Hotel Rwanda and post-colonial ethnic conflicts

Over the weekend, I watched the DVD of the film Hotel Rwanda. This was a film that I knew from the beginning that I should see and would see, but at the same time dreaded seeing and postponed it for as long as I could. I knew that the film would make me both angry and depressed. Angry at the inhumanity that can be generated when people are stupid enough to take the superficial differences amongst as things that are important enough to kill and be killed for. Depressed because the events in Rwanda remind us once again how the world classifies people, nations, events, and regions into ‘important’ and ‘unimportant’ and that these classifications are not based on any measures that are real and tangible, but on how they directly affect the developed world.

But I am glad that I watched the film. It was immensely powerful and well done, with outstanding performances by Don Cheadle and the other (mostly unknown) actors. It is a film that I can strongly recommend. It does not descend into being a political tract but manages to weave a very human story into a political nightmare, without being more graphic than the minimum necessary to convey the horror. As I hate graphic violence, I was particularly relieved about the last point.

For those not familiar with what happened in Rwanda, this was a civil war between two ethnic groups that resulted in an estimated one million deaths. The film chronicles the events in 1994 following the alleged killing of the President of Rwanda (a Hutu) allegedly by members of the minority insurgent Tutsis and the violent rampage that was unleashed by the government, which let Hutu mobs take the law into their own hands and slaughter the Tutsis,

The scenes in which Hutu mobs armed with machetes took to the streets and murdered Tutsis and set fire to their homes while the security forces either took part or stood by and did nothing, brought back disturbing memories of my own experience in Sri Lanka in 1983, though what happened in Rwanda was on a very much larger scale. Still, I could empathize with the feelings of the people in the film when it dawned on them that they had absolutely no protection from the state, that they were completely on their own, and that they had no chance against armed mobs acting with impunity. It would only be sheer luck, and the kindness of friends and strangers, that determined who died and who lived.

What impressed me most about the film was how true it was. Not true in the sense of the literal recounting of facts. I am in no position to judge that because of my lack of familiarity with the details of events in Rwanda. But true in the way that such conflicts arise and the way they are portrayed and dealt with in the developed world. There is one small scene that you should observe closely. In this scene, a foreign TV cameraman (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is at the hotel bar and asks a local journalist what the difference is between a Hutu and a Tutsi and how the conflict arose. The journalist replies that Tutsis are supposed to be taller and have narrower noses. He also says that the Belgian colonial powers favored the Tutsi minority and groomed them into an elite. This caused resentment among the Hutu majority, which retaliated when they obtained power after independence. Two women are also seated at the bar and Phoenix asks them and which ethnicity they are. One replies that she is Hutu and the other that she is Tutsi. Phoenix wonderingly muses “they could be twins.”

And there you have it in a nutshell. Each group of people likes to think of themselves as somehow special and invent qualities that they think distinguish themselves from others groups, however absurd or irrational the grounds for such beliefs. Then colonial powers, wherever possible, use these perceived differences to implement the tried and true “divide and conquer” policies. They build on any traditional mistrust and animosity between the two groups by giving favors to the minority and winning their allegiance, thus fending off any joint action by the two groups to overthrow the colonial occupiers, but breeding lingering resentment in the majority community. This almost inevitably leads to post-independence settling of resentments.

Look at the post-independence ethnic conflicts in many countries and you will see this pattern repeated over and over, too often to think of it as a weird coincidence. It definitely happened in Sri Lanka with the British, for example. That same conversation in the bar would have been perfectly appropriate for describing the history of Sri Lanka too. For me, the worst thing about colonialism was not the looting of the resources of the colonized countries, bad as that was. It was the deliberate and cynical fanning of mistrust and conflict so that the countries were almost guaranteed to reap a harvest of violence and bloodshed once the colonists left or were thrown out. Then the colonial powers could wring their hands in regret at the inevitable conflict that followed their departure and smugly feel that it was their ‘civilizing’ presence that kept the lid on the ‘savage natives.’

This is not to say that the local population did not share in the blame. There were enough so-called ‘leaders’ who were willing to build on these inflamed feelings to gain power, and they in turn had enough followers who could be persuaded that meaningless differences generated largely on accident birth (ethnicity, skin color, religion, language, etc.) were important enough to fight one another over.

To be continued tomorrow…

Post Script 1: Take that!

James Wolcott demonstrates the spirit of the current holiday season.

Post Script 2: The future is already here

In a comment to a previous post, Eldan points out that the very thing I had feared (the sponsorship of novels by companies and industries) has already happened. One day, perhaps I will predict a trend before it actually occurs…


  1. Brooke S. says

    I am always shocked when I hear that someone has not seen Hotel Rawanda or Schindlers list or similar movies or stories. I am even more shocked when I hear that most people don’t know that background beyond this story.

    In order to combat this problem, public schools in the new york city area started participating in a program called ‘facing history and ourselves’. In the new york state system, you need to take a certain amount of history credits in order to graduate, and this class counts as one of them.

    I have to say, this program is a huge success. I went to a public school on the bronx border and was in a graduating class of 800. This was the one class that I took in my four years of high school that had actual dialouge between the white/black/ and hispanic students. Hotel Rawanda and Schindlers list were both mandatory movies in that course. When we left the program, we all had a different worldview then when we entered.

    I know that you are very interested in education and educational programs, and I have to say that i think this class will help the next generation fight racism and prejudice by making students aware of there part in history. Here is the link to their main sight:

  2. paula says

    I was very upset when I watched Hotel Rwanda. It is so sad that other countries do not care and many people had to die. What will happen if that happens here? Will anyone help us?

  3. Erin says

    Your recommendation spurred me to watch this movie. It was very good; I’m still thinking about it. What disturbs me most about situations like this one is the lack of a clear rubric for when, and how, one should bring pressure to bear on a sovereign nation. The conservative position is clear — interfere if and only if a national security interest is thought to be at stake; use media influence to flatter the decision publicly. I regret that I’m not familiar with any coherent and well-articulated liberal alternative. Liberal foreign-policy discussions I’ve seen have tended to focus on the particulars of given situations without any clear evidence of having struggled to systematize their views — to explain why their morality requires, e.g., intervention in Rwanda, but forbearance in Iraq. I’m not saying that there doesn’t exist such a consistent worldview — just that I’ve never seen one articulated; and I think such visions are important in shaping moral responsibility, which is what this is really about. As long as our moral view of the world consists only of particulars, we are free to let our actions in other cases be dictated purely by convenience.

  4. says

    I do not understand how people of greed and bad ethics are the ones that always turn out to be leaders that people actually look up to, listen to and follow. Why do we not follow the good guys? Must be something in our basic make up.

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