Never Again?

Without urgent action, we’ll be watching Hotel Congo in 2014.

By the end of Hotel Rwanda, you’ve seen so much horror and pain that it seems dishonorable to criticize the triteness of its final scene: a partially reunited family walking through a refugee camp, holding hands with an aid worker who insists, “There’s always hope …” Otherwise, Terry George’s rendering of the story of Paul Rusesabagina, the Hutu hotelier who saved the lives of thousands of Tutsis during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, provokes what all accounts of genocide should—fury, depression, desolation, and ultimately, soul-searching. You want to believe that “there’s always hope,” but the story that begins where the film ends makes that seem a bit naive.

In the two weeks before HotelRwanda opened nationwide, both the International Crisis Group and the International Rescue Committee released reports warning that the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo is on the brink of returning to full-scale war—a war that, to a large extent, was borne out of the Rwandan genocide.

The nearly concurrent release of the reports and the film is an unfortunate example of cognitive dissonance. If there’s a lesson to be learned from HotelRwanda, it’s “never again.” Never again will the international community stand by, will the United Nations ignore its moral obligation, will anyone let ethnic problems in Rwanda—or anywhere else—devolve to the point of mass killing. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the ICG and IRC reports on Congo, it’s that the world has once again stood by, the United Nations has been allowed to more or less fail to stop the violence, and Rwanda’s ethnic problems remain near the center of one of the deadliest situations in the history of the world.

By now, the historical outlines of HotelRwanda’s genocide tale are well known. The movie begins in April 1994 when the mass killing starts, and it ends about 100 days later when a Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, stops the killing. In the packed theater where I saw the film, the audience erupted in cheers when the RPF good guys started kicking the Hutu Power bad guys’ asses. It was like any great action flick—the end was definitive and good was triumphant.

A movie certainly has no obligation to narrate the history that follows the period it covers—the ramifications of the genocide are infinite and infinitely complicated, and the story Hotel Rwanda tells is important in its own right. But a film like Hotel Rwanda also has the effect of freezing the genocide in a time and place, as if the genocide had a clear beginning and ending, as if the aftershocks weren’t felt across many borders and don’t continue right up to and including the moment you read this. The Tutsi and Hutu groups are found not only in Rwanda, but throughout the region, and the story of what happened after the RPF ended the genocide is often left out of popular narratives because, well, it’s complicated.

Eastern Congo borders Rwanda, and it was to these densely forested hills that a million Hutu refugees and tens of thousands of génocidaires fled to escape the RPF advance. The RPF followed them across the border, and, during a vengeful period of years whose atrocities will never be fully documented, the Tutsi rebels seemed to consider every Hutu they came across a génocidaire and massacred tens of thousands (at least) of soldiers and civilians alike. The RPF soon moved on to massacre Congolese Hutus, who in turn responded (with the help of other Congolese ethnic militias) by massacring Congolese Tutsis.

During this time, the RPF, now in control of Rwanda’s government, backed Laurent Kabila’s coup d’état to overthrow the vicious and unstable Congolese President Mobutu Sese Seko. This caused many Congolese—including Kabila, eventually—to fear a de facto Rwandan occupation and annexation of Congo’s mineral-rich east. The resulting conflagration exploded into a major war, which at its height involved seven countries and at least a dozen militias (and by that point was at least as much about money and power as ethnicity).

Today, the cycle of killing continues, in spite of a peace accord signed in 2002 and the presence of U.N. peacekeepers on the ground. The deaths of 150 Congolese Tutsi in a Burundi refugee camp this August was another chapter; in the last month, Rwandan-supported militias have sacked towns in the east, and Rwanda issued a threat (since withdrawn) to invade further under the pretense of chasing down the remaining génocidaires.

According to the IRC report, the current number of deaths attributable to the fighting has surpassed 3.8 million. That’s about four times more than the number killed in the genocide, 300 times more than the number killed in Kosovo, at least 30 times more than in the current crisis in Sudan. Its only peer in the last 60 years of violence is World War II.

The Congo disaster seems to get overlooked—Hotel Rwanda’s leading man, Don Cheadle, is on his way to Sudan, not Congo, for example—because it’s so messy. There aren’t Nazis or Hutu Power or Janjaweed who can play the part of evil incarnate. Congo is filled with shades of gray, and no one’s hands are clean—not the Tutsi-supported militias or the RPF who stopped the genocide; obviously not the Hutu génocidaires or the Hutu-supported militias; not the Congolese military groups of other ethnicities or the Congolese transitional government.

A convoluted situation like Congo begs for the negotiating leverage of the United Nations, or for donor nations to use their aid to pressure all sides to reach a peace. But even though the conflict is rooted in a genocide that disgraced the international community and the United Nations as no event had before or has since, rebuilding Congo doesn’t seem to be a priority. In August, the United Nations admitted that its demobilization program in eastern Congo was a failure. Arms smuggling is rampant, and in the last month, a cloud of scandal has enveloped the peacekeeping force, as 78 soldiers have been accused of rape.

In order to succeed in Congo, the United Nations needs a robust troop presence to disarm the militias, secure Congo’s borders and natural resources, and keep the peace. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has requested 23,900 troops. So far, he’s received 16,700. It’s not clear if the international community (particularly the United States) is still blinded by its guilt and sympathy for the Tutsis of Rwanda, if it can’t deal with complexity, or if it just doesn’t want to deal with Africa. Congo is a nation-building commitment extraordinaire, one that will take sustained efforts on all sides and one where success could go some small way toward redressing the mistakes of Rwanda. If the United Nations and the international community don’t step up to the plate, Rwanda has shown time and again that it will fight the battle on its own.

2005 was supposed to be a happy year for Congo and Rwanda. Congolese elections are scheduled for June, and the transitional government is supposed to be on track to become a legitimate, elected regime. The demobilization of troops in the east and their reintegration into Congolese or Rwandan life should be nearing completion. Instead, IRC is reporting 31,000 conflict-related deaths each month, tens of thousands of displaced people, and no solution on the horizon

“When will the world pay attention?” is the question the IRC poses in its report. It would be nice to answer by saying, “There’s always hope.” But instead I find myself thinking of a quote from Hotel Rwanda’s Col. Oliver, Nick Nolte’s Romeo Dallaire-inspired character. In the first weeks of the genocide, when Rusesabagina suggests that the international peacekeepers will fly into Rwanda and save them, the colonel rebukes him: “We think you’re dirt,” he says. “You’re not even a nigger. You’re an African.”

This was the conclusion many Rwandans came to after 1994. Looking at the situation in eastern Congo 10 years later, there’s still little to disabuse them of this notion.