Thursday, November 30, 2006

Never Again International

Never Again International
30 November 2006 What is Happening Between France and Rwanda? A View Inside Rwanda.

“I hear there is rioting going on in Rwanda!” These were the first words out of my mother’s mouth in the middle of the night, last night. Considering we had not spoken since I left America a month ago, I thought this was a warm hello! In my slumbered-drowsiness I had to reassure her, “No, there are no riots going on in Rwanda right now. They have only closed the French Embassy, expelling the French Ambassador; closed the French Cultural Alliance; and, most erroneously, closed the Ecole d’Francais (a secondary school—not for French people, but for Rwandans, just completely taught in French).” Most of my lethargic surprise in my mother’s inquiry was that this had somehow even made news somewhere in Los Angeles—America seems not to notice such distant turmoil so well.

To alleviate my mother’s fears, I failed to mention that there are massive pro-government (e.g. Paul Kagame) rallies at most of the major gathering places around the country—football stadiums, churches, etc. According to the government mouthpiece newspaper, The New Times, something like 20,000 people turned out for such a rally at Amahoro Stadium in Kigali in support of his “Excellency.” I also failed to mention to my mother that many people here assume I am French before they talk to me anyway (it may be a white thing) and that if any random acts of unmitigated violence were to occur on the solitary “Frenchman” they would have already occurred. Okay, well actually I did get pick-pocketed the other day, but I doubt it had anything to do with assumptions of French ness and more to do with poverty and whiteness…

So what is going on between and amongst the French and Rwandan governments? And what about between and amongst the French and Rwandan people? All of what I know is either from The New Times (the only English daily here), the BBC website, and word of mouth from Rwandans based on what they are hearing from their sources and from the Rwandan radio stations which are constantly in tune. Suffice it to say, I can only imagine that while almost every Rwandan has some idea of what is going on (be it propaganda or truth), I doubt that the charges against Rwandan officials by a French magistrate are making too many headlines in France or in French national communities around the world. As for the real details, this essay should not be your source.

Rwanda is a country that is attempting to heal and reconcile from the scars of the past—every single day and in every single way of life. I can’t imagine walking around Lyon or Marseille, and having to encounter bitterness over Napoleon’s sale of Louisiana to Thomas Jefferson (the Louisiana Purchase) or Hitler’s jaunt through the Arc Du Triomphe, in every part of life. In Rwanda, there is no question in anyone’s mind the role the French played in the genocide that occurred in 1994. The French role in the years before the genocide, allowing for the build up of arms and other weapons into this country in support of the oppressive government in power at the time, is not easily forgotten in the halls of Rwandan authority.

As I arrived in Rwanda, the government of Rwanda was on the verge of publishing and disseminating a report describing the role of the French in the genocide. The report was to provide first-hand and documentary accounts (witness testimonials, observation, etc) of French soldiers allowing genocidairres free passage out of the country; of French soldiers and officials checking Rwandan ID cards to determine who was Hutu or Tutsi (or Twa); of the French ‘Operation Turquoise’ to actually allow the continuation of the genocide in some parts of the country; and on and on. It is certain that in 1993, Rwanda was one of the leading purchasers of weapons in the world (probably in proportion to GNP), and most of that was coming through the help of the French government and French intermediaries (as well as Egypt and a couple of other places, with strong French ties). At the same point, do not forget that France was the only government to act at all during the genocide, in any way. The U.N. peacekeepers were repeatedly denied the capabilities to engage perpetrators, and were often about to withdraw altogether. The U.S. road blocked military intervention, as did the other members of the Security Council (until France acted unilaterally), and the list goes on.

I am not sure if the report has been officially released as of yet, but the information espoused in it is common knowledge around Rwanda (accurate knowledge is another conversation and gets too much into semantics). This must have made some waves in France somewhere, because it was not long after that the French Magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguierre, issued arrest warrants for 9 Rwandan Patriotic Front members (the party in power and of his “Excellency” that is considered to have ended the civil war/genocide in Rwanda, with little international support), not including President Kagame—who as a head-of-state is immune to prosecution/indictment according to French law (damn, I guess we can’t convince Bruguierre to issue a warrant for Dickey and Bushey). The charge links the 9 members of the RPF—who are mostly in the military cabinet of the current government—to the shooting down of the plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, the then-president of Rwanda, igniting the genocide the following morning. Why is a French magistrate taking up this case? Because the entire flight crew of the plane, which also carried the Burundian head-of-state, were French nationals.

What is the rationale of a French magistrate to basically accuse the Rwandan government of murder, again, 12-13 years after the genocide (Kagame had been the commanding general of the RPF/A when the plane was shot down, but has repeatedly denied that it was done by the RPF/A)? Why now? Why in this context? For Rwandans, it just seems to be another slap in the face from the international community which not only ignored them during the genocide, but also directly and poignantly ignored the signs leading to the perpetration of the genocide as well as to indirectly help carry it out. It does not seem to make sense, to Rwandans, that a country like France (large, economically-sound, powerful) would not only have helped the perpetrators at the time of the genocide, but come forth with accusations against a country that struggles everyday to keep its feet on the ground. The local conspiracy theorists are apt to claim the French are still angry in part for losing out on a Francophone country and are doing whatever they can, retributively, to remind Rwandans of the horrors of the past.

Still, this does not answer why a French magistrate would issue these warrants. According to the BBC, the French government is disassociating itself from Bruguierre, saying he acted in isolation and without the French government condoning the warrants. The Rwandan government doesn’t buy this, especially with their suspicions of the French government based on centuries of direct and indirect colonialism and imperialism. Rwanda has pulled their ambassador from France and cut all diplomatic ties.

What is going on here? Where can “blame” fall, if anywhere? This tit-for-tat struggle seems like a useless power struggle, not between nations (as I have mentioned, I have doubts if this issue is getting much “play” in France), but between men. As usual, we are in a historical, geopolitical context where men are out to prove themselves to each other and large swathes of powerless people. It is a patriarchal assertion of power that is both timeless and inane. How do you judge right and wrong, when right and wrong is not the goal of the argument, as everyone and everything is right and wrong (according to those who determine right and wrong!)?

Is Rwanda moving “forward” by again asserting French complicity and action in the genocide? Everyone knows there was involvement to some extent, but the current Rwandan power structure should know better than to make accusations, as well. Who is going to care out there, in this large, paternalistic world that would be willing to act in the favour of Rwanda? Nobody much cared about Rwanda before 1994 (by nobody, I mean the halls of power in this world—the old, “white” guys of the “Western” world), and not much has changed in world power structures since then. Sure, we have a Ghanaian as the head of the United Nations, but he didn’t do enough to avoid the Rwandan genocide, when he had the opportunity (before he was the Secretary-General) and the U.S. war on an imaginary target (terrorism—of which it is the biggest perpetrator) in Iraq and elsewhere, has proven that they are not long for being the global-power it was for the second half of the twentieth century. But this is still not a context for action in favour of Rwanda on a broad scale—one that would bring compassion and empathy enough to push France into admissions of wrongdoing. This seems a false and useless struggle to partake in for Rwanda, it will not get anywhere, and it seems only to boost the prestige of the government in power. In other words: propaganda.

As for France, of course, they have not much to lose in admitting wrong-doing, they also have not much to gain in issuing arrest warrants for high-level Rwandan government officials. Whether the magistrate acted alone in his issuances does not really matter. Whether it is France, or if it were the British, Portuguese, Germans, Spanish, Dutch, Belgians or anyone else that has a stake in historically-colonized people’s (America, too), this is another example of irresponsible articulations of historical grievances. All of the colonial powers have left legacies of atrocity, death, manipulation, control, and iron-fisted rule throughout the world. In the “post-“colonial world, these same countries are facing the impact of their past actions in manifestations that are belligerent and residual—which is all due to their own legacies of colonization. Domination is not just about the “here and now” but about the future too. For anyone to claim the legacy of slavery in the U.S. has diminished over the years is kidding themselves; anyone who claims the problems that persist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, today, is not somehow related to the devastation wrought by King Leopold is a fool; and anyone who looks at religious “fundamentalism/extremism” throughout the world and see it as only a problem of Islam, is from another planet.

There is a long way to go before the “ex-“colonized countries are no longer colonized. Now, capitalism is a form of colonialism. It provides the same old direct and indirect rule of small, poor, autonomous states and impoverished people’s. It provides dependency (i.e. Rwanda will still be dependent, in someway, on France, no matter how this current problem plays out) that is impossible to relinquish vis-à-vis world bodies (like the World Bank, IMF, U.N.) and seductively, unequal bilateral relationships (government to government: USAID, DeD, DFID, GTZ, CIDA and NPA are as prominent here as hills and bananas). Frantz Fanon, in “Wretched of the Earth” and “Black Skin, White Masks,” wrote of the need for the mind to be decolonized, and then the condition for revolution of the poor, disenfranchised people of the world will prevail. But we are still not there; the neo-colonial power structure is making sure that there will never be such a revolution. This is not speaking of France-Rwanda, in particular, or of rich and poor, but of the need for an alternative power structure—be it geopolitical or psychological (Fanon) in nature, who knows—to have the space to exist in this world.

Since the expulsion of the French ambassador and the warrants for the arrest of the RPF leadership, there has been an outpouring of “love” for his “Excellency,” President Paul Kagame. In the newspaper, each day, there has been at least 4 or 5 full-page advertisements from “opposition” parties, government institutions and businesses alike showing their support for the president. At the bottom of each ad it is stated “LONG LIVE PRESIDENT PAUL KAGAME, LONG LIVE DEMOCRACY, LONG LIVE RWANDA.” There are pictures of anti-French, or pro-RPF, protesters with signs saying things like “Jean-Louis Bruguirre: We denounce your genocidal ideology!” And the numbers that go with the pictures are a bit misleading (of course, if you are prone to attend protests, numbers are often manipulated depending on who is doing the reporting).

Personally, I have not seen one person carrying or showing anything visible in protest walking around Kigali. Here in Kigali, people are going about their daily struggles—I doubt thoughts of devious French politics (oh, sorry don’t want to sound too much like the American White House) are permeating in thoughts of the people. Why worry about such things if it is difficult to feed your family or put clothes on your back? I have half-joked that maybe I shouldn’t be speaking French in public, less someone mistake me for a French national. Of course, my French still sucks, so I don’t think anyone who hears me speak French would at all accuse me of being French!

I know there is a lot of misinformation and manipulation that is going on, right now, in every direction. While the impact will be much more acute on the Rwandan populace than anywhere else, it is still useless fuel to add to all responsible actor’s machismo fire. Where is this struggle, in the halls of power and minds of men, going? We are seeing another reason being written to not challenge the authority of the Rwandan government, as well; we are witnessing another unforgivable and miscalculated act by the “authority” of an ex-colonizer. Maybe both France and Rwanda should focus more on the people being screwed (metaphorically and literally) in their own countries and stop attempting to placate internal and external opposition through the use of arbitrary power struggles. France is struggling with their debates about “immigration” (similar to the racism and elitism that abounds around this issue in the U.S. and U.K) and Rwanda is struggling with reconciliation and justice, poverty and governance.

If I leave you with one thing though, let it be this: Regardless of whether this Rwanda-France issue has to do with the genocide or not, whatever you do, do not confine this to a Rwanda-France issue. This is something we see all over the world and throughout time as a useless power struggle of weak versus strong (we already know who wins before the struggle begins). It is not about the masses of people within autonomous state boundaries, but about the assertions of a few who must keep grip on that which gives them power and authority. This is as much an American or Chinese issue as it s a French or Rwandan issue. Once again, we are witnessing words and actions used to perpetrate violence, albeit this violence may be more psychological than anything, it is still very much violence. Maybe if the minds of those in power used a little more compassion to understand their people or more imagination to come up with solutions to what really ails societies, than we would not see such mind-numbing abuses of power being perpetrated as often.

No, my mother was wrong, there is no rioting going on in Rwanda right now. Maybe she was just thinking about oppressed people’s, in general, and the need to literally and metaphorically resort to riots in order to be heard or seen. I think what we are all seeing, globally—be it with France and Rwanda, Iraq and America, Russia and Chechnya, George Bush and the face in the mirror—is a profound failure of the imagination to envision a world without negative conflict, that can move toward sustainable peace.


Anonymous said...
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Heddy said...


I've been meaning to find time to write you an email or letter but as usual, pace of life in NYC has not allowed me such a luxury. I do miss you though and having these sorts of conversations in person.

I've had my own mini-drama and string of interesting conversations around Brugierre's arrest warrants here in NYC, thousands of miles away from both France and Rwanda.

When I heard the news, I had the same reaction that you wrote about it in the end of your entry: no matter how pure the intent is behind the warrants (seeking to uncover the "truth" and accountability about one of history's worst crimes) I felt it would unfortunately will devolve into a political power struggle because of the historical/current realities of the international landscape and historical relations btwn France and Rwanda. Unfortunately, something like this does more good than harm and contributes to more confusion of history, when the intent is completely opposite. Hate to be so cynical- but given what we know of Rwanda's history and social landscape, it's hard for me to naively believe that something like this will actually make a difference and prevent genocide in the future.

Anyway, we will talk about less heavy things next time we speak

xoxo Heddy

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