Play Shows West’s Moral Failures in Rwanda

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS), Dec 14, 2007

Credit:Joan Marcus

Sam Robards and Ron Cephas Jones in The Overwhelming

As the 1994 genocide in Rwanda slips into the dark hole of history, the U.S. playwright J.T. Rogers’ The Overwhelming reminds one how it happened and how both the moral, the complicit and the cynical in the West were present in the killing fields.

The work is being staged in a large Manhattan theatre district playhouse by the important Roundabout Theatre Company. It has already been seen in London.

In Roger’s fictional story, a U.S. family visits Rwanda in 1994. Jack, a professor, accompanied by wife Linda and son Geoffrey, is researching a book about grassroots activists and comes to interview his old college roommate, Joseph, a Tutsi who runs a children’s AIDS clinic. But Joseph has disappeared.

The play is fast-paced and melodramatic, almost cinematic. Sometimes it descends into soap opera. Characters are more caricatures than real. Perhaps that is aimed at making audiences identify with this family: with a man who needs to write a book to get university tenure, with a son having difficulties accepting his father’s second wife, and with an African American woman writer trying to make sense of the land from which her ancestors came. Her husband is white, perhaps to suggest that communal hatreds are not necessary.

You may get a bit lost if you don’t know the background: the minority Tutsis, privileged by Belgian colonialists to enforce their rule, upon independence in 1962 sought to maintain power violently. The majority Hutus took over government, and many Tutsis fled to Uganda and Zaire. Those who remained suffered severe discrimination and a decade of pogroms.

Tutsi rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded from Uganda in 1990. France intervened militarily supporting the Hutus. A peace process for power-sharing prompted the return of Tutsi refugees and troops. Hutu extremists shot down the plane of Hutu President Juvenal Habyirimana in April 1994. The Hutu genocide exploded, killing 800,000 Tutsis, most within a few weeks.

In the play, the U.S. visitors witness the extremist Hutus’ hatred, growing violence, and international failure to respond. Mizinga, a government official, tells Linda that foreigners don’t understand. Thirty-five years ago they raped and killed us, so we forced them from this land. For 35 years they have lived in Uganda. They do not even speak French…And yet, somehow, they are the victims. This is what the U.N., their UNAMIR [peacekeeping] soldiers here, this is what they think.

When Linda goes to the market, a man she chats with tell her not to buy cabbages from the vendor she had approached.

Why not from her? Linda asks.

He replies, She is a filthy Tutsi whore, miss. Her cabbages will be spoiled. She will poison you and you will die.

Do foreigners share blame for what will come? A South African NGO worker complains that the foreign community is threatening to cut off aid unless Habyarimana implements power-sharing in a few weeks. He asks, Who came up with this? Because they need more tension here?… People are being killed here because of the fucking elections. The U.N. forced them down the government’s throat, they lost, now they’re panicked. Now you’ve got Hutu elites arming private militias and hoarding weapons. They’re not thinking about power sharing, they’re thinking how many Tutsis do I have to kill to keep what’s mine.

Suddenly, Joseph appears and tells Jack, I have lists. Of names. People who are to be killed. Hundreds of people….They are like me: doctors, lawyers, teachers. Some are Hutu, some are Tutsi. He asks for help. Jack suggests the French. Joseph replies, Their soldiers fought the RPF! There is only still a war because of the French. Mitterrand’s own son is selling the weapons that are killing our women and children!

In 1990, as the conflict between the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels in Uganda was heating up, French President Fran§ois Mitterrand sent his son, Jean-Christophe, to head France’s special Africa Unit there. After the RPF began military strikes into Rwanda in 1990, Mitterrand ordered French troops to help the Hutu government. Jean-Christophe was quoted in the press saying, We are going to send him a few boys, old man Habyarimana. We are going to bail him out. In any case, the whole thing will be over in two or three months.

Mitterrand was directly complicit in the killings. In July it was revealed, through declassified French documents — including secret diplomatic telegrams and initialed presidential memos — that Mitterrand had been obsessed with keeping French influence in Rwanda and with blocking Anglo-Saxon influence.

In the play, a French diplomat says, The Khmer Noir we call these rebels…Their general…Why did your government train this Kagame? Why did you teach him how to fight so that this English-speaking soldier with his English-speaking army could invade an ally of France?

The papers show that Mitterrand ordered support of the Rwanda pro-genocide forces. French troops trained and armed the Hutu genocidaires before their attacks, sent French troops to back them and refused to protect the Tutsis. The documents were obtained by lawyers for six Tutsi survivors who have sued France for complicity with genocide at the Paris Army Tribunal. They say, however, that in contrast to Mitterrand, that French diplomats, the secret service and the military wanted France to disengage from Rwanda.

In Rogers’ retelling of events, U.S. officials and U.N. Blue Berets also come off badly. When Jack searches out a U.S. diplomat, the man hardly looks up from his golf game. Jack tells him, People are going to be killed. There are lists…I’ve seen them, yes, hundreds of people… Something is going to happen.

I know, the diplomat says. What would you give up to save these people, Jack? Would you send Geoffrey? Would he send young U.S. soldiers to risk their lives to save some people on some list because, it’s the right thing to do?…When in the history of the world has there been a country with a foreign policy based on ‘it’s the right thing to do?’

A U.N. Blue Beret major tells him, We are a small, dirty band-aid on a large, festering wound….What do you think we can do here?

Help? Protect? Jack replies.

We are instruments, the major says. For an instrument to be used, there must be a will to do so… the world must care. This country, these people, do you think the world cares?

When forced to choose between protecting Joseph or his own family, what will Jack do? The playwright makes us ask, what does the world do now… in Darfur?

Story on IPS site.

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