Friday 27 January 2017
International Holocaust Remembrance Day
The article below was published in a pan-African journal in September 2016. I republish it here in honour of International Holocaust Remembrance Day today, 27 January 2017, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp complex in Poland by the Red Army in 1945. The picture above is of the liberation of the Mauthausen death camp in Austria by the US 11th Division. Some 7,000 Spanish Republican militia - most of them anarchists - were murdered in Mauthausen by the Nazis. But some Spanish anarchists had their revenge: the anarchists of the 9th Armoured Company which were the very first Allied troops to liberate Paris on 24 August 1944 (see victory parade below), accepting the surrender of General Dietrich von Choltitz and his 17,000-strong Nazi garrison. "El Nueve," The 9th, then fought its way across Europe, campaigning in Alsace-Lorraine, helping to liberate cities such as Strasbourg and numerous towns, fighting in Germany, passing through the Dachau concentration camp just after it had been liberated by the US Army and concluding its campaign only when it seized Hitler's “Eagle’s Nest” mountain retreat at Berchtesgarten in Bavaria.
Reassessing Genocide in Africa
“There are no devils left in Hell. They are all in Rwanda.” - a Roman Catholic priest reported in Time magazine on 16 April 1994, ten days after the Genocide began.
The Common Nature of Genocide
They came in their droves, each one in turn lighting their own tiny candle. There was the skinny young man in the brown leather jacket and cloth cap, the curvy woman in her silver-patina skirt and white blouse, the petite bald man with his severe black suit and tailored shirt, the young woman with the gold earrings matching her heels and her braids piled high on her head. Each one had lost someone in the Rwandan "Hundred Nights" Genocide of 1994 and they gathered in Johannesburg on 21 April to pay their respects to their dead – and to watch a film on the treacherous themes of forgiveness and reconciliation in atrocity-fractured societies.
The event was hosted by Constitution Hill plus the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, the South African History Archives, and the High Commission of Rwanda. The film screening commemorated the 22nd anniversary of the initiation of the Hundred Nights by génocidaires, and the 20th anniversary of the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearing into the atrocities of the apartheid era, on 15 April 1996.
I had covered the TRC when it sat in Durban, especially the amnesty hearing of former Vlakplaas death-squad commander Dirk Coetzee, and had covered the 10th anniversary of the Hundred Nights in Kigali and Butare in 2004, so I had been invited to attend. We had an overflowing venue with perhaps 200 people, including many Rwandan Genocide and some Jewish Holocaust survivors in the audience.
Before the memorial candles were lit, Rwandan High Commissioner Vincent Karenga warned about the attempt by Rwandan génocidaires – some of them sheltered by countries that had given them asylum – to reach out to "genocidal forces" abroad in the world, seeking justification for their crimes, stating that the slogan "Never Again!" would be irrelevant if education on the causes of the genocidal impulse were not vigorously pursued.
Genocide is a complex phenomenon, marred by perpetrator denialism and revisionism, but is defined by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), as "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
Genocide is sadly nowhere near as rare as we’d hope – because mass scale or success are not defining factors under the Convention. It usually emerges within broader conditions of social collapse, such as during the implosion of failed states and the rise of the primitive accumulation of organised banditry such as in ex-Somalia, during civil war by predator states such that waged in Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko; it is often entangled with ethnicised struggles over resources that result in pogroms as in Darfur, and sometimes with revolutionary class war in much more developed countries such as Libya during the Arab Spring.
In Africa, while sub-state actors also engage in genocide – as with the Muslim Séléka versus Christian Anti-Balaka militia in the Central Africa Republic at the moment – the privateer state is more often the perpetrator: a privateer state consists of a narrow-based consortium of hard-nosed business entrepreneurs, ethnic factional leaders adept at populist politics, a tiny bureaucratic class, and the better-trained sections of the military, usually the paratroopers (where such exist), armoured infantry and the presidential guard. The privateer state usually survives not only by extorting its citizenry, but by extending its extortionist operations into neighbouring states and often ethnicises its conflict in order to express a coherent mobilising propaganda that appeals to a distinct supranational ethnic constituency.
Is Reconciliation Desirable?
Karenga’s warnings about the viability of genocidal currents in Africa today was followed by a brief set of filmed interviews with Rwandan Genocide survivors (at least two of whom I later spotted in the audience). Their stories of what happened to their families defied imagination: the one woman spoke of her mother being turned over to the Interahamwe militia by Catholic nuns who had promised to shelter her; the génocidaires came and cut her legs off, then finding her still alive the next day, cut off her breasts, then the following day, returning to find her dying, executed her.
The documentary itself, A Snake Gives Birth to A Snake, takes its name from the chilling response of an Inkatha Freedom Party member when asked by the TRC why he had hacked a nine-month-old girl to death with a panga during the 1992 Boipatong Massacre in which 45 people were slaughtered south of Johannesburg. The film follows an ethnically diverse South African acting troupe as they recreate the roles of the most crucial interlocutors of the TRC process – that of the translators themselves – around twelve of whom are gathered together by director Michael Lessac.
With iconic musician Hugh Masekela devising songs based directly on TRC testimony ("They cut off my husband’s hands..." etc), the play not only recreated the clash of competing truths at the TRC, but as the doccie shows, pitted the actors' own sense of their place in our shattered history against each other’s, as they increasingly come under the strain of the burden of our political history while touring the play in Rwanda, then Northern Ireland, then ex-Yugoslavia, with veteran journalist Max du Preez documenting the process.
After each performance, the troupe gathered together audience members from all of the competing sides in the host country and held a round-table discussion on the themes raised in the play – with an especial focus on the meaning of forgiveness and whether it was desirable or possible. It was a rougher journey than either actors or film-makers had expected: in Rwanda, the point was made by one audience member that among young Rwandan school kids, the parents of half of them were murdered, and the others were in jail for genocide; in Northern Ireland, even the Catholic and Protestant dead are buried separately and one Irish National Liberation Army veteran stated that if Ireland had a TRC it would benefit the victims' families not at all because he felt no guilt for the killings he had committed; while in ex-Yugoslavia, the troupe continually ran into problems of trying to bridge the ethnic divide as it was almost impossible to secure mixed audiences, or to even screen Albanian and Serbian text translations of the play alongside each other.
At one point du Preez asked a circle of young Rwandans for advice on how to deal with the fact that with his pale skin and Afrikaans surname, he will always be presumed to be an apartheid perpetrator (in fact he was convicted of "terrorism" for his journalism), and the one young Tutsi girl responded that there were Hutus in her class and she "loved them dearly" because they allowed her to express herself from time to time in bitter outbursts against the Hutus for having initiated the Genocide; so, she said, the solution was not to run away and hide one’s guilt, but to go and live among one’s former victims and show them one’s human face so that one day one’s humanity and contrition will be accepted by them.
The film gave me serious pause for thought on my own career as a journalist: even with 26 years behind me, much of them spent working in poor black areas, I felt that I was still only part-way down a long journey of reconciliation, and the current debate on decolonisation and the entrenched nature of cultural and structural racism underscores that many wounds are unhealed in the post-apartheid era. After the screening, I spoke informally to United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa: "Looking back at that time [Boipatong], I can't believe we made it," he said to me; "Sadly we still have much unfinished business," I replied, thinking of the 2008 Pogroms in which 62 people were slaughtered and 100,000 displaced in what was partly a genocide as defined by the Genocide Convention, and the 2012 Marikana Massacre by police of 34 striking platinum miners in what was a clear case of class war; "Yes we do," he responded.
The Tension Between Truth and Justice
Rolling forward to 11 July and the closing event of the commemoration of the Rwandan Genocide, the Holocaust and Genocide Centre screened the Beate Arnestad documentary Telling Truths in Arusha, which follows the genocide trial in Arusha, Tanzania, before the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda (ICTR) of Catholic priest Father Hormisdas who presided over a church and college where mass killings took place in 1994. Throughout the trial, Hormisdas sat calmly, his eyes shielded behind his spectacles, displaying no outrage at the charges, no sense of horror at the scale of the Genocide; in fact, Arnestad’s camera caught him speaking privately to his defence attorney, dismissing the 800,000 death toll as nonsense.
Following the film, representing The Ulu Club for Southern African Conflict Journalists – an outfit that holds events to allow the public to interrogate journalistic ethics in covering societies in conflict – I lead a discussion on the difficult themes it raised. I stated that it perhaps helped to distinguish between veracité (fact) and verité (truth) – as the film demonstrated that fact and truth are not necessarily the same thing, neither for the survivor, nor the journalist, nor the perpetrator, nor the judicial officer presiding at Arusha, and that the search for a fact-based and fundamentally true justice is perhaps hardest of all.
It was with bitterness that I had to report, however, that the genocidal impulse was far from dead in Africa. As we met that night, forensic and eyewitness evidence was being painstakingly compiled of year-old mass graves in Angola where MPLA government forces massacred perhaps 3,000 people at Mt Sumi in April 2015, and of fresh mass graves in Mozambique as a result of the return to civil war between RENAMO and FRELIMO there.
Other recent cases of mass slaughter in Africa abound: for example, back in 2007-2008, pogroms in Kenya left perhaps 1,500 dead and perhaps 600,000 displaced. The crisis was rooted in political unrest following the contested election of President Mwai Kibaki, but opposition supporters of went on the warpath, killing members of Kibaki’s’ ethnic group, the Kikuyu, which immediately ethnicised the conflict, with Kikuyu striking back at the Luo and Kalejin ethnic groups.
Another example occurred in 2009 in Conakry, Guinea, when troops loyal to junta leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara opened fire on a rally of pro-democracy activists, killing an estimated 157 people: this was merely the latest massacre by Camara’s putschists who had killed 60 and 23 people respectively in general strikes held in January and February 2007, establishing martial law; the massacres reinforced the established pattern whereby Guinean privateer regimes use massacre to prop up their shaky authority against the anger of the popular classes.
The roots of the Rwandan Genocide are far more complex, but long simmering since the Belgians instituted “ethnic” classification cards in the 1950s for groups identified as Tutsis, Hutus, and Twa. But these were essentially fake ethnicities: of the 18 clans in Rwanda, all except arguably the royal clan were ethnic mixes of Nilotics, Bantu and Pygmies who had intermarried over a millennium; but those classified Tutsi had to own more than 10 cattle, and it helped if they were tall; this was a class designation that had spurious racial elements appended. The result of such faux ethnicisation was 100,000 slaughtered in 1959 and 800,000 in 1994.
Structural Enablers of Hatred
One eyewitness to the Rwandan Genocide, US journalist Scott Peterson in his book Me Against My Brother (2000), came up with one of the earliest and still to my mind most viable analyses. Peterson had trawled through the looted ruins of the mansion of President Juvénal Habyarimana – the 6 April 1994 shooting down of his jet sparked the Genocide – and found there a proudly framed photograph of Tutsi homes burning during the so-called “Apocalypse Revolution” in 1959 in which 100,000 Tutsi were slaughtered, plus a book dedicated to Habyarimana by President François Mitterand, and a private Catholic chapel. These items inspired him to speculate on three structural enablers of the Genocide.
● Firstly, the deliberate cultivation of Hutu supremacist ideology, driven by Habyarimana’s wife Agathe’s Akazu inner circle and its extremist Zero Network of politicians and public servants, dating especially from the 1990 publication of the genocidal Hutu 10 Commandments by the extremist newspaper Kangura! (Awake!), then the formation by Habyarimana of the ruling MRND party’s Interahamwe militia, and the state’s Coalition por la Défense de la République (CDR) and its Impuzamugambe militia, and then – and this is often forgotten – the “trial runs” of massacre that had already left around 2,000 people dead in the two years before the Genocide began.
● Secondly, the unblanching support by France for the MRND regime, regardless of its growing extremism – including the uninterrupted supply of weapons shipments even during the height of the Genocide when the extent of the killings was obvious. The French flew Agathe Habyarimana and select Akazu members to safety in Paris just after the Genocide began, and Mitterand officially welcomed at the Quay d’Orsay at the end of April 1994 – during the Genocide – Hutu extremist Foreign Minister Jérôme Bicamumpaka (acquitted by the Arusha Tribunal in 2011) and CDR commander and hate radio head Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza (later convicted of genocide; died in 2010).
● Lastly (and this touched on the theme of the film), the acquiescence of the Catholic Church as the preparations for genocide became irreversible, especially because since Belgian missionaries had supported the 1959 Genocide, following independence in 1962, the Church had become so integrated into the Hutu regime that the Archbishops of Kigali, including the incumbent during the Genocide, Vincent Nsengiyumva (who was killed as a perpetrator by the RPF), were invariably high MRND leaders as well, and in some cases such as at the Ste Famille Cathedral in Kigali, during the Genocide, priests such as Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka openly wore pistols, expressed Hutu supremacist views and allowed the death-squads to select from among those seeking sanctuary there for killing (he was later convicted of genocide at Arusha but continues to live freely in France).
Widening Circles of Ethnicised Conflict
At the commemoration event, I introduced Hamilton Wende, a South African journalist who worked as the sound-man on a BBC crew that went to Rwanda during the Genocide with the almost impossible mission objective of trying to explain why the Genocide was happening. In his book True North (1995), as with Peterson, Wende also spoke of the impact of Belgian ethnic classification in the 1950s and Belgian support for the 1959 Genocide, but unlike Peterson’s work which had the benefit of six years of hindsight, Tony’s work is marked by the immediacy of being plunged deep into the moral twilight zone of the Genocide as it was unfolding.
He used some resonant phrases such as “spiral of madness” to describe what he was seeing – but the one that may assist us here is “Republic of Dementia,” and he described his journey into what he called an “incoherence of darkness,” “half-drowning in a spiritual Interzone, grasping at the flimsy edges of our own rationality,” as both a physical and metaphysical journey.
And as Karenga warned, the perpetrators’ revisionism was already attempting to establish its legitimacy: back in 1994 we see Wende interview the mayor of the nearest town in the Nyarubuye Parish where some 4,000 people were slaughtered by the génocidaires: the interview takes place in the UN’s Bonacco refugee camp, full of tens of thousands of perpetrators, and as Hutu extremist radio pushes out a revisionist line over the airwaves of the refugee camp, claiming it is the Tutsi “invading cockroaches” who are committing genocide, the mayor, who is accused of organising the Nyarubuye massacre, reveals his true self by evoking nasty anti-Tutsi sentiments.
The Rwandan nightmare, in which the génocidaires hacked their names into our hearts with spiked clubs and machetes, is properly condemned – but its memory has also been used by the post-Genocide regime to prop up its despotic authority, and to justify punitive raids into neighbouring countries, transforming contemporary Rwanda into a privateer state and generating ever widening circles of instability, ethnic and ethnicised conflict in the Great Lakes region. Rwanda is not the last we have seen of genocide.
But I want to end on a more hopeful note – because genocide is not inevitable. Ideally, the preconditions for genocide should be recognised by adequate early-warning systems that monitor génocidaire revisionist activities and that can motivate the international community to prevent or curtail the construction of institutional systems that facilitate mass killings. Community resistance is also vital as demonstrated during the 2008 Pogroms in South Africa: comparing Alexandra Section 2, east of Johannesburg, known as “Beirut” and Section 5, known as “Setswala,” Jean-Pierre Misago of Wits University’s Forced Migration Studies Programme, co-author of a the report for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) on the Pogroms, said Beirut had succumbed to the killings while Setswala had fended off attempts by the pogromists to spark killings in their neighbourhood.
“The Section 5 community comrades met the Section 2 pogromists at the border of Section and told them ‘no, you can’t come in here; we will sort out our own foreigners, because you don’t know who they are’.” You can bet the Setswala reception committee was armed to the teeth, to back up their ploy, but it worked, keeping the killers at bay while Setswala’s foreigners were helped to leave town quickly, their vigilant neighbours keeping watch over their homes to ensure no-one looted them. Critical to their success was that there was no institutional support for the killings as there had been in Rwanda, but the lesson was clear: when communities stood together, they managed to prevent the pogroms from spreading.
However, I argued in the wake of the Pogroms that community defence must go beyond mere moral encouragement: it must firstly be strongly armed, with legal firearms not just knives and clubs, to meet force with force; secondly it must prepare in advance safe zones that operated like Setswala in Alexandra, where those in danger are sheltered and where pogromists fear to tread; and thirdly, it must establish local networks like the street committees of the anti-apartheid struggle to gather intelligence and co-ordinate actions. Today I would add that such networks must act as bellwethers for the likes of Amnesty International but also for new continental organisations such as the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network (PAHRDN) to enable a vigorous multilateral intervention that compels authorities in the afflicted state to suppress the genocidal impulse, dismantle its operational organs, and actively undermine the viability of the virus of the genocidal idea by combating hate speech and revisionism at all levels of society.