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The Ordeal of a Rwandan Refugee in Zaire
Marie Beatrice Umutesi
Book Review with commentary

Umutesi is a sociologist who was working in rural development when the genocide broke out. As a well-educated moderate, and Hutu, pgs 13-16, she related easily to both groups. Nevertheless, she was chased by both sides during the civil war after president Habyarimana was assassinated. Her story is a searing account of the hardships both groups of refugees underwent. Her first-hand account adds dimension and depth to our knowledge of both the goodness and awfulness of humankind at its best and worst.

Umutesi brings out a feature of Rwandan society not much emphasized elsewhere. In her words: "The ethnic tensions [features hung over from the rebel incursion of 1963 and the violence and coup of 1973, that followed from Belgian policy decisions.] that characterized Rwandan Society gave way little by little to a new type of tension, the rise of regionalism. From then on the issue was not so much a conflict between Hutu and Tutsi but between Kiga (North) and Nduga (South)." [Both ethnicity and regionalism are in this case expressions of the very human trait: bigotry. And that of course goes with the Extremism and Authoritarianism of our times.]

Umutesi also felt that each side behaved equally badly toward their own ethnicity who were less well off, and that an important basic issue, inefficient agriculture, played a strong role in the genocide. But this issue was neglected by the political parties.

Umutesi's many ordeals, and the deaths of children under her care are vividly described. So vividly, that her book reads like a novel, difficult to put down. Her own coping mechanisms were largely religious in nature. Determination allowed her and others to survive. In writing about others, she illustrated their psychologies in sharp, often-dramatic, relief -- whether lofty or animalistic. [In one case it was a little of both; a benefactor who saved her life wanted to marry her in spite of her being a mere skeleton.]

In describing how children and people dealt with extreme hardship, Umutesi's descriptions are particularly vivid in their awfulness. For example, one young girl became so emaciated and exhausted that she finally gave up, preferring death to trying to run any further. In another case an adolecent girl opted to go on ahead with a faster group only to be slaughtered with them at a bridge. Umutesi's words have the ring of truth. No other book on Rwanda illustrates the depth of depravity and suffering so vividly evident here. Her insights alone are well worth the price of the book.

Extremism did not end with the fall of Kigali. Umutesi found herself among both the guilty and innocent as they fled Westward in Zaire, now the Congo. The "genocidaires" also fled to continue their killing among the refugees even as they themselves were refugees from retribution.

Umutesi, as a well educated sociologist, was admirablty equipped to observe and record events from a human perspective as the contradictions of Rwandan society caught her and others up in a horror beyond belief -- had it not in fact happened. Her story is a testimony to both sides of humanity, its awfulness as well as its goodness. Umutesi could not have survived without the courageous shelter provided by many Zairians. In fact, more people perished in Zaire during this historic upheaval than in Rwanda. And the rest of the world turned away yet one more time.

Umutesi's very personal account is above all a tribute to the human spirit and will to live. But it is also a further idictment: of both those who planned and instigated the horrors and of those who turned away. (See: "Shake Hands With The Devil" for more on the latter issue.) In her tale, Umutesi has provided a foundational fact for the theme of this website: Extremism is the number one enemy of humankind, and it finds ready expression in the Authoritarian Personality.

Was Umutesi's account unbiased? Of course not, at least not completely, for when you fear for your very life and those of your children for so many months of deprivation, starvation, and slaughter, your strength and will to carry on are sorely tried, not to mention your spirit and evenhandedness. So, also, your social and political orientations loosen from their moorings. A certain madness creeps in.

The wonder is that Umutesi could still turn a phrase with wry humor when writing of such suffering, humiliations, and untold unpleasant events. For this ability, and also for her courageous and accurate reporting of human events, we rate her book at five stars. It is a new and vital perspective on the human condition. If it happened in the great-lakes region of Africa, it could happen anywhere. This is a searing indictment indeed.

The fact that a relatively peaceful people could be coaxed into wanton genocide so easily and completely shows emphatically that the barrier between civilized and jungle-like behavior is egg-shell thin.

And Rwanda was not alone. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and many others present similar examples. See: Wars and Atrocities for a recent listing.

For the most part, the rest of the world stood by, a crime in itself. If genocide had been Hitler's only crime, he would very likely have gotten away with it.


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