On the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Revealer editor Jeff Sharlet looks at the memorials and morality tales on offer from the Western press.

At this juncture I’d like to tell you a joke. There’s a Jew, a Cambodian, and a Bosnian. Or maybe it should be a Jew, a Kosovar, and a Tutsi. An Armenian, a Lakota Indian, and an African-American. It’s hard choosing victims, there are so many of them. How do you decide who’s suffered most? Say the Jews lost six million in the Holocaust, which puts them ahead numerically, but 800,000 Tutsi were slaughtered by more time-consuming methods, knife and machete, mostly. Doesn’t that sort of even things out? Is it more or less horrible that under the Khmer Rouge a million Cambodians were killed by other Cambodians? Does that count as genocide or fratricide? You see my difficulty. 
— Peter Trachtenberg, “The Book of Job”

The press is marking the 10th “anniversary” of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda with a well-intentioned collage of vicarious suffering, voyeuristic horror, and awkward piety. A conflict originally written off as “tribal” has been complicated in the Western mind, raised in status to a “legacy of colonialism.” Not many words are spared on explication of those two loaded terms.

Nor, for that matter, on the complexities of Rwanda’s religious life, despite the fact that one of the legacies of colonialism — as reported in Philip Gourevitch’s journalistic account, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families You Will Be KilledMahmood Mamdani’s more thorough exploration, When Victims Become Killers, and Alison Des Forges’ painful masterwork, Leave None to Tell the Story — results from bad biblical scholarship.

Beginning in the late 19th century, German and Belgian ethnographers sharpened the vague line of division between Tutsis and the array of smaller ethnic and regional groups grouped under the term “Hutu.” In search of real world proof for the Bible’s stories — and a local administrative class — the scholars decreed that Tutsis were a superior race born of Ham, the biblical figure who for the sin of seeing his father, Noah, naked was sent into exile. The Hutu, they further “discovered,” had no biblical antecedents at all — making them subhuman.

Thus were the seeds planted. But it took a century of politics, bad theology, and even linguistics (the conflict was in no small part related to Francophone anxiety over continued dominance of the region) to result in the hundreds of thousands killed and the hundreds of thousands of killers now awaiting — what? Justice? Forgiveness? “Reconciliation?”

Christianity Today does a better job than most in hinting at the difficulty of saying what’s needed now in Rwanda, with a set of articles focusing on “restorative justice” — currently being put in practice, if CT is to be believed, through a revived tradition of communal “Gacaca” courts.CT writer Timothy C. Morgan astutely remarks on the Hebrew Bible parallels to the tradition of Gacaca, casting it in terms of the punishment meted out in Joshua 7.

Of course, the Israelites who execute justice in Joshua do so at the behest of and within sentencing parameters laid down by God; unless Rwanda is ready to embrace theocracy, no such certainty is available.

Maybe it’s time for another joke. This one’s culled from Morgan’s report:

Missionary Guillebaud shared with me Deborah Niyakabirika‘s story, chronicled in aWorld Vision Australia video. Her son was murdered, in an isolated act of ethnic vengeance, three years after the genocide.

Months after the killing, a young man visited Deborah. “I killed your son,” he said. “Take me to the authorities and let them deal with me as they will. I have not slept since I shot him. Every time I lie down I see you praying, and I know you are praying for me.”

Deborah answered, “You are no longer an animal but a man taking responsibility for your actions. I do not want to add death to death.” Then Deborah did the extraordinary. “But I want you to restore justice by replacing the son you killed,” she continued. “I am asking you to become my son. When you visit me, I will care for you.”

Today, that young man is an adopted member of her household.

To quote Peter Trachtenberg again: “I know what you’re going to say. ‘Wait! That’s not funny!’”

No, it’s not — but regardless of its particular truth, it is indicative of a sitcom-style narrative embraced by much of the press reporting on Rwanda today, a storyline made all the more grotesque by its irony (awful or inspiring, depending on your perspective). It’s just as visible in secular journalism, even in reporting that’s smart enough to notice the overlooked victims of the genocide, such as this Washington Post piece by Emily Wax, which begins —

Hands covering her eyes, her thin legs crossed to try to stop what she could not, Eugenia Muhayimana screamed out to God as the baby pushed through her birth canal. She said she yelled and kicked during two hours of labor, hoping her heart would stop, her soul would drift away and she and her infant would pass to a world where they could live in peace.

“We are already dead,” Muhayimana recalled thinking. “I wished we could just disappear.”

–and continues on to tell the redemptive tale of how Muhayimana comes to love her children, the result of a rape during the genocide. Wax wraps it up neatly with a quote from Muhayimana: “…everything I went through was worth it in order to have them.”

Which leads one to wonder: Is this really reporting, or resolution? Does it offer closure, a “restoration” with or without justice? And to what end do such stories appear in the American and European press?

Bob Smietana, another Christianity Today journalist who also maintains a thoughtful weblog called god-of-small-things, has suggested that affluent Western Christian readers’ fascination with genocidal scenarios of another variety — those featured in Left Behind — as well as accounts of persecution in developing nations constitutes a kind of “vicarious Christianity.” If that’s so, much of the coverage of Rwanda coming even from the secular press might be said to be partaking of the same emotional release, such as Mary Kimani’s 2003Time feature story, “Killers Come Home.”

“ ‘To be honest, I did not even know the people we went to kill,’ says Gerard Uwize, clutching a Bible and songbook,” the piece begins. Kimani moves on to an exploration of the seemingly hopeless moral situation men like Uwize — and those around him — face before concluding with an account of a Rwandan Catholic nun whose family was murdered, and who now runs a program through which killers meet survivors and help rebuild their homes.

More recently, Laurie Goering writes in The Chicago Tribune of Louise Mushikiwabo, who lost 12 immediate relatives and now wants to make a book about what happened. Goering concludes:

Mushikiwabo, a graduate student in Washington at the time of the genocide, recently ran into the brother of one of her family’s killers in Kigali.

“I said hello in an awkward way, and I think he thought I wouldn’t shake his hand, but I did,” she remembers.

“Ten years after such a horrendous genocide, the fact that people are living together peacefully is very important,” she added.

Indeed. And so are such stories. But to whom? When served up in the Western press — accompanied by Dantesque dips into hell such as this BBC oral history, “Taken Over By Satan” — they function almost as morality plays, binding Rwandan killers and survivors together with American and European readers as the “everyman” who has passed through sin to a hard-won redemption.

And then along comes Paul Kagame, the former rebel leader and current president. Journalists and scholars are generally divided over Kagame, most of the former embracing him as a compromised but ultimately heroic figure, and many of the latter judging him as not all that better than the genocidaires. The most recent press presents a media character who is both and neither.

“It is clear that the world had the capacity to stop the genocide but deliberately chose to turn a blind eye on Rwanda,” Kagame announced at one recent memorial event, rebuking those who’d find solace in Rwanda’s tentative recovery while whitewashing their nations’ complicity in its devastation. It was also a rhetorical move that made good copy not long after Le Mondepublished a leaked report (variously attributed to to the French government and to the CIA)accusing Kagame of masterminding the 1994 assassination of Rwanda’s president, an event which was spark that lit the tinder — and, so the theory goes, led Kagame and his army of exiles to their current control of the country.

Such contradictions defy the master narrative employed by the Western press to make sense of the killing — that is, to extract something useful from it, whether it’s a Christian-tinged, secular morality play in the mainstream media, or an update of holocaust theology in the religious press. Christianity Today’s Timothy Morgan expresses this ideology explicitly when he writes that “the price in lost lives and lost opportunities has been extraordinarily high for this nation, but a new space for healing is being created in a uniquely biblical and African way.”

That kind of commercial metaphor may seem crass, but ostensibly objective reports from BBCand New York Times are no less utilitarian when they deploy a vague vision of Rwandan Islam — modest, moderate, and, in 1994, a refuge from genocide — as a metaphor for a sort of univeralism, a generic human drive to rise above tragedy by staying down to earth:

The Rwandan Muslim community is “an inward-looking group,” writes the Times’ Marc Lacey, “and not a likely candidate for harboring cells of Al Qaeda. While Rwanda’s Muslims say they follow the travails of Islamic adherents in other parts of the world — the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance, and the conflict in the Middle East — their primary focus is on their own struggle to put their lives back together.”

A hopeful story, even if its celebration of Rwanda’s “fastest growing religion” ignores the fact that its growth leveled off in 1997. But then, these stories aren’t really presented as news. Ten years out, what the Western press wants from Rwanda are parables. Stories of the killers who now build houses for survivors, a mother who has learned to love the child of rape, a young woman who shook the hand of a former enemy. Stories of good Muslims, sad killers, and the “triumph of of the human spirit.” Stories shaped for readers who require lessons from the past; healing after history; meaning redeemed from murder, and preferably sooner rather than later.

From Peter Trachtenberg’s “Book of Job”:

So say you’ve got a Jew, a Lakota, and a Tutsi. And they’re hanging out comparing their tribulations. The Jew says, “I saw my whole family exterminated at Belsen. Mama, papa, aunts, my sisters, two tiny girls. They were taken away to the gas chambers; they were burned in ovens and their soot fell on me.”

The Lakota says: “I saw many dead men, women, and children lying in the ravine. When I went a little way up, I heard singing, and going a little way farther, I came upon my mother. She was moving slowly, and I could see that she was very badly wounded. A strange thing: She had a soldier’s revolver in her hand, swinging it as she went. I do not know how she got it. When I caught up to her, she said, ‘My son, pass by me; I am going to fall down now.’ As she went up, the bluecoats shot at her and killed her.”

The Tutsi says: “The militia had the people line up in the churchyard, in rows. Then they would walk among the rows and cut us with their pangas, swish, swish, swish, like they are chopping down maize. There is blood everywhere. At mid-day they get tired, they want to rest for a while. But they don’t want any of the people to get away. So they find the ones who are still alive and sever the tendons behind their knees. This way they cannot run, and the militia can finish them later. Then they go off and eat lunch in the shade of the rectory.”

You see our difficulty?