The Rwandan genocide: When Black Lives Don’t Matter

The rhetorical cries of ‘never again’ ring ever more hollow

In the Western mindset, as demonstrated by the near-unanimity of opinion from Western journalists in their discussions of Rwanda, the genocide in 1994 was simply the latest outburst of violence in a continent which had become synonymous with various crimes against humanity and mass suffering.

Next month, it will be 24 years since the Rwandan genocide – one of the swiftest and most destructive eruptions of mass violence in human history. Between April and July 1994, at least 800,000 people were killed over a period of one hundred days – a rate of killing which made even the Holocaust look disorganised by comparison. Children killed other children; neighbours slaughtered neighbours; and by the time the violence had subsided three-quarters of the country’s Tutsi minority had been murdered. Amidst this nightmare the British and American media, despite their purported commitment to the defence of human rights, rarely gave the genocide any form of serious or concentrated coverage.

The press coverage of Rwanda was completely at odds with the rhetoric of liberal Western values in a number of ways. The most obvious of these is through a comparison between the number of newspaper articles in the British and American broadsheet press dedicated to Rwanda and the number concerning Bosnia (a civil war which claimed some 100,000 civilian lives from 1992-95, the disproportionate number of these victims being Bosnian Muslims).

Across a directly comparable sample size (114 days), Bosnia consistently received far more press attention than Rwanda.

To quote just a few examples: in terms of editorial coverage, Bosnia prompted 183 such articles to Rwanda’s 54; comment pieces were weighted 384:70 in favour of Bosnia; and letters to the editor saw 457 invoking Bosnia against 63 concerning Rwanda.

Indeed, on any measure, the carnage in central Africa was dwarfed by the coverage afforded the conflict in the Balkans. This while the violence in Africa – both in terms of scale and speed – was much greater than the European example. Certainly, from this comparison alone, it appears that black lives matter less.

A more thorough analysis of the discourse concerning Rwanda paints an even bleaker picture, however. Not only was Rwanda often marginalised to the point of being practically irrelevant, but the limited engagement from the Anglo-American press was also frequently characterised by misrepresentation and stereotyping of the conflict.

From the very earliest days of the violence, for example, the conflict was framed through reference to tribalism and ancient hatreds. The conflict between Hutu and Tutsi was presented as something endemic to African societies, and as simply the latest outburst of a cycle of violence which could be traced back to time immemorial.

These accounts, which persisted throughout the genocide, thus gave the impression that the violence was (a) inevitable, and (b) historically repetitive – both of which helped to dampen calls for intervention or the like. Of course, however, both of these core assumptions – often repeated by journalists who had little or no experience in or knowledge of Rwanda and its neighbouring states – were entirely false.

The Hutu and Tutsi are not ‘tribes’ at all – with the historical distinction being closer to differences in wealth and standing within a largely agricultural society – and there is little in the historical record to provide evidence for mass violence occurring in the time before the country was colonised by Germany and then Belgium.

Further to this was the persistent discussion of the violence in terms of anarchy or chaos.

Allusions to an ‘orgy of killing’ are notably frequent, with terms such as ‘free-for-all’ giving the impression that what unfolded in the country was akin to a society suddenly lapsing into collective murderous insanity. On the contrary, however, the genocide was one of the most well-organised and efficient undertakings of mass murder in history – a fact blatantly illustrated by the sheer scale of the killing which was undertaken in such a short time.

Reality aside, however, these aspects fit an existing (and ongoing) Western conceptualisation of Africa, as a continent beset by anarchy, political corruption, endemic civil violence, tribal animosity, disease, poverty and war.

In the Western mindset, as demonstrated by the near-unanimity of opinion from Western journalists in their discussions of Rwanda, the genocide in 1994 was simply the latest outburst of violence in a continent which had become synonymous with various crimes against humanity and mass suffering. And since their own explanations for the violence fit so neatly within an existing Western schema, they required little by way of further interrogation, and so continued to be regurgitated throughout the duration of the genocide. Genocide or not, there is a distinct collective narrative which emerges from the press at this time: these things happen over there, and that’s as far as the discussion need go.

What is perhaps most disheartening about the Rwandan genocide – beyond the sheer incomprehensible suffering which was unleashed – is that it could unfold with such little interest from the Western democracies.

For the broadsheet press in both Britain and America, the genocide was rarely a topic of concern, and even when the media focus did shift momentarily to Rwanda, what was produced was largely misrepresentative, false or marginalised to the point of being an after-thought.

This hypocrisy – in that the response to the genocide was inconsistent with a supposed Western commitment to the defence of human rights – was all the more dramatic in terms of the timing of the genocide. Taking place in mid-1994, the Rwandan genocide unfolded against a backdrop of a heightened cultural awareness of genocide as a distinct issue.

With the 1993 opening of the United States Holocaust Museum – situated on The Mall in Washington D.C., usually reserved for memorials to distinctly American events – and Schindler’s List dominating the Academy Awards in the early months of 1994, one could make the argument that the period directly prior to Rwanda’s genocide was the high point of ‘genocide awareness’ in Western popular culture.

Politicians and celebrities, from Bill Clinton to Oprah Winfrey, publicly commented on these developments, arguing the redemptive qualities of Spielberg’s epic and how audiences (and society’s wider engagement with such violence) could not help but be affected by it. When the time came, however, to highlight and engage with an indisputable case of genocide, these same voices were largely silent.

Perhaps on an aesthetic level Rwanda failed to trigger the same emotional impulse as had the reinvigorated interest in the Holocaust – there were no camps in Rwanda, nor any striped pyjamas or trains leading to the gas chambers. But more to the point, both the victims and perpetrators were black African, and so their suffering, incredible as it was, could be largely subsumed within the greater and ever-expanding narrative of African horrors to which Western audiences had by that time become emotionally anaesthetised to.

This process, of course, continues to this day. Localised violence, such as the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people in Myanmar, gets scant coverage at best, all in an age where technological advances should make their reporting infinitely more achievable.

In Syria, where some 500,000 people have been killed since 2011, only the very worst instances of violence have a hope of receiving coverage within the Western media, and even then, it is usually framed in such a way as to suit a particular political narrative.

It may be an uncomfortable thought, but perhaps it is time to accept that genocide – the crime of crimes – has become just another item on the news agenda, if it even reaches that level of coverage in the first place. The rhetorical cries of ‘Never Again’ ring ever more hollow and with population movement, climate change and resource scarcity all making instances of mass violence increasingly likely in the future (particularly in the developing regions of the globe), many more (non-white) people are likely to suffer from the same media silence as the victims of Rwanda.