In a piece in the Boston Review, Jina Moore complains that
Nearly every story I published from Rwanda in my three years reporting there included a reference to the 1994 genocide. Dredging up suffering can win a busy audience’s attention, but it’s a limited kind of attention. It’s the attention of the kind-hearted stranger from a distance, the reader who stops eating his breakfast or reading her stock quotes to remember just how bad it is in other places.
She’s not alone; most news stories of any kind I’ve read on Rwanda have discussed the genocide. However, I don’t see that as a bad thing: maybe Jina is correct about the reasons for news stories – that to get attention for stories from Africa we need to highlight suffering, but it is entirely right and good that the Rwandan genocide be mentioned in virtually all reporting on the country.
Why? Isn’t it tiresome? Wasn’t it a long time ago? Shouldn’t we move on? While the answer to the first question is “maybe”, the others should be met with a resounding “no”. When accurately considered, the Rwandan genocide not only wasn’t a long time ago, it’s not even over. The mass slaughter of Tutsis within Rwanda did end in 1994, but it touched off a series of wars in the Eastern Congo that, despite a nominal peace, are still being fought today. And Rwanda itself has been governed continuously since 1994 by the hero of the Tutsi RPF, Paul Kagame. Current major concerns over human rights under his regime are directly linked to the genocide, not only because his rule was its direct consequence but also because the paranoia that drives those human rights violations is motivated by the RPF’s experiences from that period.
The other aspect – whether we should move on – fails to consider what a huge deal the genocide was. In the Great Lakes Region, and in Africa more broadly, the significance of the Rwandan genocide is comparable to that of the World Wars in Europe. Out of a long and awful history of brutal conflicts between Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups in the Great Lakes, the 1994 genocide was far and away the most horrible. A vast, popular movement of Hutus slaughtered eight hundred thousand Tutsis in a period of just 14 weeks, or more one in every ten people in the country, distributed across nearly its entire extent. In many ways, even the Holocaust pales in comparison: it was done over a longer period, using sophisticated technology that allowed even the direct killers to displace themselves from the murders. Most of the Tutsis who died in 1994 were hacked to death with machetes; even small arms were rarely used. And these murders were facilitated, if not carried out, by their friends and neighbors. While the typical German was aware and complicit in supporting the Nazi regime, they didn’t see the killings directly and could turn a blind eye to them. In sharp contrast, it’s often pretty tough to distinguish Hutus and Tutsis – the groups look different at the extremes, but it’s quite easy. Since the Tutsis had not been ghettoized before the genocide, friends and neighbors played key roles in calling Tutsis out for slaughter, and even if they were not involved they often saw and heard the killings, which occurred in the victim’s home villages, firsthand.
I don’t mean to make light of either genocide, or to bring up harsh memories for those involved unnecessarily. I’ve listed those points above because I honestly don’t think people are aware of its incredible brutality. In my opinion, it’s the worst single thing that has ever happened (Cambodia’s bizarre terror/genocide is a close second). Is it important to mention it all the time? Here’s a test: read any news story about Germany, and see how often World War II and the Holocaust are still either directly mentioned or implicitly referred to. It has been 77 years since that horror ended, and it still infuses news coverage on the country, especially when politics are involved. A similar pattern holds for many stories about Jewish people, especially coverage of Israel. Inasmuch as its not being brought up, the reason is just that all readers are aware of its details, consequences and importance, which cannot be said for Rwanda. Mentioning the genocide in coverage of Rwanda, then, is not enough on its own – readers need to be brought up to speed on its ongoing significance.
Moore’s overall point is a good one: Rwanda is one country out of 54, and generally peaceful places like Malawi don’t get the attention they should for positive developments like high economic growth, innovative anti-poverty programs, or getting a female president before the United States did. However, the fact that the focus on bad stuff in Africa is getting tiresome doesn’t give us a license to ignore it. Focus more on positive stuff, sure. But don’t whitewash Rwanda’s history.
Hat tip: Chris Blattman