Rwanda's killing fields

May 10, 1994|By Elizabeth Schmidt

AS VIOLENCE engulfs the Rwandan capital of Kigali, public attention is rivetted on this small East African state. American journalists, more often than not reporting from Nairobi, Kenya, offer a quick analysis of the situation. It is Africa, so it must be tribalism. The root of this tragedy, we're told, is ancient -- irrational, immutable and inexplicable.

The American public has long been bombarded with characterizations of Africa as a continent rife with primordial ethnic enmities and bloodletting. Certainly, in Rwanda there is the gruesome spectacle of Hutu killing Tutsi, and vice versa. However, because it is Africa, we don't demand -- and we are not given -- the careful historical context we expect in analysis of "ethnic conflicts" in Britain, France or Germany.

Nonetheless, there is a historical context to the Rwandan tragedy, one in which ethnicity is inextricably linked to other factors -- specifically power, privilege and class. Rwanda's saga is yet another chapter in the story of European colonialism and its haunting legacy. First a German, then a Belgian colony, Rwanda has suffered the effects of racist colonial stereotypes that resound even today.

A recent newspaper account describing the Tutsi minority as "tall and elegant" outsiders, and the Hutu majority as "short [and] stocky" indigenes, could have been written a century ago when the now-discredited "Hamitic myth" attributed all noteworthy achievements in Africa to tall, fair-skinned people who immigrated from the north. It was believed that these lighter skinned people with aquiline features were Caucasian cousins and thus, inherently more intelligent and capable.

In the case of Rwanda, European missionaries and colonial officials determined that the Tutsi fit such a description and therefore were destined to rule over the Hutu majority. They elaborated their policies accordingly. Hutu kingdoms were placed under the authority of Tutsi chiefs. Tutsi were disproportionately favored in terms of education. They were groomed for colonial service in both the army and the state bureaucracy. When independence came in 1962, Belgium attempted to hand over its vast economic, political and military might to the Tutsi minority, even though they constituted only 14 percent of the population, in contrast to the Hutu's 85 percent. The attempt failed, and the result was a bloody Hutu revolt against the Tutsi, whom they perceived as willing accomplices to their colonial oppressors.

Not only does the present situation need to be put in context; it demands a more nuanced understanding of the perpetrators and victims of the violence. A purely "tribal" explanation cannot make sense of the large number of Hutu who have been killed by other Hutu during the current wave of unrest. One wonders why the media have made so little of the fact that the Hutu-dominated Presidential Guard, which is responsible for the bulk of the killings, has targeted Hutu cabinet ministers and other high-level government officials, as well as their Tutsi counterparts.

In fact, the Presidential Guard, jealous of its members' personal power, has taken advantage of the chaos to rout out the democratic opposition to the current (not-so-democratic) government, whatever its ethnic affiliation. Likewise, the Tutsi-dominated rebel movement, the Rwanda Popular Front, has violated a cease-fire with the government by joining in the carnage. The current bloodletting, then, is part of a brutal campaign by privileged minorities against a multi-ethnic democratic movement that threatens their respective power bases and sources of wealth.

Thus, the roots of the Hutu-Tutsi rivalry must be considered in terms of the unequal distribution of power, privilege and economic resources that were clearly exacerbated, if not solely created, by European colonialism. These disparities in wealth and status may take generations to overcome. Finally, the Belgian colonial state, certainly no model for democracy, left its imprint on the post-independence state that followed it.

What is the lesson here? Perhaps, for the American media, it is to treat other peoples with the respect and dignity we ourselves desire. Rwandans cannot be stripped down to a simple ethnic identity, devoid of other interests and concerns. Like the rest of us, they are complex humans driven by a multiplicity of factors. If anything is pure and simple, it is the media's double standard, which is, simply put, racist.

Elizabeth Schmidt is assistant professor of history at Loyola College.

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