Writing Back To The Empire

It is interesting how the latest book on the Rwandan genocide by Linda Melvern has been received, or, rather, how it has been ignored by the South African media. Even the radical posturing newspapers have so far ignored the book. The neglect of the book is reminiscent of the intentional ignorance that facilitated the massacre of about a million members of the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutu in that country in a period of 100 days in 1994.


Cruelty dressed as Charity: the legacy of colonialism


“CONSPIRACY TO MURDER” by Linda Melvern and published by VERSO late last year. In her 358 pages work documents in detail the events that led up to the genocide, and goes back 100 years before the 1994 genocide to analyse Rwanda ethnocentrism. She begins from 1884, when European superpowers sat at the Berlin Conference and agreed to divide the African continent among themselves, what some today refer to as the Scrambles for Africa.


“Colonial rule,” writes Melvern, “eroded the power of the king of Rwanda and disrupted the old state apparatus. The divisions in society were enforced. In 1933 the Belgian administration organized a census. Teams of Belgian bureaucrats arbitrarily classified the whole population as Hutu, Tutsi or Twa, giving everyone an identity card with the ethnic grouping clearly marked.” (pg 5)


Furthermore, “Every Rwandan was counted and measured: the height, the length of their noses, the shape of their eyes.” (pg 6) Like all colonial powers divide and rule was the Belgians policy. The divide and rule policy engendered a situation whereby the Tutsi occupied a higher level than the Hutus in the colonial hierarchy. And so, by and by, “the divisions in society became more pronounced with the Hutu discriminated against in all walks of life.”


As the colonial era drew to a close, “for the Hutu the future of Rwanda meant freedom from Tutsi rule… and an end to Belgian colonization.” In 1959 the Hutus rose up killing hundreds of people. The Belgian authorities switched sides and helped the Hutus to oust Tutsi chiefs and sub-chiefs and replaced them with Hutu chiefs.


Melvern reveals that right after the bloody turn of events in 1959: “The UN General Assembly sent a special commission to Rwanda. It reported that racism bordered on ‘Nazism against the Tutsi minorities’ and that the government together with the Belgian authorities were to blame.”


Moreover, “Unless there was national reconciliation, the commission concluded, the outlook for Rwanda was bleak.” (pg 7) What that racism which bordered on Nazism achieved was the marginalization of the Tutsis, socially and politically. Thousands of Tutsi families fled the country to neighbouring countries, and so commenced the long and bloody dispute.


Bertolt Brecht’s poem “The Dispute (A.D. 1938)” used words that in part reflect on the nature of such a dispute: “Two yelled and two were silent. All four were enraged: Two held knives in their hands, and two carried knives in the shafts of their boots. ‘Give us back what you stole from us,’ two of them yelled, ‘or there will be a disaster.’ And the two were silent, nonchalantly observing the weather.”




“At 2.30pm. on the afternoon of Monday 10 October, 1990,” writes Melrven, “fifty armed men crossed the border from Uganda and shot dead the guards on the customs post. Within minutes hundreds more armed men poured into Rwanda, wearing Ugandan army uniforms. The invasion had begun.


“The rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), was representing the refugees, all those Rwandans forcibly driven out of the country between 1959 and 1963. Their demands included an end to the ethnic divide and the system of compulsory identity cards… [and] democratization of the security force.” (pg13)


However, the invasion failed, mainly because both France and (the then) Zaire sent in forces to protect their ally, according to Melvern. “Zaire sent several hundred troops belonging to its crack unit, the Division Speciale Presidentielle (DSP). France sent two parachute companies, ostensibly to ensure the safety of its own nationals. But France also set up a blocking position to prevent the invaders from advancing on the capital and its airport. Belgium did likewise but later withdrew because of a law forbidding the military to take part in a civil war. “It was the French who saved the regime and who stayed on in Rwanda, providing financial and military guarantees….” (pg 14)


After the failed invasion, the government proposed that the Hutu youth of Rwanda should learn armed combat and that all civilians should eventually be organized in a programme of civil defence. The initial training of the youth was started as early as January 1991 and was at first handled by French instructors, according to Melvern.


In 1993, Rwanda began importing a large number of machetes and other agricultural tools. During the genocide, says Melvern, “Most victims were killed by machete (37.9%), followed by clubs (16.8%) and firearms (14.8%).” (pg 251).


Along with the machetes, the government imported razor blades, nails, hoes and axes, screw drivers, scythes, saws, spades, knives, pliers, pincers, scissors, hammers, and shears. At the same time the government was importing arms at an alarming rate. “In the three years from October 1990 Rwanda, one of the poorest countries in the world, became the third largest importer of weapons in Africa…. Experts who studied this paper trail estimate that in the three years leading to the genocide a total $US 112 million was spent on weapons and tools.” (pg. 57)


France,” Melvern continues, “was also involved in providing Rwanda with arms. It is estimated that between 1991 and 1992 it sent weapons worth at least US$6 million and that by 1993 Rwanda was receiving US$4 million worth of weapons annually from France.” (pg 58)


A campaign of hate was launched by the Rwandan government to complement the arm’s programme and the training of the youth militia. A journal called Kangura (‘wake up others’) was established. Melvern writes that “one of its most infamous issues was number six containing what were called the Hutu ten commandments. These amounted to a manifesto against Tutsis, which was not only an outright call to show contempt and hatred for the Tutsi minority, but also to slander and prosecute Tutsi women. ‘A traitor is anyone who befriends, employs or marries a Tutsi’.” (pg 50)


To further strengthen this campaign of hate a new radio station was set up. “In the street markets hundreds of cheap portable radios suddenly became available and the new station was immediately popular.


“That false information was broadcast on RTLM [Radio - Television Libre des Mille Collines] to instill fear and incite violence was confirmed some years later by witness who testified at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.” (pg 54)


The Genocide and the Response of the International Community


“[When it comes to Africa] Washington‘s attitude is very much as outlined by National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and diplomat Richard Butler: there is no perceived gain in assisting the victims of terror, so there is no need to respond (except by sending arms to fuel the conflicts).” (Chomsky, A New Generations Draws the Line: 2001)


The killing began in early April 1994, right after the assassination of the Rwandan president, President Habyarimana. When the genocide started, the new radio station was put to full use to facilitate and speed up the killing. The rumour was spread by government officials and soldiers that the RPF and its accomplices had assassinated the Hutu president. And so it was decided that the Hutu opposition and all the Tutsi were to be eliminated.


Melvern explains the role of the RTLM. “A daily morning briefing for journalists from RTLM and Radio Rwanda was held at the Ministry of Defence. Army officers telephoned the officers of RTLM to ask journalists to broadcast the names and addresses of people who had somehow escaped the cordon of roadblocks.” (pg 205)


As for the actual killings, “It was systematic and well-organised with soldiers and militia taking part. The militia drove around in vehicles provided for the purpose and were armed to the teeth. Whole families were taken away on lorries, told they would be safe but instead taken to the public cemetery… where they were killed. Those people who tried to flee to neighbouring Zaire were shot at the border.” (pg. 165)


UNAMIR, “the UN mission in Rwanda was in chaos. There was fear and panic. The headquarters of the Kigali battalion of UNAMIR was shelled and the staff moved to the hotel. Some Belgian peacekeepers were in shock and locked themselves in their hotel bedrooms.” (pg. 175)


Melvern continues: “In Washington the first decision, taken… was the immediate closure of the US embassy in Kigali.” (pg. 177) Plans to evacuate all the US citizens in Rwanda were put in place. Other countries decided to evacuate their own citizens as well.


In one instance, Melvern says, “One group of Belgian peacekeepers, a platoon of Belgian soldiers, was ordered to abandon 2, 000 people they were protecting at a school in Kicukiro in order to help the evacuation. As soon as the peacekeepers were gone the militia started firing at the people and threw grenades into the crowd.” (pg. 186)


And, “Rwandans who managed to board evacuation lorries were taken off at roadblocks and killed, with French and Belgian soldiers looking on. While this was going on, “On 15 April the US again told the [Security] council that there was no useful role for peacekeeping in the present circumstances.” (pg. 200) So, on 21 April, “the Security Council took its first decision in the crisis, voting to reduce the peacekeepers of UNAMIR to a residual group of 250….” (pg. 215). To be precise, the peacekeepers were reduced from 2 500 to 250.


The killing continued at a steady pace. “The sexual crimes in the genocide were unparalleled. The rape of women was so extensive that the ICTR [ International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda]… would later make an historic determination that systematic rape was a crime against humanity….” (pg. 251).


“In the early hours of 17 May,” continues Melvern, “eight weeks after the genocide began, and twenty-seven days after UNAMIR had been reduced, the Security Council finally authorized the 5, 500 reinforcements, expanding the peacekeeping mandate to provide security and protection for civilians at risk in Rwanda….” (pg. 235)


However, initially, the Security Council agreed to send 5, 500 troops made up of volunteers only. A few poor African countries volunteered, but these countries had no planes to get their troops in Rwanda, and, furthermore, had no armoured personnel carriers to protect the troops once in Rwanda. Eventually, France volunteered to send its troops, the same country that was the major international supporter of the genocidal government.


Melvern’s book succeeds where most books on the Rwandan genocide fail, solely because it documents in detail the events that led up to the genocide, while at the same time she analyses Rwandan ethnocentrism from an historical perspective. But most importantly, Melvern demolishes the international community lie that it did not know what was going in Rwanda by presenting well researched evidence. In short, the book is an indictment of the UN and the international community.


Mandisi Majavu is a freelance journalist and an activist. He can be reached through the Centre for Civil Society at the University of Kwazulu Natal. http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs/


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