Genocide in our time

Season of Blood - The Rwanda Crisis 1959-94 - Genocide in Bosnia
December 29, 1995

Only a brave or foolhardy writer attempts to write about genocide it is too easy to exploit and dishonour the dead. The authors of these three books were powerfully motivated to explain why the first half of this decade has seen genocide committed in Bosnia in Europe, and Rwanda in central Africa. These are very different stories, each with its own complex explanations. But one common thread connects these books: the authors convincingly show that neither the genocide in Bosnia, nor in Rwanda, was the inevitable outcome of ancient tribal hatreds; they were government policy.

In Genocide in Bosnia, Norman Cigar has set out to prove three points: ethnic cleansing in Bosnia was genocide; this genocide was planned; and that this genocide was stoppable.

Citing the United Nations Convention on Genocide ("acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group"), Cigar boldly asserts that the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia is genocide.

Much more attention is devoted to the question of why nationalism in Bosnia spilled over into genocide. Cigar, a professor of national security studies at the United States Staff College, asserts that the killing in Bosnia was not the inevitable result of ancient hatreds let loose, but rather a policy that was advocated by the intellectual and political elite of Serbia. The Bosnian genocide was carried out in the cause of creating an ethnically pure Greater Serbia.

Among the guilty parties named by Cigar are Vuk Draskovic, author of a violently anti-Muslim novel (Noz - "The Knife"), the Orientalist School of the Serbian Academy of Sciences, the Serb Orthodox Church, and the politicians, Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic. So, the Belgrade intellectuals conspired to demonise the Muslims and make them a legitimate target for extinction and expulsion by forces under the command of Milosevic and Karadzic.

Much of this is familiar territory. What is new is the impressive trawl Cigar has made through the archives, especially the Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian press. One is occasionally shocked by the titbits he has unearthed. The Belgrade weekly Intervju published an interview with Jovan Raskovic, the Croatian Serb psychiatrist who led the original Serb rebellion against Franjo Tudjman's government in 1990. The title was "On ethnic characteristics; sufferers of Oedipus castration complexes." Cigar summarises: "The key to understanding Muslims is 'their anal fixation'. This behaviour, allegedly, stemmed from their preoccupation with ritual cleanliness found in their religious law, and supposedly warped their character so that they were markedly aggressive and excessively materialistic."

One wishes that the author had devoted more time to explaining why Bosnia's history, especially in the second world war, has made it so easy for the politicians to mobilise the Serbs to murderous hatred.

Cigar has found it easier to make his case against the Serbian leadership than that of Croatia. He asserts that the massacres in the 1993-94 Muslim-Croat war were "spin-off war crimes". And the fact that there was considerable opposition both in the Croat community of Bosnia-Hercegovina and in Croatia proper somehow made Croat ethnic cleansing of Muslims less than organised genocide. Cigar's leniency towards the crimes of the Tudjman regime tarnishes an otherwise well-researched and thoughtful work. One wonders how he would have described Croatia's ethnic cleansing of the Krajina Serbs this August.

There is no doubt in Fergal Keane's mind that what happened in Rwanda in 1994 was genocide. Indeed, the key to his powerful little book Season of Blood is in these two sentences: "Before you read this book and while you read it, remember the figures, never ever forget them: in one hundred days up to one million people were hacked, shot, strangled, clubbed and burned to death. Remember, carve this into your consciousness: one million."

Keane, who spent a few weeks in Rwanda making an award-winning BBC Panorama programme, is an eloquent writer. This is essentially a travel book on the making of his programme, but he discharges soberly his responsibility as a witness to genocide.

Keane has a feeling for the anecdote that stays in the mind. He describes standing by the aKagera river with his RPF escort, Frank, laddishly ribbing him about his reluctance to marry. "The talk goes on like this for several more minutes. It is pleasantly distracting. So much so that at first I do not notice them. And then I turn around and for the first time I see two bodies bobbing along. Then three more. They nudge in and out of the grass and the leaves and are carried towards the falls. One swirls in towards the bank and I notice it is a woman who has been chopped and hacked. But it is not the gash in her head, the gouges in her back and arms that frighten and offend. Rather, I am shocked by her nakedness. . . 'Don't worry man. Don't be surprised,' says Frank. 'They've been coming through in their hundreds.'" Confronted with such horrors, western Europeans have a tendency to fall back on the comfortable notion that countries like Rwanda or Burundi are plagued by the inevitably fatal African disease - tribalism. Gerard Prunier's magnificent History of a Genocide reminds us that we, too, are prone to irrational policies based solely on perverted ideas of nation. Listen to him describe why the Mitterrand government continued to support the genocidal and corrupt regime of the Francophone Hutu leader Juvenal Habyarimana against his English-speaking Tutsi enemies: "France has seen itself as a large hen followed by a docile brood of little black chicks. . . Of course the arch enemy of this cosy relationship, the hissing snake in the Garden of Eden is the Anglo-Saxon, the modern reincarnation of 'Les Anglais'. Everyone in France knows that 'Les Anglais' are among the worst enemies the French ever had: they burned Jeanne d'Arc alive, they stole Canada and India from us in 1763, they exiled Napoleon to a ridiculous little rock in the South Atlantic and they sank our battle fleet at Mers el-Kebir in 1940. And to top it all their women are ugly and their food is terrible. . . Of course Anglo-Saxons are usually white but not always, (Uganda's) President Yoweri Museveni, (patron of the Tutsi RPF Army) as we shall see, was definitely an incarnation of the Anglo-Saxon menace. . . and it is the main reason - and practically the only one - why Paris intervened so quickly and so deeply in the growing Rwandan crisis."

Prunier (who has written this book in English) is a long-standing Africa expert, and it shows. He tells us how the European colonists arrived in Rwanda carrying romantic 19th century ideas about race. They unknowingly upset the complex political and economic system of interdependence and checks and balances that existed among the three peoples of Rwanda: the tall light-skinned and "aristocratic" Tutsi (who were variously thought to be descendants of Ethiopians, Egyptians, or perhaps the last survivors of Atlantis), the shorter darker "peasant" Hutu, and the small Twa (obviously closer to the apes). European colonists, first the Germans, and then the Belgians, codified a system that gave the Tutsi the kind of unlimited power enjoyed by the European aristocracy of an earlier age.

Worse, they inflicted their own racist myths on the peoples of Rwanda, so the Tutsi were encouraged to believe they were superior, and the Hutu learned to resent their downtrodden place in society. Before Europe came to Rwanda, their wars were either against foreign tribes or internal affairs between lineages fighting for power. There is no record of systematic violence between Tutsi and Hutu.

When decolonisation came in 1959, it came in the form of a violent Hutu revolt (with European help) against the ruling Tutsi, thousands of whom were driven out of the country to Uganda. In Uganda, the Tutsi refugees learned English, eventually became embroiled in Uganda's armed struggles over the decades, and only in the early 1990s began the final military campaign to return. Indeed, one of the fascinating elements of the Rwandan tragedy is the degree to which the returning Tutsi, the RPF, were foreigners, not having lived in the country for two generations.

Prunier carefully sets out the evidence that the Hutu elite of the failing Habyarimana government deliberately planned the genocide of 1994 as a means to stay in power. And of course, the entire time, despite the growing evidence of the bloodbath to come, France supported Habyarimana. When the Tutsi RPF launched their invasion in 1990, Prunier was sitting in the office of Christophe Mitterrand, the president's son, who ran the Africa office in the Elysee. After taking a call from a worried president Habyarimana, Mitterrand winked, and told the author, "We are going to send him a few boys, old man Habyarimana. We are going to bail him out. In any case, the whole thing is going to be over in two or three months." Christophe Mitterrand was wrong. The French army troops stayed on, fighting alongside the Hutu army, collecting evidence of what their allies were planning, doing nothing to stop it.

Paul Mitchell was co-producer/ director of the BBC television series, The Death of Yugoslavia.

Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey

Author - Fergal Keane
ISBN - 0 670 86205 3
Publisher - Viking
Price - £13.00
Pages - 198

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