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.

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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