interview with Gerard Prunier

interview with Gerard Prunier
Correspondent Fergal Keane's interview with Gerard Prunier, author ofThe Rwanda Crisis. This interview covers the history of Tutsis and Hutus; events leading up to the genocide; the West's actions; and Rwanda's chances for justice and reconciliation.

Q: Back in 1959-61, what was the feeling of the majority of Hutus towards Tutsis at that critical time?

A: Well, it's difficult to say if there was a majority feeling, there was something that was politically manipulated by people who were politically active at the time, whether it really reached down in the population is very very hard to say. There was definitely a negative feeling for a very simple reason, that the Tutsis had been used by the colonial administration as auxiliaries, and they had, of course, relished their work and they had used it to the utmost to derive all kinds of benefit from it. All the more so because Belgian colonialism was very violent, physically violent ... in other words people would get beaten up and it would often happen that these Tutsi auxiliaries of the administration would be physically beaten up by Belgians in front of their "subjects" and, of course, once the white man had walked away, the Tutsi stayed on the hill, he was the local chief, so he would re-assert his authority in the most strong ways and definitely they were perceived as haughty, arrogant ... when in fact a good number of the Tutsi population was not rich at all, in no better social position than the Hutus. But it was enough that some of them were very powerful and had worked with the Belgians for a kind of extreme dislike to be rather widespread.

Q: It does seem that this use of Tutsis as the ruling class by the Belgian colonialists did breed feelings--at times murderous feelings--of resentment.

rwandans A: I don't know if these feelings were so murderous, because actually one thing which is striking is that in November '59 there were few people killed--very few. The killings took some time, they gathered momentum and the worst killings took place in 1963, four years after independence, that was the big wave of killings that eventually triggered. There had been already a lot of people leaving and refugees (Tutsi) going outside, but many of the killings occurred a full four years after a major guerrilla attack from the Tutsi who had taken refuge in Burundi and were attacking with the backing of the Burundi government.

I think that there was some spontaneity in the violence against the Tutsi but I think that the violence wouldn't go very far; people were very happy to humiliate them, beat them up, at times set fire to their houses, but the spontaneous killings in 1959 were very few--15 or 20 that was all.

There was a lot of tension, beatings, insults, but in 1963 thousands of people were killed and at the time there was a native government in power. In '59 it was still the colonial authorities and if there was no violence it is not because the colonial authorities stopped it, the Belgians did nothing to stop the violence, but I think in '59 it was more spontaneous and the spontaneity was less violent than the organized violence. I think this is very interesting because this is a lesson that still operates for the 1994 genocide. In other words, it is not something that comes from a bunch of savages jump[ing] on people's throats. It is politically organized violence, because between '59 and '63, the violence rose, increased as did the degree of political organization. It was not anarchy at all.

Q: But there was, nonetheless, a germ of resentment of humiliation on the part of the Hutu. Can you expand on that?

A: There was a great feeling of inferiority on the part of the Hutu. This violence could never have existed if there had not been resentment, if the political violence could not take place in a climate where even those people who were not very enthusiastic about it would say, Well, after all, these people, they got what they deserved.

It's a little bit what happened with the Jews in central Europe during the Second World War. I mean when the Germans were killing Jews in a lot of central European countries, well the local population didn't mind so much. And I think, a lot of Hutus didn't mind so much that political activists would kill Tutsis. There was a climate. And, of course, this reaches even before colonization, because the Tutsi were always an aristocracy and we have to understand that this word doesn't mean that every Tutsi was rich and powerful and there were a lot of small lineage because it went by families and the high lineage Tutsi were indeed the lords. But the small lineage Tutsi were not in a very different position from the Hutu. But among the poor people, a poor Tutsi felt himself to be better in quality of personality than a small Hutu.

Q: One comes across again and again, from talking to Hutus, this sense of humiliation. That they were made to feel sub-human, second class.

A: Well, that is definitely the case, and there is in Banyarwanda culture something called "itonde," which is this particular quality that Tutsi are so proud of, which is a kind of stoicism, the capacity to lie, and to stay with your lies even under torture, to be extremely courageous and deceitful, very aristocratic ... I would say it's a kind of ethos that puts one back to the late Middle Ages, Italy in the 14th century or something like that, with people who are both courageous and a little bit cruel and deceitful at the same time, but who are ready to pay the price and die if necessary. This is a very aristocratic type of ethics, and they looked to the Hutu as uncouth peasants who didn't have the courage.

Q: And this bred terrible feelings of resentment?

A: Oh yes, of course, and also a great feeling of inferiority on the part of the Hutu. This is why, actually, they kill so much, because their feeling, it was very obvious during the years of the preparation to the genocide '92-'93, they feel so inferior that they feel that if they share power with the Tutsi, the Tutsi will eventually take it all, that they cannot really compete with them, that the only way is to have them all dead. That the Tutsi are so clever and powerful and scheming that if you try to share they will take everything from you. So killing them all is the only solution.

Q: When the Europeans came--the colonial power of Belgium--did they racialize the relationship between the Tutsis and the Hutus?

A: Oh yeah, that's this old story that the Tutsi look different from the Hutus and they probably come from some different, there this a completely different sort of chapter of the whole story which is more a chapter of 19th century European intellectual history which goes with the racial theories that gave us among other gifts Nazism in the 1930s.

There was a great belief, I would say from the 1860s onwards, and it grew and grew and grew and was finally terminated, I don't think in a satisfactory way in 1945 by military victory of people who didn't think that way but I think intellectually, the argument was never addressed. That people had different intellectual and physical capacity according to a concept called race which of course anthropologists know doesn't make any sense, especially things of skin and facial features and so on, there are definitely a variety of human types, but it's much more complicated than the simple races.

And the common word about the Tutsi was that they were white men in a black skin, that they didn't have negroid features, which is true--real Tutsi have thin noses and thin lips and they probably do come from the horn of Africa. They have, of course, nothing to do with the white men, they are distant relatives of people like the Somali, the Ofar, or the Oromo, that is non-negroid, blacks who had migrated God knows from where, probably from southern India in prehistoric times and who occupy a large chunk of North East Africa. And some of their numbers, a very long time ago probably migrated down to the Great Lakes.

But it's not very meaningful to talk that way because culturally there is no difference, they're all part of the same culture. The thing is that these people managed to organize society to their benefit, that is quite obvious. We can talk of a conquering aristocracy and there is an element of peasant resentment in the attitude of the Hutu, and it is a great minefield, because if you say that you believe the Tutsi came from elsewhere, you're immediately labelled as pro-Hutu. If you say that there is a resentment on the part of the Hutu you're pro-Hutu immediately. If you say there is an inferiority complex of the Hutu and therefore, they have to kill Tutsis to regain their self esteem, then you are pro-Tutsi. It is extremely difficult for Europeans not to fall victim of this dichotomy. You have to be on one side or the other and it's very, very hard for the foreign observer and scholar not to be drawn into these quarrels because they want you to.

rwandans Q: How did the Europeans specifically racialize that relationship, what did they do?

A: It's just the type of description, you have to read anthropology books written about European groups in the 19th century, you measure the cranial angles, and facial angles of peasants from Brittany or Shropshire or wherever or Lower Saxony and you have all kinds of complicated theories about their racial origins and where they migrated from and whether they are an upper or a lower race. And we projected all this bogus science on Africa where of course all blacks were considered inferior, but some were more inferior than others. And definitely the Belgians considered the Hutus to be more inferior because they were Bantus and they were--the descriptions are incredible-they say they look like monkeys and they are short and squat and ugly. The Tutsi are tall and thin and elegant and well, there is a mixture of aesthetics, of ethics, of politics, of pseudo-science and all this is blended into a rather stinky soup. We didn't realize, I mean, I say, "we" because it was done by the Germans first and the Belgians later, but I think all the Europeans were more or less guilty of the same thing and among the worst writers on this ethnicization of the situation were some French and some Swiss French speakers.

So I say "we" because it's a general European thing of the time. Possibly the British were a little bit less guilty of it or rather they took it with a grain of salt. There is more theoretical bent on the part of the Germans and the French speakers, they take their theory without any dilution, the British always have a way of taking theory with a little bit of care. But the whole projection was fantastic and, of course, it was plainly a rationalization for being stingy, because by using the Tutsi, you spent less on local administration, that was all. It was easier to use them when they were locals, you didn't pay them as much as whites and they would do the job. And since they were caught between you as a white administrator and their local chattel, they were at your beck and call.

Q: But this had disastrous results, didn't it?

A: I don't think that the Belgians; I think in a way the whites are also innocent, because they thought that they would stay in Africa for the next 200 years, they had absolutely no notion that they would be evacuating the place by the early 1960s. There was a Belgian writer and journalist who, in 1957 wrote an article in a Belgian magazine about how should we plan decolonization. He was immediately denounced as a communist. I think the poor man was rather aghast, he was a rather conservative Catholic, he was denounced as a communist. Because in 1957, five years later everybody was gone, and the notion in 1957 was we're here for the next 40-50 years, at least. So a lot of these dangerous and really counter productive policies were not understood at the time for what they were. They were simply seen as normal things or stop-gap measures, we did do something else later, we had all the time in the world, we're not in a hurry.

Q: But the effect was disastrous?

A: Yes, the effect was disastrous but we didn't realize it. It was not intended to be disastrous.

Q: The period of the negotiations surrounding Arusha ... Can you tell me what was happening inside Rwanda, in extremist circles, among the extremists during those negotiations?

A: Well, they didn't like the negotiations that's for sure, because in their view they had a certain vision of Rwandese history as something which is extremely dichotomized and the good ones were on one side and they were all Hutus; and the bad ones were all on the other side and were all Tutsi, and they were what were called in French "feudaux revenchards." I don't know how to translate that in English because it's one of these adjectives that Stalinists used to love, "revenge-bent feudalists," which reminds me of the way you called Tito around 1952 or something like that, this is wonderful vocabulary of the '50s. And they saw the Tutsi as undiluted pure evil. And so negotiations, for the Europeans negotiation is a good word it means moderation, it means give-and-take, it means reaching some kind of a consensus after discussions and so on. They didn't see it that way at all. They saw it as cowardly surrender in the face of dangerous hell-bent foreign devils...

Q: The Tutsis?

.A: ... Who were the Tutsis, this is how they saw it and they thought that Habyarimana's government, whom they had backed up to then and who was their man, was getting soft and that the Arusha negotiations were a sign that Habyarimana didn't have it any more, and that he was getting soft on the Tutsis and well you couldn't really trust him any more. He was getting dangerous, he wanted his power, his own power too much he was ready to jettison the core meaning of what the government was about.

Q: Hutu extremism?

A: Hutu power. And Hutu power was good. Now we see it after the genocide as something evil and terrible, but in the eyes of the people who perpetrated the genocide it was good. They were acting in self defense, they were defending the Tutsi ... they were defending the Hutu race against a Tutsi take-over, against a diabolical Tutsi plot. So killing the Tutsi was self defense, it was perfectly normal, and this, I think, we should always realize that the people who did it were doing it naturally, with a feeling of their own self rightness.

Q: And how did they organize themselves while the negotiations were taking place?

A: This was the point of creating this famous militia whose name is probably by now the only Kinyarwanda noun that everybody knows all across the world, "interahamwe." Interahamwe means those who are fighting together, those who are struggling together, and the notion was at first that it was a youth movement to support the government. But then the militia, a lot of people in the militia, had other ideas. This was the nucleus of a kind of praetorian guard or call it whatever you want, which could be used for a purpose of defending the regime to the end, including by killing all the Tutsi.

Q: And what precisely did the extremists want, what was their ultimate agenda?

A: Well, the absolute maintenance of the type of regime which had existed in Rwanda since 1959. That is a total and absolute power on an ethnic basis, which unfortunately, the concept has not died because today the power is practically, intrinsically in the hands of the Tutsi. So you could say that there was an upside down change, but the very concept of what government is all about has not changed.

Q: Can you explain to me the question of a final solution as seen by the extremists. What did they want to do with the Tutsi?

A: That is very simple--kill them all. That is extremely simple kill them all.

Q: Every single Tutsi had to be wiped out?

A: Yes. Man, woman and child. I think it's very much in the same spirit as the Jews in Hitler's Germany--these people are evil, they are a blot on the face of the earth, and everybody will be better off once they are all dead.

Q: And while Arusha was going on, there was an actual plan to kill them all?

A: Yes, this plan was a minority plan. But slowly they gained more and more people to their idea, not that a lot of people thought that it was immoral, but a lot of people thought it wouldn't work. That is something still very hazy, how did the extremists manage to get a majority on the side of the genocide?

Q: How much did the United Nations and the West know about what was being planned? Because while western governments were involved at Arusha in the peace talks, a completely different agenda was operating inside Rwanda. How much did they know?

A: They knew quite a bit and they didn't believe it. Especially the Belgians, because, of course, those people who were against the planned genocide among the Hutus, because some Hutus were absolutely horrified. We should not fall either in the ethnic trap of politics. It was not all the Hutus who were delighted with the idea of genocide, by far. And some Hutus belonging to the opposition party were horrified and they knew what was cooking, and they also knew that they would die, because it was also a political genocide. Thousands of Hutus were killed in the genocide, and they tried to get some outside help, and they tried to talk--one man who knew, was the minister of foreign affairs of the Belgian government at that time.

But the problem was that the Europeans who were contacted (I would say the first serious signals started coming in February '94) didn't believe it. And I must say that I, as a specialist of the area, didn't believe it either. In other words when the U.N. or the Belgian government were contacted with these lists of people who were supposed to be massacred, we couldn't believe it.

Q: Why not?

A: Why? Because lists like that have been circulating in the Great Lakes for 30 years. Everybody always planning to kill everybody else, and all the extremists on all sides are always trying to convince the whites that they have discovered some great conspiracy and they are going to tell you all about it, when of course it is just a political tool against their enemies. So we just thought this was one more of these things because we had seen so many of them before--plans for domination of this and plans for creating the empire of that and plans for massacring so and so and plans for doing this and plans for doing that. And, you know, these lists, what were they? Little sheets of paper with names written with a ball-point. I mean these were not things with a letterhead and a big stamp saying Ministry of the Interior - Genocide List. Do you believe a rag of paper with some names scribbled with a ball-point and somebody comes to you and says, "This is going to be the crime of the century?" You say, "Yes, my friend, OK, good, thank you, very well..." It just doesn't work. Especially [since] this was not the first time.

Q: But the creation of the militia, the training of the militia, the warning sent by the United Nations Field Commander in Rwanda in January--didn't that lead people to believe that something very different was being planned?

A: No, war. At the time the idea was that it was war, and these militias were instruments of war. We knew about war, war had been fought since October 1st 1990. The fact that the government would want to create what would be called popular militias to defend a regime was quite believable. I mean it was not obvious they were supposed to kill Tutsi civilians, there is no way of being sure of that and I do not think that even the RPF, that is the Tutsi guerrilla, really believed it either. They didn't. When you talk to them, what they expected, what they feared was violence, some massacres, that is 10,000, 20,000 30,000 people killed. This is what a lot of us feared. But what happened, nobody had thought about it, nobody could think about that, it was beyond anybody's imagination. This is why I would not fault the people who heard about it and said, "Ah no, I don't believe it."

Q: Who do you think shot down Habyarimana's plane?

A: I think it was his own friends, and that it was just a good way of getting things started. He had outlived his usefulness, and this was a tremendous boost in starting the genocide because a lot of people who didn't like the Tutsi but who were sort of fence sitters, they said, "The Tutsi killed our president, our president." They felt it was their president as Hutus, and if the Tutsis did that they deserved to die.

Q: And the immediate effect of shooting down the plane?

A: Was starting the genocide, it started within the hour.

Q: Was the U.N. given any warning that this would happen?

A: No. General Dallaire didn't have any notion, or rather there had been repeated warnings again and again and again and again until eventually nobody believed them any more.

Q: But you don't fault people for not believing them?

A: No, this is a completely paranoid political culture. And it was impossible that there had been no great massacre since the vast slaughter of Hutus by the Tutsi in Burundi in 1972. So that was at the time, 22 years old. There had been some killings, starting in October 1990 right at the beginning of the war, but each time it was 100, 200, I think some of the biggest killings were 300. What a lot of us feared was that there would be more such small, and we considered them massive human rights violations. I mean, now the situation has gotten so much out of hand that 300 dead people are hardly news any more. The Department of Human rights at the U.N. has counted 424 victims in January 1997 alone inside Rwanda, and their computation might be only 1/3 of the truth.

Q: This has often been portrayed, this genocide as mindless tribal violence. The New York Times, within days of it starting, called it "mindless tribal violence." You don't believe that?

A: No, and I can also put a good word for my friend Alison Deforges who wrote an op-ed piece saying this is absolute nonsense, so some people write immediately, I could say this is not mindless tribal violence.

By the way Hutu and Tutsi are not tribes, tribes speak different languages they have different societies, customs, religions, whatever, and they usually do not intermarry. Tutsis and Hutus speak the same language, they live side by side, they have the same religion or they had rather before the white man came, and they intermarry, frequently, there are many people whose parents are ... one parent is Tutsi, the other is Hutu, it's very common, but they have never created "Hutsis" because you go by your father's side, so if your father is a Hutu, you're a Hutu, if your father is a Tutsi, you're a Tutsi, never mind the mother. And you know these are not tribes. So it couldn't be mindless tribal violence, it's more like the caste violence we see in India where people who speak the same language and live in the same part of town are just killing each other over questions of jobs and so on, which by the way is an essential part.

Q: Just tell me about the political organization and motivation of this genocide, because that's what makes it ...

A: Well, the organization was the administrative organization of the Republic of Rwanda. Every local administrator did his job as he could have collected taxes or taken care of road maintenance. Killing Tutsis was simply an administrative job that had to be done as part of the functioning of the government. The population was called upon performing voluntary work, these were the words that were used, it was called "umuganda" that is the word that was used for land clearing, collective, "voluntary", well, sort of voluntary work, the collective work you were supposed to do with a gang of people. And this was commonly done by peasants in Rwanda who were supposed to give some of their time to the government for things like road maintenance, bush clearing, and a variety of other needs.

Q: If it wasn't mindless tribal violence as has been portrayed in the West, what was it?

A: Well, it was extremely well organized. I think the most important word in your formula is mindless. It was anything but mindless. It was extremely carefully planned and well executed violence, because if you use mostly machetes to kill of a million people, which is roughly the estimate, in the space of two and a half months, is admirable. It requires extreme organization, extreme care, and extreme perseverance. This was not like the Germans with gas chambers and death squads with machine guns, 90% of the people were killed with blunt instruments and with machetes, which means that day after day after day, crews of peasants including women were marshalled and taken to the fields exactly as if they had been reaping a crop and were killing people.

Q: And it was done for a political reason?

A: Yes, of course. The political reason is once more extremely simple--it was the total elimination of the Tutsi as well as a race as the Hutu militants would say, as a group as we could say in a more neutral way.

Q: What message did the West send to the Hutu extremists when it dramatically scaled down the number of troops in Rwanda in mid-April?

A: I would say total confusion. The main message was cowardice. These are just black people killing black people and we're frankly not part of that. This is why the mindless tribal violence, I think, was a very nice argument--if it is mindless tribal violence what can you do? A bunch of madmen are cutting each other up. If you admit, and actually the most ironical attitude was that of the United States when they declared that acts of genocide were being committed, but that this was not a genocide. The reason is simple, it's because since they are a signatory like all the other great powers to the December 1948 Convention on the repression of genocide, once you admit verbally, officially that you are looking at a genocide, you are legally obliged to intervene to stop it.

And the argumentation of the White House was very interesting. I still remember what was used, the lady who was the spokesperson said, "It is not a genocide because some people are being killed who do not belong the targeted group." By that criteria, Hitler never committed genocide, I mean Hitler killed a lot of people who were not Jews--he killed gypsies, he killed homosexuals, he killed Russian prisoners of war, so this was not a genocide. I mean, if we follow the argumentation of the White House in the spring of 1994, then genocides simply never happen because a genocide is never clean enough to only kill the people who are targeted. So if we say that as soon as people who do not belong to the targeted group, if they are killed it is not a genocide, then there will never be a genocide, it will never exist.

Q: Why did the West, particularly the United States, fail to give moral leadership at that crucial point?

A: Selfishness, stinginess, "we don't want to spend money, we don't want to get our boys killed, and these are just black people." It's sheer racism. I mean, "Black people can die this is not our concern." I mean, "Black people are inferior people." We don't want to say it, but this is the way a lot of white people think and their corpses are not very heavy, white corpses are heavier than black corpses. Then you have to put the proviso, because among the whites some are heavier than others. If you kill French or British or American, say European Union people, they are a lot more heavy than for example Serbs or Bosnians or whatever. But black people are, well, they are like insects. And we see it now in fact, with the flight of the Hutu refugees this time, inside Zaire--at least 150,000 have died in the last three months and we will do nothing, we haven't done anything and we will not do anything. So we cannot say we are racist, we let æ million Tutsi die in the genocide, we will let anywhere between 150,000 and 300,000 Hutus die in Zaire in the flight of the refugees and so well, we're being even handed.

Q: What could the West have done?

A: Well, what we could have done would have been difficult and I'm sure that if we had done the people who had made that decision would have been criticized afterwards. Because what we could have done would have been to give General Dallaire wider powers, a broader mandate of peace-making. There was no more peacekeeping, obviously the peace had been broken. He needed about 20 armoured cars, he needed maybe another 400, 500 men although OK, the Bangladeshi soldiers were useless--they just hid--but the Ghanaians and the Belgians would have been ready to fight. Actually the poor Belgians who got killed were killed after they were ordered to surrender their weapons. I mean, if they had died fighting at least this would have been something, but there was never anybody who was given orders to fight. Soldiers were sent to Rwanda with the order not to fight. First thing, Dallaire needed a broader mandate, and then he needed some armoured cars to keep the roads open to break up all these road blocks which had sprung up everywhere, and we needed to fight, and fight means we had to kill people and we would have been losing some of our number, that is in the international force. Some people were ready too, I mean, there is an absolutely marvellous Senegalese officer who saved a lot of people during those days and who eventually got killed by a mortar fire, nobody had asked him anything.

Q: Is it your belief that military intervention would have stopped the genocide?

A: I think so, but it would not have been without causalities on both sides. We would have had to kill probably anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 of the other side, we would have lost anywhere between 20 and 200 of our own men. The people would then have been later, I am sure, accused of all kinds of wrong-doings and of course we cannot rewrite history, but I doubt very much that there would have been a universal applause saying, "Oh, we have just avoided a genocide." No, because since the genocide would not have happened. So we preferred to let the genocide take its course rather than take our responsibilities and be criticized for the necessary things that could have happened because they could not have been cost free. They would have cost some money and some blood. And we are not willing to spend either.

rwandans Q: Talk to me again about the United States, in particular, and the whole definition of genocide.

A: Well, the spokesperson of the State Department said this was not a genocide and she used as an argument the fact that people who didn't belong to the targeted group were also being killed, in other words, Hutus were also being killed. And that is because the United States as other major powers is a signatory to the December 1948 Convention on the repression of genocide. If any of the major world powers would have admitted that the genocide was taking place, they would have been legally obliged by international law to intervene to stop it. So this was an easy way out saying it is not a genocide, and by this type of reasoning of sophistry Hitler never committed genocide because since he killed a lot of gypsies and Russian war prisoners and assorted categories who were not Jews, he could not have been accused of genocide. This was just wriggling out and I am ashamed for the poor woman; she was probably realizing what she was saying at the very moment she was saying it.

Q: Why did the West respond so generously, so massively to the plight of the Hutu refugees who fled out of Rwanda when it did nothing to help the victims of genocide?

A: It was easy, it was only cash. There was no political dimension that we could see at the time. Of course, we were building a very nice time bomb, which finally exploded in October-November '96, but we didn't see that at the time. So we thought there was no political dimension and there was no military dimension, which was a vast relief. We thought it was only cash and that is about all that we can provide in such situations.

Q: But it seemed a perverse notion that the people who carried out the genocide were being funded, propped up by the West ... while the people who suffered it were getting very little.

A: And that was certainly one of the great bitterness of the Tutsi regime in Kigali and there were a lot of violations of human rights committed by the Tutsi regime after it took power. If we had wanted to hold the Tutsi regime accountable for these violations of human rights we would have had to be more evenhanded. How could we support the people who were, not all, but some of them guilty of the genocide when they had fled to Zaire, and at the same time give practically no help to the victims of the genocide? So if they were taking revenge on the Hutus inside the country, I mean, we didn't have any moral ground from which to tell them not to do that.

Q: Somebody has described the relief effort to help the Hutus in Zaire and Tanzania as "compassion without understanding," is that a view you would...

A: Didn't know the term, but it's a good formula. But compassion, yes compassion, you have also to see that the NGO and international aid has been called a charity business, it is. This is a source of employment, an income for a lot of people and we need a good catastrophe now and then in order to keep it running.

Q: Weeks after, we counted thousands of bodies inside Rwanda. Aircraft from the United States and other places were flying vast amounts of supplies in, the world's aid agencies were setting up camps to help the Hutu refugees, many of whom were involved in the genocide. Why did this happen, why was our response so generous to the perpetrators of genocide and so negligent to those who suffered?

A: I do think that it had nothing to do with the political choice; we are not pro-Hutu and anti-Tutsi. It has a lot to do with what we know and what we do not know; what we are used to and what we are not used to; what we are capable of doing and what we are not capable of doing. What was happening in Kivu when these refugees crossed the border we had seen before, we had seen it all over the place, I mean it goes back to the 1960s and the Biafra war, the creation of Medecins Sans Frontiers, (Doctors Without Borders), the French NGO was the first one to get on that track.

So for 30 years we had been doing that, we had been doing it in Ethiopia during the great famine of 1985-86, we did it in the Sudan, we know how to do that. We take out all the bags of food and the plastic sheeting we set up field kitchens and field ambulances, and we know that. Now, stopping fighting is another matter altogether, it means to fight, to fight militarily for what we think is a form of behavior or of government or of administrative attitude that we wish to defend, namely what we call democracy.

But democracy is toothless and when we see people who are violating it, not only simply because they gerrymander some election or something like that, which is a minor thing compared to what was happening, we don't know how to react. We never stopped any form of killing, whether it was in Cambodia, in Chechnya, in Azerbaijan or anywhere, why would we stop it in Rwanda? There it was simply on a bigger scale. But our non-reaction was typical of our usual non-reaction, we're talking now in March 1997 and we're still not reacting to what is going on in Zaire.

Q: You said to me a moment ago, that as somebody who's been to Rwanda that you feel numb. But if I can ask you to dig beneath the numbness for a second and cast your mind back to those images of the West delivering planeloads of plenty to those camps, just tell me what your gut reaction to that was.

A: Frankly, I didn't care one way or the other. Because I do not think that making these people starve would have helped anything. And it is, two wrongs do not make a right. If we had abandoned them, as we are abandoning them now, it would not have helped matters, the original sin was not to help people, some of whom had been guilty of genocide, the original sin was not to do anything when it did happen right under our noses, when we had the men and guns and every possibility in the world. I mean, we could put together the most giant army the world has ever seen since World War II in order to crush Saddam Hussein when he took over Kuwait, but I'm afraid the Tutsi didn't have any oil. So a million of them could die and those Hutu who were democratic enough to believe in our talk about democracy died at their side for political and not racial reasons and we didn't lift a finger. We were perfectly able to, I mean the Gulf War, which had occurred only three years before, was the proof that we were capable. We would not have needed 10% of the power and effort that we invested in the Gulf war to stop the genocide.

Q: The motivation of ordinary peasants in Rwanda during the genocide. Why did they obey the order to kill?

A: That is a very very difficult question. Why does anybody want to kill his neighbor? In some ways I think it's a basic human tendency--a lot of people would love to kill their neighbors. Usually they don't act on that impulse unless a whole number of other circumstances somehow make it seem both easy and civic. I am afraid that we have had other examples of that in the other genocides. The genocide by the way is a very modern thing. The first genocide was probably that of the American Indians in the 19th century, and two other examples in this century, that is the Armenians in 1916 and the Jews during World War II, and the gypsies which everybody tends to forget, but Hitler also wanted them all dead. They were broadly approved of by the majority including the people who did not take part in them.

This is the whole argumentation now going on in Germany about who was actually responsible for the genocide and a lot of people who never acted, who never said a word by a kind of silent acquiescence to what was going on were in fact also guilty. I mean it's something that goes back to the very essence of morals. If I know that something evil is happening I do not do anything to favor it but I do not do anything to stop it, I look away from it, I am passively guilty of supporting the man who perpetuates that evil.

I think a lot of people in Rwanda felt that they were deeply persuaded that the Tutsi were evil. And a lot of the people who didn't kill didn't mind the killings. This is why the situation is so bad today because this moral morass is still with us now, it is not gone. I mean the notion that we could purge the country, that all the killers, the bad people are gone or dead or in exile or will be judged is false. A lot of the people who either killed or even many more who didn't kill but don't mind that the fact that the killings were taking place are now living and will go on living, and the air is poisoned. And it's extremely difficult to understand the historical factors that give a certain human group the idea that destroying another human group is a good thing. It has to do with history, with culture, with past experiences, the more or less distorted rewriting of history, with the way it fits into present day experience. For example, it is sure that the notion that hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were going to come back was presented by the Hutu government during the early '90s in Rwanda as a land grab attempt, these people are going to come back and take their land. And since a lot of the land that was--you have to see the demography, and the number of people who lived in Rwanda in 1959-60, those who lived there a century later were not the same numbers at all. So if the Tutsi claimed the land of their ancestors, how many Hutu were going to lose theirs? That was something that was in everybody's mind. So the notion was you just get rid of these Tutsis, they will not come and grab the land, and this is a tremendously over-populated part of Africa. I mean the density is that of Holland with an agriculture which goes back to the Iron Age. It's very meticulous, very efficient agriculture given the tools it uses, but still it's not highly productive.

Q: How important was the culture of obedience in enabling the extremists to mobilize huge numbers of ordinary peasants in the act of slaughter?

A: Well, then this is one of the details of those factors that make people ready to kill. Rwandese culture is one which is highly hierarchized, there again, the parallel with Germany comes to mind, people think "primitive African tribes and so on," people who think that haven't understood anything. This is a highly formalized, highly systematized, tightly administered society, and you obey. It was a beautifully run country, by the way, the World Bank and so on, they loved it, this was one of their pet countries because everything was clean and neat and the roads were well maintained; it was not one of these African countries where everything is corrupt and rundown.

Oh no, it was the Switzerland of Africa. And people were paying their taxes and schools were working and hospitals were working and everything was just clicking along. Everything was in order. So, you know this culture of obedience was very, very important. This is the exact opposite of anarchy--people are ruled, they obey their rulers. And actually, this is an amazing thing now that the power is in the hands of the Tutsi--the Hutu, the vast masses of the Hutu who do not like them obey them because they are the new power, and general Kagami is the "Mwami", the king. And just as Habyarimana was the Mwami, he was the Mwami of the Hutu, now OK the Mwami is again a Tutsi, but he is the king.

Q: But this is how it had always been in Rwandan history, this culture of obedience?

A: Well, as far as we can see because, of course, since this is not a written culture, but if we read the first German explorers who reached Rwanda in the 1890s they describe to us exactly that kind of society. And I would say that the mistake of colonization, but again it was an honest mistake, was to follow the grain of the society, I mean it's beautiful when you have a country where everyone obeys. You're a foreigner, you come to take over the country, you just take over the top. You know how many Germans were running Rwanda by the time of World War I. Everybody obeyed them. So it's marvellous from the point of view of the colonizers, these are very good people indeed.

Q: The Arusha trials, which are now taking place, what's your own verdict on that system of justice that has been set up there?

I'm afraid it's a case of cultural mistaken identity. This tribunal belongs to another world. We're trying to hand out rational sentences and to debate in very civilized terms the guilt of this or that person, what did he do on such and such a date. This is not very useful. A lot of the main perpetrators first of all, are not there, they will escape, they will never be caught. And then all the people who did kill cannot be all jailed or executed. There is probably up to 100,000 people who took part in the killings, are we going to build a giant city prison and put 100,000 prisoners including children?

Children took part in the genocide, I have spoken to children who were about 9 or 10 years old who explained to me how they had killed and they explained that since they were small they couldn't hit adults when they were standing but they could finish off wounded people hitting them on the skull with a hoe once they had fallen down. They didn't feel any guilt, they thought they were doing a good job as their parents had told them to. Are we going to put them into jail? What to do? I mean, we are not in the same dimension.

What is needed is much more the medieval concept of expiation. And it would have been much more important to manage to hang publicly 50 to 100 people who were the real organizers, who probably never killed anybody with their own hands, and to leave alone the vast majority of the killers. But they would have had to take part in some oath making ceremonies probably going back to pre-colonial Rwandese spirit possession cults, or to psychoanalysis, which at times is the same thing. Because the problem is guilt--not guilt in the legal sense, guilt in the spiritual sense. How do you live with tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of murderers? You cannot all jail them, there are even women and children amongst them, you cannot kill them, it is out of the question, and you cannot simply say well, "We'll just forget it and it doesn't matter."

Q: But you do kill the ringleaders?

A: Well, the thing is not so much killing them. Killing them would be a spiritual necessity. Do it in a most solemn and public way, and for once it would have been a way of making the big guys pay and not the small ones. It's very easy to arrest 2,000 or 3,000 actual killers and hang them, that would be extremely easy. I don't think it would have any result whatsoever because the whole political, ideological, spiritual element wouldn't be there, and you would once again get these poor idiots who have followed orders and who thought they were doing a good thing because it was a total case of mistaken judgment.

And once you are in a situation like that, you miss the point entirely, and I'm afraid that since first of all the international tribunal will not hang anybody, which is probably better since they would probably hang the wrong people, and since they cannot build enormous jails, what I am afraid is that we are going to have about 20,30,100 even 200 cases where people will be put together with totally diverse degrees of responsibility. People like Colonel Bagasora, who is one of the main organizers of this whole thing, and some idiot who has been caught at the wrong time in the wrong place who killed five or 10 people, and then middle-ranking people like Jean-Paul Akayeasu who is the local responsible, who is one of these people who certainly hold a lot of responsibility, because they were literate, willing organizers of the genocide at the local level. But all this is going to be mixed, there will be no hierarchy of the punishment, there will be no spectacular form of punishment where both those guilty and the survivors could cleanse their souls, because that is what it's all about.

Q: Do you as a Western intellectual, a man of letters, find it difficult to argue in favor of executions of the ringleaders in Rwanda?

A: No not at all, I have absolutely no problem with the death penalty. It all depends who is concerned. I'm not particularly bloodthirsty, but when people are responsible for the deaths of 700,000 to 800,000 human beings, the fact that they die seems to me rather ordinary and actually this was the opinion of the judges at the tribunal in Nuremberg, and as far as I know, no one is lamenting it.

Q: Even if the court system in Rwanda that sentences them is far from perfect?

A: Well, that is another problem because the fact that it is far from perfect to me is much more a problem with the small guys. Because a lot of the small guys are going to get a rough deal, which is very injust.

Q: But for the ringleaders ...

A: Well, the ringleaders, it's very interesting, there was one who was judged so far only in Rwanda, it's Karamira. And Karamira was given a very proper trial, and actually it was very interesting to see the reactions of the people to Karamira's condemnation to death. A lot of Hutus were not particularly sympathetic to the Tutsi regime now in power, said, "Well, after all, he got karamirawhat he had called for. He was one of the men who unleashed all of that evil on all of us. He's now going to die."

Of course, he's not going to die because these death sentences will not be carried out, this is another thing, itís now too late. They won't be carried out. And by the way I don't see the point of carrying them out; the point is not to kill people, I mean, there are so many people dead already, killing a few more or less doesn't matter any more. The point would have been to make an example, which could have been useful for the life of those who are alive today. Now, so many years after the facts, what would be the result of even hanging Mr Karamira. I'm not even sure it will serve any purpose.

Q: Let me just ask you a second about Karamira, how key a figure was he in unleashing this horror?

A: Well, he was definitely one of those who probably never killed a single person with this own hands. He was an intellectual, he was a politician, he's a far from stupid man, he's in fact a Tutsi, which is an interesting, which shows by the way that Hutu and Tutsi are not tribes. When he was a young man, he decided to become Hutu to be on the good side of things, and he considered that he was doing his job as a politician fighting for his side. He was somebody, at the time, he did not have government responsibility, so I do not consider him as a major administrative person, administratively responsible for the genocide, his responsibility is much more political and intellectual in inciting others.

Q: But given what you saw yourself in Rwanda, the mounds of bodies, the consequence of Karamira's work, do you consider him to be an evil person?

A: Yes, but like most evil people, he would not consider himself to be so. I'm sure that Adolf Hitler thought that he was a very good man. It is very seldom that evil people actually realize what they are. The human capacity for self delusion is absolutely boundless.

Q: What did Karamira do to Rwanda, to the country's future?

A: Well, he was one of the people who killed the country.

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