Monday, September 21, 2009

I wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books

If you read five sentences, that will probably be three more than the editor does.

To the editor:

In Howard French’s “Kagame’s Hidden War in the Congo” it doesn’t take long for his book review to turn into an all out attack on Rwandan President Paul Kagame, his policies, and the historical record.
At least he doesn’t waste any time, and by the second paragraph, firmly asserts the “main force driving this conflict(in Eastern Congo)” is Rwanda, and its “largely Tutsi Army.” Rwanda always stated its military presence is necessary on its western border with DRC in order to deal with genocidal Hutu militias living in Eastern Congo. French minimizes this argument writing “the extent of the Hutu threat to Rwanda is much debated…” and it only gets worse from there.
He chooses to ignore the legitimate threat of genocidal militias living a stone’s throw across the border from Western Rwanda, arguing Rwanda has its eyes on Congo’s valuable natural resources and is willing to wage war to plunder them. To be fair, Eastern Congo is lined with natural resources, far more than densely populated Rwanda could ever dream to possess. Yet, at the same time, Rwanda, a country slightly larger than Macedonia, exports enough food to feed nearly all of Eastern Congo, an area French himself called the size of Pennsylvania.
And while it is one thing for French to argue Kagame aims to plunder the DRC for Rwanda’s economic advancement, it’s quite another to entirely dismiss the threat of Hutu militias. French repeatedly downplays their threat, at one point even writing the “threat the Hutu group poses to Rwanda's own security is "vastly exaggerated," noting that its fighters "are no match" for Rwandan and Rwanda-backed forces…a sophisticated military arsenal, consisting of armored personnel carriers, tanks, and helicopters."
There’s no arguing that. It’s true that a bunch of genocidal guerillas in loosely formed militias hiding in the jungles of Eastern DRC would prove no match for the Rwandan military, but it’s not the Rwandan military these forces target. Instead of attacking one of Africa’s most highly trained armies, these militias cowardly target civilian populations right across the border. But to hear French tell it, Kagame’s troops on the border are there to engage these miltias and prevent them from toppeling his government.
The truth is, groups such as the FDLR pose a clear and present threat to both Rwanda and her citizens, especially those living on the Congolese border. It is necessary for Rwanda to maintain a strong presence in the region to protect its citizens. Having interviewed members of these militias, their philosophies are simple and can be summarized in two major points: 1) kill Tutsis and 2) overthrow the Rwandan government. And this isn’t a secret, this is there manifesto. These groups were pushed into the Congo when Kagame put down the genocide, and their hatred has not difussed over the years.
French therefore thinks Kagame should simply ignore these groups with a desire to overthrow his government and slaughter his civlians because they “are no match” for his army. Do we live in a world where the only threats deemed serious enough are the ones that can be backed up with force immediately? Just because Kagame’s enemies in Congo do not possess the same military might as Rwanda, should Kagame give them time to amass the weapons they need before engaging them? This is lunacy, one sided, and offensive.
And French doesn’t stop at minimizing these Hutu militias’ threats, he argues Kagame is the real perpetrator of the violence. He goes back to 1994 and has problems with the way Kagame put down the genocide, perhaps French doesn’t like the fact he pushed militias out of Rwanda into the Congo, perhaps French would have preferred Kagame to slaughter them on Rwandan soil.
French rightly disapproves of Kagame’s reluctance to try Tutsi civilians that murdered Hutus on genocide charges, and repeatedly cites incidents of mass murder of Hutus at the hands of Kagame’s troops. And while Tutsi genocide charges have been slow in Rwanda, Kagame has shown little tolerance for anyone in his own army acting out in a similar fashion. His army has strict guidelines of conduct, and those who have committed violence against innocent Hutus have been punished. What Kagame hasn’t done is broadcast this to the world. He made the mistake of assuming the world would assume he would be fair and just, unfourtantly for him, this is Africa, and even a fairly elected leader who in just 15 years has created a country from war-ravaged ashes must be overseen by international bodies.
And Kagame disagrees. Naturally, he has a distaste for the U.N. which did nothing, not little, but nothing to stop the genocide in 1994. And now they want to tell him how to run his country. He believes Africans are talented enough, and smart enough to rule their own nations. Furthermore, he has proven he can. To suggest he needs help is to still live with a colonial mentality at best, and racist at worst.
Additionally, French’s claims of Kagame’s violence at times seem overblown at times. He cites an incident in 1995 in which Tutsi troops lined up 150,000 Hutu refugees and opened fire. It doesn’t take a great deal of math to determine this statistic highly unlikely. A year earlier, the world turned it’s back and allowed the genocide to claim the lives of nearly one million people, and now a year later, with the world watching, with the shame of our indifference to the plight of Rwanda, it would have been next to impossible for Kagame’s military to slaughter 150,000 people. It would have been noticed to say the least.
Finally, French’s historical detour into the Burundi genocide of 1972 is not just out of place, it is offensive. French briefly highlights the tragic events of 1972 when Hutu uprisings led the Tutsi army to respond with mass slaughter resulting in a death toll between 150,000 to 300,000 thousand, depending on which side’s statistic you choose to believe. Countless more fled Burundi, many into neighboring Rwanda where over the years they developed their own brand of Hutu extremism.
And while this is a necessary chapter in understanding the complex and strained historical relationship between the different ethnic groups in the region, French stops just short of using this as an excuse for the Hutu Power movement and the genocide it produced.
He makes a special note to write how most view the Rwanda genocide as a “morality play” where Hutus were the bad guy killers and the Tutsis were the victims. He argues this simplistic version of the genocide needs to be rethought. And while the morality play may be a bit simplistic, there is a difference between understanding the genocide in the scope of history, and simply rewriting history itself.
The world watched and did nothing to stop black people from slaughtering black people in 1994. Since then, with nearly six million lives claimed in the Congo, the world isn’t even watching. We’ve stopped paying attention. And the few that are choose to waste their time attacking Rwanda, the most stable country in the region, rewriting her history, and painting it’s leader as a violent warlord. Rwanda is a solution, a key to stability in the region. Let’s not waste our time attacking the solution.


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