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May 29, 2004
The North has dutifully put on its sackcloth and ashes on the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, with European and American governments now freely admitting that they would have been able to prevent the slaughter of 1,000,000 (forget the 800,000) Rwandans over 8 short weeks in 1994, but chose, for their own obtuse reasons, not to. The official estimate now is that it would have taken as few as 5,000 United Nations troops. What is less understood is how the literal bloodbath was the direct product of European imperialism and the racist ideology that was deliberately developed to justify it. As everywhere else in Africa, 'age-old tribal and ethnic hostilities' was the lie put forward to deflect the blame from where it belongs.
The official story is simplistically told as a modern-day Cain and Abel: not surprising since Rwanda is a majority-Christian country. Rwanda is perhaps the latest in a long line of examples of how Christian ideology appears conducive to mass murder, or at least fails to present a counterforce to it.
The national myth has it that both the Hutus and Tutsis came from elsewhere, the Twa (pygmy) people being the original inhabitants. The Hutu are believed to be Bantu people from the south and west, the Tutsis Nilotic people from the north. This would mean in racial terms that the Hutu are 'Black Africans,' while the Tutsi are of 'Ethiopian' stock: with lighter skin, narrower noses and chins, and 'better' hair. Before the Europeans came this didn't matter much. They lived together, married each other, spoke the same language, shared the same religion, and shared power. The fact that the Tutsis tended to be herders (Cain) and the Hutu cultivators (Abel) took on increasing importance during the colonial period. Cattle are valued highly, and Tutsis had become economic and political elites, but social stratification intensified greatly in the mid-1800's, as the entire continent was converted into the machine that cranked out the energy for European capitalism. Until the Germans and the Belgians, the society was porous, and ethnicity was not the only factor that figured into social status and social power.
"You can't tell us apart," Laurent Nkongoli, the portly vice president of the National Assembly, told me, "We can't tell us apart. I was on a bus in the north once and because I was in the north where they"-Hutus-"were, and because I ate corn, which they eat, they said, 'He's one of us.' But I'm a Tutsi from Bugare in the south.' (50)
But when the Europeans came at the end of the 19th century, "they formed a picture of a stately race of warrior kings, surrounded by herds of long-horned cattle and a subordinate race of short, dark peasants, hoeing tubers and picking bananas. The white men assumed that this was the tradition of the place, and they thought it a natural arrangement." (50) The whites saw through the lens of 'scientific racism' what they wanted and expected to see. Of course, the Africans who most resembled them would be seen as superior, and accordingly the Tutsi were cultivated as their 'pet Africans,' forming the bureaucratic and security ranks of the colonial government. This was business as usual for the colonial rulers in Africa, a most successful divide-and-conquer strategy. Upon independence, when the Hutu majority took control, this history was used again and again to justify the murder of Tutsis. The ferocity that shocked the world in 1994 must be seen in no small part as an expression of historical rage against 'the Hamitic hypothesis' that relegated dark-skinned blacks to the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, and thus to the oppressed underclass in every colonized African country.
John Hanning Speke was the author of the Hamitic hypothesis, which uses the Biblical story of Noah's sons, Ham, Shem, and Japheth as the template for the comparative worth of the various races of humanity. Most unscientific. His Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, a 'discovery' he claimed for himself, is "devoted to descriptions of the physical and moral ugliness of Africa's 'primitive races."(51)
"Yet living alongside his sorry 'negroes,' Speke found a 'superior race' of 'men who were as unlike as they could be from the common order of the natives' by virtue of their 'fine oval faces, large eyes, and high noses, denoting the best blood of Abysinnia'-that is, Ethiopia. This 'race' comprised many tribes, including the Watusi-Tutsis-all of whom kept cattle and tended to lord it over the Negroid masses. What thrilled Speke most was their 'physical appearances,' which despite the hair-curling and skin-darkening effects of intermarriage had retained 'a high stamp of Asiatic feature, of which a marked characteristic is a bridged instead of a bridgeless nose. Couching his postulations in vaguely scientific terms, and referring to the historical authority of Scripture, Speke pronounced this 'semi-Shem-Hamitic' master race to be lost Christians, and suggested that with a little British education they might be nearly as 'superior in all things' as an Englishman like himself."(52)
In 1992, a Hutu Power spokesman called on Hutus 'to send the Tutsis back to Ethiopia by way of the Nyabarrongo River.' Their corpses, that is. In April 1994, tens of thousands of them washed up on the shores of Lake Victoria. (53)
Rwanda was first a German colony. The first white man entered Rwanda in 1894. The Tutsi leaders were enlisted by the German as collaborators in return for patronage, and by the time the Belgians took over after World War I, the Hutus and Tutsis were well-polarized. The Belgians sent an army of churchmen to 'Christianize' Rwanda, as well as teams of scientists who undertook the comparative weighing and measuring of the brains and craniums and noses of Hutus and Tutsis. Just as they had surmised, the Tutsis were more 'noble' and 'aristocratic' than the 'coarse and bestial' Hutus. They even theorized that the Tutsis originated in the South Pacific, or even Atlantis. With the close collaboration of the Catholic Church, the Belgian rulers set about restructuring Rwanda strictly along ethnic lines. In 1933-34 they conducted a census and issued ethnic identity cards. The Catholic schools educated Tutsis almost exclusively, and the Tutsis, terrified of a Hutu backlash, went along eagerly. Every schoolchild was indoctrinated in the ideology of racial superiority.
"Nothing so vividly defined the divide as the Belgian regime of forced labor, which required armies of Hutus to toil en masse as plantation chattel…and placed Tutsis over them as taskmasters. Decades later, an elderly Tutsi recalled the Belgian colonial order to a reporter with the words 'You whip the Hutu or we will whip you.'"(57)
Then, after World War II, Belgium, under pressure from the UN to prepare the ground for independence, and swept along by the new European rhetoric of 'equality' as it contemplated the Holocaust, completely changed its tune. A new wave of Belgian priests flocked in, preaching Hutu 'empowerment.'
But of course it was never about equality. It was about power, and ultimately, about retribution. The New York Times was able to smugly comment in 1997 on "the age old animosity between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups," when the fact is that before 1959 there is no recorded instance of systematic violence of one group against the other. (59)
By the time Belgium granted independence to Rwanda in 1962, the stage was set. The "Rwandan Revolution" that gave the Hutu majority virtual sole political power from that day to this brought about, in the words of a UN commission in 1962, "the racial dictatorship of one party." (61) There were countless pogroms against the Tutsi leading up to 1994, and conditions improved or worsened according to the inclinations of the various Hutu dictators. Ask any Rwandan. They knew what was coming.
"The British philosopher Sir Bertrand Russell declared the scene in Rwanda that year as 'the most horrible and systematic massacre we have had occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.'" (65)
"That year" was 1964.
After the end of the Cold War, as elsewhere in Africa, all bets were off. Africa was no longer of strategic interest to anyone in Europe and the United States, the plug was pulled on various 'pet' dictatorships, and in Rwanda, as in Congo/Zaire, Liberia, Somalia, Angola, and elsewhere, Africans were left to deal with the economic, political, and social fallout of 500 years of European criminality. This culminated in April 1994, when the political will even to dispatch a mere 5,000 peacekeepers to prevent a holocaust of monstrous proportions was nowhere to be found. They didn't care. They didn't have to.
Nowhere in the countless half-hearted apologies issuing from Washington and European capitals has it been even vaguely suggested that the conditions and terms for this ghastly human tragedy were set into motion by the former colonial powers, or that they bear any responsibility beyond a Shakespearean 'failure to act.' It is their historical actions that should be on trial here, but any white, let alone a black, who demands an accounting, is exiled to the political margins. Africans have their own accounting perhaps, but that is for them. The colossal moral failure marked by white refusal to stand accountable for crimes against Africa and elsewhere and the tragic repercussions of this refusal is the single most important issue on the planet today. That is no exaggeration. Iraq and Rwanda are chapters of the same story.
Source for this article:
We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch