OP-ED By Emmanuel Dongala
The New York Times, New York, NY, Wednesday, April 6, 2004
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. - It wasn't surprising that the 20th century ended
with Africa having a genocide of its own. The accumulation of myriad little
things going adrift was destined to result in a tragedy of such a magnitude.
When militia from the majority Hutu population began their killing spree
against the Tutsi minority 10 years ago, I was living in Brazzaville, the
capital of Congo Republic, in central Africa. It's a cliche now to talk
about the global village, but there we were, following what was happening in
real time on television broadcasts.
Graphic by Joseph Hart
(Click on image to enlarge it)
For 100 days, from April to July 1994, the massacre continued unimpeded for
the world to see, and left more than 800,000 people dead. Neighbors who did
not have a television huddled in my living room to watch, just like they did
for sports events. Only this time we were not watching African soccer teams
compete in the Cup of Nations, we were witnessing the first televised
genocide in the history of humankind. We could see, caught through the
long-distance lenses of the cameras, shadowy figures hacking to death
defenseless people along the roadways. There, in caricature, was a
demonstration of the schizophrenic state in which Africa still finds itself
today, that of a continent where different periods of history coexist: the
contemporary state-of-the art communications satellite beaming the brutal
work of a primitive weapon.
In carrying out their genocide, the Nazis used technology to kill in an
anonymous way; for them, the victims were only numbers. In Rwanda, in a
perversion of the legendary African conviviality and solidarity, people
killed one by one, among those they knew. Some murdered neighbors. Women
pushed men to rape other women. And instead of protecting their flock, some
church leaders delivered the Tutsis among them to the killers.
Since the brutalities unfolded in full view, we could not pretend, as some
had during the Nazi genocide, that we did not know. Yet most of us in Africa
did not grasp the gravity of what was going on. It is only when the killing
spree ended and we started counting the bodies that we realized there had
been a genocide - and a well-planned one, as we later learned. Months
before, the Rwandan government had imported thousands of dollars worth of
machetes from China.
During those vicious 100 days, though, Western countries, including the
United States, refused to call it a genocide. Using the term would have
meant moral and legal obligations. Yet many Africans believed the reason for
the denial was that genocide is historically linked to "civilized" people.
In Africa, where barbarism was the norm, the Hutu killing spree was just
another tribal war. After all, how can one commit a genocide with machetes?
Then the refugees started flowing into our country, most of them Hutus. They
had walked hundreds of miles through the dense and hot equatorial forest of
Zaire and then crossed the Congo River. How could we tell who were the
murderers and who were the victims? Of all those I met, one woman made me
understand the depths of the tragedy. She was about 20 years old. I learned
that she had not been raped or suffered any other personal violence. Then
she casually told me she had no family left - no father, mother, siblings,
grandparents. No one. My African mind was unable to imagine someone in the
world without a single family member.
The shock waves of the Rwandan tragedy would soon hit home when, three years
later, the Congo Republic became embroiled in its own civil war. Until then,
we looked condescendingly on the people of Rwanda, thinking that such
atrocities could never happen in our blessed country.
But then the long-simmering political rivalry between President Pascal
Lissouba and his immediate predecessor escalated into nationwide violence.
Huge columns of Congolese refugees, including my family and me, fled
Brazzaville and plodded through the forest, hungry and crippled with
malaria. Among our pursuers were many of those same Rwandan refugees, who
had been coerced into fighting with the faction that ultimately won our
Today, I still think the genocide in Rwanda has not been the electroshock
that should have jolted me and other African scholars from our "Africanly"
correct way of thinking.
Emmanuel Dongala, a novelist and chemist, teaches at Simon's Rock College of
Bard. His novel about African child soldiers will be published next year.
The New York Times, New York, N.Y., Tuesday, April 6, 2004
FOR PERSONAL AND ACADEMIC USE ONLY