Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Rwanda, Book 7

Rwanda, Book 7

Inside the Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising True Story… And Why It Matters Today

One of the highlights of this past year just might have been that I was broadcast across Rwandan national television – during prime time, no less. The occasion for such an honor? Rwanda Day in Atlanta, Georgia last September. 

The first reason I went to the Rwanda Day 2014 convention was out of solidarity for “my sister” and best friend since our first year of college, a beautiful young Rwandan woman. (She had recently moved to take advantage of a job opportunity and it was impossible for her to attend.) Through her eyes, I had come to love the country of Rwanda, its people, and its customs. I am very proud of what Rwanda has achieved in the 20 years following the genocide and I wanted to celebrate its growth. The second reason I went was sheer curiosity. I was aware that this occasion served as what could be described as a “propaganda event,” drumming up support for the Rwandan government within the country as well as the worldwide diaspora by hosting a convention in the United States. 

It was indeed a very interesting two-day event. I was one of the lone Americans to attend. Most of the attendees were a part of the diaspora, but hundreds of them had actually flown all the way from Rwanda to engage in the festivities. (Interestingly, many of them did not speak any English, whatsoever.) I had several friends in attendance and many others recognized me from Facebook photos of our mutual friends – ensuring that I was never really alone. Moreover, many who didn’t know me at all used my presence as an opportunity to practice their English, which I welcomed.
One of the aspects that stuck out to me was that at the end of each panel discussion, there was a Question-and-Answer session which lasted just as long as the panel itself. I quickly came to recognize that this Q&A session was not like one that you would find the United States - it was an individual’s opportunity to stand up, praise the government, perhaps make an appeal, and attempt to attract attention, as it was ultimately a venue in which they could be seen by their government officials.

My view at Rwanda Day: President Paul Kagame (left center)
I was meaning to only be a spectator until the Q&A session of the “Youth and Employment” panel discussion began. In my personal opinion, Rwanda is facing problems in this regard. During our four years of undergraduate studies, I constantly heard how my friends were looking forward to returning to their homeland to contribute to development. However, not one of them has moved back. In fact all of them have remained abroad, not returning to Rwanda because “there are no jobs there.” It seems like a simple enough problem to understand: there are better jobs in the United States than there are in Rwanda. However, the country’s employment statistics shed a new light on this issue:  Rwanda’s highest qualified job sectors (banking, transportation, services) are filled mostly with foreigners from its African neighbors. In short, young and educated Rwandans are standing aside as they see Kenyans and Tanzanians taking the best jobs in Rwanda for themselves. (Another statistic that I find personally alarming is the sheer amount of educated, French-speaking Burundians employed in these high-qualified sectors – perhaps alluding to ethnic tensions still practiced in private sector employment.) 

Yet, during the Q&A no one seemed to be taking the opportunity to ask any tough questions.
That’s when I stood up to the microphone (inadvertently being broadcast across Rwandan national television, as I did so.)  I politely asked what the government was doing to ensure that young, educated Rwandans could acquire the jobs currently being held by foreigners. (I didn’t mention the ethnic part – I know Rwanda well enough to know that that particular topic is off-limits, except behind closed doors.) I didn’t expect an answer – and they really didn’t provide one. I stood up because I knew that this was an issue affecting all of my Rwandan friends. I also knew that an American asking such a question would get some attention and it just might show the government officials that there are people in the West who are examining Rwanda under a critical lens. During the following break, people kept coming up to me. Rwandans (both living in the United States and in Rwanda) thanked me for asking the question, saying that it was important for their government to address. But yet it was clear to me that although they wanted it addressed, they were unwilling to ask the question themselves. Perhaps only a non-Rwandan could get away with it without seeming ungrateful. 

Each time I write about Rwanda, it becomes more and more difficult. Interestingly, it is like my relationship with the United States: I love it and I am proud of what it has accomplished, but at the same time I recognize a great number of problems and challenges. However, it is easy to criticize the superpower of the world; it is a lot more difficult to criticize a small, landlocked African nation which experienced one of the most horrific genocides of our time just 20 years ago and somehow was able to move past these impossible obstacles to achieve an extraordinary level of development. However, without challenging the country to face its problems head-on, how will it continue to grow?

This is a pertinent topic because this conflict is what has hijacked nearly all of my reading on Rwanda: there are pro-Rwanda books or anti-Rwanda books – very little literature is respectfully in the middle. There are books praising the country’s President Paul Kagame or scathing him instead. In fact, I actually found myself reading one of the most controversial books in Rwanda’s modern history without even knowing it, An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina, the man whose story served as the inspiration for the Hollywood blockbuster, Hotel Rwanda. When I told one of my Rwandan friends that I had read it, his jaw dropped in disbelief as he shook his head, “Emily, that’s a really bad guy.” He refused to say anything more when I questioned him on it, saying that he hadn’t read the book and couldn’t criticize Rusesabagina knowledgeably. Subsequently, I decided to purchase and read, “Inside the Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising True Story…and Why It Matters Today” by a survivor of the real Hotel Rwanda, Edouard Kayihura, with help from the author Kerry Zukus. The purpose of this book is to dispel the legacy of Paul Rusesabagina, by showing that he is not the hero that he claims to be. 

The book begins with Eduoard’s personal story, which is worth reading by all accounts. At home when the genocide first started in the city, he found refuge in the home of a Hutu friend who paid bribes in order to ensure his safety. In fact, a key theme of this book (different than the other books about the Rwandan genocide that I have read) was the power of money. This is, in fact, a human truth, but it was interesting to see it discussed in the midst of such a morally-charged memoir of genocide: “In this time of chaos, there was profit to be made. There were political true believers, but far more believed in the one thing that remained constant regardless of regime – money.” (page 41) 

Money was likewise a central theme when the reader is first introduced to the infamous Paul Rusesabagina. After miraculously making it to the safe zone of the Hotel des Mille Collines (or the Hotel Rwanda), the author quickly found the hotel dominated by Rusesabagina, a Hutu with a Tutsi wife. Noting that Rusesabagina was a high ranking member of the hard-line Hutu Power branch of the MDR Party, he shared how Rusesabagina defied orders from the European hotel company and forced the refugees to pay for their rooms.  The author claims, “He turned it into a profit center. If you could not afford to pay, you did not get cooked corn or beans that the Red Cross had given to the hotel for free.” (page 70) However, what most damaged Rusesabagina’s credibility in this section was by far the testimony of UN Commander Canadian Romeo Dallaire, the author of the incredible book, Shake Hands with the Devil. He makes a point not to discuss Hotel Rwanda or Paul Rusesabagina publicly because he “has no desire to add further to Paul Rusesabagina’s ‘fraudulent celebrity.’” (page 161) However, Dallaire’s actual account during the genocide paints a very negative picture:

“Indications are that the hotel manager has done everything in his power to have these UN soldiers removed from the hotel. I also received unconfirmed reports that the manager has given FAR General Bizimungu a list of hotel guests and their room numbers. UN soldiers are changing around the room number of the most threatened.” (page 103)

I found this section of the book very compelling and even found myself agreeing with the authors reasonable claim that “Had Paul Rusesabagina never lived, every one of us who took refuge in that hotel and is still alive would still be alive.” (page 168) The second half of the book is dedicated to giving a history of how Hotel Rwanda came to be and how fraudulent claims of heroism could be picked up and celebrated by Hollywood. It is an interesting story – leading to Rusesabagina’s ultimate personal enrichment on the selling of his story of genocide and formation of a political party against Kagame. It is worth noting that “Rusesabagina could be extradited to Rwanda to face charges of assisting terrorism and threatening state security” (page 216), due to the many seditious things he has said in recent years regarding the genocide, the Tutsi group, and Paul Kagame. 

While several parts of this section were enlightening – such as Rusesabagina’s gradual narrative transition from “we” to “I” when discussing the heroes of the Hotel Rwanda (indicating his initial semi-honesty and sense of community) and quotes of increasingly extremist rhetoric while disparaging the Kagame administration I found this section to be quite saturated with ethnic rhetoric; making me uncomfortable. One mild example was referring to the genocide as “the Genocide Against the Tutsi.” While I know that ethnic Tutsi were by far the majority killed in the genocide, I felt as if this decision marginalized the politically moderate Hutus, who were also killed during this conflict.

The book ends on a hopeful note: “It is a new day for both the Tutsi, as well as the Hutu. A phrase now gaining favor in my native land is, ‘I am not Tutsi; I am not Hutu; I am Rwandan.” (page 247) While I love the sentiment of this message – and I have heard it hundreds of times from my friends – I am not convinced of its validity. I am friends with both Tutsis and Hutus (and even a mix of the two.) With my limited knowledge of Rwandans, I can identify ethnic groups with surprising accuracy by their interactions with one another. My initial suspicion is typically confirmed by asking less than five questions about their personal history. If I can do this as an American, I can only imagine how much more prominent it is among Rwandans and how much society is still dictated by ethnicity, even if it is not being spoken out loud. 

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

Monday, February 16, 2015

Japan, Book 2

Japan, Book 2

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

When I was young, my heroine was Athena, the beautiful goddess of wisdom from Greek mythology. To me, she seemed far superior to modern day superheroes in so many ways. I liked the way that she was born by sprouting from Zeus’s head, wearing a set of complete armor (making our human births seem barbaric in comparison!) I especially liked the way she turned her nemesis into a spider. My obsession with Greek mythology led me to choose Greece as my 3rd grade country project – which I researched meticulously, subsequently becoming the resident class expert of Homer and Aristotle. I have to confess that I may have been so obsessed with Greece that I managed to learn not a single other fact about any of the other countries my classmates presented in their country projects. All I really remember was during one of my friend’s presentations on Japan, I managed to accidentally drop all of my green tea ice cream he brought to class on my favorite dress. Somehow, in my mind, the incident became the country of Japan’s fault, leading me to look at it through a negative lens for years to come. 

My interest in Japan was rejuvenated at a conference celebrating youth leadership in community service in Washington DC. (The name of the conference is Prudential Spirit of Community Service Awards – and as a side note, I recommend it because it is a wonderful way of recognizing young people and encouraging them to become leaders in their communities.) While at this conference as the delegate of South Carolina, I met two beautiful Japanese girls, representing their country as the top youth community service leaders. They hardly spoke any English – and I spoke no Japanese. The language barrier seemed to have no effect on our friendship, though. The last night during a dinner cruise on the Potomac, we sat together sharing photographs of our families from our cell phones. Despite my hesitation to engage in the festivities, when the music started to play, one of the girls grabbed my hands and triumphantly exclaimed, “Dance, Emily!” We managed to dance all night in an eclectic Japanese-American mix.

Chinatsu (left), Emily (center), and Yuki (right)
Two years later while I was studying in Barcelona, I received a shocking message. Yuki, one of the Japanese girls, informed me that the other girl, Chinatsu, had just passed away from leukemia. Yuki was collecting letters to be presented to Chinatsu’s family at her funeral and asked if I would be willing to write one. I was in shock the rest of the day. Chinatsu had given a great deal of her very brief life to help others and to build into her community’s pride by leading a revitalization project and beautifying her local train station. She consistently looked past herself in order to help others. The idea that she was gone – to me – was a huge loss. It was not only a personal loss, but also a loss of everyone affected by her generosity and sweetness of spirit.

I have never been to Japan, nor do I know many Japanese people. But, through what I have read about her country, I have come to appreciate the unique individual that Chinatsu was. Her dedication to helping others must have been like a beacon of light in her community. This idea was reinforced when I read Haruki Murakami’s “Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche.” Murakami may just be one of the most popular fiction writers in the world today, but this is a non-fiction book, focusing on interviews in an attempt to better understand his own people by analyzing perhaps one of the greatest human-induced crises in the country’s modern history: a homegrown terrorist attack which shook Japan at its core.

Probably a great number of you remember the March 20, 1995 sarin gas attack that took place within the Tokyo subway system. (A good video synopsis is available here.) However, I will provide some background information, just in case. The Tokyo gas attack actually consisted of five different coordinated attacks, in which members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin gas into subway cars during morning rush hour. Twelve people died, over fifty people were severely injured, and thousands more were harmed in these attacks. Sarin is a nerve agent which in its most lethal form causes suffocation in its victims by prohibiting the nerves from communicating with the muscle of the diaphragm. Other (less lethal, but yet horrible nonetheless) effects of sarin gas include: impaired eyesight, vomiting, and uncontrollable muscle spasms. At the time of the attacks, the cult was formally recognized as a religious order in Japan and had 9,000 followers in Japan and up to 40,000 worldwide. The leader of the cult, Shoko Asahara (a man with a chip on his shoulder, as he was born into poverty and left almost completely blind from a childhood illness), was the mastermind of the attacks. (*Note: He is now awaiting execution by hanging.) In the years up to the attack, he had been hypothesizing the end of the world and having his followers believe that he was the only enlightened being, following the Buddha. Interestingly, many of his followers (particularly those who actually released the sarin gas in the subway cars) were once members of the “superelite” of Japan. They were well-off – wealthy, well-educated, and formerly possessing good jobs. The nature of this bizarre cult was difficult for the average Japanese to understand, and the news quickly became sensationalized. 

It was likewise difficult for the author Haruki Murakami to comprehend – but he decided to do something about it. This book is his attempt to understand not only what happened on that day, but also how the Japanese society could have produced such a deadly cocktail leading to a homegrown terrorist attack. His justification for delving so deeply into the “macabre” is beautifully and effortlessly defended in the following quote: “If we are to learn anything from this tragic event, we must look at what happened all over again, from different angles, in different ways. Something tells me things will only get worse if we don’t wash it out of our metabolism. It’s all too easy to say, ‘Aum was evil.’ Nor does saying, ‘This had nothing to do with ‘evil’ or ‘insanity’’ prove anything either. Yet the spell cast by these phrases is almost impossible to break, the whole emotionally charged ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ vocabulary has been done to death.” (page 226) Despite the fact that this book was written in 2000 (before the 9/11 terrorist attacks), I found his narrative incredibly compelling and indeed applicable to the modern era, as we are currently facing so much religious extremism. Murakami never outright criticizes religion, but his feelings of turmoil boil over: “People the world over turn to religion for salvation. But when religion hurts and maims, where are they to go for salvation?” (page 103) 

Murakami divides his book into two parts. The first part is dedicated to the memories of the victims and the survivors of the terror attack. Although this section is ultimately written like a series of interviews, Murakami brings in a writer’s voice; describing the people involved so beautifully that it is impossible not to sympathize with them. I want to share some of the victim’s quotes which resonated with me the most. While some are quintessentially “human” in the midst of crisis, others are insightful into Japanese culture and society at the time of the attack:

  • “As I said, there were people foaming at the mouth where we were in front of the Ministry of Trade and Industry. That half of the roadway was absolute hell. But on the other side, people were walking to work as usual… It was as if we were a world apart. Nobody stopped. They all thought: ‘Nothing to do with me.’” (page 17)
  • “With society the way it is, everyone just chasing after money, I can sort of understand how young people might be attracted to something more spiritual like religion. Not that I am myself.” (page 54)
  • “Since the war ended, Japan’s economy has grown rapidly to the point where we’ve lost any sense of crisis and material things are all that matters. The idea that it’s wrong to harm others has gradually disappeared.” (page 65)
  • "It took a long time for the ambulances to come. Finally one did – I only saw that one… So, in the end, most people flagged down cabs and the drivers agreed to take them to the hospital.” (page 152)
  • “At the hospital, I saw some of the others who had helped me rescue people from Kodemmacho Station. Some were bedridden. We all inhaled sarin. I don’t want to keep quiet about this thing; keeping quiet is a bad Japanese habit. By now, I know everyone’s beginning to forget about this whole incident, but I absolutely do not want people to forget.” (page 169)

The second part of the book is even more fascinating and brings the quotes that I mentioned above full-circle. In this second section, Murakami interviews former followers of the Aum cult; delving into their pasts, their dreams, and their desires. He wanted to challenge his readers to view the cult as a product of the Japanese society; even a product of Japanese imperial history. He emphatically proclaims that “we need to realize that most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they’re not disadvantaged; they’re not eccentrics. They are the people who live average lives (and, maybe from the outside, more than average lives), who live in my neighborhood. And in yours.” (page 364) He recognizes that under different circumstances, any Japanese could have been a follower of the Aum cult.

While we in the United States might shake off Murakmi’s inquisition into the causes of the rise of the Aum cult as inapplicable to us, Murakmai makes it clear that this is not only a product of Japan, but also a product of capitalism – making it very applicable to many of the challenges we are facing in the West. He notes that “what they [the Aum followers] all had in common, though, was a desire to put the technical skill and knowledge they’d acquired in the service of a more meaningful goal. They couldn’t help having grave doubts about the inhumane, utilitarian gristmill of capitalism and the social system in which their own sense and efforts – even their own reason for being – would be fruitlessly ground down.” (page 362) 

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