Tuesday, July 22, 2014

MY genocide

What do I mean by that title, up there? Certainly no sane person would want to lay claim to a genocide, would they? Why I call it "mine" is because it has affected me on a personal level the way no others have.

It's been twenty years now since the genocide in Rwanda. It began on April 7, 1994 and carried on through the summer of that year. About 100 days, total. And during those hundred days, somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million people were massacred. It's not the worst genocide in history (and by worst I mean biggest; one has to be academic about it, to measure such atrocities by the sheer number of human lives taken, I suppose), not by a long shot. Why then did it get to me like none of the others? Why did it go deep, to the marrow? I think of the Emily Dickinson poem "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass," and the final line, "and zero at the bone." Why does the Rwandan genocide drop my internal bone temperature to surprise-snake-encounterin' levels, when the other, bigger ones didn't get under my skin the same way?

For starters, it happened in Africa. I've had a lifelong fascination with the Dark Continent, mother of the human race. I've longed to go there and someday I will. Anything African is guaranteed to automatically pique my interest. That was the start of it.

1994. I was in my early 20s, just starting to become an adult. I still had the old TV I'd had for years, with its rabbit ear reception and screwy tint control. I'd never even heard the word "Internet." I was working some dead-end job I hated, with no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Still a wet-behind-both-ears kid with no life experience outside of the books I read and what I saw on the nightly news, on those rare occasions when I would watch it. One evening in April of 1994, I happened to tune in. Or more like the TV happened to be on while I was doing something else. I heard something mentioned about a tiny African country and turned my head to see what the news anchor was talking about. I don't remember now which anchorman it was or even if it was a man. I usually watched ABC, so it may have been Peter Jennings or Ted Koppel. I saw video of a row of large trucks, men hanging off the sides, rolling down a muddy dirt road. And on the sides of the road--"Wait? Are those BODIES?" I asked myself.  Yes, the newsman answered me. The stench from the thousands of dead bodies, he said, could be smelled for miles. Thousands at that point. The number would grow rapidly.

That one brief segment on the news was the only mention I ever heard in the US media about what was happening over there. It's been mentioned since, usually in regards to how the US and the civilized world at large had failed to step in, had turned a blind eye and passive shoulder to this travesty. The only other contemporary mention I ever heard of it was on the Friday night sitcom Boy Meets World, wherein one of the two young stars of the series saw parallels between what was happening in central Africa and his own family.

100 days. Up to 1 million people.

Far more people died in the Holocaust. I'd heard plenty about that. I'd heard about the Killing Fields of Cambodia. But I had a tendency in those days, not too far removed from my time as a high school student sitting in History class, learning about them, to view those awful events as just that, as HISTORY. Terrible, unthinkably so, but somehow far removed from my world, from the here and now. But what was happening in Rwanda, that was happening in the here and now, man, and it was happening in Africa, my dreamland, home of my fantasies. That's why it got to me more than the others. It wasn't "removed." It wasn't "history." It was immediate. "This is happening right NOW," I remember thinking.

(Around the same period in time, there was occurring another genocide, the so-called "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia. Why did that one not strike the same chord as Rwanda? I don't know. Maybe I still saw that part of eastern Europe as someplace "removed," even in current time. Or maybe because it wasn't happening in Africa. I think probably I could only handle one genocide at a time.) 

In the two decades since, I've read a lot about the genocide. There are numerous good books on the subject. (I recommend Machete Season most of all, in which a group of men who took part in the killing recount their stories, trying to make sense out of why they had done such a thing. Another good one is Shake Hands with the Devil, written by the man in charge of the UN "peacekeeping" force stationed in Rwanda, under orders not to interfere in the murders, essentially relegated to doing nothing but bearing witness.) There was an excellent but almost too painful to watch movie, Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle. There have been a couple of documentaries. And in my work, my writing, I have revisited the days of the machete again and again.

What prompted it? Years and years of hate. Back when Rwanda was under colonial rule, the powers that be (or were) showed favoritism to one of the two major tribes indigenous to Rwanda, the Tutsi, because the Tutsi "looked more white" than the other tribe, the Hutu. Did that sow the seeds of hatred? It sure didn't help, but the two tribes had been busy hating each other for some time before the Europeans stirred the pot. On April 7, when the airplane of Rwanda's president (a Hutu) was shot down, so-called "newsmen" took to the airwaves (of the radio, that is, as Rwanda had no television broadcasts to speak of) calling on all good Hutus to rise up and "cut the tall trees!" Every Hutu knew what those code words meant. It was time to clean house--by killing every last Tutsi. As very few people in the country had access to guns, the weapon of choice became the machete. Most of the people killed were hacked to death. 

This reminiscing puts me in mind of an episode of Star Trek. The original series. Do you remember the one where the two aliens hated each other because they were so "different?" Each of the two was half black and half white. That's literally half and half, as in if a line had been drawn straight down their centers, from the crown of their heads to their feet. Half of their bodies were chalk white. Not Caucasian, but white. The other half was 8-ball black. When one of the aliens is talking about the differences that make him hate his opponent, Captain Kirk is confused, as the two look identical to him. Indignant, the alien wants to know how it is that the crew of the Enterprise has failed to notice that the two are completely opposite--one is black on the side where the other is white and vice versa. The episode does a good job of pointing out the absurdity of hating another person over something so trivial. In Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi didn't even have the issue of skin pigmentation to divide them. Maybe THEY could tell the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi, but nobody outside of Rwanda would be able to see it. All the people there, both the murderers and the victims, had dark skin. 

Also, they practiced the same religion; the vast majority were Christians. Yet during the 100 days, priests and clergymen grabbed up their machetes and joined in without hesitation. 

The Hutus and the Tutsis were neighbors. They lived literally side by side. Many were friends beforehand. Once the blood started flowing though, all that was forgotten.

Psychologists write about how it is possible to "short circuit" the human conscience. The Hutu were not a tribe of sociopaths. They were regular people, people with consciences. How, then, could they do it? To get around that pesky thing called a conscience, all one has to do is convince oneself, consciously or subconsciously, that the other person isn't really a human being. They may look like humans but they're not. They're just enemies. The way the Hutu saw it, they were only doing what needed to be done.

It's been twenty years. The Rwandan genocide still fascinates me. It's an awful fascination, the driving-by-a-bad-traffic-accident-and-just-can't-help-looking kind of fascination. In all my studies, have I figured out the one basic question of how it could happen? Of course not. How could I? I'm just a lucky white guy from Alabama. (Lucky? Hmm. Let's see. I have a roof over my head; food to eat; clean, running water; access to modern health care--and, oh, yeah, nobody who's out to kill me for no other reason than because of the social group into which I was born, just for being who I am. Yeah, I'd say that qualifies me as lucky. In relation to the plight of the Tutsi people in 1994, there aren't many who wouldn't be counted as lucky.) How could I figure it out when the killers themselves don't even seem to know why? I will never know. I doubt they will either.

By the way, genocides are still happening. It's happening right now in Darfur/Sudan. How often do you hear it mentioned on the news? In this day and age, where we have the Internet to feed us information at the speed of light, right there at our fingertips, how often have you heard about what's happening over there? In Rwanda today, the Tutsi and the Hutu again live side by side, those fortunate enough to have escaped the genocide and those who took part in it. They are learning to coexist again. They are learning how to give and how to seek forgiveness. There are scars that will always be there, but they are trying, at least, to heal. Meanwhile, in other places, their history is being repeated by others. And the world stands by once again, only a little bit interested. 

Twenty years. Have we learned anything?