The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

The shock waves of the Rwandan tragedy

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 civil war.

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