Gerald Caplan reviews Linda Melvern's 'A People Betrayed: the Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide', praising its success in dispelling Western governments' claims of ignorance of developments in Rwanda leading up to the genocide.
The front cover of Linda Melvern's updated edition of 'A People Betrayed' carries this superlative blurb from General Roméo Dallaire, commander of the UN mission to Rwanda during the 1994 genocide: 'The best overall account of the background to the genocide.'
Of course any book these days can find someone or other to sing its praises, and almost all do. Mostly they are to be ignored. This is not one of those books. Melvern's two previous Rwanda books (the other is 'Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwanda Genocide') and her many articles, accompanied by a slew of addresses around the world, had already established her as one of the world's indispensable authorities on the events leading up to and during the hundred days. This updated version of 'A People Betrayed' only reinforces this status.
I should quickly add that one manifestation of continuing neocolonialism in Africa is that the vast majority of books on the 1994 genocide, certainly in English, continue to be written by non-Rwandans. This strange phenomenon surely could not be true of a major event on any other continent, and is certainly not true of the study of other genocides. We can only hope that the belated but welcome inauguration in Rwanda of an MA programme in genocide studies will eventually reverse this trend. In the meantime, if outsiders are still doing most of the writing on the genocide, it's a good thing that Linda Melvern is one of them.
Melvern has several purposes in this book. One is to powerfully rebut the growing school of genocide deniers and the specious arguments and false information they use to make their case. Melvern is also properly impatient with well-known scholars who don't quite deny the genocide but offer ammunition to those who do. Most notably this includes those who have jumped on the bandwagon that claims Paul Kagame and his RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) shot down President Juvénal Habyarimana's plane, for which no serious evidence exists to this day. No one except those responsible have any idea who they were. But if anything, as Melvern documents, the circumstantial evidence that does exist points directly at Hutu extremists. If truth matters to the study of history, deniers would crawl back into their holes. But Melvern very seriously worries that their side is gaining momentum, and if truth does matter, this book will go far to shut them down.
Second, and related, Melvern carefully documents the development of the plot by Habyarimana's family and close advisers to deal with their array of crises by wiping out the entire Tutsi population of the country. None of this was accidental or spontaneous, even if the planning might have been haphazard and irregular. Clearly the military was split, not all by any means persuaded by the Hutu Power extremists. Yet these moderates were sold out by the world's indifference. Rwanda's ambassador to the UN was by chance a member of the UN Security Council at the time, faithfully reporting back to Kigali the deliberations of his peers. Had the council shown the slightest intention to take the genocide seriously, the moderates would have been strengthened and the extremists less brazen. But thanks to the information they were receiving from the inner sanctum of the Security Council, the extremists knew they could literally get away with mass murder.
As the evidence shows, the moment they got the right signal – in this case the shooting-down of the president's plane – the genocidaires were ready to begin their 'work'. It's well-known that moderate Hutu were murdered in their hundreds in the first few days of the genocide. But Melvern reminds us that as early as 7 April, the day after the plane went down, indiscriminate slaughter of Tutsi had begun, and that by 9 April, churches packed to the rafters with terrified Tutsi were the scenes of sadistic mass butchery by the Presidential Guards and the notorious interahamwe militia. They were primed for genocide, and they instantly began to put it into effect.
Melvern's third purpose is to underline in greater detail than ever before how much was known about the genocide by all the key players – the US, the UK, Belgium and the UN Secretariat especially – making their abandonment of Rwanda and their subsequent excuse of inadequate knowledge even more reprehensible than was already believed. We already had a great deal of information about how much the entire Clinton administration knew from the very beginning. Melvern here offers more damning evidence against UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, who insists that behind the scenes she opposed America's immoveable refusal to intervene. Even more toughly, and with hard evidence, Melvern skewers her own UK government, led by John Major, and especially its UN ambassador David Hannay. If any of them have a conscience – a question to which Melver implies the answer – they should all be cursed with endless sleepless nights.
But perhaps Melvern's greatest contribution in this new edition is the new material she has extracted from her unique archival sources, which demonstrate France's extraordinary complicity in the genocide. Of course, French officials have from 1994 to today denied any responsibility whatsoever for the catastrophe, and have accordingly refused to issue any kind of apology. But Melvern puts together a case that is surely irrefutable. The US and UK were guilty of sins of omission, of abandoning Rwanda instead of bolstering Dallaire's puny mission, as he repeatedly begged. But France was guilty of sins of commission, of actively betraying Rwanda by enabling the genocidaires in so many ways – legitimation, arms, funds, training, political and military advice, and public relations. Towards the end of the genocide, France had the gall to send a so-called humanitarian mission to Rwanda, with the shameful approval of the guilt-ridden majority of the Security Council. The singular contribution of this Operation Turquoise was to allow a large number of genocidaire leaders and their military equipment to escape across the Rwandan border into Zaire (Congo). The appalling conflict that has devastated eastern Congo ever since began at that moment. The French establishment will never concede their deadly responsibility for all these deeds, before, during and since the genocide. But the rest of the world need have no doubt of it. There is much work here for the International Criminal Court.
Why does Linda Melvern persist in her mission to continue building the case against 'the international community' for its failure to acknowledge the role of outsider players in the genocide? Because she won't rest until there is real accountability. She demands what one might have thought would be a given from every party that failed Rwanda – serious, independent public investigations to get to the bottom of why. The UN Secretariat, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Belgium government launched such investigations.
But France, Britain, the US, the Catholic church, Canada – all of whom had some role in enabling the genocide – have not. (I wish Melvern had given more attention to the role of the Catholic church in Rwanda's history; it's not a pretty picture). Yet you can be quite sure when it comes to genocide anniversaries and public memorials, leaders of all of them will be front and centre, hands on hearts, solemnly pledging 'never again!' Some may well be teary as they listen to their own heartfelt words as prepared by some professional speechwriter. But so long as they refuse to inquire why earlier, equally earnest pledges by weepy predecessors proved to be so much hot air, not a word from them should be believed. Indeed, maybe each should be obligated to announce how they charged to the rescue of Darfur.
For all who want to know both about how the genocide in Rwanda really happened, and how much the so-called international community can really be trusted to care about humanitarian disasters, 'A People Betrayed' is simply a must-read.
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* Linda Melvern, 'A People Betrayed: the Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide', revised and updated edition 2009, ISBN: 9781848132450, Zed Books.
* Gerald Caplan is the author of 'Rwanda, the Preventable Genocide' and 'The Betrayal of Africa'.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.