Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Extending your unit to talk about the Rwandan Genocide

In 2005, I was looking for a movie to watch at Blockbuster. There was a case on the bottom shelf that caught my eye. I picked it up, read a little, and took it home. I watched it alone, on a Friday night, and couldn’t look away. Sometimes in April is an overview of the Rwanda genocide, told in a didactic format jumping between 1994 and 2004. When I first watched it, there were no major Hollywood stars to distract me. I grew up well after Debra Winger had peaked. In 2011, Idris Elba did a season of The Office, but still plays his role so convincingly, that you lose yourself in him. Without recognizable stars, you can truly focus on the story.

Having watched Hotel Rwanda, and having read up on the genocide from different perspectives, I felt I understood the man on the ground story of the genocide. Sometimes in April goes so far beyond that. Our protagonist is a Hutu married to a Tutsi. The use of the radio to spread propaganda and enlist the masses is explored effectively. The relationship of Rwanda to other nations, including France, Belgium, the United States, and China is also explored in this film.

does a great job of covering all of the big details of the genocide. It is critical that any instructor choosing to show this film does some research on the events of the genocide. This movie does an incredible job of covering all the major aspects of the Rwanda from a macro perspective. Doing some research into the background, the American reaction to the killings, and the United Nations reactions will allow a viewer to extend the lessons further.

Rwanda was a society divided between two major tribes: Hutu and Tutsi. The movie does a good job of explaining the historical complications between the two, caused in large part by European colonial powers. The ongoing conflict in Rwanda is discussed, and the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a militia force in exile, attempting to drive the Hutu heavy government out. The role of Belgium and France in allowing weapons (machetes) to be imported from China in incredible numbers, providing support to the government in power, and providing refuge to the government when things went south are all documented. Rwanda was 95% Christian at the time of the genocide, and the role of the churches in the genocide are touched on. American news stories covering cultural events of the day are contrasted with the escalating violence in Rwanda. The internal debates at the Department of State are explored. The International Court Tribunals in Arusha present both the positive and negative of Europeans in Rwanda. As the RPF enters and the massacres die down, the attempt to prosecute the criminals and the attempt to move forward as a nation are shown. Graphically, this movie is fairly tame, but psychologically, it takes the viewer to a much heavier level.

What makes this film so powerful is that it does not leave you feeling uplifted. In the end, 800,000 people were killed. Paul Rusesabagina did all he could to save so many, but at the end of Hotel Rwanda, one feels a sense of relief that he saved so many. At the end of Sometimes in April, you don’t get to walk away feeling satiated. Questions the movie raises are answered, but it is a bitter pill. The inaction of the American government during the genocide, and the further failure to stop the perpetrators from fleeing into refugee camps in neighboring countries raises new questions. This makes an incredible wrap up to a study of the Rwanda genocide and America’s current involvement in Libya and the Ivory Coast. Paul Kagame, leader of the RPF as they entered in 1994, was just reelected for a second seven-year term as president of Rwanda. This is still an incredibly current issue, that has wide ranging extensions in current events.

When we begin our studies, I read aloud, and discuss the meaning behind Primo Levi’s poem, “Shema”. I think this is a powerful tool to create a sense of urgency in the students. We must not allow this to happen again. I end the poem by telling them that they can no longer claim ignorance, and that it is now on them to be active and involved in world issues. Gregory Stanton’s “Eight Stages of Genocide” is available in a slideshow format, as well, and a great asset to anyone with the time to teach genocide issues. We have a limited amount of time to spend in the classroom on genocide, but it is incredibly topical. As we grow into a global community, we must be aware that our neighbors are no longer so far away. With the news out of the Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, and Egypt, we must not turn our eyes away. Instead, we must seek out information from a neutral source, and call on our politicians to do what is right and just. We must act morally and ethically, and not shy away from the hard choices. American presidents should be held to a foreign policy standard by an educated voting population, and that becomes our responsibility. An educated population should determine if American foreign policy should extend to humanitarian action or if American military force should only be used in the defense of tangible American interests. As for me, it would seem to be in our best interest, as the most powerful nation on Earth, to stand up for the meek, and act in a just way. American failure in Rwanda jeopardizes future American actions. We must never forget.

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