May 21, 2013
David Rieff on ‘Africa’s World War’
Posted on Feb 6, 2009
By David Rieff
There is a bitter old joke that asks the question, “Why is Hiroshima so much more remembered than Nagasaki,” to which the reply goes, “Nagasaki had a lousy press agent.” It may not be funny, but, as the history of war over the last half-century demonstrates all too vividly, it is still all too relevant. Why do we care about some wars and not about others? For example, why is it possible, virtually at a moment’s notice, to mobilize tens of thousands of people anywhere from Vienna to Melbourne to demonstrate in support of the suffering people of Gaza, but virtually impossible to mobilize even a small fraction of these numbers in support of the suffering people of Zimbabwe?
Some would say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a special case, and that opposing Israel’s policies is also a way of opposing American hegemony and thus is bound to have perennial global appeal. But even if this is so, it does not explain the gap in the attention paid to wars in which United States involvement is not crucial. Why does Darfur arouse such passion in decent people all over the world, but the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC (the country until a decade or so ago known as Zaire), which has taken the lives of far more people—4 million between 1996 and 2001, according to some informed estimates—for the most part remains what relief workers brutally but not inaccurately call an “orphan conflict”?
This is one of the morally and historically crucial questions that French writer Gerard Prunier, whose career has ranged from journalism to far more direct engagement in many of the African crises that have concerned him over the past three decades, seeks to answer in a magisterial new book on the bloodbath in the DRC, “Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe.” As he remarks pointedly—and this as someone passionately committed to an outside intervention in Darfur—“during 2005, 1,600 articles were published on the Darfur crisis; only 300 were published on the DRC … even though the Congo situation killed over three times as many people as Darfur.”
Prunier first became known to general readers in the English-speaking world (though he is one of the few French writers whose prose style in English is absolutely on a par with the way he writes in his native tongue) for what seemed at the time the definitive book on the Rwandan genocide of 1994. “The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide” was both a history and an impassioned indictment of French complicity in the mass slaughter of the Rwandan Tutsis. Later, Prunier would reconsider his stance. In “Africa’s World War,” he writes ruefully and unsparingly of the pitfalls of political sympathy and of the ways in which writers’ biographies shape their opinions: “Getting to know the Tutsi exiles [from Rwanda] in Uganda in 1986-1989 was my ‘formative experience,’ later reinforced by visiting the RPF [the Tutsi exile army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front] in Byumba in June 1992.”
There are many reasons why the public debate over issues like Rwanda tends to be so simultaneously superficial and sentimental. It would certainly be much improved, however, were more journalists willing to re-examine their positions in the way that Prunier has done, at great cost to himself. For if siding with the RPF earned him the plaudits of the great and the good in the English-speaking world and in much of Europe as well, his turn against the government of former RPF commander Paul Kagame in Kigali and the myriad human rights violations it committed after overthrowing the genocidal Hutu Power regime has won him only slanderous claims that he has somehow morphed into an apologist for the genocide.
Prunier himself is painfully aware of this, writing despairingly of a simultaneous “lack of interest at the [Western] government level, and the short attention span of the general public” with regard to African crises. Where the crises in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC are concerned, Prunier observes, the effect was to reduce a situation of major conflict and appalling human suffering “to a comic book atmosphere in which absolute horror alternates with periods of complete disinterest from the non-specialists.” And he is withering about the way in which the Western default position rarely strays from stereotyped categories about Africa. Thus, he observes, “the desperate African struggle for survival is bowdlerized beyond recognition, and at times the participant-observer has the feeling of being caught between a Shakespearian tragedy and a hiccupping computer.”
The explicit goal of “Africa’s World War” is both to set the record straight—or at the very least, as Prunier puts it, to state “the problem correctly”—on the Congolese conflict of the late 1990s and its partial origins in the Rwandan genocide, and to ask a more general question about contemporary Africa: whether that war which engulfed one-third of the African continent marked a watershed in what Prunier himself views as both a moment of general crisis and of epochal transformation in the aftermath of the Cold War, the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Rwandan genocide, or, instead, was, however terrible, a problem specific to Congolese history that was only to be expected when the U.S.-supported dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko finally came to its inglorious end.
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