough to arm every third adult Hutu male with a machete), and other weapons had been imported, distributed, and stockpiled in caches across the country. Lists, containing the names of Tutsi and moderate Hutu who were to be executed, had been prepared and circulated by the military prior to the slaughter. Later, names of those missed in the initial sweep of the capital city of Kigali were broadcast over the radio by the station RTLM.
This was far from anarchic. And more than anything else, this was what most terrified me after seeing the film.
As a resident of the United States, like residents of most other developed nations, I can think of a number of material comforts that I more or less take for granted. Central heating and air. Public transportation or private ownership of automobiles. Indoor plumbing. And indeed all of these things do contribute to a high standard of living with few inconveniences. Yet it isn’t difficult to imagine life without most of these things.
But try to imagine waking up one morning to discover that everything you thought you knew about your world, every rule and societal norm you had come to accept as permanent, all of this, gone in an instant.
I’m talking about the certainty that you can walk down the street in broad daylight without having your head caved in by a gang of drunken goons – gone. The certainty that your house won’t be set on fire with you and your family inside – gone. The certainty that you won’t be stopped at a roadside checkpoint, be violently pulled from your vehicle and then summarily shot, chopped, or beaten dead on the spot – gone.
One moment it’s there, the next – gone.
It’s not as though these things happened in Rwanda overnight. Again, much of this had been planned in advance. But for some 800,000 Tutsis and their Hutu defenders, the moment that that plane went down, all of that certainty just simply vanished.
One of the noteworthy books I referred to earlier is former journalist Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Although the book does contain a chapter on Rwanda, it is meant to be a survey of major genocides of the twentieth century and a detailed examination of American responses. As I said before, I don’t intend to pass moral judgment here. And I don’t think that was Power’s intent in writing the book either. So don’t please don’t cringe at the mention of “American responses,” because I’m almost to the point.
One of her conclusions is this:
Despite graphic media coverage, American policy makers, journalists, and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil. Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence. They trust in good-faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy. Once the killings start, they assume that civilians who keep their heads down will be left alone. They urge ceasefires and donate humanitarian aid.
But this isn’t just a problem for Americans. Time and again, Power writes of the difficulty of not only outside observers to wrap their minds around the horror, but also that of would-be victims to do the same. On Cambodia she writes:
…[T]hose with the most at stake are in fact often the least prone to recognize their peril. The Cambodian people were frightened by the reports of atrocities in the [Khmer Rouge]-occupied countryside, but they retained resilient hope… [I]n the mental duel that was fought in each and every Cambodian’s mind, it was the concrete features of a horrifying, immediate war that won out over the more abstract fear of the unknown.
It is precisely this difficulty to “wrap one’s head around” the horrors of genocide that I speak of when I describe that total absence of certainty and security that has been characteristic of all past genocides. Say what one may about democritization, economic development, free trade, etc… They are all important means in themselves, no doubt. And I by no means intend to suggest otherwise. But before suffrage, before the ability to produce semiconductors, and before hvaing a selection of imported French wine on my supermarket shelf, I’ll take those basic certainties and securities as an end any day of the week.