I made a trip to Africa recently. I work in technology an engineer and network manager for a humanitarian organization with a large, well funded program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I was sent to spend a week in Bukavu helping to set-up some IT equipment and do some troubleshooting.
I’ve been on the African continent a few times – in the 1990’s working as a touring musician I visited Egypt, Morocco, and Kenya – which was as far south as I had ever been. The most powerful impact of this trip, with the exception of the friendships I made in Bukavu, was my layover in Rwanda.
The trip from Bukavu back to Rwanda involved a 45 minuite “puddle-jumper” flight from Cyangugu Kamembe airport on the DRC border to Kigali. It was a short flight, but over the most intensely beautiful country I have ever seen. My seat mate was also employed by an NGO and we decided that we’d spend our afternoon Kigali layover visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial. My seat-mate Laeticia was the one who told me about the history of the genocide and pointed out Romeo Dallaire’s book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
which I purchased from the gift shop after the tour.
Many people don’t know about the genocide in Rwanda. As the world watched a different tragedy unfold in the former Yugoslavia; and questioned whether or not O.J. Simpson’s hands fit the bloody glove – A million people were brutally slaughtered in an organized wave of death based on nothing more than their identity as a Tutsi or Hutu moderate. The world didn’t pay much attention.
It is hard to explain what happened in the scope of a sentence or two, but basically humanity went nuts. Rwanda had a division along ethnic lines – something that was encouraged and enforced during Rwanda’s colonial occupation by Belgium. Great hatred developed between the Tutsi (the favored, the ones given high positions and status) and the Hutus (the common masses, farmers, and workers). In the late 50’s and into the early 60’s, just five years or so before Rwanda gained full independence, the Tutsi monarchy was eventually driven from power and exiled themselves in the neighboring countries of Zaire (DR Congo), Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania. Rwanda’s history into the 1990’s was one of various factions – Hutu moderate government forces, Exiled Rwandan Tutsi Forces that had mobilized outside the country, and internal Hutu extremists who held high contempt and hatred for all Tutsis and Hutu moderates. As the tensions and political power began to mobilize and strengthen between these groups, a United Nations force was installed to keep the peace. The figurehead of the force was Canadian Lt. General Romeo Dallaire, who has written a book (now a movie ) about his experiences. Essentially Dallaire failed in his mission. While signs of an impending tragedy echoed across the desks of the most powerful nations in the world, they were ignored. Dallaire did the best he could do with what he had – and I believe that for that he is a hero. Unfortunately he was not given enough resources to prevent the slaughter of nearly one million Tutsi and Hutu moderates by rogue government forces and the extremist Interhamwe over the next few weeks.
Visiting the memorial is tough. Rooms filled with cases of bones, shoes, clothing, identification, photographs and personal effects stand to remind of what happened here in 1994. 1994. Another area serves the memory of other genocides such as those in Cambodia, Bosnia and Nazi Germany in World War II. Clearly we never learned our lesson. Viewing the small remains of a child whose skull was fractured from the blow of the back of a machete is not something one can soon forget. While I’m no Romeo Dallaire, sometimes the silence is too loud even for me.
Why am I blathering on about all this? I guess it is because I know that this ethnic genocide continues in parts of central Africa. I know that armed militias control and wage war over various mineral resources in the DRC of gold and coltan. Many people starve. There is widespread lawlessness and gang rape by armed militias is a daily occurrence both women and men experience on a regular basis. Large masses of people are constantly uprooted and must move due to the conflicts. This stuff keeps me up at night.
I watched a documentary of General Dallaire – and he spoke of his post traumatic stress and suicidality after returning home. He said the silence became so loud. He spoke of the persistence of horrific visions of corpses and the stench of death and the feelings of helplessness and failure.
Dallaire has spoken of his faith. It remains difficult for me to believe in a god who would sit by and let all these things happen – in the same way it is difficult for me to believe in a government or even a planet that could sit by and let these things happen. They say 26,000 children die of starvation every day. Why would a god who could fix that and feed them, not? Why would he let a young child or infant watch his parent be shot or machete’d to death – before being raped and murdered herself? How does the god of little children I was taught to believe in stand by and watch that happen?
Human beings are capable of some awful things. It doesn’t seem to require any mental illness to me. Perhaps Manson and Bundy were mentally ill – antisocial, sociopathic, incapable of remorse or empathy. But surely not every genocidaire involved in the muder of a million Rwandese fit the DSM category for antisocial sociopathy – (any more than those German people who were complicit in the extermination of 6 times as many Jews murdered in the Nazi Holocaust). I think people who “know” they are right, and are just that sure of themselves are dangerous. This is what happens when we go so fully into the us and them mentality. This is what happens when we so strongly identify as right or left. When we identify as groups and stop identifying as individuals – we start to lose our humanity. When our humanity is gone, the most horrible shit happens.