Sunday, September 7, 2014

Rwanda, Book 6

Rwanda, Book 6

The Boy Who Met Jesus

I attended school during an unusual time in the technological revolution in the United States: it was at the point when technology became just inexpensive enough to purchase for the classroom. However, just because we students had access to these fancy, new tools, it didn’t necessarily mean that technology was effectively implemented or that our teachers were suddenly computer experts. It was a brave, new world – and my peers and I were pioneers; clearing the way for generations to come.

It was my generation that made the switch from Floppy Disks in elementary school to USB Flash Drives in middle school. I also remember a time in which half the class’s homework was turned-in handwritten and the other half was turned-in typeface – because teachers didn’t feel comfortable mandating preteens to use a computer. (As one might imagine, both handwriting and spelling found themselves factored out of the final grade.) There were a lot of glitches along the way, however. I will never forget the instance in computer lab, when learning how to conduct research on the internet, an entire classroom of 10-year-olds suddenly had a pop-up window on the screen, notifying each one of us that we had been chosen as “the winner” of a free vacation getaway to Hawaii.  The pandemonium and jubilation which immediately broke out as we began to celebrate our good fortune rendered the instructor ineffective for the rest of the class period. 

I remember when Wikipedia first appeared on the scene and how controversial it initially was. In fact, many of our teachers did not want us to use it – and, if I remember correctly, even deducted points if we used it as one of our sources. However, Wikipedia was clearly there to stay – and slowly it was incorporated into our education. At the time of writing this post, there were nearly 4.6 million articles published in English alone. Everything and everyone worth noting seems to have a Wikipedia entry.

However, if you google the name “Segatashya,” you will not find a Wikipedia article associated with his name. In spite of this, he is a powerful figure and the subject of a non-fiction book by one of the most famous survivors of the Rwandan genocide, Immaculée Ilibagiza, “The Boy Who Met Jesus: Segatashya of Kibeho” (with help from Steve Erwin.)   

Followers of my blog know that I do not often mix religious beliefs with my book challenge. However, I decided to make an exception for this book – a signed copy which was given to me by one of my Rwandan friends as a birthday gift. For those who would prefer a more secular overview of Rwanda, I have already read and blogged about five books about the country, and I suggest that you read those. However, I also encourage you to read this book. Not only is it insightful and interesting - more importantly, it provides an example in which Rwanda is exceptional in a positive way, rather than the 1994 genocide, which seems to hang over the country’s history like a dark cloud.

If you google “Kibeho,” you will find that it has several Wikipedia articles associated with it. Kibeho is a small town in the southern part of Rwanda – home to a little more than 20,000 people. It is famous for two opposing reasons. The first was the location of the brutal 1995 Kibeho Massacre, following the 1994 genocide. Fearing retaliation after the genocide and the Rwandan Patriotic Front ascension to government power, a large number of Hutus (some guilty of genocide, many not guilty) fled to safe areas. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, and Burundi became filled with such refugees – but many stayed in the country through the French “Operation Turquoise,” which provided safe zones in internally displaced person (IDP) camps. One such camp was in Kibeho, which is where the newly-empowered RPF (having converted into the RPA – Rwandan Patriotic Army) massacred an estimated 4,000 people under UN protection, while attempting to find and seek justice from the former Hutu perpetrators of genocide. 

Despite this horrendously negative connection with Kibeho, throughout Rwanda (and indeed throughout the world) Kibeho is celebrated as a place of immense religious significance, especially to the Catholic faith. “In November 2001, the Vatican, in an extremely rare decree, approved the apparitions of the Virgin Mary experienced by three Kibeho visionaries between 1981 and 1989. Those three visionaries – Alphonsine, Anathalie, and Marie-Claire, were all teenage schoolgirls at Kibeho High School…” (page 5) These powerful religious apparitions, in which the girls would fall into a trance-like state (unable to be broken by intense physical pain inflicted upon them), brought the people of Rwanda together in a powerful way. Their apparitions, as well as those of the book’s namesake Segatashya, were recorded and broadcast around the country through radio. These apparitions even transcended socio-economic divides: bigwigs and politicians (including then-President Juvenal Habyarimana) flew down from their villas from the capital of Kigali to an impoverished corner of the country to seek divine wisdom and advice.    

However, all of the messages imparted in these apparitions were not positive. The author noted that “the Blessed Mother specifically predicted – 12 years before it devastated my country – the 1994 genocide, in which she said that a “river of blood” would flow across Rwanda unless my countrymen stopped harboring hatred for each other and, instead, filled their hearts with the redeeming love of her son, Jesus. With that love, she said, the looming disaster and bloodshed could be averted.” (page 22) In fact, Segatashya, actually saw people hacking others with machetes in one of his apparitions, in which he talked with Jesus. 

Segatashya is still an often-forgotten figure throughout the years of the Kibeho apparitions. He is still an unofficial visionary and his apparitions have yet to be approved by a higher religious authority. This should not be viewed as an undermining of his visions, but rather should be viewed in a historical context – as described by interviewee Father Feliciene,  “And in 1994 came the genocide, and that essentially ended the world as we knew it, including all the work of the Commission [of Enquiry.] Many of the members were killed and most of the documentation and tape recordings were lost forever. Segatashya’s approval as a visionary, at least so far, has been another victim of that horror.” (page 102)

This book is dedicated to the unusual and inspiring life of Segatashya – who was born to an extremely impoverished family in the Rwandan countryside. No one can say with certainty when he was born, but it is believed that he was born sometime in July 1967. He was raised by his illiterate and pagan parents, who meagerly survived through sustenance farming. He was only a teenager when he suddenly began to receive apparitions, in which he conversed with Jesus, often asking very pointed and even contentious questions about Christianity. His lowly background actually made him all the more believable to everyday Rwandans. “Segatashya could not read at all, he had never been inside a church, and he had never seen a Bible. At that point in his life he didn’t even know what a Bible was. And yet he was quoting from it… and later we were told that the words he had quoted were exactly as they appeared in the New Testament, or were at least very close paraphrases.” (page 87)

After his apparitions ended, Segatashya devoted his life to spreading the message of Christianity – often putting himself through unimaginable and life-threatening hardships as a missionary in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a mission to which the author dedicated a great deal of her book. At less than thirty years old, he was killed during the 1994 genocide by a death squad. His brief life was impressive and inspiring. This book provided me with a new understanding and appreciation for the spiritual life in Rwanda; an aspect which is often overlooked or disregarded in the studies of a region or country. 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Rwanda, Book 5

Rwanda, Book 5

Conspiracy to Murder

I walked out of the opera house and breathed in the cold air, cinching my coat belt a little tighter. I looked at my cell phone – 11:00pm on a Friday night – and I knew I wasn’t ready to go home after such an exhilarating performance. I saw a couple near me walk into a fancy hotel across the street. Not having any better idea of what to do, I followed them. Within 30 minutes, I found myself eating the most delicious (and calorie-explosive, no doubt) ice cream dessert with an espresso on a big plush sofa in the hotel bar, casually thumbing through a book about NATO. (Yes, I bring a book everywhere – even to the opera!)  

I have been told (sometimes in disapproval, other times in admiration) that it is unusual that I am so comfortable doing things alone – attending operas and concerts, going to museums and lectures, taking myself out to a fancy restaurant, etc. I do not find it unusual, per se – in fact, I enjoy the opportunity to be alone with my own thoughts – but these comments have made me aware of my behavior while alone. I probably take so many photographs because of this. Photographs remind me of the things I have done and the things I have seen – precisely because there is no other human being who can remind me. A challenging aspect about having so many experiences alone is that I have to rely on my own ability to draw conclusions and make comparisons – instead of collaborating with someone else. This happened in Germany, as I found myself inexplicably and evermore disinterested at Holocaust museums. It was very late in my stay in the country that I suddenly came to the realization that all of these museums basically had the same photographs; the same facts; similar artifacts – with slight variations depending on the venue. 

Coming to this realization, I began to recognize how systematized and regimented the discourse of the Holocaust and the Nazi Regime had become in Germany. There was clearly a fixed narrative. Even the tools to question or modify the narrative were inaccessible in Germany. (I am sure there are countless other examples, but two that immediately come to mind: Hitler’s memoir Mein Kampf has been banned from being printed and sold in Germany; the Nazi propaganda film Jud Süß has only been accessible to few German academics.) I am not criticizing the creation of a “narrative” when it comes to a subject as heinous as genocide, however, I do believe that we need to view all genocides as having a pre-conceived “narrative.”

If you were to ask a relatively well-read person about the Rwandan genocide, this person would likely come up with a narrative something like this: “In 1994, the majority Hutus of Rwanda started indiscriminately massacring the minority Tutsis with machetes.” If we start analyzing this narrative, we get some very interesting insights. First, there is a clear-and-simple conflict:  one ethnicity was being murdered by the other. In this, there is no room for exceptions – nor is there a place for the political and military narrative leading up to the 1994 genocide. Second, the conflict becomes simplified to being a spontaneous and barbaric tribal war because of the emphasis on machetes. This conveniently fits with the western misperception of an archaic Africa, which means that foreign governments and companies are not compelled to take responsibility for weaponry or military aid. 

Needless to say, the narrative of the Rwandan genocide has been simplified. In some ways, this is good – everyone knows that a simple story is more likely to be shared than a complex one. However, in other ways, this is negative – as the citizens of the world are not forced to put blame where blame is due. It is with this in mind that I purchased Linda Melvern’s “Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide,” published in 2004 by Verso. As one can easily see, the title alone sets aside the simplistic narrative of spontaneous mass ethnic massacre and cuts straight to the heart of the matter: that the Rwandan genocide was planned and carefully executed by a select group of leaders, as a Hutu regime was afraid of its uncertain future.

Even before the founding of Rwanda in 1961, ethnic strife ran rife.  As the author explained, “In 1959 thousands of people were killed and thousands more families fled when Belgian authorities proceeded to oust Tutsi chiefs and sub-chiefs and replace them with Hutu… The UN General Assembly sent a special commission to Rwanda. It reported that racism bordered on ‘Nazism against the Tutsi minorities’ and that the government together with the Belgian authorities were to blame.” (page 7) Conflict continued under the first elected (and Hutu) President Grégoire Kayibanda, however escalated after 200,000 Hutus were slaughtered in Burundi in 1972 with support of the ethnic Tutsi government. It was at this point that the defense minister Juvénal Habyarimana took power by force in 1973. Although he made Rwanda into a one-party state, in the early years of his regime, Rwanda experienced more economic prosperity and less ethnic conflict.

All of this was beginning to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s. First of all, a new pro-democracy movement was growing – splintering the Hutus between different visions of the future: a future with strongman Habyarimana as its leader and a future with more political parties and opportunities. Perhaps even more threatening to the regime, in 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) guerilla army invaded from Uganda. The RPF was made up of predominantly ethnic Tutsis whose families had left the country during the massacres of the 50s, 60s, and 70s and were raised outside of the country. “The RPF invasion was a failure, largely because both France and Zaire [the Democratic Republic of the Congo] sent in forces to protect their ally.” (page 14) As one might imagine, this was a huge problem for the democratic movement – further splintering the political parties between those who were willing to negotiate with the RPF and those who were not.

The international community got itself involved in Rwanda during this critical time, helping create a power sharing agreement through the Arusha Accords of 1992. This agreement incorporated the old regime, the new political parties, as well as the RPF. The author noted that “Both diplomats and officials were convinced that Rwanda would be a winner, a mission to redeem the UN’s battered reputation so severely damaged by disastrous failure, particularly in Bosnia and Somalia. The UN was badly in need of a success.” (page 88)

Simultaneously, those in the old regime were preparing themselves for something much different than a power-sharing agreement. Following the RPF invasion of 1990, they began to prepare for a seemingly-spontaneous mass murder through a so-called “civilian self-defense system.” Equally telling was that “In the three years from October 1990 Rwanda, one of the poorest countries in the world, became the third largest importer of weapons in Africa, spending an estimated US $100 million.” (pages 56-7) An astute observer of Rwanda might have also recognized the dramatic increase of machetes and agricultural tools coming from China, worth some $4.6 million. 

This book delves into a narrative very different than the simple one that is often accompanied with mention of the Rwandan genocide. I believe that this is for two reasons. The first is that complexity doesn’t allow for a quick story with a simple moral. Many Hutus were killed in 1994 – because this was not only an ethnic conflict, but a conflict to preserve the power of a falling regime. One of the first people murdered on April 7, 1994, was the Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who had been elected less than a year before through the power-sharing agreement of the Arusha Accords. Equally telling is that the genocide was carried out by an assortment of weapons in a uniformed fashion through the civilian self-defense system – it was not spontaneous hatred which led them to kill: “Most victims were killed by machete (37.9%), followed by clubs (16.8%), and firearms (14.8%).” (page 251) 

However, I also believe that another reason the narrative of Rwandan genocide has developed in this way is to hide the West’s “sins.” Inaction in genocide is viewed certainly much more favorably than actually indirect participation in genocide. In this case, it was clear that the Rwandan government was mobilizing itself militarily in the years leading up to 1994,. France (a US and NATO ally, as well as a permanent seat on the UN Security Council) quickly developed into a protector of the Habyarimana regime, providing a great deal of weapons. Although the French role has yet to truly be exposed in the Rwandan genocide, the author mentions one particularly interesting example of involvement: “In the early hours on Saturday 9 April, at 3:45 a.m., a French C-160 landed at Kigali International Airport and a French soldier disembarked… An astonished UN peacekeeper watched as boxes of ammunition were unloaded from the place and transferred in perfect co-ordination with the Rwandan army to trucks to transport them to Camp Kanombe.” (page 180) 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Monday, September 1, 2014



I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation

My hosts were hurling insults in thick New York accents at each other across the kitchen table, which was filled with an obscene amount of cheap Chinese food – $120 of Chinese takeout, to be precise. I looked around the room; my eyes finally resting on the door of the apartment with its six dead bolts. I started to panic – I had already sat through two long hours as they discussed whether or not so-and-so is an honest man; that so-and-so got himself into trouble precisely because he wasn’t an honest man; and all of their friends who had suddenly died of “cancer.” I then decided that somehow I had found myself staying with people who either were connected with the mafia already or who desperately wanted to be connected. Either way, it prompted reasons for concern. Needless to say, I quickly excused myself to my bedroom and locked the one little lock on my door. 

The next morning, as I sat at that same table with my morning coffee, the woman demanded to know what size shoe I wore – after which she disappeared to return with an unusual pair of gladiator sandals, the likes of which I had never seen before and probably will never see again. Thrusting them at me and continually rubbing the back of my hand, she exclaimed, “I want you to have these. They are made out of real crocodile skin! SEE?! REAL crocodile skin! They were very expensive. Before my Italian husband died of cancer, he bought them for me. I want you to have them.” I was too afraid to refuse and returned home from New York City with a “new” pair of shoes - so completely different from my normal fashion style, I have yet to wear them. 

I share this anecdote to introduce the fact that I own far too many shoes than I care to admit. I have shoes for every occasion; of every shape, color, and heel height. I am often plagued by the question: What sort of pathological need am I trying to fill by owning so many pairs of shoes? However, there are many interesting psychological and academic topics when it comes to shoes – not least of all the foot-binding practice used on the women of imperial China. However, when I picked up my book on the country of Eritrea, “I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation,” written by Michela Wong, I did not expect the topic of shoes to take such a principal role (although it is worth noting that the cover features a photograph of dusty old boots):

“Celebrating its victory, any other new government would have ordered a statue: of its leader, a tableau of freedom fighters depicted in glorious action, or a symbolic flaming torch. The Eritreans chose instead an outsize black metal sandal, a giant version of the plastic shidda worn by hundreds of thousands of Eritreans who could afford neither leather nor polish. Ridiculously cheap, washable, long-lasting, the Kongo sandal – as it was known – was the poor man’s boot, perfect symbol for an egalitarian movement. It must be the world’s only public monument to an item of footwear.” (page 19) 

Out of all of the African countries about which I have read, I find Eritrea’s history perhaps the most difficult to share. This is because Eritrea’s history is not truly its own – its history is instead overpowered by those of other countries. As the author describes, “Its narrative was entwined with those of colonial empires and superpowers, its destiny had engaged presidents in the White House and leaders in the Kremlin. It had obsessed emperors who believed themselves descended from Solomon and preoccupied dictators who took the Fascist salute.” (page xi) Indeed, Eritrea only gained independence in 1993 after a 30-year independence struggle against Ethiopia, in which 1 in every 50 Eritreans lost his/her life. 

In 1890, in the midst of the European grab for power in Africa, Italy was invited to take modern-day Eritrea from Egypt by the British – mostly because Britain wanted to make sure that there would be no power vacuum which would lead to its inability to access the Red Sea. A peaceful takeover, Eritrea became Italy’s first colony and a huge source of pride for the Italian government. In fact, Italy invested far more into its colony than it ever extracted: “New offices and arsenals, car parks and laboratories sprang up, traffic queues for the first time formed on the city’s streets. The most modern city in Africa [Asmara] boasted more traffic lights than Rome itself. Soon the simple one-story houses of the 19th century were dwarfed by Modernist palazzi.” (page 72) Eritrea was also the base off of which the Italian dictator Mussolini took over the Empire of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) in 1936. 

As a colony of Italy, Ethiopia and Eritrea became a battleground in the midst of World War II. In 1941, the British expelled the Italian forces after the infamous Battle of Keren. Their administration, which was justified through a UN mandate and lasted for the following 10 years, was inherently racist. It is estimated that some 80% of the wealth that Italy had bestowed on Eritrea and Ethiopia was extracted from the region and brought to territories (like Kenya) traditionally under British control.  The author notes that, “News of Ethiopia’s treatment would have been enough to make any county think twice about surrendering to the Allies… Goebbels could now point to Ethiopia and say to the people of Norway, Belgium, Holland, France, Poland, and Greece, ‘If the United Nations win, they will treat your country as enemy territory, just as Great Britain treated Ethiopia.’” (page 144)

In 1951, a new UN mandate was established that converted Ethiopia and Eritrea into a federation. After 10 years in the federation, Eritrea would have the opportunity whether to become a part of Ethiopia or seek independence. It was at this point that Eritrea became overshadowed by the country of Ethiopia – first led by charismatic emperor Haile Selassie. Believing himself the direct descendent of King Solomon and thus it being his destiny to rule, Selassie soon annexed Eritrea to ensure that Ethiopia would no longer be landlocked and would have access to the Red Sea. The United States, which had established a top secret intelligence hub in Eritrea during World War II, made no objections. The US Kagnew Base in Eritrea was a key base for spying and intelligence gathering during the Cold War, due to its location high above sea level on a plateau, allowing it to detect radio waves coming all the way from Brazil. Kagnew Base also became the pawn of emperor Selassie, who elicited over $180 million in US military aid between 1946 and 1972: “Washington was uneasy with the idea of an independent Eritrea, all too likely, it was thought, to fall prey to a predatory Communist bloc. It wanted a friendly Ethiopian government, a government it could do business with in firm control of the Hamasien plateau.” (page 203) 

In 1974, everything changed. In Ethiopia, the emperor Selassie was ousted and in his place, a communist military regime called the Derg (under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam) came to power. Needless to say, the United States left Eritrea as the Ethiopians developed a strong military partnership with the USSR. Although Mengistu is known for the horrible treatment of his own Ethiopian citizens (The Red Terror happened on his watch, as well as the 1984 Ethiopian famine which killed more than 1 million people) and has actually been convicted of genocide, his regime should also be characterized by its harsh treatment of the Eritrean independence movement. A compulsive warrior, Mengistu constantly bought newer and more advanced arms, hoping that it would give Ethiopia a comparative advantage in the struggle. “Ranked the poorest nation on the globe by the World Bank, Ethiopia was nonetheless spending more than half its government revenue on arms.” (page 345) A force of nearly 500,000 Ethiopian soldiers were dispatched to control Eritrea (with its population of little more than 3 million people), but were still unable to declare victory.

When the USSR decided it could no longer sponsor communist projects abroad in the late 1980s, Mengistu started to align himself with a new power in order to get the arms he needed to win over Eritrea. Mengistu turned to Israel, utilizing the Ethiopian Falasha Jews as bait. “Washington decided to turn a blind eye to Israeli military training in Ethiopia and the dispatch of army uniforms, boots and tens of thousands of supposedly ‘obsolete rifles’, while warning both Addis [Addis Ababa – Ethiopia’s capital] and Tel Aviv [Israel’s capital] it would not stand for deliveries of heavy munitions” (page 351) However, in 1990, when the Eritrean rebel forces finally took the port city of Massawa, Ethiopians responded by utilizing Israeli cluster bombs – exposing Israel’s deep involvement in the country. 

This book delves a little into the more recent events of Eritrea, sharing details about the border dispute with Ethiopia which led to a two year war in the early 2000s. However, what the author truly describes is a history of a country with little history of its very own. Instead, it is a mixed bag of colonial powers and superpowers – each trying to flex its muscles a bit more than the other. 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!