Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Today : The ghosts of Rwanda

14 years on I am still haunted by what happened in Rwanda. The recent conviction of some of those responsible reminded me again and opened the door to those ghosts. Which is odd, because I had no involvement. I wasn't there, and until this year had never even met anyone who was connected to the country.

But therein lies the reason. In 1994 the genocide was something happening on the TV in the corner, whilst I was doing other stuff and not really paying attention. It was just some more bad things happening in Africa. Perhaps of the kind that had been happening on the TV in the corner for much of my life. As a child I remember watching scratchy maps of the MPLA's territorial gains against UNITA, or snatches of news about Idi Amin and the raid on Entebbe, and of course the images of famine set to Drive by The Cars.

But in 1994 I was not a child. I was an adult with money and a vote and the capacity to pay attention and understand what was going on.

When the tenth anniversary happened I started to pay attention. The film Hotel Rwanda had already won Oscars even though I didn't see it. What initially, momentarily, piqued my interest was a radio interview with Gen. Romeo Dallaire, promoting his book Shake Hands with the Devil. Even then, I didn't delve any further. It wasn't until a year later that I was in the supermarket and Hotel Rwanda was being sold on DVD for a fiver. I'd had a vague notion that one day I would watch it. I like to see films that win awards to judge for mysefl if they deserve them (on this basis I still haven't watched Little Miss Sunshine, nor Driving Miss Daisy for that matter, but did see, for example, Sling Blade, Crash and Enchanted).

I sat down to watch the film and was stunned and impressed. It's terrific. Shocking, moving, horrifying, uplifting, resonant. In fact it was all the things that Schindler's List was meant to be. What stuck with me was the brightness of the African light and consequently the vividness of the colours, which somehow made the horror much more real than the usual film-horror tactic of denying light.

It was then that I realised I was generally pretty ignorant about the situation. Like I said: at the time it kind of passed me by and the only bit of detail was that I'd gleaned from the half-listened-to interview with Romeo Dallaire. So I used the internet to find documentaries and old news reports. I even tracked down the film of Shake Hands with The Devil, which in turn inspired me to read the book. The genocide occupied my cultural consumption for the next couple of weeks (which was the time it took, in 1994, about 150,000 Hutus to be macheted to death).

The ghosts of Rwanda began to haunt me, as they do now. It was a selfish kind of guilt. I hated the idea that I had let it pass me by and not raised my voice. Yes, I know my voice is just one amongst countless millions, including that of General Dallaire. But a letter to my MP, a donation to a charity, a conversation over a beer: I could have done or said something to express my outrage at was being allowed to happen. And how many voices would it have taken for Clinton to have acted? We will never know. But then again we didn't speak up enough to find out.

Earlier this year I met two people from Rwanda. A man and a women. Not a couple, but each of them -14 years on -still escaping the insanity of the genocide. I was really impressed by their grace and they appeared to em to radiate some kind of inner resolve. I guess I was probably projecting survivor stereotypes upon them. During conversation, I couldn't help replaying scenes from Hotel Rwanda, scenes from news and documentaries, and thinking about the trivial mid-twenties stuff I was doing in 1994. My guilt welled up inside me. I went to both people, hugged them and said I was sorry. It wasn't uncomfortable, like spontaneously hugging strangers from another culture probably is in 99% of cases. It had the potential to be a an act with a level of miscommunication and embarrassment worthy of Curb Your Enthusiasm but didn't. I guess my motivation was still selfish - in some ways using these people to assuage my own guilt. But I really did want to show them that I was genuinely sorry for my own inaction in the face of their hell, and that I cared, however abstractly, belatedly and uselessly. Frankly, it's too big to deal with. How do you talk about a genocide with people who were there? Any kind of commiseration seems pathetic and inadequate.

But they countered my tears with broad smiles and concern. For a moment I thought they could be laughing at me. But then the man spoke:
He nodded his head slightly and paused for a moment.

"Thank you sir," he said.

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