Shooting Dogs.

David Belton went to Rwanda in 1994 as a reporter for the BBC.  After the killings began, he and the other whites were evacuated by Western military forces.   These Westerners left behind many Rwandans they had known, but carried with them terrible memories of things they had witnessed.  Belton went back to making documentaries for the BBC.  Rwanda stayed on his mind.

One of the stories from Rwanda which Belton heard concerned Father Vjekoslav “Vjeko” Ćurić (1957-1998).  Ćurić had been born in the Artist Formerly Known as Yugoslavia.  He became a Catholic priest and, in 1983, went to Rwanda as a missionary.  He got posted to a small town in the provinces.  Ćurić turned out to be a missionary priest out of some 1940s Hollywood movie: moral without being moralistic, and devoted to his flock and beloved by them.   When the genocide began, he refused to be evacuated.  He worked hard and courageously to help victims from among both Hutus and Tutsis.  He survived the genocide, but someone shot him dead a few years later under murky circumstances.[1]

David Wolstonecraft (1969- ) was born in Hawaii, but ended up living in Scotland at a young age.  He went to Cambridge (where he got a BA in History, so there).  He got a job writing for British television shows.  Television is a small world.  Belton and Wolstonecraft ran into each other.  Together, they wrote the script for “Shooting Dogs,” inspired by what Belton had seen in Rwanda and centered on a version of the story of Father “Vjeko” Ćurić.

They pitched the story to BBC Films.  Approaching the ten-year anniversary of the genocide, lots of people were thinking back to it and what it had meant.[2]  BBC Films agreed to produce it.  They put Michael Caton-Jones (1957- ) in as director, hired some not-quite stars to act, and decided to film the movie in Kigali, Rwanda.  So, lots of what you see in the movie is what Kigali actually looks like, and most of the extras are Rwandans.

None of the Rwanda movies does a good job of explaining the context.  In brief compass, a recent insurgency by Tutsis against the Hutu government had resulted in a truce.  The UN has sent in a bunch of Belgian soldiers to “monitor” the truce.[3]  Then the Hutus began to repent their moderation.  Meanwhile, the US didn’t want to get involved in another Somalia.[4]  The French didn’t want the potentially pro-Anglophone Tutsis to defeat the actually Francophone Hutus.  So, the two countries resisted calling what happened “genocide” or intervening to stop it.

The story centers on the “Ecole Technique Officielle” (The Official/Public Technical School), a sort of technical middle school.  A priest, Father Christopher (played by John Hurt),  runs the school.  He is assisted by a young Englishman, Joe Connor (played by Hugh Dancey, who has come to Africa for a while to do some good in the world.  The school also provides a base for a bunch of the Belgian soldiers.  Then, there is Marie (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey), the Tutsi student who may have a crush on Joe.  Around this human core of the story circle a BBC reporter and her cameraman, who symbolizes the media and what the world knows; a Belgian army officer, who symbolizes the ineffectiveness of the UN; and a bunch of killers with machetes and clubs.  What are any of these people—or us–supposed to do?

[1] It could have been an armed robbery or it could have been some kind of retribution for his actions in 1994.  Or it could have been something else entirely.

[2] Curiously, at the same time another Anglo-American team of writers was working on a different story about Rwanda.  Keir Pearson and Terry George wrote the script for “Hotel Rwanda.”  It came out the same year as “Shooting Dogs” and just buried it.  Too bad: it isn’t a better movie, just a more up-beat one.

[3] That is, they are not there to “enforce” or even “keep” peace.  They’re just watchers.  Voyeurs really.

[4] See “Black Hawk Down” (dir. Ridley Scott, 2001).

A Geographer Reads the Newspaper 4.

Africa was one of the battlefields in the Cold War. The United States supported—to a degree— the Congolese dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko (aka Joseph Mobutu) while the Cold War went on. It’s not like they had much choice, regardless of what spy novels tell us about the supposed powers of the CIA world-hydra. Once the Cold War ended, all bets were off. In the late 1990s, Mobutu was staggering after 30 years of tyranny and plunder. Rebels waged war against the government from remote sanctuaries in the vast country. All sorts of tribal quarrels were barely held in check. Then, in 1994, the Rwandan genocide on Congo’s eastern border killed 800,000 Tutsis and led to the flight of a million Hutu “genocidaires” and their kin to the Congo. While the Ugandan-backed Tutsis took power in Rwanda, the Hutus took effective control of the refugee camps that were supposedly run by international agencies. Not content to leave bad enough alone, the Hutus transformed these into bases for guerrilla raids into Rwanda. In 1996, the Rwandan Tutsis joined forces with some of the local Congolese rebels (some of them Congolese Tutsis) to wage their own war in Eastern Congo against the Hutus. Massacres of Hutus—not just of soldiers—attended every Tutsi incursion, then and later.

This triggered the final collapse of the Mobutu dictatorship. Supported at first by Rwanda, a former-rebel-turned-schemer-in-exile named Laurent Kabila took over as president. Rather than replacing one strong-man with another, this created a vacuum of power. Civil war broke out with multiple participants. Kabila disappointed the Rwandans just as much as he disappointed many others. In 1998, Rwanda again invaded the Congo. Kabila saved himself from overthrow by drawing in help from neighboring Angola and Zimbabwe. This stalled the Rwandans at the price of expanding the number of interested participants in an already gory war. Then Kabila was assassinated and replaced by his even more ineffectual son. Again civil war broke out. Again, Rwanda intervened.[1] Often these interventions seem to have been driven by the quest to control the mines of eastern Congo: gold, diamonds, uranium, nickel, copper. Over the years, huge amounts of precious minerals have been transferred to Rwanda.[2]

The war continues in fits and starts much as it has done for twenty years now. It has been a particularly brutal war. Small bands of armed men, rather than great armies, do battle far from Western eyes. Massacres of civilians abound, and millions haven driven into hiding in the bush. Starvation and disease are as much killers as are the gun men. By 2009, the best estimates held that 4-5 million people had died. Then things began to calm down. Uganda and Rwanda, long partners in crime, fell out with one another over the division of the spoils. Rwanda sought to patch-up relations with Congo. This brought a period of relative peace to eastern Congo.

You might think that this catastrophe would attract a lot of attention. It hasn’t. There are a couple of excellent histories.[3] There is one novel that focuses narrowly, but effectively, on the corrupt relationship between business and government in what amounts to a profit free-fire zone.[4] Told through the voice of an Anglo-Congolese translator, the story boils down to a plot by a well-connected American businessman to launch a fake coup in eastern Congo so that his mercenaries can scoop up a vast store of precious metals. “The horror. The horror.”

[1] Paul Kagame, the Rwandan “president,” is a much caressed pet of the United States.

[2] This may be one explanation for the apparent modernity of government offices in what is still a poor country.

[3] Gerard Prunier, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwanda Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe (Oxford University Press, 2009); Jason K. Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (Public Affairs, 2011).

[4] John le Carre, The Mission Song (Little, Brown and Co., 2006).