Chapter 12: An avatar of colonial Europe
After a short period of dormancy and a little self-doubt about its
erstwhile imperial mission, the West may be ready to
resume its old domineering monologue in the world.
Chinua Achebe, Home and Exile
When Colette Braeckman published her book Rwanda, Histoire d’un génocide, immediately after the Rwandan war in fall 1994, she donned both her reporter’s and editorialist’s cap. As with all war correspondents, she lines up facts, offers hypotheses and provides quotes from leaders who, it seems, had no other choice than to grant her interviews considering her position as reporter for the Brussels daily Le Soir and the influential French monthly Le Monde diplomatique. Her writings abound with information, but are short on truth, the first casualty of all wars. When Ms Braeckman editorializes, she has the self-righteousness of Rwanda’s former imperial masters, a blatant bias in favour of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and a marked indulgence towards her fellow Belgians, and particularly the Belgian troops.
Her very favourable treatment of Paul Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front faithfully follows the popular literary tradition inasmuch as President Kagame can do no wrong (Ms Braekman has apparently changed her position since the book was published but has not criticized her own writings). All the other leaders, starting with President Habyarimana, are insulted and slandered. When leaders are so contemptible, the people they lead are obviously worse.
The Belgian troops on the other hand are lily white for Ms Braeckman. She indignantly reports that, as early as 1990, Rwandans had dared to accuse Belgian soldiers of going after Rwandan teenage girls, and even raping some. Everybody knows of course that European and American soldiers in Africa would not think of behaving that way. On the other hand, she does not get indignant, nor does she mention the fact that before leaving Rwanda the Belgian troops ransacked their Kigali hotel and the international airport, spreading their excrement throughout. She also omits to mention and get indignant about the Belgian soldiers who shredded a Rwanda flag before the very eyes of members of the Rwandan army. 111 Is it surprising that the Belgian troops had such a bad reputation when they left Rwanda?
Ms Braeckman lines up her facts and blindly develops theories that reinforce her own analysis that Rwanda was “liberated” between 1990 and 1994 by the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Writers have to tread carefully when they publish books so soon after a major international crisis since their premises and assumptions can be shown to be false and their entire book can be discredited.
That is what happened to Colette Braeckman who claimed unequivocally that the assassination of President Habyarimana on April 6, 1994 was planned and carried out by “Hutu extremists” in the president’s own entourage. Taking this as the Gospel truth, she proceeds to elaborate theories about the mindset, motives and acts of all the Hutus who governed both Rwanda and Burundi from 1990 to 1994. Within months of the publication of her book, several reliable analyses and investigations showed that the assassination had not been carried out as she assumed. Large sections of her book thus became totally false and irrelevant. In most cases such glaring errors should have eliminated the author as a serious source. That is not what happened to Ms Braeckman who continues to be cited everywhere as an authority.
The author similarly goes overboard to prove that the Rwandan Patriotic Front is not an ethnically driven formation. Her method is to quote and promote the Rwandan Hutu leaders who agreed to participate in the government set up by the victorious RPF army. These include Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu, Interior Minister, Seth Sendashonga, Justice Minister Alphonse-Marie Nkubito, and President Pasteur Bizimungu. Unfortunately for her - and for her book - every one of these people fled the country, was assassinated or imprisoned in the months and years after her book was published. All have been accused of embracing the “ideology of genocide”, while some have been accused of committing genocide. As a result, other large sections of her book become irrelevant.
Another striking case of bias of a war correspondent is her claim that the million refugees who fled northern Rwanda to camps around Kigali during the war between 1990 and 1994 were unwitting victims of the Habyarimana government’s machiavellian tactics, and were not real victims of the invading RPF’s violence and terror tactics.
War correspondents are always affiliated with one side or the other, and few doubt the importance of their role in influencing the outcome of the war. Think of Winston Churchill in the Boer War, Rudyard Kipling, Peter Arnett in the Gulf War, and many more. In most cases, their affiliation and even their bias are admitted and known. That is not the case with Colette Braeckman who claims to be a neutral observer.
Ms Braeckman falls back on the popular literary tradition on Africa most glaringly when she ventures away from journalism and attempts to explain the origin and causes of the Rwandan tragedy. At the end of her introduction entitled “Once upon a time”, she reveals her real thoughts about Africa and Africans. As she tells her tale, these thoughts reappear regularly, either as rhetorical questions or in carefully selected quotes in the book.
It was not a question of war or political repression. It was about wiping out a whole people in the name of ethnicity, and erasing every trace of their existence from man’s world. Are we faced with the last avatar of pre-colonial Africa, of “savagery”?… Demons are dancing in people’s heads. Madness is stalking everybody. The thrust of blood, fever and angst had burst through all bounds. 112
“The last avatar of pre-colonial Africa”, suggests Colette Braeckman. Though she throws in a question mark, her opinion is clear. It means that the “savagery” she describes is a reincarnation of Africa from the arrival of the civilizing Europeans. Africa was just morphing back to what it was before Europe began its mission to civilize those heathen peoples. Despite all their valiant efforts, that mission just did not succeed in containing the Africans’ barbarian nature. Left to themselves when they became independent, they could simply not control their instincts which “projected them beyond good and evil”, to use her own words.
The reporter Braeckman also hazards a few guesses about the philosophical origins of the tragedy, but takes care to distance herself, though very slightly, by quoting European missionaries in Rwanda.
The missionaries recognized the beast that ran wild in the country. The mad look of the militia men, the peasants’ relentless glare, the radio lie machine, the intellectuals’ sophisms aimed at manipulating the masses left no doubt what was happening. They saw before them their old opponent, the prince of Darkness, the Wicked One. “The Devil is back on earth”, they exclaimed. 113
Man, according to Ms Braeckman, was thus projected beyond the idea of good and evil despite the fact that all Rwandans had been Christianized and had received many years of training in human rights laws, the law of war and the necessary protection of women and children. “Is it possible”, adds Braeckman “ that the sudden contract of these ancient closed societies with the European world, the colonial conquest and the social distortions it provoked had suddenly broken ancient cultural taboos? And that the graft of Christianity had not only failed to take root but had also provoked a total and self-destructive rejection one century later?”
In other words, for Ms. Braeckman, Christianity was grafted onto the African body, but that graft was impossible. The African body rejected the graft and destroyed itself at the same time. In case the reader is slow, the author throws in a quote from a Rwandan bishop: “The Christian message did not sink in. After a century of evangelizing, we have to start all over again.”
For Carol Off, Christianity was an “overlay” that could not withstand the primary African forces. For Gil Courtemanche, the Rwandan “catechism” was hate, violence, witchcraft and lies, and churches were crematoriums. For Philip Gourevitch, Rwandans ran like herds to be baptized, blindly following a converted chief.
This band of four agrees on one point: Rwandans were simply incapable of embracing Christianity correctly. Though they may have adopted the rituals, they were “never quite able to free (themselves) to from the compelling forces of (their) environment and the dark inheritance of (their) forefathers”, as was written before them by another eulogist of Empire in 1958. 114
Over and above their presumption that they can judge the religious practices of Africans, these writer make denunciations that contain an even more sinister message. If a link were to exist between the supposed rejection of the meaning and values of Christianity and the “savagery” they enjoy describing, it would follow that Africans could have prevented if they had been able to assimilate the Europeans’ religion correctly. Hence salvation is only to be found in Jesus. Or is it that Europe abandoned its civilizing mission too soon?
The idea, repeated ad nauseum, that Africans have not properly understood the Christian message is profoundly and disgustingly ethnocentric. Historically, for every Christian who in the name of their religion has fought for peace, human equality, justice and freedom, at least ten Christians have, in the name of the same religion, declared wars, invaded and conquered countries, massacred innocent people, enslaved millions of people, colonized entire peoples and countries, opened concentration camps and bombed civilians. To claim or even to hint that massacres in Rwanda are proof that the Christian message did not sink in is to ignore and hide 2000 years of history.
The best answer to this idea came from Muhammed Ali. When he was visiting the Wold Trade Centre in New York after the 9/11 attack in 2001, a reporter asked him how he felt about the suspects sharing his Islamic faith. Ali answered pleasantly: “How do you feel about Hitler sharing yours?”
In addition to parading as a theologian who judges religions, Ms Braeckman forays into the field of African art and culture and imagines a causal link with the violence. Independent Rwanda, she maintains, has scarcely any symbolic representation. Its figurative art is “shabby and infantile”. She then asks, rhetorically as usual, whether the absence of means of artistic expression might also be “a source of violence”, the theory being that, since symbolic expression including language is not possible, Rwandans turn quickly to murderous acts.
Peoples who have been dominated or colonized and who have fought or are fighting to maintain their dignity have all heard this talk before. So many have been told for such a long time that they have no literature, no culture, no history and thus they really don’t even deserve to exist.
Colette Braeckman’s book was published in 1994, some thirty-four years after Belgian colonialists left Africa. In her book, the author creates a historical paradigm in which the past thirty years in Rwanda are presented as an uninterrupted slide into hell, and she never stops repeating it. “For thirty years, Rwanda was permeated by a genocidal culture.” “In thirty years, propaganda had rooted out the meaning of good and evil.” Her message could not be clearer. Before 1960, when the Belgians held sway in that part of Africa, Rwanda was protected against the evils it encountered. Since then, Rwandans have been left to themselves and look what happened.
In her book, Ms Braeckman speaks about “a last avatar of pre-colonial Africa”. It would be difficult to find a better “avatar of colonial Europe and its civilizing mission” than Ms Breackman herself.
111 Luc MARCHAL, Rwanda : la descente aux enfers, témoignage d’un peacekeeper, décembre 1993 – April 1994, Éditions Labor, pp. 259-260. Also interview with Gilbert Ngijol, political assistant to Jacques-Roger BOOH-BOOH, special representative the UN Secretary General in Rwandaé.
112 Braeckman, op. cit. p. 19. (Our translation).
113 Idem p. 236.
114 Raymond Tong, Figures in Ebony, London, Cassell and Company, 1958, p. 86.