not a member? click here to sign up
Staring Genocide In The Face
The horror of Rwanda shows how hatred between people can be contrived with murderous results, says EAMONN McCANN.
Eamonn McCann, 26 May 1999
Wendy Austin reminded me last week that maybe it's possible to tell Catholics from Protestants by the distance between their eyes.
She didn't say for definite. She couldn't. There's never been a scientific study of the question. But who's to say that a properly-conducted survey involving statistically-reliable samples wouldn't show that the median distance between Catholic eyes is two and half or even five millimetres greater than the median distance between Protestant eyes?
Not me. Or Wendy.
Members of the SDLP have often struck me as unusually wide-eyed. You'd wonder if they are capable of focussing on a fine point at all. Whereas, DUP members appear naturally equipped for the narrow perspective. These are mere impressions, of course, of no political validity or objective value.
What's needed is a wide-ranging study conducted by qualified researchers spread out across the country, equipped with calipers, meticulously measuring the exact distance between the left and rights eyes of matched samples of prods and taigs. There's little doubt, given the other projects they have poured resources into, that the University of Ulster would readily supply the necessary personnel and the Community Relations Council full funding. After all, there's precedent.
It was mention of the precedent by Aloysha Enumo which provoked Wendy, on Talkback on Radio Ulster, into raising the possibility that in Ulster the eyes have it. Ms. Enumo, from Rwanda, had just explained that the differences between Hutus and Tutsis in her country come down to such things as the size of their noses.
The detail is to be found in a book, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, by New Yorker writer, Philip Gourevitch, an investigation into the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when the Hutu government issued a call for the murder of all Tutsis in the country.
The killing which followed was on a scale so vast it required an act of imagination rather than of intellect to comprehend. I'd assumed at the time that, whatever the immediate triggering circumstance, this was a bubbling to the surface of age-old, tribal hostility.
This was a constant element in coverage of the killing...ethnic animosity, its origins lost in the jungle mists of time...
But not at all.
The first account of Rwandan life to appear in a European language was published in 1863 by John Hanning Speke, famous for "discovering" a great lake which it pleased him to call 'Victoria'. He announced that he'd also discovered proof of the biblical story (Genesis, 9) of the casting-out of the children of Ham, son of Noah, who'd been cursed for the sin of giggling at his father naked. Ham's family, the story went, were, or became, the first black people on earth.
A chapter in Speke's Journal headed 'Fauna', began: "In treating of this branch of natural history, we will first take man - the true, curly-headed, flab-nosed, pouch-mouthed negro . . . As his father did, so does he. He works his wife, sells his children, enslaves all he can lay hands on, and unless when fighting for the property of others, contents himself with drinking, singing and dancing like a baboon, to drive dull care away."
Speke recognised these immediately as sons of Ham. Living alongside them, he recorded, was an altogether different race: "Men who were as unlike as they could be from the common order of the natives . . . fine oval faces, large eyes, high noses, denoting the best blood of Abyssinia."
A lost race of Christians, then, who with preferment and education might prove themselves as superior in all things as Englishmen. Speke never spoke to a Rwandan, nor set foot in Rwanda, but researched his theories by gazing upon the region from a hilly spot in what is now Tanzania.
Nor is there any record of a German entering the area prior to 1885 when a gathering of European leaders in Berlin gave the country to the Kaiser. After World War One, ownership of Rwanda passed to Belgium. It was the Belgian administration which, in the 1920s, set out scientifically to test Speke's theory.
Teams of qualified researchers spread out across the country, equipped with calipers, meticulously measuring noses. They found that the median Tutsi nose was five millimetres narrower and two and a half millimetres longer than the median Hutu nose. Proof positive of two nations.
Ethnicity was made into the defining feature of Rwandan existence. After a census in 1931, every citizen was given an identity card, allocating him or her to one or other group. The Belgian administration stabilised its rule by giving those deemed to be Tutsis preference over Hutus in politics, business, education.
This affected only an emerging Tutsi elite. The vast majority of Tutsis continued to live and work alongside and to marry Hutus. In the countryside, most Hutus were arable farmers, most Tutsis were pastoralists. But there wasn't a single all-Hutu or all-Tutsi area or village in the land. 'Transfers' from one group to the other, frequently as a result of inter-marriage, were so common as to be unremarkable and unrecordable.
By law, however, all political organisations was based on ethnicity.
The first academically-respectable history of Rwanda, by a Belgian missionary, Monsignor Louis de Lacger, observed: "One of the most surprising phenomena of Rwanda's human geography is surely the contrast between the plurality of races and the sentiment of nationality unity. The natives of this country genuinely have the feeling of forming but one people". This was published in 1958.
Lacger noted that beneath the veneer of colonial administration, real life in Rwanda differed from Belgium, as from most European countries, in that all the people spoke the same language, Kinyarwanda, worshiped the same god, Imana, and accepted the same king, the Mwami. "There are few peoples in Europe among whom one finds these three features of national cohesion."
Another Belgian missionary, a Fr. Pages, recorded that, far from any section of the Rwandan people living the brutish life of Speke's wild fantasy, "[They] were persuaded, before the European penetration, that their country was the centre of the world, that this was the largest and most powerful and most civilised kingdom on earth." They believed that while god might visit other countries by day, he returned at night to rest in Rwanda.
Gourevitch - his interest in Rwanda germinated under the teaching of the naturalist Dian Fossey at Cornell University during one of her sojourns from studying the habits of mountain gorillas in northwest Rwanda - speculates that it might have been this very sense of national unity and high level of cultural self-confidence which led the Belgians to impose such an all-embracing, rigid and irrational system of ethnic organisation. Unusual means were necessary to divide such people against themselves.
Formal politics having been constructed solely around the idea of ethnic identity, the various Hutu and Tutsi parties vied with one another as to which could best secure the interests of its own side vis-a-vis the other. As independence approached and power beckoned, rivalry intensified within and between the two groups. 1957 saw the publication by a number of Hutu intellectuals of 'The Hutu Manifesto', endorsing an inverted, modernised version of Speke's two-nations theory and demanding a Hutu State for a Hutu people.
When a leading Hutu politician was beaten near to death by Tutsi political activists in the district of Gitarama in December 1959, Hutu leaders, many of them young and European educated, called for a general Hutu mobilisation to defend ourselves and our nation'. There followed the first-ever ethnic massacre in Rwandan history. In 1960, the Belgian military commander in the country appointed a Provisional Government under Gregoire Kayibanda, one of the authors of the Hutu Manifesto.
Thereafter, in short, violence begat violence. Tutsis forced into exile, mainly to Uganda, formed the Rwanda Patriotic Front and waited for the moment to fight their way home.
In the early 1990s, Rwanda, like almost all of sub-Saharan Africa, was plunged into economic crisis as the government slashed wages and public spending in order to meet the repayment demands of the International Monetary Fund. The supposed remaining privileges of the Tutsis made them prime candidates for scapegoating. When the Hutu president, Habyarimana, was killed in a plane crash, State radio, wrongly, blamed the Tutsis and urged Hutus to take up arms to 'cleanse the country of the cockroaches'.
Tens of thousands, including doctors, priests, women and children, answered the call. At least 7,000 Tutsis were butchered every day, for a hundred days, a faster rate of killing than the Nazis ever managed with the Jews.
The point is this. That the extent of real difference is not a factor in determining the intensity of hatred or fear people can feel for one another. In the right contrived circumstances, the length of a nose can be enough to spark genocide.
And so too, obviously, the width between eyes. n