Research in African Literatures 36.4 (2005) 223-232
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"Un train peut en cacher un autre"1 :
Narrating the Rwandan Genocide and Hotel Rwanda
Kenneth W. Harrow
How can we theorize around the issues that are at stake in the crisis in the Great Lakes for the last ten years? Usually one begins with an historical overview, starting with the events leading up to the Rwandan genocide, a description of that terrible event, and its consequences in the Congo. Then normally comes the presentation of those 100 days as the time of the nightmare, the nights of the long knives, the time of the killing fields. All this vocabulary around genocide stresses its exceptional nature. It is that exceptionality that I want to rethink now. And I want to rethink the historicist approach2 that asks us to understand it as the product of an historical process that dates back in time to the beginnings of the Tutsi-Hutu conflict, back to the mists of time when the "truth" of the conflict had its origins.
That the genocide was an exceptional moment in time.
Thinking the genocide as exceptional means to create a historicist explanation for its occurrence, a history that explains how it came about. For Rwanda, that has meant such things as going back to the beginning of Tutsi-Hutu relations for their originary, foundational moment; then tracing their relations through colonialism, with the incursion of Germans and Belgians, the imposition of identity cards and fixed identity legal status. There is a pause to focus on the racist anthropologies of the Belgian period, with the privileging of Tutsis in political and economic arenas; the build-up of resentments; the Hutu Revolution of 1959 and the Hutu ascension to power with independence in 1962. Then the shift in Belgian policies, with the decentering of Tutsis from positions of power, the rise of Hutu nationalism under Kayibanda; the Habyarimana putsch in 1973. A brief nod to the economic decline in the 1980s, the distancing of the Belgians; the subsequent intervention of the French in response to the request for military assistance in face of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) [End Page 223] threat from the north. The theme of the late 1980s and 1990s is the pressure from the international community to form a multiparty democracy, to bring the opposition into negotiations, to hold multiparty elections. Then comes the reprise of Hutu nationalism, Hutu extremism, Radio Milles Collines and the machinations of Madame Habyarimana, her northern clan, and the sympathetic army officers. Finally begins the work of the death squads up north, requiring a sidebar to consider the impact and demands of the RPF.
They too are treated to an historicist analysis, going back to their Tutsi origins, their alliances before exile, and the nineteenth-century emigrations to the Congo/Zaire. Then comes the later waves of exiles to the Kivus and Uganda; their rise with Museveni's coup; their falling-out with his regime, eventually followed by their demand to return home to Rwanda. Then back to the resistance of Habyarimana, the Arusha accords following the invasion of the RPF in 1990; the repeated threat in 1992, the intervention of French troops in '93, and finally, the fateful night, the shooting down of the plane on April 6, 1994.
This is an inexorable history, with an inevitable path. Its narrativization of the 100 days starting in April, the flights to Goma, the aftermath in the Congo—all this reads like Greek tragedy, and is entitled tragedy, unfortunately, time and time again. And it leads, always, inevitably, inexorably, to that moment of anagnorisis, of genocide, that culminating, defining moment, ontologically separate from, albeit explained by, that which went before it.
But what if the genocide weren't quite so exceptional, or if its exceptionalism weren't its defining feature; and what if the historicism only shifted our understanding onto a teleological structure whose originary moment was not only pointless, but never really existed. What if no teleology ever existed, but...