"To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth" - Voltaire

Never Forget

Genocide, ethnic cleansing, terror. The super-rich - Donald Trump, Bill Gates. Megalomaniacal world leadership - Blair, Bush. This is the gift we give our children. I think I preferred my gift of Never Forget.

I read the news today, oh boy

This is why I do it. It is because I need to know and I need to tell others and we need to stop it happening.

On Rwanda: my passion and the need to know

Just imagine. Your highly educated, sophisticated neighbour decides overnight that you are the enemy and that you and your kin need to be wiped off the face of the Earth. It happened and it can happen again.

Genocides from 1915 to 2006

With the possible exception of the Holocaust, the definition and application of the term ‘genocide’ has been fraught with controversy.

Right and Wrong

Since the Genocide Convention was created in 1948 at the end of World War II, there have been only two events that have been deemed to have constituted genocide. Those events are Srebrenica and Rwanda. Srebrenica was the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Rwanda, 20 Years On: Healing the Scars of Genocide

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda and while it is ever important to remember the genocide in order to learn from it and prevent such an event from happening again, it is also important that we focus on how we move forward after such an event. Last night I attended Peace Talks, an event hosted by International Alert at The Geological Society in London. The topic for discussion was Rwanda, 20 Years On: Healing the Scars of Genocide.

The event was chaired by Dan Smith, Secretary General of International Alert. You might remember that he chaired the event War, Peace and Faith: The Ambiguous Role of Religion in 21st Century Conflict that I attended last year. Dan began by saying that while much has rightly been said about the genocide in Rwanda, the focus of the evening was on healing the scars of the genocide, to focus on what we can do to move forward.

The Way Things Appeared 20 Years Ago

Dan began asking His Excellency Williams Nkurunziza, High Commissioner of Rwanda to the UK, about what he saw 20 years ago as the road that lay ahead. He replied that by the end of the genocide, out of 8 million Rwandans, up to 1 million were dead, 3 million displaced and out of the country and the remaining 4 million were traumatised.

The emphasis of the Rwandan government had to be in reversing the forces that made genocide possible in the first place. The Rwandan constitution now stresses that Rwanda belongs to all Rwandese, and the focus is on reconciliation and belonging.

Nkurunziza notes that attitudes take time to change but that Rwandans have shown a readiness to learn from mistakes, a willingness to forgive and an ability to move on.

The same question was posed of Gloriosa Bazigaga, Rwanda Country Manager for International Alert. While Nkurunziza had touched on the Gacaca courts, Bazigaga continued saying that the courts were the start: they highlighted the events of the past but healing was slow to begin because people feared speaking out in fear of punishment.

Starting in 2007, International Alert began their work in healing psychological wounds and helping economic recovery through micro finance and the teaching of skills. Specifically, the organisation works with former prisoners and combatants, survivors and young people and they provide dialogue groups, trauma counselling and micro-finance to corporations of five people consisting of both survivors and perpetrators.

The Issues Involved in Recovery

Dan then asked Dr Ian Palmer, professor of military psychiatry to discuss the issues involved in healing from the scars of genocide. Dr Palmer began by saying that he believes psychiatry (that is the treatment of psychiatric conditions primarily through the use of medication) has only a small role to play and that the focus must be on healing individuals. Healing cannot begin until individuals feel safe, both from death and from the elements. Dr Palmer stressed social support in terms of safety, schooling, structure and food.

On forgiveness and reconciliation, Dr Palmer said that Rwandans (along with other post-conflict societies) had shown incredible resilience but that reconciliation is a choice. If we do not forgive, we cannot move on and while punishment is important, justice is more important. He finished by saying that we cannot have justice without resilience, forgiveness and reconciliation.

I found Dr Palmer's thoughts especially interesting given that I did my post-grad in Psychology.

Burundi and the DRC: The Political Context of Rwanda

Next up, the Rt Hon Lord Jack McConnell of Glenscorrodale PC spoke in his capacity as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the African Great Lakes Region. He began by saying that it is remarkable that Rwanda has achieved what they did but there remain two different but continuing issues.

The first is that the exodus of Rwandans had an undeniable effect on the DRC and contributed to the inability of the DRC to move forward. The difficulty is that the government of the DRC relies too heavily on this explanation for their all of progress and they do move forward or take action.

The second issue is the impact of the genocide on the international community. 1994 was a disgrace: the international community knew it was going to happen, knew when it was happening and even exacerbated the events. Changes have been made to the way the international community responds to crises but a consistent international response is difficult given the continuing difficulties in the region. The DRC, Burundi and Central African Republic remain volatile.

The Road Ahead: New Avenues or More of the Same?

This is an interesting issue and the crux of this question was whether we continue in the current path of reconciliation, construction and coming together or whether our focus needs to be slightly different in the future.

HE Nkurunziza began by saying the Rwandan government are pleased with the progress made so far and are optimistic about the future. Reconciliation has been a deliberate decision and it is possible because the leadership is driving it. We must ensure that people do no succumb to the temptation to exact revenge, he said and without committed leadership, we cannot heal a fractured society.

When pressed, HE Nkurunziza went on to say that the process is driven by the politics of coexistence and systems and institutions to ensure that all Rwandese are views equally under the eyes of the law. Rwanda chose a path of restorative justice applied by the people themselves.

Specifically, programmes are underway to put all orphans into family homes rather than group homes; equal opportunities legislation provide equal access to jobs and education; there is universal primary education with 98% of primary school children in school; equal access to healthcare; and work to elevate people above the poverty line.

Gloriosa Bazigaga responded to the same question by stating that in the past, the focus has been on the legacy of genocide and reconciliation is still needed because people heal progressively but not at the same pace.

Bazigaga raised the issues of youth unemployment and land issues and Nkurunziza confirmed that the focus of the government is on the growth of the SME sector instead of a reliance on agriculture. According to the goals of the Rwandan government's Vision 2020 [PDF] policies, due to limited land capacity, the country aims to switch to a knowledge based economy by 2020.

Dan then asked Dr Ian Palmer, based on his experience of being in Rwanda and Bosnia, whether he could compare the two countries and comment on the timescale of healing (given that Bosnia is volatile again). Dr Palmer remarked that we take a lot for granted in the UK in terms of the structures needed for healing. He stated that if you don't have that structure, you can't do the rest and he commented again on the need for whole system change. He stated that mental illness is a combination of predisposition, a person's upbringing, trauma and the current environment. If you don't heal society, you're waiting for unscrupulous people who will pick on vulnerable people and start the whole process over again. Safety, structure, systems and the environment are most important.

In Closing

Finally, Dan asked Jack McConnell to comment on a type of leadership that would be conducive to supporting Rwanda and other post-conflict societies. McConnell observed that we have a generation of political leaders with little history or passion and that there is a lack of strong leadership in the EU as a whole (with the possible exception of Germany). The difference between Bosnia and Rwanda, he said, was in the leadership but it is not really correct to draw comparisons between Rwanda and Bosnia (given what had previously been discussed on different paces and rates of change). It was perhaps most accurate to look at post-war Germany and the steps that were taken to suppress right-wing ideologies.

In closing, McConnell warned that we should not forget the facts and we should not let people minimise the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. We require education and witness participation so that change can be made but also to prevent it happening elsewhere. Dr Palmer closed by saying there is no perfect fix. We must be ever vigilant and aware of the risks and the cost of not getting it right. He stressed that we must not forget.

Gloriosa Bazigaga closed by saying that the work of International Alert in the communities should be a lesson for other institutions. The Catholic Church, for example, has not reflecting on the role of their priests in the genocide. Finally, HE Nkurunziza stated that we must get involved, that it is important to be an ambassador in the global campaign against genocide.

The debate was followed by a lively discussion on Apartheid and the possible application of the TRC model to Rwanda instead of the Gacaca courts and a comment on whether people should forgive and forget (as opposed to remembering what happened). The event was then following by drinks and canapés and an exhibition of the work of photojournalist Carole Allen Storey.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

This Day in History: 6 April 1994

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide. On this day in history on 6 April 1994, the plane carrying presidents Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi was shot down just outside Kigali airport in the Rwandan capital.

It was the catalyst that started the Rwandan genocide and over the next 100 days between April and July 1994, between 800,000 and 1.2 million Rwandans of Tutsi and moderate Hutu origin were murdered.

The assassination of the president might have triggered the genocide but in truth, this was a carefully planned, organised and systematic attempt to wipe out the Tutsi race.

As early as December 1990, 3 years before the start of the genocide, a racist manifesto known as the The Hutu Ten Commandments appeared in the anti-Tutsi newspaper Kangura in which Hutus were reminded of their inherent superiority to Tutsis and their responsibility to maintain racial purity.

Over the years, hostilities escalated as Tutsi were scapegoated, targeted and increasingly dehumanised. It was a disturbingly familiar turn of events that Dr Gregory Stanton of Genocide Watch now refers to as the Ten Stages of Genocide.

In the months leading up to the genocide, it became ever more clear that something was amiss. In what has become notorious as the Genocide Fax, on 11 January 1994 Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire of the UN sent a facsimile to his superiors explicitly warning of the major stockpiling of weapons and the mobilisation of forces to exterminate the Tutsis. His concerns and those of other key individuals were ignored.

Once it began, the genocide continued unabated until Paul Kagame's RPF forces gained control of the country in mid-July 1994.

The world did not respond during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and today, despite being discussed by the UN Security Council on more than one occasion, we've not responded in Syria. This is the reason why, on the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, it is more important than ever to understand, educate and discuss genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and mass murder in order to prevent them from happening in the future.

Click to read more about Rwanda or Genocide on this blog.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Film Review: Fire in the Blood

Fire in the Blood DVD packshot

In the summer of 1991, at the end of my first year in university, I went on a course on HIV / AIDS so that I could learn to educate young children about the disease. We talked about prevention, transmission and the lack of a cure. It never fails to confound me that 20 years later we were still preaching the same lessons when ARVs were found to be successful in the treatment of the disease in 1996.

Narrated by Academy Award-winner William Hurt and an official selection in the 2013 Sundance Festival, documentary Fire in the Blood is the story of how Western pharmaceutical companies and governments aggressively blocked access to low-cost AIDS drugs and generics across the developing world at a cost of an estimated ten million deaths.

Shot on four continents and featuring archived footage, Fire in the Blood exposes the fight for people in developing countries to access HIV / AIDS treatment which cost $15,000 a year or an average of $40 per dose. As a point of perspective, the average weekly wage in South Africa, the richest country on the African continent, is $68.

The film covers the patents which prevent the sale, production or import of generic drugs; the pressure on governments to uphold such patents at the threat of trade sanctions; and the propaganda machine that cultivated fear of counterfeit drugs, viral mutations and non-conformity to treatment should drugs be made available in the developing world.

Fire in the Blood still

All of this is discussed against the backdrop of the profiteering of pharmaceutical companies and the actual cost of the active ingredients in anti-retroviral drugs and the cost of producing them.

The film discusses the eventual victory that resulted in the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR/Emergency Plan) and the resulting backlash and extension of the TRIPS agreement which will make it very difficult for such victories in the future.

Pharmaceutical companies might have lost the battle with respect to the treatment of HIV and AIDS but Fire in the Blood concludes that everyday people might lose the war. With more and more Americans reporting an inability to afford medications, will we be able to sweep drug company monopolies under the carpet like we did when it was just third-worlders?

Fire in the Blood DVD packshotFire in the Blood is directed by Dylan Mohan Gray and is feature-length at 84 minutes. The pace is fast and the narrative features contributions from Zackie Achmat, co-founder of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, Joseph Stiglitz and Yusuf Hamied, chairman of Cipla, an Indian socially conscious generic pharmaceuticals company. The film includes powerful scenes showing the improvements in the lives of individuals in Uganda, India and South Africa once access to anti-retroviral drugs was improved.

Fire in the Blood is a powerful, important film that will be released on DVD in the UK on 24 March 2014. I highly recommend the film and give it five out of five stars. The film has only seen a limited release in the USA despite being prominent in film festivals in 2013.

You can purchase Fire in the Blood from Amazon.co.uk.


Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Fire in the Blood’ on Blogcritics. This review contains affiliate links.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Film Review: When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun

When The Dragon Swallowed the SunIt always interests me when people share quotations attributed, often falsely, to the Dalai Lama. While it is clear that he is an international symbol of peace and unity, I wonder how many people know that the Dalai Lama is an exile and has been living outside of his home country since his escape in 1959.

The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 ushered in a period of increasing religious and political persecution. The 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation was crushed with devastating consequences for the leadership of the country. The Tibetan government was declared illegal and the leadership forced into exile, while the 14th Dalai Lama himself escaped over the Himalaya mountains into India. The Chinese government declared 28 March 1959 to be Serf Emancipation Day and insists that it represents the liberation of Tibetans from a system of feudalism and theocracy.

Tibet - Dragon Swallowed the Sun

The modern history of Tibet is one of great tragedy; human rights abuses and atrocities have been regularly documented. Like many others under Chinese rule, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans perished in Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1960 to 1962. Thousands of Tibetan monasteries were destroyed in this period and yet more were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.

The Chinese government has met protests in the 1980s and during the 2008 Olympics with brute force and lethal crackdowns. Reports from Tibet speak of arbitrary arrests, excessive punishments, disappearances and torture. While Chinese citizens are lead to believe that Tibetans are exempt from the one-child policy, Tibetans are in fact subjected to involuntary sterilizations, forced abortions and even infanticide.

Despite these well-documented events and a fairly strong worldwide movement to Free Tibet, why is it that Tibet hasn’t been freed?

Dirk Simon is the director of When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun, a feature length documentary on the movement to free Tibet from Chinese occupation. Seven years in the making, the film features interviews with and footage of the 14th Dalai Lama, the exiled prime minister of Tibet as well as the exiled king Lhagyari Trichen Namgyal Wangchuk, the 18th descendant of the Great Religious Kings of Tibet.

Tibet - When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun

The film explores the key split in the movement, between those who have resigned themselves to Tibetan autonomy within China and those who continue to strive for freedom and independence from China. As the young king is crowned, he must struggle to balance his education and youth with the incredible burden and responsibility placed on his shoulders. With the western world far more interested in wooing the Chinese and securing their place in China’s great economic future, the Chinese government steps up their attempt to re-educate Tibetans and eradicate Tibetan culture and religion once and for all.

When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun paints a bleak picture of a movement in tatters but does it work as a documentary? The answer is not quite. With such a provocative title, dramatic cinematic trailer and the promise of the involvement of celebrity figures such as Richard Gere and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, this is a documentary that promises much more than it delivers. Most people picking up this documentary will want to learn more about the history of modern day in Tibet and the reality of life for Tibetans both in the country and those in exile but that isn’t provided.

Interviews with key figures seem out of place, unrelated to the scenes preceding or following them, and they don’t appear to follow any greater direction or narrative. The footage of both historical and current events occurs in its raw form without narration, context or description and the viewer is left to try and decipher the direction that the documentary is taking. With so many disconnected scenes, little insight is provided into the situation.

When The Dragon Swallowed the Sun pack shotUltimately, When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun is disappointing. It is quite beautiful with impressive cinematography, but this is to be expected of a film about one of the most beautiful and remote regions on earth. The film would have benefitted with more focus on historical events and a more nuanced exploration of the difficulties that Tibetan people face under Chinese occupation. It is a pity because this film could have been a great opportunity to spread word about the situation in Tibet.

When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun was released in the UK on DVD 9 December 2013 and can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Audiobook review: The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

The War That Ended Peace UK cover

I believe that each generation thinks of the First and Second World Wars in a different way, depending on whether our peers, parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents fought in them. In my case, my great-grandfathers fought in the First World War and my grandfather in the Second. I have a living memory of my grandfather living with injuries sustained in the Second World War and I recall the stories he told me about his time in all of the major theatres of the war.

Yet somehow I have never quite been able to fathom how total war was possible. I saw the glory days of Europe at the turn of the century, with its world fairs and expositions, followed by the roaring twenties and the Great Depression. I knew about the First World War, of course I did, but I struggled to connect the culture of innovation, harmony and discovery with total war and absolute devastation.

This perception was not helped by the way in which the outbreak of the war was explained to us in school. Countless articles and books began with statements along the lines of, “when Gavrilo Princip assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo in 1914, he had no idea of what he was setting in motion”.

This never made sense to me. We were taught that the First World War was an inevitable consequence of this one act of assassination but I could never accept that, and rightly so.

The War That Ended Peace UK coverWith the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War taking place next year, I thought what better choice than Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace, narrated by Richard Burnip and released on audiobook format by Audible.

The War That Ended Peace begins with a description of The Exposition Universelle of 1900. This world fair was held in Paris to showcase the great achievements of the world in terms of innovation, technology and advancement. The proceedings were imbued with a general feeling of well-being and confidence, even in the presence of a healthy atmosphere of competition between the participating nations.

How then did the world descend into chaos? MacMillan warns in the very first chapter that Europeans were complacent, that they should have paid more attention to the American Civil War and Franco-Prussian Wars.

What follows is an extremely well-researched and in-depth look at the personalities behind the war. Each chapter looks at the motivations, insecurities and observations of the key political players in the context of rising distrust and rivalry between the nations. Meanwhile, alliances form in the most unexpected of places while old alliances fail. The detailed biographies focus not just on Britain’s King George V, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and Russia’s Czar Nicholas II but include Lord Salisbury, Admiral Jackie Fisher and Alfred von Tirpitz amongst others.

Ultimately, The War That Ended Peace appears to leave more questions than it provides answers. We’re provided with an important insight into the key payers but are we to believe that war was inevitable because of a simple comedy of errors, a clash of egos or a series of unfortunate diplomatic mistakes? Perhaps looking at the wars of the first decades of the 21st century, that is precisely what it was. MacMillan draws parallels between modern day terrorist organisations and the anarchists and activists of the previous century and concludes ominously that there are always choices.

The audiobook version of The War That Ended Peace is narrated by Richard Burnip, an actor and historian who previously narrated Frank Wynne’s I Was Veneer. After listening to several fictional works on audiobook, I decided to experiment and listen to a work of non-fiction in this format. I do like to read non-fiction works but progress can often be slow, especially with historical or political works which can tend to be a bit dry and heavy.

I won’t lie, The War That Ended Peace is long. The print version of the book is 784 pages long and progress through an audiobook is rather defined by the pace of the narration. While superbly enunciated and clearly understandable, Burnip’s narration was extremely slow and I increased the narration speed to 1.25x and even 1.5x to quicken the pace. Nevertheless, Burnip used just the right amount of solemnity and levity in his narration and made it much easier to progress through this lengthy tome than I fear I would have experienced had I tried to read the book. Despite this, it still took almost a month to work my way to the end of the audiobook.

The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan is available to purchase in audiobook format from Audible.co.uk, in paperback from Amazon.co.uk and in hardcover and Kindle format from Amazon.com.


Article first published as Audiobook Review: ‘The War That Ended Peace’ by Margaret MacMillan on Blogcritics.

A copy of this audiobook was provided to me for the purposes of this review and all opinions contain herein are my own.

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