31 May 2011

Mobutu's Mercenaries, 1996

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 2126-2158:
There were few memorable battles for the rebels as they crossed the country. Bukavu was one of the fiercer ones, as the Zairian army tried to put up some resistance; later, they knew better. Goma fell quickly as a result of treason, as Mobutu’s officers sold equipment and intelligence to their enemies in the months prior to the invasion and then did little to defend the town. Simultaneously, Ugandan troops had crossed the border to the north and taken the town of Mahagi with only thirty soldiers. A rebel commander told me that three of his men on a motorcycle defeated two hundred Mobutu soldiers in another town in the northeast.

Where there was resistance, it was often because of foreign troops. Rwandan ex-FAR [Forces Armées Rwandaises] were fighting alongside the Zairian army, trying to protect the retreating refugees. In Kindu, along the upper reaches of the Congo River, over a thousand ex-FAR joined Mobutu’s troops, although they were poorly coordinated and soon scattered. Mobutu’s officers, however, had not given up. They decided to make a stand in Kisangani, the country’s third largest city and the gateway to the east, located at a bend in the Congo River. The city had a long airstrip and was a major river port. The army’s high command flew in reinforcements and also mined the airport and the main roads leading to town from the east. Diplomats speculated that Mobutu would be history if the town fell.

Mobutu’s generals began frantically organizing other foreign support. Using their contacts in Belgrade and Paris, they managed to hire around 280 mercenaries, mostly French and Serbs, under the command of Belgian colonel Christian Tavernier, along with some attack helicopters and artillery.

It was too little, too late. The area they had to cover was too large, and the Zairian army too disorganized for them to have much impact. The soldiers of fortune were also perhaps not of the best quality. A French analyst described them as a mixture between “Frederick Forsyth’s ‘dogs of war’ and the Keystone Kops.” He went on to disparage the Serbs’ performance in particular: “They spent their days getting drunk and aimlessly harassing civilians. They did not have proper maps, they spoke neither French nor Swahili, and soon most of them were sick with dysentery and malaria.”

Tavernier chose as his operational base Watsa, a remote town in the northeast that had little strategic importance, but where he had obtained mining rights. The colonel himself was seen more often in the upscale Memling Hotel in Kinshasa than on the battlefield, haranguing foreign correspondents, boasting of his feats, and complaining of government ineptitude.

Internal tensions also hampered operations. The French, mostly former soldiers from the Foreign Legion, were better connected and paid up to five times as much as the Serbs—up to $10,000 per month for the officers. But the Serbs controlled most of the aircraft and heavy weaponry, old machines leased at inflated prices from the Yugoslav army. The French accused their counterparts of amateurism; the Serbs retorted that the last time the French had won a serious battle was at Austerlitz in 1805.

On the battlefield, everything fell apart. The Serbs never provided the air support the French demanded, complaining of missing parts and a lack of fuel. On several occasions, they even bombed Mobutu’s retreating troops, killing dozens. Mobutu’s security advisor remembered the episode: “We had two different delegations from Zaire recruiting mercenaries separately. What was the result? We had mercenaries from different countries who spoke different languages.... We bought weapons from different countries that didn’t work together. It was a veritable Tower of Babel.”

The mercenaries behaved abysmally toward the local population. Even today, residents of Kisangani remember the deranged Serbian commander Colonel Jugoslav “Yugo” Petrusic, driving about town in his jeep, harassing civilians. He shot and killed two evangelical preachers who annoyed him with their megaphone-blasted prayers. He was sure that AFDL rebels had infiltrated Kisangani, and he arrested civilians for interrogation, subjecting them to electroshocks from a car battery and prodding them with a bayonet.

30 May 2011

The Hutu Jacobin Revolution, 1959

From The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (Vintage, 2002), Kindle Loc. 2251-2292:
The Tutsis are not shepherds or nomads; they are not even breeders. They are the owners of the herds, the ruling caste, the aristocracy.

The Hutus, on the other hand, constitute the much more numerous and subordinate caste of farmers (in India they are called Vaisyas). The relations between the Tutsis and the Hutus were authentically feudal—the Tutsi was the lord, the Hutu his vassal. The Hutus lived by cultivating land. They gave a portion of their harvest to their master in exchange for protection and for the use of a cow (the Tutsis had a monopoly on cattle; the Hutus could only lease them from their seigneurs). Everything according to the feudal order—the dependence, the customs, the exploitation.

Gradually, toward the middle of the twentieth century, a dramatic conflict arises between the two castes. The object of the dispute is land. Rwanda is small, circumscribed, and densely populated. As often in Africa, a battle erupts between those who make their living raising cattle and those who cultivate the land. Usually, however, the spaces on the continent are so great that one side can move onto unoccupied territory and the sparks of war are extinguished. In Rwanda, such a solution is impossible—there is no place to go, nowhere to retreat to. Meantime, the Tutsis’ herds increase and need ever more grazing land. There is but one way to create new pastures: by taking land from the peasants, i.e., by ejecting the Hutus from their territories. But the Hutus are already cramped. Their numbers have been swelling rapidly for years. Making matters worse, the lands they farm are poor, for all intents and purposes infertile. The mountains of Rwanda are covered with a very thin layer of soil, so thin that when the rainy season comes each year, the downpours wash away large stretches of it, and in many places where the Hutus had their little fields of manioc and corn, naked rock now glistens.

So, on the one side, the powerful, expanding herds of cattle—the symbol of Tutsi wealth and strength; and on the other the squeezed, huddled, increasingly displaced Hutus. There is no room, there is no land. Someone must leave, or perish. Such is the situation in Rwanda in the fifties, when the Belgians enter the picture. They have suddenly become highly involved: Africa is just then at a critical juncture, there is a surging wave of liberation, of anticolonialism, and there is pressure to act, to make decisions. Belgium is among those powers whom the independence movement has caught most by surprise. Thus, Brussels has no game plan, its officials do not really know what to do. As is usual in these circumstances, their response is to delay finding real solutions, to stall. Until now, the Belgians ruled Rwanda through the Tutsis, leaning on them and using them. But the Tutsis are the most educated and ambitious sector of the Banyarwanda, and it is they who now are demanding freedom. And they want it immediately, something for which the Belgians are utterly unprepared. So Brussels abruptly switches tactics: it abandons the Tutsis and begins to support the more submissive, docile Hutus. It begins to incite them against the Tutsis. These politics rapidly bear fruit. The emboldened, encouraged Hutus take up arms. A peasant revolt erupts in Rwanda in 1959.

In Rwanda, alone in all of Africa, the liberation movement assumed the form of a social, antifeudal revolution. In all of Africa, only Rwanda had its siege of the Bastille, its dethronement of the king, its Gironde and its terror. Groups of peasants, enraged, inflamed Hutus armed with machetes, hoes, and spears, moved against their masters-rulers, the Tutsis. A great massacre began, such as Africa had not seen for a long time. The peasants set fire to the households of their lords, slit their throats, and crushed their skulls. Rwanda flowed with blood, stood in flames. A massive slaughter of cattle began; the peasants, often for the first time in their lives, could eat as much meat as they wished. At the time, the country had a population of 2.6 million, including 300,000 Tutsis. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Tutsis were murdered, and as many fled to neighboring states—to the Congo, Uganda, Tanganyika, and Burundi. The monarchy and feudalism ceased to exist, and the Tutsi caste lost its dominant position. Power was now seized by the Hutu peasantry. When Rwanda gained its independence in 1962, it was members of that caste who formed the first government. At its head was a young journalist, Grégoire Kayibanda. I was visiting Rwanda for the first time then. My memories of Kigali, the capital, are of a small town. I was unable to find a hotel; perhaps there wasn’t one. Some Belgian nuns finally took me in, letting me sleep in the maternity ward of their neat little hospital.

The Hutus and the Tutsis awoke from such a revolution as from a bad dream. Both had lived through a massacre, the former as its perpetrators, the latter as its victims, and such an experience leaves a painful and indelible mark. The Hutus have mixed emotions. On the one hand, they vanquished their masters, cast off the feudal yoke, and for the first time attained power; on the other hand, they did not defeat their lords in an absolute way, did not annihilate them, and this consciousness, that the enemy was painfully wounded but still lives and will seek vengeance, sowed in their hearts an insuppressible and mortal fear (let us remember that fear of revenge is deeply rooted in the African mentality, that the immemorial right of reprisal has always regulated interpersonal, private, and clan relations here). And there is a lot to be afraid of. For although the Hutus seized the mountainous fortress of Rwanda and established their rule there, a Tutsi fifth column, numbering around 100,000, remains within its borders; furthermore, and perhaps even more dangerously, the fortress is encircled by the encampments of Tutsis expelled from it yesterday.

24 May 2011

Scope of the Great War of Africa, 1996–?

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 130-146:
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a vast country, the size of western Europe and home to sixty million people. For decades it was known for its rich geology, which includes large reserves of cobalt, copper, and diamonds, and for the extravagance of its dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, but not for violence or depravity.

Then, in 1996, a conflict began that has thus far cost the lives of over five million people.

The Congolese war must be put among the other great human cataclysms of our time: the World Wars, the Great Leap Forward in China, the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides. And yet, despite its epic proportions, the war has received little sustained attention from the rest of the world. The mortality figures are so immense that they become absurd, almost meaningless. From the outside, the war seems to possess no overarching narrative or ideology to explain it, no easy tribal conflict or socialist revolution to use as a peg in a news piece. In Cambodia, there was the despotic Khmer Rouge; in Rwanda one could cast the genocidal Hutu militias as the villains. In the Congo these roles are more difficult to fill. There is no Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin. Instead it is a war of the ordinary person, with many combatants unknown and unnamed, who fight for complex reasons that are difficult to distill in a few sentences—much to the frustration of the international media. How do you cover a war that involves at least twenty different rebel groups and the armies of nine countries, yet does not seem to have a clear cause or objective? How do you put a human face on a figure like “four million” when most of the casualties perish unsensationally, as a result of disease, far away from television cameras?

The conflict is a conceptual mess that eludes simple definition, with many interlocking narrative strands. The New York Times, one of the few American newspapers with extensive foreign coverage, gave Darfur nearly four times the coverage it gave the Congo in 2006, when Congolese were dying of war-related causes at nearly ten times the rate of those in Darfur.

Africa's New Leaders vs. Mobutu, 1996

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 993-1030:
By mid-1996, Museveni [of Uganda] and Kagame [of Rwanda] had stitched together an impressive alliance of African governments behind their drive to overthrow Mobutu. The war that started in Zaire in September 1996 was not, above all, a civil war. It was a regional conflict, pitting a new generation of young, visionary African leaders against Mobutu Sese Seko, the continent’s dinosaur. Never had so many African countries united militarily behind one cause, leading some to dub the war Africa’s World War. Unlike that war, however, the battle for the Congo would not be carried out in trenches over years, leading to millions of military casualties. Here, the battles were short and the number of soldiers killed in the thousands, figures dwarfed by the number of civilians killed. Unlike World War II, the African allies banded together not against aggressive expansionism, but against the weakness of the enemy.

The leader of this coalition was its youngest, smallest member: Rwanda. It was typical of the RPF, who had played David to Goliath several times before and would do so again later. At the outset, it seemed to be the perfect embodiment of a just war: Kigali was acting as a last resort based on legitimate security concerns.

What seems obvious in hindsight—that Mobutu’s army had been reduced to a mockery of itself, that Mobutu’s hold on power had crumbled—was a vague hypothesis in RPF intelligence briefings at the time. When Kagame told his officers that they would go all the way to Kinshasa, they nodded politely but in private shook their heads. That was a journey of over 1,000 miles, through unknown terrain, similar to walking from New York to Miami through swamps and jungles and across dozens of rivers. They would have to fight against 50,000 of Mobutu’s soldiers as well as perhaps 50,000 ex-FAR and Interahamwe. It seemed impossible. “We never thought we could make it all the way to Kinshasa,” Patrick Karegeya, the Rwandan intelligence chief, told me.

It is easy to forget, now that greed and plunder claim the headlines as the main motives for conflict in the region, that its beginnings were steeped in ideology. The Rwandan-backed invasion was perhaps the heyday of the African Renaissance, riding on the groundswell of the liberation of South Africa from apartheid, and of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Rwanda from dictatorships. It was an alliance motivated in part by the strategic interests of individual governments, but also by a larger spirit of pan-Africanism. Not since the heyday of apartheid in South Africa had the continent seen this sort of mobilization behind a cause. For the leaders of the movement, it was a proud moment in African history, when Africans were doing it for themselves in face of prevarication from the west and United Nations. Zimbabwe provided tens of millions of dollars in military equipment and cash to the rebellion. Eritrea sent a battalion from its navy to conduct covert speedboat operations on Lake Kivu. Ethiopia and Tanzania sent military advisors. President Museveni recalled: “Progressive African opinion was galvanised.”
Absent from these talks, however, were the Congolese. Their country was to be liberated for them by foreigners who knew little to nothing of their country. And of course, these foreigners would soon develop other interests than just toppling Mobutu. Within several years, the Congo was to become the graveyard for this lofty rhetoric of new African leadership as preached by Mbeki, Albright, and many others. Freedom fighters were downgraded to mere marauding rebels; self-defense looked ever more like an excuse for self-enrichment. Leaders who had denounced the big men of Africa who stayed in power for decades began appearing more and more like the very creatures they had fought against for so many decades.

In 1996, however, the future remained bright.

23 May 2011

Help the Victims of Genocide and the Perpetrators?

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 454-466:
In southwestern Rwanda, the Hutu flight was stalled by the deployment of a UN-mandated French military mission, dubbed Operation Turquoise, intended to protect the few remaining Tutsi in that region as well as aid workers. It was one of the many absurdities of the Rwandan crisis: The French government and its contractors had made thirty-six shipments of weapons to Habyarimana’s government between 1990 and 1994, worth $11 million, and had deployed seven hundred fifty French troops, who helped with military training, planning, and even interrogation of RPF prisoners. Just months after they had finished helping to train the Interahamwe, the French, wolves turned shepherds, announced a humanitarian intervention to bring an end to the killing.

The French troops did save Tutsi lives. They also, however, refused to arrest the Habyarimana government and army officials in their territory who were known to have organized massacres. Hate radio continued broadcasting unhindered from the area controlled by the French, exhorting the population to continue the extermination of Tutsi. Meanwhile, across the Zairian border in Goma, the base of French operations, at least five shipments of weapons from France were delivered to the ex-FAR leadership who had fled from Kigali. To add insult to injury, French president François Mitterrand personally authorized a donation of $40,000 to Habyarimana’s wife, one of the most extremist members of the president’s inner circle, when she arrived in Paris fleeing the violence in country. The donation was labeled as “urgent assistance to Rwandan refugees.”

Help the Victims of Genocide or the Perpetrators?

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 608-620:
The refugee camps were set up in July 1994 and stayed in place for over two years. Some would swell to contain more than 400,000 inhabitants, becoming the largest refugee camps in the world and larger than any city in eastern Zaire. Together they housed over a million people. In a perverse way, they provoked a mobilization of international resources that the genocide never had. Within days of the first arrivals, aid workers detected a cholera outbreak; the virulent parasite spread fast in the unhygienic and cramped quarters. Without proper health care, the disease killed the weak refugees within days, emptying their bodies of liquids through violent diarrhea and vomiting until their organs failed. By July 28, 1994, a thousand bodies were being collected a day and dumped unceremoniously into chalk-dusted pits by the dump-truck load.

Foreign television crews who had not been able to reach Rwanda during the genocide now set up camp in Goma; the pictures of hundreds of chalk-dusted bodies tumbling into mass graves suggested a strange moral equivalency to the recent genocide, except that this catastrophe was easier to fix: Instead of a complicated web of violence in which military intervention would have been messy and bloody, here was a crisis that could be addressed by spending money. Over the next two years, donors spent over $2 billion on the refugee crisis in eastern Zaire, more than twice as much as they spent on helping the new Rwandan government. The RPF was furious. Vice President Paul Kagame lamented, “Personally, I think this question of refugees is being overplayed at the expense of all our other problems. We no longer talk about orphans, widows, victims [in Rwanda]. We’re only talking about refugees, refugees, refugees."

21 May 2011

From Clan and Class to Ethnicity in Rwanda

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 387-420, 431-40:
Ethnic-based violence, the most extreme form of which was the genocide, is so often associated with the Congolese and Rwandan wars that it is worth trying to understand its causes. We tend to see the history of Rwanda as the history of a struggle between two ethnic groups, the agriculturist Hutu and the cattleherding Tutsi. An honest interrogation of the past, however, would require us to throw most of these crude concepts out the window, or at least to deconstruct them. The Rwandan state in its current geographical and political form did not come into existence until the twentieth century, after centuries of fighting between competing kingdoms and princely states.

Ethnic identities behind the rift between Hutu and Tutsi are being constantly contested and redefined with the changing political, cultural, and economic landscape. Until the eighteenth century, for example, ethnicity was less important than class and clan-based identities, which themselves coexisted alongside several layers of regional and social identities. Thus, each of the twenty major clans in Rwanda includes both Hutu and Tutsi, and among each ethnic group one can find poor, landless peasants as well as wealthier princes. To label someone a Hutu and leave it at that neglects that she may, depending on the social context, see herself more as a southerner, a member of the Abega clan, or a follower of the Pentecostal church. This is not just hair-splitting; much of contemporary Rwandan politics has been shaped by these competing and overlapping identities.

The polarization of Rwandan society into Hutu and Tutsi increased with King Rujugira’s consolidation of the Rwandan state in the eighteenth century. He expanded his armies and began subjugating much of what is today Rwanda, including areas where these ethnic distinctions previously had little traction. His armies’ long military campaigns required more revenues and deeper administrative penetration of society. The military, which was led by Tutsi, became the basis for a bureaucracy that administered land and collected taxes. Progressively, the loose distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi tightened and became more hierarchical. By the late nineteenth century, when the first colonizers arrived, many Hutu depended on Tutsi chiefs for land to farm and had to pay tithes as well as provide free manual labor. Still, ethnic identity remained fluid, with intermarriages between ethnic groups and the possibility, albeit rare, for rich Hutu to become “promoted” to Tutsi if they owned many cattle and had power in society. At the local level, Hutu remained influential, in particular in the administration of land. Still, social arrangements varied greatly between different regions, with some, like Gisaka in eastern Rwanda, not showing much ethnic polarization until much later.

The conquest of Rwanda—first by Germans, then Belgians—radically altered social structures. A tiny group of white administrators was faced with ruling a complex, foreign country they barely understood. As elsewhere in Africa, the new rulers chose to rule through what they thought were well-established, existing structures. They thus empowered the Tutsi monarchy, which they saw as the “natural” elite, abolished checks and balances on the royal family, and streamlined the local administration by ousting Hutu chiefs and vesting all power in a Tutsi-dominated administration. At the same time, they helped the royal court double the territory under its control, conquering kingdoms and princely states around its periphery. The delicate social balance between the farmers and the pastoralists, the royal elite and the peasantry, the rich and the poor was brutally disrupted. Whereas Hutu peasants had previously been able to appeal to their relatives in case of abuses by the government, or at least play different chiefs off against each other, now they were left at the mercy of a Tutsi administration.

The European rulers grounded their rule in an ideology and ethnography heavily influenced by racial theories popular in the United States and Europe at the time. John Hanning Speke, one of the first British explorers in the region, had written in 1863 about a distinct “Asiatic” sophistication among some of the people, presumably Tutsi, he encountered. “In these countries,” he wrote, “government is in the hands of foreigners, who had invaded and taken possession of them, leaving the agricultural aborigines to till the ground.” Speke, dabbling in history and religion, conjectured a link between these tribes and Ethiopia and proposed a “historical” basis for what he claimed to observe: “The traditions of these tribes go as far back as the scriptural age of King David.”
The first German governor of Rwanda, Count von Goetzen, theorized “the Tutsi are Hamitic pastoralists from Ethiopia, who have subjugated a tribe of Negro Bantus,” while Catholic prelate Monsignor Le Roy put it differently: “Their intelligent and delicate appearance, their love of money, their capacity to adapt to any situation seem to indicate a Semitic origin.” Armed with rulers and measuring tape, craniometric Belgian administrators went about rigidifying with physical measurements the previously more fluid boundaries between Tutsi and Hutu identities. These colonial fantasies soon became engraved on the consciousness of the colonized, as well. The Tutsi elite, long favored under the Belgians, seized on the myths to justify their continued superiority, imbibing the stereotypes of Hutu—as espoused by a Belgian priest—as “the most common type of black, brachycephalic and prognathous, with agronomic taste and aptitudes, sociable and jovial ... with thick lips and squashed noses, but so good, so simple, so loyal.” Hutu dissidents, in the meantime, appropriated the stereotypes of Tutsi as a race of crafty herders from Ethiopia to rally support against “the foreigners.”

20 May 2011

Kapuscinski on the rise of Habyarimana

From The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (Vintage, 2002), Kindle Loc. 2339-66, 2373-92:
In 1972, the Hutus from Burundi, emboldened by the example of their brothers in Rwanda, attempted to stage an insurrection, slaughtering, for starters, several thousand Tutsis, who, in response, killed more than a hundred thousand Hutus. It was not the fact of the massacre alone, for these occurred regularly in both countries, but its staggering proportions that created an uproar among the Hutus of Rwanda, who decided to react. They were further inspired by the fact that during the pogrom, several hundred thousand (a million, they sometimes say) Hutus from Burundi sought shelter in Rwanda, creating an enormous problem for this poor country already periodically beset by food shortages.

Taking advantage of this crisis (they are murdering our kinsmen in Burundi; we do not have the wherewithal to support a million immigrants), the commander in chief of the Rwandan military, General Juvénal Habyarimana, staged a coup d’état in 1973 and declared himself president. The coup exposed the profound rifts and conflicts within the Hutu community. The defeated president Grégoire Kayibana (who would later be starved to death) represented a moderately liberal Hutu clan from the country’s central region. The new ruler, on the other hand, hailed from a radical, chauvinistic branch inhabiting Rwanda’s northwest. (Habyarimana, one can say, is the Radovan Karadžić of the Rwandan Hutus.)

Habyarimana will rule for twenty-one years, until his death in 1994. Massively built, powerful, energetic, he focuses all his attention on erecting an iron-clad dictatorship. He institutes a one-party system. He names himself party leader. All the country’s citizens must be party members from the time of birth. The general now improves upon the all-too-simple scheme of enmity: Hutu versus Tutsi. He will enrich this formula by adding another dimension, a further division—those in power versus those in the opposition. If you are a loyal Tutsi, you can become the head of a hamlet or a village (although not a minister); if you criticize the authorities, however, you will end up behind bars or on the scaffold, even if you are 100 percent Hutu. The general was absolutely correct to proceed this way: Tutsis were not the only ones hostile to his dictatorship; there were also large numbers of Hutus who genuinely hated him and resisted him in every way they could. Finally, the conflict in Rwanda was not only a quarrel between castes, but also a violent clash between tyranny and democracy. In this sense the language of ethnic categories, and the mind-set it stems from, is terribly deceptive and misleading. It blurs and neglects the more profound truths—good versus evil, truth versus lies, democracy versus dictatorship—limiting one to a single, and indeed superficial and secondary dichotomy, a single contrast, a single set of oppositions: He is of infinite worth because he is Hutu; or he is worthless because he is Tutsi.

While strengthening the dictatorship was the first task to which Habyarimana devoted himself, gradual advances were also being made on a parallel front: the privatization of the state. With each passing year, Rwanda was increasingly becoming the private property of the clan from Gisenyi (the general’s small hometown), or, more strictly speaking, the property of the president’s wife, Agathe, and of her three brothers, Sagatawa, Seraphin, and Zed, as well as of a bevy of their cousins. Agathe and her brothers belonged to the clan called Akazu, and this name became the password that could open many doors within Rwanda’s mysterious labyrinths. Sagatawa, Seraphin, and Zed had luxurious palaces around Gisenyi, from which, together with their sister and her husband, the general, they ruled over the army, the police, the banks, and the bureaucracy of Rwanda. So, a little nation somewhere in the mountains of a distant continent, ruled by a greedy family of voracious, despotic petty chieftains. How did it come to acquire such tragic worldwide renown?
In the eighties, the young activist Yoweri Museveni starts a guerrilla war against the horrific regime of the psychopath and butcher Milton Obote. Museveni needs fighters. And he quickly finds them, because in addition to his Ugandan brethren, the young men from Rwandan refugee camps are volunteering: militant, battle-hungry Tutsis. Museveni gladly accepts them. They undergo military training in Uganda’s forests, under the direction of professional instructors, and many of them go on to finish officer-training schools abroad. In January 1986, Museveni enters Kampala at the head of his divisions and seizes power. Many of these divisions are commanded by, or include in their ranks, Tutsis born in the refugee camps—sons of the fathers who had been driven out of Rwanda.

For a long time no one notices that there has arisen in Uganda a well-trained and battle-tested army of Tutsi avengers, who think of one thing only: how to revenge themselves for the disgrace and injury inflicted upon their families. They hold secret meetings, create an organization called the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and make preparations to attack. During the night of September 30, 1990, they disappear from the Ugandan army barracks and from the border camps, and at dawn enter Rwandan territory. The authorities in Kigali are completely surprised. Surprised and terrified. Habyarimana has a weak and demoralized army, and the distance from the Ugandan border to Kigali is not much more than 150 kilometers: the guerrillas could march into Kigali in a day or two. That is what would certainly have happened, for Habyarimana’s troops offered no resistance, and maybe it would never have come to that hecatomb and carnage—the genocide of 1994—were it not for one telephone call. This was the call for help General Habyarimana made to the French president, François Mitterrand.

Mitterrand was under strong pressure from the French pro-African lobby. Whereas the majority of European capitals had radically broken with their colonial past, Paris had not. French society still includes a large, active, and well-organized army of people who made their careers in the colonial administration, spent their lives (quite well!) in the colonies, and now, as foreigners in Europe, feel useless and unwanted. At the same time, they believe deeply that France is not only a European country but also the community of all people partaking of French culture and language; that France, in other words, is also a global cultural and linguistic entity: Francophonie. This philosophy, translated into the simplistic language of geopolitics, holds that if someone, somewhere in the world, is attacking a French-speaking country, it is almost as if he were striking at France itself.

Kapuscinski on the rise of Idi Amin

From The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (Vintage, 2002), Kindle Loc. 1882-1918:
Amin is a typical bayaye [rootless, urban drifter].

He grows up in the streets of Jinja. The town housed a battalion of the British colonial army, the King’s African Rifles. The model for this army was devised toward the end of the nineteenth century by General Lugard, one of the architects of the British Empire. It called for divisions composed of mercenaries recruited from tribes hostile toward the population on whose territory they were to be garrisoned: an occupying force, holding the locals on a tight rein. Lugard’s ideal soldiers were young, well-built men from the Nilotic (Sudanese) populations, which distinguished themselves by their enthusiasm for warfare, their stamina, and their cruelty. They were called Nubians, a designation that in Uganda evoked a combination of distaste and fear. The officers and noncommissioned officers of this army, however, were for many years exclusively Englishmen. One day, one of them noticed a young African with a Herculean physique hanging around the barracks. It was Amin. He was quickly enlisted. For people like him—without a job, without possibilities—military service was like winning the lottery. He had barely four years of elementary schooling, but because he was deemed obedient and eager to anticipate the wishes of his commanders, he began advancing rapidly through the ranks. He also gained renown as a boxer, becoming the Ugandan heavyweight champion. During colonial times, the army was dispatched on countless expeditions of oppression: against the Mau Mau insurgents, against the warriors of the Turkana tribe, or against the independent people of the Karimojong. Amin distinguished himself in these campaigns: he organized ambushes and attacks, and was merciless toward his adversaries.
It is the fifties, and the era of independence is fast approaching. Africanization has arrived, even in the military. But the British and French officers want to remain in control for as long as possible. To prove that they are irreplaceable, they promote the third-rate from among their African subordinates, those not too quick, but obedient, transforming them in a single day from corporals and sergeants into colonels and generals. Bokassa in the Central African Republic, for example, Soglo in Dahomey, Amin in Uganda.

When in the fall of 1962 Uganda becomes an independent state, Amin is already, because of promotions by the British, a general, and deputy commander of the army. He takes a look around him. Although he has high rank and position, he comes from the Kakwa, a small community and one, moreover, that is not regarded as native Ugandan. Meantime, the preponderance of the army comes from the Langi tribe, to which Prime Minister Milton Obote belongs, and from the related Acholi. The Langi and the Acholi treat the Kakwa superciliously, seeing them as benighted and backward. We are navigating here in the paranoid, obsessive realm of ethnic prejudice, hatred, and antipathy—albeit an intra-African one: racism and chauvinism emerge not only along the most obvious divides, e.g., white versus black, but are equally stark, stubborn, and implacable, perhaps even more so, among peoples of the same skin color. Indeed, most whites who have died in the world have died at the hands not of blacks, but of other whites, and likewise the majority of black lives taken in the past century were taken by other blacks, not by whites. And so it follows, for example, that on account of ethnic bigotry, no one in Uganda will care whether Mr. XY is wise, kind, and friendly, or the reverse, evil and loathsome; they will care only whether he is of the tribe of Bari, Toro, Busoga, or Nandi. This is the sole criterion by which he will be classified and evaluated.

For its first eight years of independence, Uganda is ruled by Milton Obote, an extraordinarily conceited man, boastful and sure of himself. When it is exposed in the press that Amin has misappropriated the cash, gold, and ivory given him for safekeeping by anti-Mobutu guerrillas from Zaire, Obote summons Amin, orders him to pen an explanation, and, confident that he himself is in no danger, flies off to Singapore for a conference of prime ministers of the British Commonwealth. Amin, realizing that the prime minster will arrest him as soon as he returns, decides on a preemptive strike: he stages an army coup and seizes power. Theoretically at least, Obote in fact had little to worry about: Amin did not represent an obvious threat, and his influence in the army was ultimately limited. But beginning on the night of January 25, 1971, when they took over the barracks in Kampala, Amin and his supporters employed a brutally efficient surprise tactic: they fired without warning. And at a precisely defined target: soldiers from the Langi and Achole tribes. The surprise had a paralyzing effect: no one had time to mount a resistance. On the very first day, hundreds died in the barracks. And the carnage continued. Henceforth, Amin always used this method: he would shoot first. And not just at his enemies; that was self-evident, obvious. He went further: he liquidated without hesitation those he judged might one day develop into enemies. Over time, terror in Amin’s state also came to depend on universal torture. Before they died, people were routinely tormented.

17 May 2011

Cameroon Tales: Two Cooks

For most of his recent sabbatical in Cameroon, my brother stayed in a big hilltop white-elephant of a house overlooking a small village on the busy main highway between Yaoundé, the capital, and Douala, the main port city. The house was the ostensible headquarters of a personal NGO owned by an international businessman from that village, whom my brother had once helped get started in the business of importing cars from Europe into Cameroon. As village benefactor, he had later acquired overseas aid to build and maintain a village well, build a nursery school, and build his own seldom-used mansion.

My brother's housemates there were three men from neighboring Central African Republic, speakers of a Gbaya language called Suma who were working on documenting their language, on a project funded almost entirely out of my brother's own pocket. He has known the elder two men (now in their 50s) since the late 1970s, when he was working for the Peace Corps and then USAID in the then Central African Empire.

To feed himself and his team, my brother asked to hire a cook from the local village. The sleazy caretaker of the mansion, a childhood friend of the benefactor now in his 40s, recommended the 16-year-old girl living with him, who soon proved that she neither knew how to cook nor cared to learn, even when an older woman was hired to help teach her.

One day the young cook got a call from her elder sister telling her that the latter's baby was very sick, and asking for help. My brother offered to give her an advance on her salary, since it was so near the end of the month anyway, so that she could send some money to her sister. But her man (the caretaker) took that money, beat her, and forbade her to visit her sister. The cook then came to my brother and asked for more help, but the caretaker swore that he never beat her (even claiming she had attacked him), and that he never took her money, only "put it aside" in order to prevent her leaving to go take of the sick baby.

Although the cook threatened to leave the caretaker—just as she had earlier infuriated her family by running away from home to be with him—she soon relented, made up with him, and returned to work as if nothing had happened. Nevertheless, her enthusiasm for cooking never improved, and my brother finally fired her a few weeks before we arrived for our visit.

The replacement cook was far from a spoiled brat. She was the devoutly religious, 30-something mother of four young children whose husband had abandoned her in Kribi, on the south coast, whereupon she tried to find her sister, who had married into the village where we stayed. She ran out of cash in the market and crossroads town nearest her sister's village, but a taxi driver from the latter village was kind enough to give her and her brood a free ride to her sister's house, which had only one room to spare for her and her four kids.

Lacking land and a husband, she resorted to gathering forest herbs for sale by the roadside to earn a little cash. The village chief's unmarried son dallied with her for a while, but he was very likely scared off by the prospect of raising her four kids (although she blamed it on his inability to abide by her strict religious scruples). The chance to cook for a household of foreigners was a godsend—except for the jealousy it aroused among the other villagers.

She proved a diligent and capable cook who used her new supply of cash to rent some land and pay a crew to clear a field for planting—all just in time for the start of the rainy season. And she was finally able to pay the village medic to treat her two-year-old boy for worms.

When it came time for my brother and his team to leave the village, he promised her whatever food supplies remained in the kitchen. She didn't show up for the good-bye party, however. Instead, she waited out behind the kitchen until after darkness fell and all the guests had left—so that no one would see her carry the extra food to her sister's house, and then spread gossip about the passing good fortune of one of the most destitute women in the village.

13 May 2011

Wordcatcher Tales: Mourning Fabrics, 1860s

From This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust (Knopf, 2008), Kindle Loc. 2332-2384:
By convention, a mother mourned for a child for a year, a child mourned for a parent the same, a sister six months for a brother. A widow mourned for two and a half years, moving through prescribed stages and accoutrements of heavy, full, and half mourning, with gradually loosening requirements of dress and deportment. A widower, by contrast, was expected to mourn only for three months, simply by displaying black crape on his hat or armband. The work of mourning was largely allocated to women....

In the South, where 18 percent of white males of military age perished in the war, death was omnipresent, and fabrics and fashions were scarce.... In the North, where the death rate of men of military age was one-third that in the Confederacy, mourning was less universal, and the goods that made it possible proved more readily available....

At Besson & Son, Mourning Store, at 918 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, one could find in July 1863—just in time for Gettysburg—a veritable taxonomy of mourning fabrics all but unrecognizable by twenty-first-century Americans:
  • Black Crape Grenadines [A thin gauzelike fabric of silk or wool, for women's wear]
  • Black Balzerines [A light mixed fabric of cotton and wool for women's dresses, commonly used for summer gowns before the introduction of barege]
  • Black Baryadere Bareges
  • Black Bareges [A sheer fabric woven of silk or cotton and wool, used for women's apparel]
  • Black Barege Hernani [A grenadine dress fabric woven in small meshes of coarse threads of silk, cotton, or wool, and their intermixtures]
  • Silk Grenadines
  • Challies [a soft fabric of plain weave in wool, cotton, or other staple fiber]
  • Summer Bombazines [A fine twilled fabric of silk and worsted or cotton, often dyed black and used for mourning clothes]
  • Mousseline de Laines [wool] [A fine sheer fabric resembling muslin, originally made in Mosul, Iraq]
  • Tamises [A cloth made for straining liquids]
  • Mourning Silks, Lawns, Chintzes, Alpacas
  • Barege Shawls, Grenadine Veils, English Crapes

09 May 2011

Railroads and Other Baffling Innovations

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), pp. 253-254:
Why do our clothes not fit so well? It results from a chain of circumstances the origins of which are obscure to most and the direction of which was partially accidental. Early in the nineteenth century, inventors came up with an automated loom, and businesspeople put these to work in England and in such American industrial cities as Lowell, Massachusetts, turning out cheap cotton cloth. This, along with the application of the cotton gin to cotton production, revitalized slavery as well as creating an incentive for inexpensive ready-made and therefore not specifically tailored clothing.

Such long-range deep impacts of technological and business developments have long been studied. Lynn White, in Medieval Technology and Social Change, documented the enormous impact of clocks, heavy harness and stirrups on population growth, shock warfare, and the age of exploration. Siegfried Giedion wrote in his Mechanization Takes Command of what he called "anonymous history." Who can estimate the impact of the invention of the toilet, or the assembly line in food production, or household machinery on the status of women? Langdon Winner observed "Developments in the technical sphere continually outpace the capacity of individuals and social systems to adapt. As the rate of technological innovation quickens, it becomes increasingly important and increasingly difficult to predict the range of effects that a given innovation will have."

A recent touring art exhibit called "The Railway: Art in the Age of Steam" reaffirmed the impact of that technology on perceptions of life and landscape. "The application of steam power to motion," the catalog noted, "came as a startling turn of events." Some found it wondrous, but "for others it heralded a frightening, almost demonic energy." There was something supernatural about it, even extraterrestrial. It made middle-class people "physically and psychologically susceptible to impersonal and potentially lethal industrial machines."...

Think of the social and psychological changes wrought by the telegraph, electricity, the phonograph, the automobile, the airplane, radio, television, the computer, the Internet, the long-playing record, video games, the cell phone, fast food, the shopping mall, and the iPod. And think of how "baffled," in many ways, we are by them and how they should fit in with the rest of our existence. These devices have become ubiquitous parts of modern life. An age when they did not exist is nearly unimaginable to many, while an age where they do exist is unendurable to others.

Railroad Depot Architecture, 1830–1860

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), p. 92:
Railroad depots came to dominate urban architecture, and their size brought much comment. The Boston & Maine depot in Boston, constructed in 1846, was 200 feet long and 80 feet wide. It had Corinthian columns, and on its upper story was the largest meeting hall in the city. Behind it was a freight depot 500 feet long and 50 feet wide. The Union depot at Troy, New York constructed in 1853, was 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. The distance from the top of the roof arch to the floor was 65 feet. The roof was made entirely of iron supported by twenty trusses.

Former B&O Camden Station
[The photo shows former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Camden Station, built in 1856, now the Babe Ruth/Sports Legends Museum next to Camden Yards]

Time only increased the impressiveness of these structures. A reporter for the Chicago Daily Tribune visited the new buildings constructed by the Illinois Central Railroad along the lakeshore in 1854. The passenger depot at the foot of Water Street was all of stone. It was 500 feet long, 166 feet wide and 60 feet high to the top of its towers. Its windows were 16 feet high. The walls looked like they would "remain in all their strength when the final 'wreck of matter and the crash of worlds' shall come. The turntable there would hold eighteen locomotives.

The depots were the entry to a new world of travel, every aspect of which became a subject for travelogue comments. John Daggett riding the B&O in 1834, thought the beginning of his rail journey was its highlight:
One of the happiest effects of traveling on railroads is the freedom it gives you from the impertinence and impositions of porters, cartmen, et omne id genus, who infest common steamboat landings. A long and solitary row of carriages was standing on the shore awaiting our arrival; not a shout was heard, scarcely any thing was seen to move except the locomotive, and the arms of the man who caught the rope from our boat. The passengers were filed off along a planked walk to the carriages through one gangway, while their luggage, which had already been stowed safely away, was rolled on shore by another, in two light wagons; and almost without speaking a word, the seats were occupied, the wagons attached behind, the half-locomotive began to snort, and the whole retinue was on the way with as little ado and as little loss of time as I have been guilty of in telling the story.
Others, however, were not so impressed with the stressful experience of boarding a train. A Frenchman, Michel Chevalier, thought that the pandemonium at the railroad station reflected the nervousness and disorder of American society itself. The American, he wrote, was "devoured with a passion for locomotion" and could not stay still.

07 May 2011

Cameroon Tales: The PTA Meeting

After spending our first night in Cameroon in a hotel in Yaoundé, we changed money with a friendly Nigerian Igbo at the Hilton, went shopping for food at the central market and for baguettes at a suburban bakery, then drove the two hours back to the village where my brother was staying in time for a short rest before the parent-teacher meeting for the local preschool (maternelle) that we were invited to attend that afternoon at 4 p.m.

We had been invited in order to thank my brother for his small monetary donation, which had enabled the teacher to buy some new and much needed school supplies. The meeting was held in the salon of the chief of the village, and my brother and I stopped to buy a half-dozen large bottles of beer and soft drinks for those who attended. We purchased them from the village patriarch's store, waking him up from his afternoon nap on his front porch.

In the chief's salon, we found about a dozen parents seated across from the sofa that the chief had reserved for us, and an open box of school supplies on the coffee table in the center of the room. As others were allocating the drinks we had brought, the chief told me my brother had never accepted his offers of homemade oil palm wine (there called vin blanc) but he wondered whether I would like to try it. After a moment's hesitation, I said I would be happy to, rationalizing that the alcohol in it would help neutralize the residual bacteria. The chief then called for his palm wine and filled two stemmed glasses from his cupboard. The palm wine was palatable, though poorly filtered.

The president then rose to welcome us, asking first whether he could address me in French (rather than switch to English, presumably). My brother assured him I spoke several languages, neglecting to mention my poor speaking ability. In fact, I could follow the proceedings pretty well until they later gave way to more free-flowing conversation and storytelling.

Then the president introduced the maitresse, who did a show-and-tell of the supplies she had bought, which included various (French) literacy and language materials, workbooks and educational activities, and about a dozen rolls of toilet paper to be used in the brick outhouse that had been started behind the school building. She regretted only that she had not been able to obtain materials to teach numeracy as well as literacy. As she finished, she offered to turn over her receipts to my brother, as the donor, but he suggested she turn them over to the president, who had replaced a corrupt predecessor.

The president was a successful businessman who got his start as a chauffeur for Catholic nuns, and my brother's regular driver would usually rent the president's car when he hired himself out as a driver. The maitresse was a trained and dedicated teacher who had recently fallen victim to pickpockets in a shared taxi on her way home from a bank in Yaoundé with a loan of 1.5 million francs CFA with which to build a house. She was very slowly paying back the loan from her very modest teacher's salary.

After the formalities were over, the conversation drifted to other topics. One man asked us why Obama was not (yet) intervening in Libya. (This was an overwhelmingly Christian village less concerned than a largely Muslim village may have been about the delicacy of American relations with the Muslim world.) Later, after somebody else told a story about an encounter with a large snake, this same man said he had seen a show on National Geographic about people handling poisonous snakes without getting bitten. He obviously had access to satellite TV and was concerned to educate himself as well as his children. He and I (and the chief) were the only ones drinking the chief's palm wine instead of beer.

Big pot of ndoleWe finally made our exit, explaining that our new cook had made a big pot of ndole, the national dish, to welcome us. This stew of bitterleaf greens, ground peanuts, and fish or meat takes a lot of time and effort, so everyone was impressed. In fact, we had hardly finished eating when the chief showed up at our door, with the village patriarch and another of his drinking buddies, saying they had come to sample our ndole, which their wives rarely made. They pronounced it very well prepared, at which my brother could not resist telling the chief that he could be eating it more often if his son had gone ahead and married the cook after romancing her. They finally left after finding out we had no more beer or wine on hand.

The tale of two cooks will be the next installment.

05 May 2011

History of Naming U.S. War Dead

From This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust (Knopf, 2008), Kindle Loc. 1679-1700:
Men thrown by the hundreds into burial trenches; soldiers stripped of every identifying object before being abandoned on the field; bloated corpses hurried into hastily dug graves; nameless victims of dysentery or typhoid interred beside military hospitals; men blown to pieces by artillery shells; bodies hidden by woods or ravines, left to the depredations of hogs or wolves or time: the disposition of the Civil War dead made an accurate accounting of the fallen impossible. In the absence of arrangements for interring and recording overwhelming numbers, hundreds of thousands of men—more than 40 percent of deceased Yankees and a far greater proportion of Confederates—perished without names, identified only, as Walt Whitman put it, “by the significant word Unknown.”

To a twenty-first-century American, this seems unimaginable. The United States expends more than $100 million each year in the effort to find and identify the approximately 88,000 individuals still missing from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The obligation of the state to account for and return—either dead or alive—every soldier in its service is unquestioned. But these assumptions are of quite recent origin. There have been many revolutions in warfare in the last century and a half. Although perhaps less dramatic than transformations of military technology and organization, changing attitudes toward the dead and missing have profoundly altered the practices and experience of war—for soldiers and civilians alike. Only with the Korean War did the United States establish a policy of identifying and repatriating the remains of every dead soldier. Only with World War I did soldiers begin to wear official badges of identity—what came to be known as dog tags. Only with the Civil War did the United States create its system of national cemeteries and officially involve itself with honoring the military dead. It was the Civil War, as Walt Whitman observed, that made the designation “UNKNOWN” become “significant.”

The dead of the Mexican War received no official attention until 1850, two years after the conflict ended, when the federal government found and reinterred 750 soldiers in an American cemetery in Mexico City. These bodies represented only about 6 percent of the soldiers who had died, and not one body was identified. But with the Civil War, private and public belief and behavior gradually shifted. This was a war of mass citizens’ armies, not of professional, regular forces; it was a war in which the obligation of the citizen to the nation was expressed as a willingness to risk life itself. In its assault upon chattel slavery, the conflict fundamentally redefined the relationship between the individual and the nation. This affirmation of the right to selfhood and identity reflected beliefs about human worth that bore other implications, for the dead as well as the living.
Later in the chapter, Faust notes that military chaplains were frequently counted upon to keep track of the dead, but that neither the Union nor the Confederate military felt any obligation to inform the families of the dead.