Enfin, la justice & the narcissism of academic debate

December 18, 2008 § 2 Comments

So news has come that Théonaste Bagasora, a former colonel in the Rwandan army, was sentenced to life in prison for his actions in inciting the genocide there in 1994, in Arusha, Tanzania.  The Rwandan government of Paul Kagamé (whose behaviour during the genocide remains open to debate) is pleased.  Aloys Mutabingwa, a Rwandan government spokesperson, told Agence France-Presse that “En ce qui concerne Bagosora, la justice a été rendue. Nous sommes satisfaits.”

Part of what concerns me about the emergent view of the Rwandan genocide today is that the number of victims gets downplayed.  Whilst the BBC reports that 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in the spring of 1994 in Rwanda, Canada’s own The Globe & Mail insists the numbers are closer to 500,000.  What’s more interesting is that The Globe relies on the same Associated Press article that the Montreal Gazette does, but has downshifted the numbers from 800,000 to 500,000.  This isn’t really news insofar as The Globe goes, the 500,000 figure has consistently been in their stories for at least the last few years.  I once emailed The Globe’s Africa correspondent, Stephanie Nolen, but she never responded.  Today, I have had an email exchange with the Foreign Desk Editor, but I haven’t really received a satisfactory response.  

Of course, the 500,000 figure gets into a debate about start and end date of the Rwandan genocide.  The accepted parameters here are the 100 days after President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down near the Kigali airport on 6 April 1994.  In those 100 days, 800,000 people died.  That’s 8,000 people killed every day for 100 days in Rwanda.  I still shudder at that.  Anyway.  I guess that when we start debating 500,000 v. 800,000 killed, we start defining starting and ending dates of the genocide.  

And, on one level, given the number of dead in Rwanda in a 90-day genocide is so astronomic, a difference of 300,000 is probably not a big deal, on another level, we are talking about 300,000 people, bludgeoned to death.  The numbers are overwhelming, but these were still people.  I guess my problem here is that I find myself overwhelmed by numbers when we discuss genocide and genocidal massacres, and the body counts just make my head swim.  I took a course on genocide and human rights at the outset of my PhD and had to stop doing the readings because they were really just clinical listings of the dead.  A few million here, 100,000 there, and so on.  I suppose the only way to deal with genocide is to adopt a clinical tone, but I can’t do it.  So the difference between 500,000 and 800,000 matters.  

And while the Aegis Trust reminds us that the important thing to remember is that there was a genocide, I also think that we need to remember that 800,000 people lost their lives because of their political beliefs (in the case of moderate Hutus) or simply their ethnicity (in the case of the Tutsis).  And that, my friends, is not right, it is abhorrent, it still makes me ill.  One of the things most clearly seared into my head is Gen. Roméo Dallaire’s description of going to a meeting with this or that military commander, having to cross a river that had stopped flowing, so filled with bloated corpses it was.  In short, we need to remember not just that there was a genocide, but that actual real people died.  I think we forget that too quickly when we get into academic debates about start and end dates and so on.

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§ 2 Responses to Enfin, la justice & the narcissism of academic debate

  • Tim Stevens says:

    A 2004 Rwandan government census put the figure at 937,000, so, literally, go figure. It has been noted that the term ‘decimation’ actually applies – a word that is rarely appropriate, but in this case is.

  • Salima says:

    agree- every single one counts. we are so de-phased by body counts these days that people might not care about 937,000 vs 800,000 vs 500,000 but put it this way – if we personally knew even ONE person bludgeoned to death we would perhaps begin to care about the numbers; the people.

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