Among the early reports on the genocide, none matches Africa Rights, Rwanda, Death, Despair and Defiance (September 1994) for the clinical description of the atrocities inflicted upon Tutsi victims, ranging from political murders to collective massacres in churches, schools and stadiums, and the daily manhunts conducted on the hills. Significant as it is to our understanding of the sheer savagery that has accompanied the carnage, the Africa Rights report is utterly silent on the grisly crimes and torture inflicted by Tutsi soldiers on innocent Hutu civilians, some of which are by now well documented (Nduwayo, 2002: 9-16; Amnesty International, 1994; Des Forges, 1999; Reyntjens and De Souter, 1994)).
Political correctness intrudes in more subtle ways in Colette Braeckman’s early works (1994, 1996), notable for the absence of references to the countless human rights violations committed by Kagame’s army in the course of the civil war. Indicative of her biases is this idyllic description of Rwanda in 1996: “the cities are more animated than ever, the rural areas are again under cultivation, all children are attending school, the churches are overcrowded with people, the road-menders are at work on the roads and the widows weed out the public gardens (1996: 269). Not until 2003, with the publication of Les nouveaux prédateurs : Politique des puissances en Afrique Centrale (2003) – an excellent introduction to the history of the crisis in the Great Lakes — would the image of the FPR strongman emerge in a much less flattering light, as one “who denies the evidence and lies while looking at you in eye” (Braeckman, 2003: 213), ruling over a country compared to a Potemkine village (ibid.).
Much the same bias can be detected in Chrétien’s writings, only to a greater degree. The struggle between good and evil comes through with striking clarity in his Défi de l’ethnisme (1997: 307-388), where a number of journalists and scholars suspected of pro-Hutu biases are duly excoriated. His pro-Tutsi sympathies transpire through most of his works dealing with recent developments in Rwanda and Burundi (Lemarchand, 1992). Important as they might be in other respects, his contributions are consistently marred by a highly selective sifting of the evidence. This is true of his major collaborative work, Les médias de la haine, whose reductionist bias is made plain by the author’s exclusive emphasis on the perverse effects of the Hutu-controlled media as the only determinant of the bloodshed. Here Michael Mann’s cautionary advice is worth bearing in mind: “it is not easy to gauge the effects of mass media in the absence of detailed sociological studies. Many scholars have a tendency to exaggerate the power of this propaganda” (Mann, 2005: 444). Recent research by Straus also shows the limits of ideology as a motivating force (Straus, 2006: chap. 6; Mann, 2005: 469). By and large, Chrétien makes unduly short shrift of the intense fears provoked by the FPR invasion as a motivating force behind the killings.
Much the same criticisms could be addressed to Prunier (1995), except for the fact that the second edition of his book (1997) includes an excellent additional chapter which clearly brings into focus what was missing in the first edition: a clear recognition of the onus of responsibility borne by Kagame’s FPR. The tendency to exonerate the FPR of all sins is nowhere more painfully evident than in the papers presented at the “Genocide: A Collective Memory” conference held in Kigali in January 1995, which, in the words of the editors, “attempts to record the words and opinions of individuals who experienced the genocide” (John Berry and Carol Pott Berry, 1999, ix). This, however, is not meant to detract from an otherwise highly illuminating collection of testimonies from a broad cross-section of Rwandan elites (journalists, human rights activists, civil servants and army men).
Pro-Hutu analysts, one might add, are no less prone to fall prey to a Manichean interpretation, as shown by Charles Onana’s highly selective account of “the secrets of the Rwandan genocide” (2001). Stating at the outset that since “numerous works have been written about the Hutu and their responsibilities in the genocide, we do not see the need for another book on the accusations leveled against them” (12), the author reveals few secrets and not a few biases. Many of the accusations directed at Belgium, the US and the United Nations Missions in Rwanda (UNAMIR) are unsubstantiated. Despite its impressive array of valuable statistical data, A.E. Gakusi and Frédérique Mouzer’s discussion of the “structural constraints and governance” in Kagame’s Rwanda glosses over the countless human rights violations committed under the Second Republic. (Gakusi and Mouzer, 2003). As for Pierre Péan’s notoriously tendentious effort to rewrite the history of the genocide as a Tutsi-engineered plot (Péan, 2005), the least that can be said is that its more positive contributions – notably in the form of some highly revealing official documents about France’s role during the genocide – are offset by many factual inaccuracies and the author’s manifest urge to settle scores with dissenting analysts.
Unsurprisingly, the comparison between the Rwanda genocide and the Holocaust has proved hard to resist. Both are total genocides, and both are dominated by a lethal social construction of the “other”. French and Belgian scholars were the first to call attention to the parallel, with Jean-Pierre Chrétien speaking of “tropical Nazism” (1994). For Alain Destexhe “the extermination of the Jews is the only precedent one can prudently evoke to understand that of the Tutsi, for Jews and Tutsi were targeted as such and for no other reason than they happened to be born Jews and Tutsi” (Destexhe, 1994: 14).
In recent times, the Holocaust analogy has received growing attention from English-speaking scholars (Hintjens, 1999; Chalk, 1999), and in 1999 the African Studies Association (ASA) organized a special roundtable session titled “The Politics of Comparison: Nazi Holocaust and Rwandan Genocide” (Miles, 2003: 131). The most sustained exploration of the parallel came from Marc Levene, who argued that in Rwanda as in Nazi Germany genocide was the concomitant of the crises of experienced by modernizing states. “Modern genocide”, he writes, “is closely bound up with the efforts of nation-States to operate independently and effectively within an international nation-State system… When a regime encounters, or perceives itself to encounter serious obstacles which seem to threaten not only the achievement of this agenda but the integrity of the state itself, the potentiality for it ‘taking it’ out on some ‘scapegoat’ group or groups is greatly magnified.” (Levene 1999: 46).
Compelling as the analogy may be in some respects (Lemarchand, 2002: 501), its limitations are no less obvious. The contextual differences cannot be ignored: “Jews did not invade Germany with the massive military and logistical support of a neighboring state; nor did they once rule Germany as the political instrument of an absolute monarchy; nor were they identified with a ruling ethnocracy; nor did Jewish elements commit a partial genocide of non-Jews in a neighboring state 22 years before the Holocaust. Again, Jews did not stand accused of murdering the head of state of a neighboring state” (ibid. 500-1). Furthermore, “whereas the Holocaust is the classic example of an ideological genocide… the Rwanda genocide is better seen as a by-product of the mortal threats posed to the Hutu-dominated state by the FPR” (ibid.).
In one of the papers presented at the 1999 ASA conference, Catherine and David Newbury correctly underscored the risks involved in looking at Rwanda through the lens of the Holocaust: “such a view is ahistorical”, they write, noting the “differences in the context and the sequence of events leading to the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda”; furthermore, in contrast to the Holocaust, the Rwanda genocide is better understood as a case of ‘retributive’ genocide” (Catherine and David Newbury, 2003: 140-1). Drawing from a variety of materials, including interviews with exiles, Eltringham likewise offers particularly thoughtful critique of the Holocaust template (Eltringham, 2004: 51-58).
Regardless of whether one can speak of a “Great Lakes version of the Final Solution” (Miles, 2003: 134), this is indeed how many Tutsi survivors and exiles have internalized the agonies of their kinsmen (Sehene, 1999: 120). But as Eltringham shows, on that score as on many others, there is no unanimity among exiles; possibly as many among Tutsi and Hutu would endorse the analogy as would challenge it (Eltringham, 2004: 51-54). Interestingly, among the former, Sehene does not hesitate to quote from Daniel Goldhagen to make the point that “all Hutu, or at least a very large number, whether they took part in the massacres or not, were convinced that the Tutsi deserved to die” (Sehene, 1999: 120). Whether informed by Holocaust references or not, however, the tendency of Rwandan government officials to grossly overestimate the number of Hutu perpetrators is well established (Straus, 2004: 95, note 1), and stands as a major obstacle to reconciliation.