UN general secretary Ban Ki-Moon, Rwanda's president Paul Kagame and others await the lighting of a flame that will burn in memory of those who died in 1994. Photo: Getty
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If a genocide on the scale of Rwanda happened in Europe, would we stand idly by?

Twenty years after the genocide, Rwandans are finding ways to reconciliation. But it’s too soon for the nations and institutions that failed to help to forgive themselves.

The twentieth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide is upon us, a moment which has prompted several reflections upon that horrific event. A prominent theme among these retrospectives has been that of forgiveness: of how the victims of this slaughter are laying aside their grievances with the perpetrators so that, together, they can forge a better future for their country. Their efforts at reconciliation, captured powerfully by the photographer Pieter Hugo for the New York Times, have framed much if not all of the discussion about the frenzied murder of almost a million people. However, perhaps they should not.

Hugo, in the article accompanying his images, contends that forgiveness, in this context, is not merely a matter of the victims being supremely enlightened: it is a practical necessity. “These people can’t go anywhere else,” he observes. “They have to make peace…Forgiveness is not born out of some airy-fairy sense of benevolence. It’s more out of a survival instinct.” The article then proceeds to feature the moving accounts of how these Rwandans managed to find hope amid horror. Towards its close, there is a quote from Laurent Nsabimana, a perpetrator, who says of his victim – Beatrice Mukarwambari, whose house he raided and destroyed – that “her forgiveness proved to me that she is a person with a pure heart”. For her part, Mukarwambari is the model of grace. “If I am not stubborn,” she says, “life moves forward. When someone comes close to you without hatred, although horrible things happened, you welcome him and grant what he is looking for from you. Forgiveness equals mercy.” (My italics.)

There is a great beauty in allowing this sentiment – that “forgiveness equals mercy” – to become the dominant narrative of the Rwanda genocide. Yet there is also a great danger. It seems that two main human instincts, when faced with unremitting bloodbaths such as Rwanda – and, most recently, Syria and the Central African Republic – are to grasp any positives from the situation, or to turn away. The first tendency, to seek a happy ending, can sometimes strike a discordant note; it gives the impression that injustices are approaching resolution, even though many of the conditions which enabled them are still firmly in place. Moreover, it may also place pressure to forgive on those survivors still shattered by trauma.

The second tendency, to turn away, is perhaps more damaging still. Part of this attitude comes from a feeling of helplessness; that what is happening is too distant and complex for us to do anything useful. Yet part of it has more uncomfortable roots. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general whose inability to prevent the genocide drove him to early retirement and depression, has been unequivocal on this point. In a conversation with Ted Koppel in June 2002, Dallaire identified the chief underlying issue as “racism, the fundamental belief that exists that all people are not equal, [which] is going to slaughter millions for years to come.”

Dallaire went on to contend that “even today, after the very delayed effort in getting into Sierra Leone where I’ve been recently with war-affected children, I believe today if some outfit decided to go into Rwanda and eliminate the 320-odd blue-back mountain gorillas that Dian Fossey paid with her life to protect…there would be today more of an effort, more of an involvement by people just like you and me and many others than there would be if they’re slaughtering them again by the thousands in that same country.”

Elsewhere in the conversation, the former general was similarly forthright. “The ones I hold accountable for not understanding and not rising above self-interest to a level of humanity where every human counts and we’re all the same are: the British, the French, and the Americans. Self-interest, political posturing, image dominated their decision processes in regard to Rwanda. ” (My italics.)

Dallaire’s dialogue with Koppel raises searching and awkward questions for global institutions – questions which, if we merely regard the Rwanda genocide as a lesson in forgiveness, those institutions can conveniently evade. Questions such as why, given that $3bn found its way to Rwanda very soon after the bloodletting ended, Dallaire was not able to raise $200m for the troops that he believed necessary for its prevention. In 1994 he identified a clear course of action, as well as the resources – some 5,000 troops – that in his view would have stemmed the tide of killing. Yet, time and again, he was frustrated by considerations that were nakedly political, if not racial. His experiences at the hands of bureaucracy were by turns frustrating, infuriating and heartbreaking. As one government representative told him: “My country was assessing whether it will come in and the government believes that public opinion, the people, could handle for every soldier killed or injured an equivalent of 85,000 dead Rwandans.”

It is impossible to imagine such a ruthless calculation taking place today if a massacre of this length and scale was occurring in the heart of Western Europe. It is impossible to imagine a scenario in Western Europe where, as was the case in Rwanda, the UN would go to 69 countries who had previously pledged military assistance and come away without a single soldier. Not one. Given this vast indifference, the appropriate mantra seems not so much to be “Never Again” as “Forever Again”. This is why, while we applaud Rwandans for using reconciliation as a tool to move forward with their lives, we must be more watchful of those nations and institutions sitting shiftily in the background, furtively and prematurely forgiving themselves.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle