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What happened in Rwanda in 1994? The standard line is that a calculated genocide occurred because of deep-seated tribal animosity between the majority Hutu tribe in power and the minority Tutsis. According to this story, at least 500,000 and perhaps 1.2 million Tutsis — and some ‘moderate’ Hutus — were ruthlessly eliminated in a few months, and most of them were killed with machetes. The killers in this story were Hutu hard-liners from the Forces Armees Rwandais, the Hutu army, backed by the more ominous and inhuman civilian militias — the Interahamwe — “those who kill together.”
“In three short, cruel months, between April and July 1994,” wrote genocide expert Samantha Power on the 10th anniversary of the genocide, “Rwanda experienced a genocide more efficient than that carried out by the Nazis in World War II. The killers were a varied bunch: drunk extremists chanting ‘Hutu power, Hutu power’; uniformed soldiers and militia men intent on wiping out the Tutsi Inyenzi, or ‘cockroaches’; ordinary villagers who had never themselves contemplated killing before but who decided to join the frenzy.”
The award-winning film Hotel Rwanda offers a Hollywood version and the latest depiction of this cataclysm. Is the film accurate? It is billed as a true story. Did genocide occur in Rwanda as it is widely portrayed and universally imagined? With thousands of Hutus fleeing Rwanda in 2005, in fear of the Tutsi government and its now operational village genocide courts, is another reading of events needed?
Is it possible, as evidence confirms, that the now canonized United Nations peacekeeper Lt. General Roméo Dallaire was at the time an agent of the Tutsi army? Or that the funding for Hotel Rwanda came from a company with powerful mining interests in Congo — where access is insured by the Rwanda government? Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, that’s clear. There was large-scale butchery of Tutsis. And Hutus. Children and old women were killed. There was mass rape. There were many acts of genocide. But was it genocide or civil war? “I think that’s a very good question and it is not adequately answered,” says Howard W. French, former East Africa Bureau Chief for the New York Times and author of Africa: A Continent for the Taking.
“A minority of fifteen percent [RPF Tutsis] wages a determined effort to take over a country and rule in an ethnic way, by force of arms, and has been doing this for years. Two presidents are assassinated.” Howard W. French is adamant. “These are not excuses for butchery. But these are things that lead one in the direction of civil war, as a descriptor, as opposed to the one-sided tale that we have been given, of these sweet, innocent Tutsis who remind us of Israel, versus the savage Hutus who cold-heartedly butcher people hand-to-hand for three months.”
From the very first words and frames, where the image has yet to appear and the screen is completely black, the film Hotel Rwanda sets up viewers to think a certain way about what happened in Rwanda in 1994. Here is a story about good versus evil. An ominous African voice is heard, clearly the announcer on a Rwandan radio program, and he is describing the Tutsis as ‘cockrrrRRROACHES.’ The voice is black and the cataclysm unfathomable, as anyone will tell you, and the black screen underscores the evil darkness of Africa. This voice of terror returns throughout the film to haunt the innocent but terrified Tutsis, on screen, and the viewers gripping their seats.
The good guys are the Tutsis, the victims of genocide. They are not killers in the movie: they are never killers. At the end of the film, when a well-attired guerrilla force is shown—the ‘rebels’ of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)—they are rescuers. They are disciplined, organized. They keep a tidy United Nations camp safely behind their lines. They don’t kill Red Cross nurses, or orphaned children, in the film: they reconnect children to their families.
The Hutus in the standard Rwanda genocide stories are always the bad guys, and they are all bad guys. Every Hutu is a genocidaire — to use the ominous French term deployed in English contexts to further underscore the horror, the horror (sic). The Hutus are the devil incarnate. The Tutsis are saintly. Indeed, they are beyond reproach, because they are the victims of genocide. The Hotel manager’s wife bears an obvious cross around her neck, to remind us that the Tutsis are the chosen people. When the now celebrated United Nations hero Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire shakes hands with the devil — as his own popular book and the subsequent film Shake Hands With the Devil concur — he is shaking hands with Hutu.
That is the ideological framework of the Hotel Rwanda film. There is, today, an industry behind it.
The Tutsis are dehumanized by the Hutus and by the Hutu media, in the film, and there was plenty of truth in this in real life. But the RPF pro-Tutsi media that operated in Rwanda after 1991, for example, was equally dehumanizing, and equally vicious, but the film does not tell us this. Tutsi guerrilla forces—prior to 1970—were the first to describe themselves as Inyenzi or cockroaches: they were not equated with the insects that everyone loathes, they were well trained, secretive and coordinated military forces who attacked at night and withdrew by day.
The RPF would hit and run and kill with efficiency. It was not a pejorative usage, as it has been used in the film Hotel Rwanda, although it was bastardized and turned against the Tutsis by media outlets in Rwanda. Radio Mille Collines and the other anti-RPF media outlets of the President’s party, the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (MRND), were not the only ones to incite hatred and murder. Indeed, RPF-controlled Radio Muhabura spread ethnic hatred and incited widespread killings, but this was—according to Hollywood—a war with only one army, the ruthless Hutus.
The Pillars of Hotel Rwanda
When Human Rights Watch investigated the genocide, they sent Alison des Forges to tell the story, and the product of her long investigations was the fat treatise on genocide in Rwanda titled Leave None to Tell the Story. Irony is heaped upon irony when we consider that those who are left to tell the story are silenced by the authorized storytellers like Alison des Forges.
“Alison des Forges is a liar,” Cameroonian journalist Charles Onana, author of the book The Secrets of the Rwandan Genocide, Investigations on the Mysteries of a President, published in French in 2001, is adamant. “She is a LIAR.” Paul Kagame, RPF General and President of Rwanda, sued Charles Onana for defamation in a French court: Kagame lost.
“Des Forges has written a book which has become the bible regarding Rwanda,” says Jean-Marie Higiro, former Director of the Rwandan Information Office (ORINFOR) who fled the killing, with his family, in early April 1994. “Everyone points to her book even though some of what she has produced is fiction. I don’t think she is an intentional liar, but I don’t know why she investigated Hutu human rights abuses but no RPF human rights abuses.”
Hotel Rwanda is built on the pillars of selective human rights reporting, but it really takes off from the celebrated text, We Regret To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch, the New Yorker magazine’s premier Africa expert.
“Gourevitch's short book should be compulsory reading for Heads of State and Ministers of Defence all over Africa,” wrote Guardian reporter Victoria Brittain, “as well as for all U.N. officials involved in peacekeeping operations and humanitarian aid, from the Secretary General on down, and the heads of missionary orders in the US, France and Belgium.” Victoria Brittain is a Nation magazine contributor on genocide in Rwanda.
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