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Does Africa’s agony tell us anything about ourselves?


I usually have a fairly strong stomach for watching and reading tragedy and atrocity news. So battered corpses dragged through the streets by angry mobs, exhumed bodies rotting in the sun, wreckage of crashed airliners strewn over a mountainside, mothers and wives wailing hysterically over the remains of their husbands and sons killed in battle may move me to moral indignation, but, filtered as they are through the mass media, they don’t create anywhere near the visceral effect of real life.

Then I saw on the front page of The New York Times for Jan. 26 the color photo of the bandaged man in Sierra Leone and the story of the rebels who had chopped off his hands. My mind raced back a year to a similar story where the victim poured out his utter helplessness: He could not dress himself, could not feed himself, could not wipe himself when he went to the toilet.

The man in the Times is Mohammed Sesay, 29, one among the thousands shot dead and hundreds mutilated within a few days by the rebels retreating from Freetown. He had pleaded with the rebels to kill him, but they preferred to leave him as an object of terror -- to the people of Sierra Leone, to their president and to you and me. That day the hospital surgeons, finishing off the rebels’ hurried and sometimes incomplete work, performed so many amputations they had to just toss the severed hands into a common bucket.

The Travel section in the Sunday New York Times a month later warms us with visions of the Africa that affluent Americans, ever in search of new exotic thrills, have come to love. Now that the safari business is booming, game reserves all over South Africa offer a variety of lodges featuring luxurious thatched bungalows and swimming pools. On the island of Nosy Mangabe in northeastern Madagascar, a naturalists’ paradise, we can watch the lemurs dance. In Uganda’s Bwindi National Park, we can come face-to-face with mountain gorillas.

One problem: the State Department advises that because of the war in Sudan, travel near the Sudan-Uganda border can get you robbed or killed.

Uganda’s Bwindi National Park was considered safe until March 1, when around 100 Rwandan Hutu rebels attacked a tourist camp in the park, killing four Ugandan park employees and taking 14 people -- mainly U.S. and British citizens -- captive. Hours later, eight of the tourists were killed by the guerrillas who had crossed the border into Uganda. The Ugandan government has suspended treks in two national parks.

As of March 8, the Ugandan army said 25 of the rebels responsible for the murders had been hunted down and killed. Officials from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Britain’s Scotland Yard have joined the investigation into the killings.

Hutus led massacre

The Hutu rebels led the massacre of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. They were forced into exile by the Tutsi-led army that seized power in Rwanda. The rebels have continued the war from their base in the Democratic Republic of Congo, carrying out raids in southwestern Uganda.

The tourists who survived the early March attack were released with a warning to the West to cease support for the Ugandan and Rwandan governments.

President Clinton said the U.S. government was not intimidated. “We will not forget these crimes, nor rest until those who committed them are brought to justice,” he said March 4. “If this attack was intended as a warning to our nation to stop supporting those in the region seeking reconciliation and justice, those who committed it should understand that we will not be deterred in any way.”

But now, as I work my way painfully through my 15 magazine subscriptions and sit stunned watching the recent “Frontline” report “Triumph of Evil,” on the Western world’s non-response to the slaughters in Rwanda, and preview the upcoming Bill Moyers’ documentary “Facing the Truth,” on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the words darkest Africa, sin, and community responsibility take on new definition.

“Triumph of Evil” first aired on Public Television Jan. 26 (check local listings for additional showings). “Facing the Truth” is scheduled to air March 30.

One can begin reading and watching these reports aghast at the barbaric behavior of primitive peoples apparently still mired in an era when men can look other human beings in the eye and then apparently enjoy hacking off their arms, legs and heads. But we end up turning inward and asking what Africa tells us about ourselves.

Three themes stand out. First, the metaphor of “darkness,” applied to Africa, is richly ambiguous. We owe it originally to the journalist-explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley, whom the New York Herald sent to find the “lost” explorer-missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, in Central Africa in 1871. Stanley’s book In Darkest Africa (1890) conditioned the Western world to look on Africa as a place where the white man could shine light. Yet, Joseph Conrad’s Africa story, Heart of Darkness, locates the darkness in the Western white man’s heart.

Second, we see the times -- for example, in Rwanda and the Sudan and in the case of the child soldiers of Sierra Leone -- when the West, in a conscious preference for its own convenience, not because of indifference and not out of concern for national security, has refused to accept an obvious international responsibility.

Finally, in its agonizing re-examination of its apartheid years, it is possible that South Africa, once the sanctioned pariah of the world community, now has something to teach us.

My country and its media have fed themselves at the trough of domestic scandal for over a year, and media critics have warned us that a lot else was happening more worthy of notice. Editorials have reminded us that there were worse sins than adultery and lying -- like abortion, capital punishment and grinding down the poor. I’m sure those sins would include cutting off the hands of your enemies -- and how about standing by, minding our own business and growing fat while, thanks to TV and photography, Sierra Leone is happening right before our eyes?

Jan Goodwin, in “Sierra Leone is No Place to be Young,” in the Feb. 14 issue of The New York Times magazine, points out that many of the butchers are children, some as young as 7 years old. Children make up an estimated 40 to 50 percent of the insurgents’ total force of about 15,000.

An estimated 300,000 child soldiers have fought around the world -- in Angola, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sudan, Congo, Uganda and Sierra Leone -- in recent years. One 13-year-old describes his induction at age 10. The rebel commander brought him 10 people from his village, handed him a gun, put a gun to his head and ordered him to fire or be killed himself. Shaking, the boy fired and fired, and watched them fall and take a long time to die, twitching at his feet. Then he vomited. He now has no idea, he says, of how many people he has killed.

Indoctrinating children

A government-recruited child soldier has been indoctrinated to believe he has a supernatural power to ward off bullets when he marches naked in front of the troops, “to protect them by drawing fire away” from adult soldiers.

Any attempt to protect children from this way of life by international treaty has failed. The United States has declined to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, because it would raise the legal age limit for combat from 15 to 18. According to Goodwin, “The Pentagon opposes the change, even though 17-year-olds represent less than one-half of 1 percent of active U.S. troops.”

In March 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal was gathering steam, Bill Clinton, like so many of his predecessors, took off, boosting his ratings and distracting the press, on a world trip. For an hour and a half Air Force One remained on the ground at Rwanda’s Kigali airport, where Clinton presented Rwanda’s president with a plaque to commemorate “all those who perished in the Rwandan genocide.”

The title of the “Frontline” report “Triumph of Evil,” is an allusion to Edmund Burke’s aphorism that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

“It may seem strange to you here,” Clinton said, but people like himself sat in their offices day after day and “didn’t fully appreciate” what was happening. It is the hard-hitting “Frontline” thesis, though they are too polite to use the word, that this is all lies, lies, lies, lies. And they document in on-the-record interviews from those involved that both the Clinton administration and the United Nations were fully aware of the extent of the carnage, as the majority Hutus hacked over 800,000 Tutsis to death within 100 days, killing sometimes as many as 10,000 a day.

Perhaps, of course, Clinton was engaged in his masterly word-parsing: Whether one could “fully appreciate” anything happening on the other side of the world depends on what we mean by “fully.”

On April 6, 1994, the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, who had been involved in peace talks between the Hutus and the Tutsis, crashed, shot down by missiles. The Hutus took this as a signal to commence the genocide they had already planned. Philip Gourevitch, New Yorker writer and author of We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, explains that, following the president’s death, the Hutu-controlled Rwanda radio station became almost “Genocide Central.” People were instructed to “go out and kill.” Disk jockeys would interrupt their patter to tell listeners that so-and-so was headed down such-and-such street, and the listeners should head him off and kill him quick.

Thousands of would-be victims fled to U.N. camps hoping for protection -- including the St. Don Bosco School, where they dreamed they would be safe. The U.N. troops responsible for their safety were Belgians. But at that moment the Belgian foreign ministry was calling around the world, lobbying U.N. ambassadors to pull the whole U.N. peacekeeping force out of the country. In New York, the American U.N. ambassador, Madeline Albright, went along. The fear of another Somalia flop was more than she could handle.

At Don Bosco, the Belgian troops had been saving the lives of 2,000 Tutsis. On April 11 they were ordered to leave. The natives, knowing they would be hacked to death by Hutu machetes, echoing the plea of Mohammed Sesay in Sierra Leone, pleaded with the U.N. troops to kill them first: “Please, we ask you to shoot us down by your machine gun.”

Facing the consequences

We see clips of both Clinton and Vice President Gore speaking at the Holocaust Museum in 1993 and 1994, swearing that evil must be “combated and contained.” The memorial, said Gore, must “remind those who make the agonizing decisions of foreign policy of the consequences of their decisions.”

In fact, at the height of the slaughter, when it was obvious that only international intervention could stop the genocide, the administration was considering the consequences of their decisions. The consequences for the Democratic administration. There were Congressional elections coming up and they thought it wouldn’t look good for the administration to be involved in some no-win foreign crisis.

When it became obvious that this was truly a genocide, the U.N. and American reaction was to refuse to call it a genocide. A genocide would require them to act. “Frontline” clips show a State Department functionary squirming, wiggling, crawling, refusing to say it was a “genocide,” obviously ordered by her superiors to reject that naughty word. Then Clinton would be free to use the magic word at the airport after it was too late. And if he had known what was going on, he would have done something about it.

Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s William Finnegan was trucking south across the desert wilderness of Sudan. Most Americans know about Sudan from the impeachment-eve air raid the United States launched against a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, which, all the evidence now indicates, was not making the warfare germs we said justified the raid.

More important, Sudan is embroiled in what Finnegan calls an “obscure, chaotic and low-tech ... civil war ... a disaster of historic proportions.” So far it has killed more than 2 million people, mostly in the South, one of the least accessible and poorest regions of the world. The North, headquartered in Khartoum, apparently one of the world’s ugliest cities, is “Arab,” or radical Muslim. Once the radicals gained power in 1969, they subjected the whole population to Muslim punishments, like amputation and stoning to death for adultery and drinking alcohol. In the southern third of the country, rebels, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, exercise some form of control.

But, in the last few years, the g-word -- genocide -- is settling in over the landscape. Nearly 2 million Southerners have died, either killed in battle or by starvation or disease.

In a project called Operation Lifeline Sudan, the West has poured in humanitarian aid to keep the population from starving. Some economists argue persuasively that the food shipments prolong the war, because the political powers inevitably control the food distribution, feeding their armies first, leaving it to the international community to feed their people and using government treasuries to buy guns and ammo.

Sudan’s oil

Finnegan visits a Dinka village in the mountains, where the  “Arabs” have burned the town and sent its people into slavery. An educated Dinka gentleman who listens to the BBC World Service tells him he cannot understand how a great country like America wastes its time on Monica Lewinsky when it should be using its energies to bring all parties to a peace conference on Sudan.

Finnegan concludes, sadly, that the status quo of pouring humanitarian relief into a split, warring Sudan -- since we consider Sudan an “unfriendly” regime -- is more to our benefit than peace. One analyst suggests that the West might become interested in Sudan’s oil in 30 years and that “Sudan should therefore expect its civil war to last till then.”

A recent book on Africa considers the emergence of the new post-apartheid regime in South Africa to be the one sign of hope on a continent of tears. Indeed, if there is a source of hope in a “dark” continent, Bill Moyers is the one to find it. And The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by the Nelson Mandela government to force the country to come to terms with its own recent history, is a made-for-Moyers subject. To enter into the spirit of the documentary, “Facing the Truth,” it helps to be a Christian or at least to see how the human acts of confession and reconciliation fit on one’s Judeo-Christian or secular humanist moral blackboard.

I recently read a review of a book featuring the story of a dying Nazi SS officer who called a prominent Jewish man to his bedside and begged to be forgiven for his part in the Holocaust. The Jew left in silence. Those who commented on the story shrank from judgment. Who are we to say someone else should forgive if that is not part of his religion? My own feeling is that if we cannot forgive, we are lost forever, doomed to wallow in self-destructive hate.

A significant part of South Africa’s leadership -- black, white and colored -- seems to agree. The commission investigates human rights violations between 1960 and 1994, and offers amnesty to those violators who come forward, honestly confess their crimes and sincerely ask for forgiveness. The commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, listens and weighs each case. Of 21,000 witnesses, Moyers’ camera crews and producers have followed up on some of the most poignant stories -- particularly those that reinforce the themes of conversion and redemption.

The process does not all go smoothly. Hundreds of black women have lost their husbands and sons, many young men who left home in the morning and just didn’t come home at night. Typically, the security forces had singled them out as potential troublemakers, abducted them, trucked them to a country road or a beach, drugged them, shot them in the head and then burned their bodies or blew up their corpses in a vehicle. As the bodies burned, the police sat around having a picnic, laughing, eating sausage, drinking beer.

The women are not satisfied in simply finding out at a public forum what happened; they want the police to come and look them in the face and apologize personally. They must also find the graves, dig up the bones and wail their grief to the winds.

White victims feel the same way. In 1993, three guerrillas of the Pan-African Congress burst into St. James Church, threw a grenade and opened fire, killing 11 whites. The husband of a murdered woman, tears streaming down his face, demands that each of three young black terrorists in the dock look him in the face and apologize.

When the four police who killed Steve Biko, leader of the black consciousness movement, in 1977, come forward, his family is particularly forgiving. Biko’s son had been striving for 20 years to find out how his father died. The police -- who beat Biko brutally, drove him shackled naked in a truck to a hospital and dumped him -- still won’t accept responsibility for Biko’s death. In a ruling published Feb. 17, after the Moyers’ documentary was completed, the commission concluded that the police lied and had not admitted to any crime. No cheap grace.

Most appalling are the police pleaders, in court and interviewed by Moyers, who still do not get it. They were following orders, simply doing what they knew their superiors -- all the way up to the top -- would want them to do. One killer says he murdered a teenage black boy because he was sure that otherwise the boy would grow up to be a “terrorist.” Can’t have that, can we?

Poor F.W. de Klerk, who deserves credit for allowing apartheid to die, is not convincing when he insists that, yes, he knew his police were tough but never knew they engaged in torture and murder. Moyers’ producers undermine de Klerk’s credibility simply by showing him seated next to his predecessor, the unrepentant apartheid master P.W. Botha, whose command, “Eliminate them,” the security forces knew just how to carry out.

High crime rates

One of the most inspiring people we meet is Albie Sachs, now a judge, a white former civil rights activist, long imprisoned by the regime, who lost his arm in a car bomb explosion in 1988. We see his charred, shredded body rolling in the street. But he has never lusted for revenge. He likes to say he “95 percent survived.”

“To do to someone else what they did to me,” he says, “that’s not going to make my arm grow.”

The year apartheid died, I traveled for several weeks in South Africa, in Zululand, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Capetown. It is surely one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and its people are among the most inspiring for their ability to survive a political and economic system that has ground them down for generations.

But, though more people now have electricity and clean water, according to Moyers’ report and to other reports, the shantytowns and much of the misery they represent remain. As the new nation prepares for its second post-apartheid election in May, the biggest problems are one of the world’s highest crime rates and unemployment. The 13 percent white minority still controls 90 percent of the capital, 95 percent of industry and most of the land.

Moyers interviews elite white university students who are not anxious to take responsibility for the crimes of their ancestors -- which they “didn’t know about.” This affirmative action stuff, they say, is going too far.

Epilogue. On Feb. 18, in the small West African village of Hollande Bouru, Guinea, 1,500 relatives and friends came together to lower Amadou Diallo, in a plain wood coffin, which had just brought his body from the United States, into his native earth. Diallo had never lived here, but his family had founded this prosperous little village of thatched and concrete huts. So this was in death where he belonged.

Two weeks before, this mild-mannered, pious Muslim Bronx street vendor had been shot down in his own doorway -- literally pinned to the wall by a hail of 41 bullets pouring from the guns of four policemen who blasted away at this harmless, unarmed young man for reasons we do not yet know. Two years before he had come to America to get an education; but lacking a high school transcript and a work permit, he lived on $20 a day earned from selling socks and videos on the street. Like the South African women at the graves of their murdered sons, his mother, led to his Bronx, brick doorway, collapsed in grief, crying out his name.

What all this means to Africans in the United States depends on whom you ask. His mother told the Times, “Amadou was from Guinea, but now Amadou is from the whole world because the whole world is sympathizing with us.” But a fellow immigrant had said a few days before, “I think I might have to go back to Africa. If I stay here, I might be killed.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth, Fordham’s assistant dean, is working on a history of Fordham University. He writes regularly for NCR on media and culture.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 1999