Rwanda and the New York Times

On those images by South African photographer, Pieter Hugo, pairing perpetrators and victims of the 1994 Genocide.

“Portraits of Reconciliation,”–the photo-essay commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide–published recently in the New York Times, is a deeply disturbing piece of journalism.  Profoundly banal, the subtitle states, “20 years after the genocide in Rwanda, reconciliation still happens one encounter at a time.” Repetitive and reductive,  the narrative reduces violence to a set of meaningless outbursts, while it simultaneously fashions forgiveness in the Christian vision of redemption. A self-assured narrative of reconciliation, forgiveness and transformation, the photo-essay depicts a world organized around binary preoccupation: Hutu and Tutsi, Good and Evil, Victim and Perpetrator, and Redemption and Liberation.

It’s impulse locates core Rwandan identity in the archetypal biblical figures of a forgiving-victim and a perpetrator in search of redemption. There is one “overarching identity” that gathers all the fractured identities into some narrative thread. In its most sinister form, this documentary drive serves to enforce dominant power structures in society.

How could the trauma be spoken of through one photograph, one voice? How can a range of contradictory and irreconcilable emotions of loss be explained through one narrative, one self?  While photography is capable of opening up questions about power and authority, which are silenced, this essay adheres to frequently circulated and authoritative discursive practices. There is no critical enquiry of the premise that demands and dictates reconciliation; instead it de-facto buys into the assumptions.

Without language, pictures get handcuffed in what Walter Benjamin famously called “the approximate.” The approximate is a liability, at times even intellectually incomplete and has to be remedied by means of language and thought. While the entire piece provokes momentary horror and an illusion of human resilience, it largely leaves the spectator ignorant. The text similarly refuses to venture into areas of moral ambiguities where victim become perpetrators, or critique the political demands placed on the survivors of genocide by the Rwandan State.  Consequently it fails to grapple with the problem of the political.

Since Marx’s critique of Hegel, reconciliation is seen as a concept that always casts social conflict in the service of the state. It immediately dilutes the fundamental contradictions at the heart of conflict, the consciousness of which would radically call into question the very basis of the State and automatically denies the possibility of living with irresolvable conflicts. As an ideology, reconciliation immediately becomes complicit in the exercise of various forms of structural violence in its appeal to an idea of commonality to legitimate a social hierarchy.

Thus reconciliation is not just a personal act, it has come to function as an organizing category that disciplines conflict and renders subjects disagreement resolvable in terms agreeable with the new post-genocide state. But more crucially it is conditioning the way in which Rwanda’s history is being rewritten as the history of violence (victim’s history) and a history of Hutu guilt,  rather than one of exploitation, power, resistance and the unthinkable violence, whose genealogy is deeply intertwined with the history of colonization.  .

Rwanda is a living museum of genocide. Signs with the word “Jenoside’ is plastered throughout the country. These signs mark the sites of massacres and mass graves. Other larger signs repeatedly proclaimed, “Never Again.” Ntarama and Nyamata Churches located south of Kigali are horrifying reminders of violence that took place during the genocide are now genocide memorial sites. The floor of the Church at Ntarama, bloodstains, bones, blood soaked clothing, shoes, and personal artifacts from the massacre remain scattered on the floor. At Murambi genocide memorial site, mummified bodily remains of men, women and infants are displayed. Seeing these bodies, frozen in the positions in which they met their gruesome fates, one can hear an “extraordinary scream pass through nature”.

These corpses are a testimony to the genocide. A physical manifestation of Tito Rutaremara’s proclamation that, “the genocide must live on.” A constant physical reminder is still deemed imperative to fight against any future “genocidal tendencies”. These artifacts of political violence, shrines and memorials perform another function, they are a constant affirmation of Hutu atrocity and guilt.

When you refuse to bury the dead, when the memory of violence lingers in every street corner, when does mourning end, and where does forgiveness begins? What are the Rwandans to reconcile themselves to?

No one can say with certainty how many were killed in those 100 days of terror.  The estimates vary between ten and fifty thousand Hutu, and close to a million Tutsi. Hutu’s were killed due to political opposition, others for refusing to partake in the violence. Both men and women participated. Some women played prominent political roles, while others killed. Some assisted killers by preparing the meals, delivering food to check posts and others even cheered them on. On the streets, these women became informants calling out hiding spots, refusing to hide their Tutsi neighbors and stealing from the dead. Women partook, because many genuinely believed that Tutsi’s need to be killed.   In one remarkable story, a Tutsi woman wore military uniform on during the genocide, to get through the roadblocks to save her Tutsi niece who had been attacked. When subsequently caught by the Interahamwe trying to hide the girl, she offered herself as a sex slave (femme de viol) to the local Interahamwe leader in order to protect the girl, and others, from rape. Later she used her “rape-husbands” help to travel to Butare in search of her other family, all the while witnessing her “husbands” atrocities. There remains a reluctance to acknowledge the complex realities of women’s lives during the genocide, beyond the gendered imagery.

The unsettling reality is that everybody participated. The Genocide then, was not merely the State project of annihilation; it was social and populist, with “popular” agency. It was carried out by hundreds of thousands of men and women.   The Photo-essay remains oblivious to the other kind of history, the Rwandan state’s persistent refusal to prosecute alleged war crimes committed by the (then rebel) Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) before and during the genocide, reprisal killings by RPA soldiers and other individuals during and after the genocide, and the massacre of thousands of Hutu perpetrated by the RPA – for instance, the attack on the Kibeho camp for Internally Displaced Persons in 1995 and in eastern Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, writing in May 1994, stated that Rwanda is clinically dead as a nation. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) under President Kagame used nothing short of brute force and war, and a new foundational myth to breathe life back to the Rwandan State. Once in government, Mr Kagame, who first served as Rwanda’s defence minister and vice-president, backed the rebellion in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo to overthrow President Mobutu Seso Seko’s regime, that started the First Congo War.

Similarly, the genocide gave birth to Tutsi Power in Rwanda. Rwandan political power remains in the hands of a few men, who grew up as refugees in Uganda, and are former RPF officers. This process of accumulation of power in the hands of a small inner circle is masked by the government enforced ‘version’ of history.  A history constantly validated by stories of reconciliation. The memory of the genocide is instrumentalized to stifle dissent and international criticism. The act of reconciliation, predominantly through gacaca courts, although sometimes genuinely participatory, has been manipulated to intimidate Kagame’s political opponents and consolidate power.

Rwandan identity today, is inexplicably shaped as the identity of surviving the genocide. As the Genocide lives on, there are living breathing bodies, who closely escaped annihilation, who live amongst men and women who perpetrated and made these deaths possible. Everyday, they encounter the memory of violence, death and loss. It is these lives from whom we demand forgiveness and extract reconciliation, for the sake of the State. The reconciliation process can achieve nothing because it does not promise justice and there can be no justice without a reorganization of power.

The photographs by Pieter Hugo perpetuate a different kind of violence. First, it silences and misrepresents the history of the survivors, both Tutsis and Hutus. Second, it re-enforces the collective stigmatization of all Hutu as génocidaires. Despite periodic chastising of President Kagame and his government, the general admiration for him and a consistent refusal to demand a prosecution of RPA for its war crimes remain a standard Western practise. Rwandan government’s consistent use of illegitimate force outside the border of its own state, progressive march towards authoritarianism, misuse of the judicial process of reconciliation to consolidate power, and even the simple recognition that Kagame went into [DR] Congo with American support and started two wars to consolidate the Rwandan state authority, remains written out of these narratives.

If this is the status quo, these stories and storytellers, then, act as useful idiots in the service of the Rwandan state, and reaffirm the broader western consensus. Our quiet encouragement and support in perpetuating this narrative makes us complicit bystanders to the perpetrators of yesterday.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.