The Damned Who Know They Are Damned

July 28, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — In the French-held security zone in southwestern Rwanda, there has been a sudden outbreak of destruction. The Hutu people who stayed -- believing the presence of French troops made them safe -- have been pillaging their hospitals, factories, hotels, public buildings, shops. In some places, the economic structure of daily life has been wrecked overnight.

A correspondent of the Paris daily Liberation quotes a medical assistant at what had been the modern hospital in the town of Bushenge: ''It was like a collective suicide.'' Suddenly, she reported, people said to one another, '' 'We have to go, to hide.' '' Local officials, the powerful, those with means, went first, then the rest.

They went because they heard that the French may leave in August when France's U.N. mandate in Rwanda runs out. The United Nations is supposed to send troops to replace the French, but they do not trust that to happen. The exodus from their part of the country threatens to resume at the same time that in the north, at Goma and the other refugee camps in Zaire, the aid agencies are beginning to convince some of the afflicted hordes of refugees to go home, to where the harvest is ripening.

Elsewhere in Rwanda, in the areas held by the new Tutsi-led government, no one seems entirely certain what is going on. There have been some reassuring reports and promises of impartial treatment. On the other hand, International Red Cross officials in the Rwandan capital of Kigali have expressed ''disquiet'' at the lack of information available on the fate of prisoners taken by the Rwandan Patriotic Front's forces. U.N. officials decline comment on reported ''disappearances.''

Much of the country now is empty of civilians; it has become a forbidden security zone. Journalists at Rwanda Radio who agree to work for the new government are given political ''re-education,'' in which ''imperialism'' is held responsible for Rwanda's plight. The tragedy of Rwanda has yet to find its conclusion.

That many Rwandans seem to have abandoned themselves to their own destruction has an uncanny quality. Possibly it is simple resignation to the inevitability of being done to as they themselves did to others a few days earlier. Revenge is inexorable. Something of this can be encountered in Bosnia with drunken bands of ordinary men fresh from the murder of their neighbors. They, too, have seemed the damned who knew they were damned. ''The gale of the world'' -- as the wartime

Chetnik leader Draja Mihailovic put it -- has ''carried [them] away.''

There is evil in these things. There is near-complete collapse of the moral structure of society in places like Rwanda, in part the result of a desperate and ignorant attempt to ''modernize.'' There was an important reflection on this in the February Atlantic Monthly by Robert D. Kaplan, who had been traveling in West Africa, where the end of colonialism, the collapse of artificial governments, the explosion and displacement of populations, disease and anarchic tribal and warlord conflict are creating conditions he compares with those of Europe during the Thirty Years War. He foresees the same thing developing in parts of the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and in Latin America.

However, the Thirty Years War was about something. Even the Yugoslav war is about something. The anarchy Mr. Kaplan describes is about nothing. It is a chaotic disintegration of society, bringing with it mindless destruction not only of people but of their environment -- the forests, the soil, the water.

He sees in the future ''a jagged-glass pattern of city-states, shanty-states, nebulous and anarchic regionalisms.'' He thinks such developments may be mimicked in the United States, intensifying racial polarities and social fragmentation so that American society in some degree could be drawn into this chaos.

Certainly what has happened in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Zaire is in danger of being reproduced in nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa. The attack on traditional cultures by junk-westernization, as by demographic growth and economic decline, fully justifies the worst fears. The key issue is cultural resistance.

The non-Western societies with a coherent view of themselves and an intact structure of values will survive. This means Japan, Korea and most of East Asia, as well as most of the Islamic world. Islamic fundamentalism in this respect is a positive phenomenon. It is evidence of Islam's fighting back to defend itself.

Post-colonial Africa's resources for cultural resistance are few. The culturally burned-over regions of the ex-Soviet Union are dangerous terrain. Balkan conflict, on the other hand, is rooted in nationalisms that are (often pathologically) positive assertions of identity. Nonetheless, what is happening there contributes to Mr. Kaplan's dystopia, all too plausible, in which overarmed and culturally uprooted men create a moral moonscape.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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