In Other Words

Rewriting Rwanda

Noires fureurs, blancs menteurs: Rwanda 1990-1994
(Furious Blacks, Lying Whites: Rwanda 1990-1994)

By Pierre Péan
544 pages, Paris: Mille Et Une Nuits, 2005 (in French)

Between April and July 1994, I spent most of my time reporting on the genocide in Rwanda for the BBC. One day I would be counting cadavers piled high in a rural church; on another, I would interview perpetrators or victims. I remember looking out from a half-destroyed Kigali hotel at red-hot tracer bullets forming an arc in the night sky. I recall interviewing the International Red Cross representative -- one of the few foreign aid workers not to have run away -- who said into my microphone, "I stopped counting at 500,000 dead."

What happened in Rwanda in 1994 is now fairly common knowledge. Just for the record, though, here are the facts as I understand them: The genocide was perpetrated by an extremist ethnic Hutu regime that responded to a military attack by ethnic Tutsi rebels by trying to murder all Tutsis -- as well as those Hutus prepared to make peace with the minority Tutsis.

For several years prior to the genocide, the majority Hutus had received French diplomatic and military backing. By contrast, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who led the rebellion, had been brought up in exile in neighboring, English-speaking Uganda. By the end of July 1994, an estimated 800,000 were dead, the vast majority of them Tutsi. The operation was extremely well organized. The Hutus killed at a rate faster than the Nazis killed Jews in World War II.

Thus far, I think the author of Noires fureurs, blancs menteurs Rwanda 1990-1994 (Furious Blacks, Lying Whites: Rwanda 1990–1994) would hardly disagree with me.
But in this controversial new book, French investigative journalist Pierre Péan goes on to claim that the real catalyst of the genocide was not the Hutu regime, but the Tutsi rebel who allegedly shot down Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana's plane on the night of April 6, 1994. This event triggered the genocide.

Tipped off by the publisher's blurb on the cover, I prepared myself for crude historical revisionism. But this is not, for the most part, a crude book. Péan doesn't deny the genocide. He says it was "barbarous." But, he says, the context is all-important, and the "official history" (told by the Tutsi rebels who won a military victory over the Hutu government and ended the genocide) fails to explain the entire story of such massive killing.

The context is the years that led up to the war -- during which, according to Péan, the minority RPF forced itself onto the scene and committed gross human rights violations -- and the years that followed. He cites the wars in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, which followed the genocide, as some of the worst acts committed by the RPF. Rwanda's support for two invasions of the Congo undoubtedly contributed to millions of deaths in that country. This context is important and valid. It can also be twisted to distract from the indisputable facts of the genocide.

Péan relates how a cabal of white writers and propagandists in Europe have, according to him, lied by promoting the narrow "official" version of events while hiding examples of the RPF's malfeasance. He then painfully attempts to exonerate France from blame for arming the Hutu génocidaires. Moreover, he glosses over some of the more important aspects of the French military intervention in southwest Rwanda at the height of the killing, when they created a so-called humanitarian zone -- namely, that France allowed some extremist Hutus to escape; extracted some key members of the genocidal regime; and refused to support the United Nations in its efforts to save lives.

One of the main building blocks of Péan's "other side" of the story is the judicial inquiry mounted by leading French investigating judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière. Because the crew of Habyarimana's plane was French (and all on board were killed when it spiraled into the ground near Kigali Airport), Bruguière was mandated to investigate. Although the judge's inquiry has not been made public and the case has not been brought to court, a March 2004 scoop in the French daily Le Monde revealed that Bruguière's report claimed the assassination was organized by the RPF commander, Paul Kagame -- who happens to be the current president of Rwanda. What's more, Péan argues that Kagame committed this act knowing it would provoke a massacre; that Kagame knowingly sacrificed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in a calculated bid for power.

In 2004, I asked Kagame about Bruguière's reported allegation. The Rwandan president said the accusation was ridiculous, part of a plan by French authorities to hide French connivance with Hutu extremists. Of course, it's unsurprising that Kagame denies the charge. But it is still feasible the plane was shot down by extremist Hutus who feared the political compromises Habyarimana was considering, and so they killed him to serve as the signal that the genocide should begin. It is also feasible that Kagame's men shot down the plane as an act of war, not realizing it would spark genocide. The author's take is that the RPF surely must have known massacres on a huge scale would follow the attack. But how could anyone predict such a thing with certainty?

Péan interviews several people reportedly mentioned in the French judicial inquiry and numerous exiles now opposed to the Kagame regime. His nearly exclusive reliance on French sources -- and on Rwandan opponents of Kagame -- is a problem. He seems to swallow some stories and believe sources without stopping to question them. For example, the author claims to have a radio intercept (presumably collected by the Hutu government or the French) of a message Kagame sent to an RPF commander in Kigali in December 1993. In this message, Kagame allegedly says: "The general aim... is the physical liquidation of certain civil and military authorities at certain precise dates and on orders. You'll get the list of victims later, but Number One is well known!"

Is it really credible that a military leader such as Kagame, who is widely respected (and feared) for his tactical skills, would send a radio message on such a sensitive subject on a frequency that the French or their Rwandan allies could intercept? Is it really credible that Kagame would incriminate himself in such a message and, further, phrase it in this rather childish way? It looks to me that some of the messages Péan attributes to the RPF could be propaganda planted by the French or their allies.

My doubts were reinforced by a few elements in this book that I know are wrong. For example, Péan accuses the commander of the small and beleaguered U.N. force in Rwanda in 1994, the Canadian Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, of being in the pocket of the United States. That is absurd; Dallaire was extremely critical of the underwhelming U.S. role during the genocide. His critiques were made in private during his U.N. command and in public in his 2003 book on Rwanda.

The ridiculous accusation that Dallaire was pro-American appears to come from the same school of thought, led by French politicians at the time, that there was an "Anglo-Saxon" conspiracy against France -- a plot that Péan appears determined to unmask. Maybe there was a plot. But this work doesn't prove one, and, frankly, the swipe against the Canadian general is so wide off the mark that it makes one question some of Péan's other arguments. The book will be devoured by some and rejected by others. It will add to the debate but will not be seen as fair -- like, I suppose, almost everything surrounding the awful history of Rwanda.

That is a shame, because Péan's book contains interesting passages -- especially those based on the archives of the French presidency and interviews with French soldiers who served in Rwanda. The discussions of Rwanda in the French cabinet are fascinating; the late French President François Mitterrand appears to have been at the forefront of those who suspected a plot against French interests in Africa. And some of the accounts of the key role French soldiers played in stopping a rebel advance in 1993 also shed some fresh light on the run-up to the genocide. The problem with this work is that the search for context -- the other wars, the undoubted RPF abuses -- is based, in part, on evidence of widely varying credibility. The six-year Bruguière judicial inquiry, for example, is offered as evidence alongside what look like dodgy radio intercepts. When attempting to reinterpret the history of one of the most violent episodes of the 20th century, a bit more consistency and credibility is required.

What Péan fails to do, perhaps for obvious reasons given his message, is actually step foot in Rwanda to pursue his questions. It is a serious weakness to his effort. His publisher tells me he did not visit Rwanda "by choice." After this book, though, it seems doubtful he would ever be allowed to go there as long as the authoritarian RPF government rules the country.

In Other Words

Japan's Cartoon Network

Kenkanryu (The Hate Korea Wave)
By Sharin Yamano
289 pages, Tokyo: Shinyusha, 2005 (in Japanese)

When Japan's public broadcasting network introduced a South Korean drama series called Winter Sonata on its satellite channel in 2003, an unexpected love affair with all things Korean soon followed. The Japanese and Korean governments had promoted cultural exchanges before the two countries hosted the World Cup in 2002. But it was the melodramatic soap opera -- and not government policy -- that inspired Japan's Korea boom. Japanese entrepreneurs rushed to ride the Korea wave. The station aired the series a second time and later published books, produced DVDs and CDs, and sponsored concerts featuring Korean language, art, and music.

But not everyone has fallen in love with Korea. A young Japanese cartoonist named Sharin Yamano, eager to join the countermovement against the Korea boom, posted his anti-Korean cartoons on the Internet as the Korea wave took hold. His collection of cartoons was published last year as a manga (comic book) called Kenkanryu, whose vibrant characters and kid-friendly graphics belie the assuredly adult themes of war, nationalism, and foreign policy.

The title combines three Chinese characters: ken (hate), kan (Korea), and ryu (wave or boom). That leaves some ambiguity with respect to whether the author is inviting readers to hate the Korea boom or simply to hate Korea, but the text suggests both -- with an emphasis on the latter. The Korean media instantly decried the book, but Japanese reviews were strangely balanced, which is to say they were imbalanced, given the book's substance. Most Japanese reviews stopped short of condemning the author's effort to distort history and incite anti-Korean sentiments. The right-leaning Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun, for example, lauded the book for its calm and balanced portrayal of Japanese-Korean issues. And even the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun deflected blame from the young author to Japanese society as a whole. The book quickly spawned its own mini-boom, selling more than 300,000 copies in the first three months after its release.

The book opens with a Japanese high school boy, Kaname, learning from a friend that the Koreans only made it to the final four in the 2002 World Cup because they cheated. Then Kaname's grandfather explains to him that the Japanese who occupied Korea, including the grandfather himself, were sincerely committed to modernizing the country. Kaname is puzzled, for he knows that his grandfather would never lie, and yet his grandfather's account contradicts the media's often repeated stories of the Japanese military's abuses during the occupation. In college, Kaname joins a study group and discovers the "truth" about Korea. He examines Korean demands for compensation and the Japanese apology for its past aggressions. Armed with a new sense of righteousness, Kaname proceeds to learn the facts about topics such as Korean appropriation of Japanese culture, media bias in Japan, and the territorial dispute over the Takeshima (Dokdo) Islands. The three cartoon frames on the cover capture the tone of the book: "We do not need to apologize or to compensate Korea anymore!!" declares Kaname. "Why did Korea invade the Takeshima Islands, which are Japanese territory?" asks his girlfriend. "Koreans claim that Japanese culture -- samurai, kendo, sushi, tea ceremony, ninja, and origami -- is Korean!!" charges a study group leader.

Kaname does confront alternative viewpoints along the way, largely thanks to his Korean-Japanese classmate, Koichi. Yet Yamano does not exactly stage a fair debate. For one thing, Kaname and his girlfriend, Itsumi, have "attractive" Caucasian features, whereas Koichi has narrow eyes and more distorted expressions. Moreover, Koichi's case is inevitably refuted later on, and the anti-Korean characters -- like the study group leader -- always seem to get the last word. Such a skewed portrayal only seeks to distort the historical record in the name of revealing the "truth," and to revel in the sport of hating Koreans.

Luckily, Yamano's manga -- despite its resonance with some Japanese young people -- is just that, a comic book. And a comic book that distorts history is a less serious matter than a government-sanctioned textbook that does so. The manga genre has reached the highest stage of evolution in Japan, with many serious volumes, including how-to books, guidebooks, and even academic works, being released in comic book form. Yamano is distinctive in that he managed to leverage the Internet to rise from obscurity to celebrity overnight. For all his popularity, however, Yamano's influence remains constrained by the limitations of manga as a medium for serious debate. His work resonates with certain young people who are frustrated with Japan's position in the world, but it is unlikely to generate new ultranationalists from scratch.

In fact, Yamano and company's anti-Korea boom has hardly displaced the original pro-Korea boom. They may be able to pique the curiosity of some comic book lovers and Net surfers, but they cannot stop Japanese housewives from pining for Korean soap opera stars. In fact, Japanese public opinion remains favorable toward Korea. A Japanese Cabinet Office survey released in December reported that 51.1 percent of Japanese feel warmly toward Korea. In contrast, the share of Japanese who felt warmly toward China hit a record low of 32.4 percent in the latest survey.

It's not that the mood of the Japanese public hasn't played a significant role in Japan's foreign policy on certain key issues, most notably relations with North Korea. For example, after Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's first visit to North Korea in 2002, the Japanese media and public soon became obsessed with the fate of Japanese citizens who had been abducted by North Korean agents. That, in turn, hampered the Japanese government from playing a more constructive role on the critical issues in negotiations with the North Korean regime. Unfortunately, Koizumi's likely successor, Shinzo Abe, learned precisely the wrong lesson from this episode. Abe emerged as a popular hero by taking a particularly hard line on the abductee issue, and he is expected to stick with this nationalist foreign-policy line if he becomes prime minister.

The question Japanese leaders must ask themselves is not whether the success of pop culture detritus such as this book will translate into political pressure on the Korea issue. After all, Japanese public opinion is sufficiently divided on foreign-policy issues -- and foreign policy is sufficiently peripheral to electoral politics -- that Japan's political leaders still have ample leeway to move their relations with Korea and China in a more productive direction, if they have the wisdom and the courage to do so. What remains to be seen is whether they will continue to provoke their neighbors rather than seize the very real opportunity for better relations with Korea. If so, we certainly cannot blame one misguided cartoonist or the bored Japanese youth who enjoy his work.