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Not So Dark

Colin Murphy
Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, by Richard Dowden, Portobello Books, 576 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1846271540 On April 7th, 1994, a plane carrying the Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down. Over the next six weeks, 800,000 Rwandans were butchered in what has been called “the most rapid genocide in recorded history”. The attention of the international media, however, was elsewhere in Africa at the time: in South Africa in fact, where Nelson Mandela’s ANC was contesting the first democratic election in South African history. Anticipating a bloodbath in a country with whose politics the media had at least some familiarity, they missed the politics of the bloodbath that was unfolding in Rwanda. Much is now made of the culpability of the leading Western powers in allowing the Rwandan genocide to unfold to its full extent. The Americans and British tried to block the use of the word genocide in the security council because, under international law, its use would have compelled them to intervene. Kofi Annan, later an acclaimed UN secretary general, was then head of peacekeeping at the organisation and was warned repeatedly of what was developing. According to the chief peacekeeper in Rwanda, the Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, Annan ignored his requests for help. As Richard Dowden records, “with hindsight, it is obvious that the world’s political leaders and opinion makers failed Rwanda… [but] before the Rwanda genocide it was different”. The leaders were enabled to turn a blind eye because the press was blindsided. Distracted by South Africa and disoriented by the complex history of ethnic and political conflict in Rwanda, it failed to realise what was happening. Initial reports referred to renewed “civil war”, and then to “tribal bloodletting” between Hutu and Tutsi. (News editors, Dowden writes, “giggled and spoke about Tutus and Whoopsies in news conferences”.) The only references to genocide referred to past massacres. The first mention in the press of the Hutu militia that was organising and carrying out much of the genocide, the Interahamwe, came three weeks after the start, in a Reuters dispatch on April 30th. Eventually, the world woke up, and among the responses was a massive inflow of aid to Goma in eastern Congo, where hundreds of thousands of Rwandans had fled. But these were not refugees from the genocide, they were refugees from the military campaign against the genocide. The Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front had swept down through the…

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