In the lead-up to my third and final year at KCL, I sat down to select modules for the coming year. As I scanned the modules offered, one entitled ‘Testimony: Holocaust and Rwanda’ jumped out at me. It seemed as though it would provide a fertile crossroads to explore both literature and history, and it did just that. It has been my favourite module of my degree although, this semester’s ‘Literature and Partition’ is threatening to take its place. Initially, I was worried about the fact that I would be required to write my own essay question/prompt but in the end, I enjoyed this aspect as the essay became irrevocably mine. I did not include the entire prompt in the article title as I think it would have looked clumsy, so I have copied it below. For those of you who know little about the Rwandan genocide (as I did), I highly recommend you watch/read the two texts discussed. They are widely available through Amazon and YouTube and they give good insight into a largely overlooked/forgotten part of history – at least in a Western context.
The Rwandan Genocide: the Redistribution of Christian Morals and Values in Sometimes in April and We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.
In Rwanda in 1994, decades of tension between the minority Tutsi ethnic group and the Hutu majority erupted in thorough and systematic genocide. By the time the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), an army of exiled Tutsi and Hutu sympathisers, led by Rwanda’s current president Paul Kagame, halted the genocide in mid-July 1994, approximately 800,000 Rwandans, both Tutsi and Hutu, had been killed. The product of a carefully orchestrated plan by Hutu extremists close to President Habiryamana, the genocide was aided by the complicity of many of Rwanda’s major religious figures – a fact not overlooked by Raoul Peck in his 2004 film, Sometimes in April, and Philip Gourevitch in his book, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. This complicity accorded the church an important role in Hutu Power’s mobilisation of Africa’s most Christianised population to kill their colleagues, neighbours and friends, and conferred on Hutu Power’s political doctrine a bastardised religious legitimacy. Both texts depict many religious figures to be devoid of the Christian values, with their actions being largely indistinguishable from those of Hutu Power’s political leaders. Despite these negative appraisals of the church and many of its leaders, the texts leave the key Christian values of love, compassion and self-sacrifice un-criticised. Conversely, individuals both real and fictional, upholding a strong moral code are steeped in Christian imagery and symbolism. This redistribution of religious attributes from clergy to non-clergy saturates both texts, providing Gourevitch and Peck with an artistic vehicle to highlight the polar actions of the depicted persons and understand the church’s role in the genocide, as well as culturally reflecting the deeply engrained role of Christianity in Rwanda’s national identity.
Gourevitch’s chosen setting of Nyarubuye as the starting point of his book immediately establishes the centrality of religion in his understanding of the genocide. But Gourevitch’s opening account does more than just acknowledge religion’s role in the genocide, it introduces the complexity of its role. It is key that Gourevitch’s first meeting with a Rwandan within the Hutu/Tutsi dichotomy occurs here, at a memorial site famed for deliberately leaving the victims as they fell. Gourevitch recalls that Sergeant Francis of the post-genocide Rwandese Patriotic Army “…materialized with his Kalashnikov”, imbuing the sergeant with a ghostly quality that draws immediate parallels to the Vatican-verified Marion apparitions at Kibeho. Gourevitch informs us that the Kibeho apparitions were widely interpreted to represent God’s blessing of the genocide, forming a link between Christianity and violence, which is muddied because the victims sought refuge in a church, and Gourevitch’s observes a “…Bible bloated with rain lying on top of a corpse”. This intertwining of religion with life and death provides a convoluted portrait of religion as both perpetrator and saviour, and reflects the differing responses of clergymen to the genocide. As Gourevitch and Peck note, some clergy protected Tutsi and Hutu sympathisers in the face of extreme danger, but the overarching tendency of both texts is to display the clergy as complicit in the violence. Gourevitch’s direct association of the church and the Bible, symbols of Christianity, with the skeletons around him, sets the stage for the redistribution of Christian values from official religious leaders to those individuals who upheld Christian morals and often died for doing so. This redistribution is clarified by separating, and then comparing, Peck’s and Gourevitch’s depictions of clergy with their depictions of non-clergy.
The President of Mugonero Adventist Complex during the genocide, Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, is the first clergyman presented in We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, and is depicted as being thoroughly devoid of Christian values. Gourevitch starts with his own failed attempt to interview the pastor, at an address where only an empty house and a growling dog receive him. The dog, innocuous at first, gains meaning later when Gourevitch comments on the absence of dogs in post-genocide Rwanda. Shot because they fed on the dead, the growling dog presages an eerie image of the as yet unknown Pastor Ntakirutimana, and by extension, clergymen in general. The correlation between Pastor Ntakirutimana and Rwanda’s scavenging dogs, casts him as opportunistic, reflecting a widely documented motive for the clergy’s support of the genocide:
…just as political officials chose genocide as a means of reasserting their authority in the face of challenges from a democracy movement and civil war, struggles over power within Rwanda’s Christian churches led some church leaders to accept the genocide as a means of eliminating challenges to their own authority within the churches.
Pastor Ntakirutimana’s self-serving nature is compounded by his physical surrounds. His house is large, “The distant voices of the Rwandan maid and a Mexican nanny echoed off the marble floors and lofty ceilings of further rooms”, eschewing the spartan lifestyle traditionally associated with the clergy. Clothed in black and grey, sitting in a wingtip chair, surrounded by loyal henchman in the form of family members and a lawyer, Ntakirutimana is almost the manifestation of a cartoon villain. His only link to his former life as a servant of God comes in his name, which we are informed, means “nothing is greater than God”. His name is an empty example of his Christian dedication, and his reliance on it as a symbol of morality is furthered when his wife presents a letter sent to him by seven Tutsi pastors who sought refuge in his church, begging for his intervention. In it, they liken Ntakirutimana to Queen Esther, the biblical savior of Persia’s Jews, but despite this and the religious imagery of his name, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) convicted him in 2003 of transporting armed militia to the Complex. Although Ntakirutimana’s conviction came six years after the 1998 publication of Gourevitch’s novel, Gourevitch’s belief in Ntakirutimana’s guilt manifests itself at the end of the interview. Gourevitch dramatically cuts from receiving the letter to being escorted to his car, “Dr Ntaki walked me out to my car”, highlighting the lack of friendship or warmth expected of a pastor, and conjuring unpleasant images of a falling machete, the frequent tool of the genocide.
Gourevitch’s negative portrayal of Pastor Ntakirutimana initiates a book-long dissolution of the clergy’s morally upright Christian veneer, which continues in his interview with the Bishop of Gikongoro, Monsignor Augustin Misago. Misago is physically imposing, mirroring the atmosphere of intimidation attributed to Pastor Ntakirutimana. The centrepiece of Misago’s office is a portrait of himself, overshadowing a much smaller portrait of the Pope and emphasising the egotism of the clergy established in Gourevitch’s description of Ntakirutimana. The similarities continue with Misago desperately clutching a symbol of his dedication to God: his bishop’s robe. Comparing this vestment to the characters garbed in white in Peck’s Sometimes in April, reveals an interesting difference. The white uniforms of Anne-Marie and her classmates, the most courageous and selfless individuals in the film, bestow upon them a pure, even virginal quality – a quality revered in the Christian faith. Bishop Misago’s white robes, however, are corrupted by purple buttons, bestowing on him lesser qualities. Historically associated with royalty and the clergy, the colour purple is also associated with vanity and individualism, due ironically to its association with these institutions and the wealth and power they wield.
Gourevitch’s mention of a detail in the Bishop’s clothing draws attention to the Bishop’s vanity and loss of godliness, and more importantly, injects an aura of duplicity, which can extend to the wider clergy. One can imagine the buttons straining to hold together Misago’s veneer of Christian values as he nervously laughs, “Ha-ha-ha!” His laughter and “wild gesticulations” suggest behaviour more similar to Peck’s swaggering Interahamwe than a clergyman’s, and Misago’s constant shifting suggests a guilty conscience and a desire to deflect Gourevitch’s insinuations. In his attempts at deflection, Misago explicitly names the Archbishop of Kigali as being complicit in the genocide, and explains that this is why he, himself, could not denounce Hutu Power. This transfer of blame, mixed with irresolute responses, recalls the answers of Ntakirutimana’s lawyer and typifies Gourevitch’s portrayals of the clergy, effectively stripping it of integrity and honesty – important tenets of good Christian character.
Peck’s first major condemnation of the clergy comes just before the massacre at Anne-Marie’s school, and follows Gourevitch’s depictions of an imposing and authoritarian clergy. Although the Father is not aggressive, he is taller than Martine and speaks with the authority of one used to being obeyed. His readiness to comply with the demands of the genocidaires is emphasised in Peck’s camera work. During the conversation the camera cuts between close-ups of Martine and the Father’s face, and while Martine protests, school-girls run around behind her, flying past her worried expression, whereas the Father’s unchanging, stoic expression is framed by an empty room. This illustrates the Father’s abandonment of his flock and foreshadows Martine’s imminent adoption of the lost. His abandonment is underlined by Peck cutting from the conversation to Washington D.C., where the camera slowly pans from an American flag over an ornamental eagle with wings spread wide, to focus on scattered pictures of Rwandan women and children. The placement of the eagle conveys two things. Firstly, symbolic of the United States, it draws a link between two power structures that failed to fulfil their duty – the clergy as protectors of their flock, and the US as a signatory to the 1948 Genocide Convention. Secondly, a bird of prey, the eagle conjures morbid connotations like those of Gourevitch’s growling dog, again linking the clergy to the genocide.
Peck does not mention Ntakirutimana or Misago in Sometimes in April, but he does depict Father Wenclesas Munyeshyaka. Despite Gourevitch’s relatively minor discussion of Wenceslas, we are informed that he swapped his collar and Bible for blue jeans, a t-shirt and a pistol, so it is curious that Peck shows him only in religious attire. Perhaps this is deliberate, to ensure audiences uneducated on the genocide do not fail to recognise him as a clergyman and note his role in the violence. Peck’s condemnation of the Father begins before he is even shown on screen. Peck introduces the Saint-Famille Church, a famous site of killings, by overlaying a close-up of a Virgin Mary statue inside the church with the day, number and death toll. This indirect linkage of Wenceslas, the head of the Saint-Famille congregation, to the genocide, foreshadows his true nature. The subtle removal of his Christian values continues in the second scene with a shot of the Virgin Mary, before cutting harshly to soldiers entering the church with Father Wenclesas. One soldier directs Wenceslas to get a more comprehensive list, suggesting that while he complies with the genocidaires, Wenclesas is attempting to mitigate the damage. When Wenclesas reappears, it is after the soldiers’ rape of Jeanne. Fully clothed in priest’s attire, with a cross around his neck and Bible in hand, he begs Jeanne not to release a snatched grenade. Like Ntakirutimana and Misago, Peck depicts Wenclesas as hiding behind corrupted symbols of moral authority, and his pleading retreat from Jeanne into the darkness of the corner emphasises his debasement. The dark gradually covers the symbols of the clergy’s purity: his collar, cross and Bible. While Peck does not clarify if Wenclesas was active in the rape – he is fully clothed but the soldiers are undressed – his presence signifies Peck’s complete removal of his Christian values. The revelation of Wenclesas’ corrupted nature reflects his, and the wider clergy’s, role in the genocide, and Peck carefully constructs our journey to this epiphany. With hindsight, the initial interpretation of the Father’s attempts to mitigate violence is thrown into doubt. Peck’s shots of massed refugees bowing in fear now hold a chilling alternate interpretation of the refugees bowing before the soldiers and Wenclesas.
Gourevitch’s and Peck’s negative portrayals do more than remove Christian values, they introduce the devastating nature of the clergy’s role in the genocide. The illusion of the safety of the clergy, and the misery this inflicted on refugees, is a major consideration of both texts. Gourevitch’s focus on Ntakirutimana’s and Misago’s transfer of blame is particularly important. Misago’s, position that he had to follow church policy, demonstrates a purported culture of obedience in Rwanda:
Conformity is very deep, very developed here… everyone obeys authority. So the people of influence are often the big men in the genocide. They may think they didn’t take life with their own hands, but the people were looking to them for orders.
Others reject suggestions that Rwandans blindly follow authority, and posit a more nuanced analysis:
…less a national predisposition to obey orders, as is sometimes said, than a recognition that the ‘moral authority’ of the state swayed them to commit crimes that would otherwise have been unthinkable.
If Des Forges is correct, this further condemns the clergy, as it conferred on Hutu Power a Christian and morally acceptable ideology that went beyond politics. It became a combination of Church and State – the only authority in the land – and “…left the way clear for officials, politicians, and propagandists to assert that the slaughter actually met with God’s favor.” Hutu Power exploited this interpretation: “Slaughter was known as ‘work’” and “machetes and firearms to achieve and prosper were described as ‘tools'”, reframing the genocide as a wholesome Christian activity, a major community improvement scheme operating like traditional church outreach programs.
The ubiquity of this church-endorsed framework of moral and political authority is shown in Peck’s Sometimes in April, perhaps more powerfully due to the greater artistic freedom of a fictional narrative and visual medium. Similar to the American eagle, religiously infused symbols of Hutu Power are woven throughout the film, such as the repeated use of Radio RTLM operating as the voice of God, judging who should live and die. Its disembodied nature parallels an unseen God, whose voice emanates from the heavens.
Hutu Power’s all-powerful, God-like stature is further impressed upon the audience during the slaughter of Augustin’s family. Again, a disembodied voice determines a family’s fate, while a billboard extolling Hutu Power’s virtue overlooks the slaughter. The site of their deaths, an army roadblock situated at the top of a rise, drips with religious symbolism. The rise operates as the ascent to heaven, the roadblock as Heaven’s gates, and those who are found unworthy are not only rejected, but condemned to suffer. Hutu Power’s strength is manifested in its weapons and, as both texts show, its will extended into churches, where some of the worst massacres took place, emphasising its complete moral authority. Peck masterfully demonstrates the clergy’s role in Hutu Power’s rise to religious legitimacy with his portrayal of refugees bowed before both soldiers and Father Wenclesas at Sainte-Famille. The first impression is that their bowing is induced solely by fear, but in concert with Peck’s representation of Hutu Power’s ascent to the heights of God, their bowing adopts a prayer-like quality. The clergy’s renunciation of traditional Christian values becomes damningly apparent, and so does its guilt. This creates a vacuum in which Christian morals can be reassigned, and Peck’s and Gourevitch’s descriptions of individuals who accept this mantle are steeped in religious imagery and symbolism.
Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of Kigali’s Hotel des Mille Collines, who saved thousands of refugees from death, is described by Gourevitch in the traditional image of a priest, “Paul is a mild-mannered man, sturdily built and rather ordinary-looking.” Interestingly, he refers to him as Paul, accentuating a personable nature and familiarity, which is notably absent from Ntakirutimana and Misago. Gourevitch’s character descriptions extend beyond the surface, to provide a good measure of what is within. He links the external and internal, painting Paul not just as the epitome of Christian values, but as a modern Moses leading refugees to safety. Paul’s actions could summon, almost unbidden, an image of Moses, but it is carefully cultivated by Gourevitch. The key difference between Paul and Ntakirutimana and Misago, is that Paul resisted the genocide. This paints Paul as a saviour. His use of “…a liquor cabinet, a phone line, [and] an internationally famous address”, bought the refuges safety “…until the time came when they were saved by someone else”, and clearly emulates Moses leading the Jews to the Promised Land and God’s protection. Gourevitch describes Paul as “righteous” and uses punctuation to further emphasize his Moses-like status. “Paul had devoted all his diverse energies avoiding death – his own and others – but what he…”. Unlike Gourevitch’s other descriptions that place a distance between authority figures and flocks, Paul is firmly alongside his flock, exhibiting a selfless desire to save others, despite danger to himself. At the end of Paul’s narrative there is a quote from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda regarding the eponymous character who unselfishly helps others to his own disadvantage. Eliot based Deronda on Moses, and just as Moses was an Egyptian Jew who led his people to the Promised Land, Deronda is an English Jew planning to do the same. Gourevitch’s quotation underlines Paul’s Christian values and the danger he accepted as the shepherd of a condemned flock. Although not Jewish, Paul protects a similarly targeted ethnic group until a greater power can intervene.
The redistribution of Christian values from clergy to non-clergy throughout Sometimes in April exhibits an interesting gradient, reflecting the differing roles that characters adopted while protecting others from the genocide. Peck’s depiction of this gradient can been seen by examining the religious symbolism and imagery used in Martine’s and Augustin’s narratives.
Martine works in a Catholic school, but her clothing suggests she is not clergy. While she has a cross around her neck, this only signifies religious belief, elsewhere Peck includes shots of fully clothed nuns during the massacre. The earlier scene of the camera panning from the US flag to photographs, also attributes Martine a symbolic bird. In between the eagle and the photographs is a small, white swan, alluding to Martine’s purity and loving nature, and foreshadows her refusal to abandon her girls. Martine’s maintenance of Christian morals is particularly accentuated in a series of shots immediately prior to the massacre, which liken her to the Virgin Mary. Starting with a shot of the back of the statue of the Virgin Mary, representing the school’s clergy abandoning their flock, Peck transitions to a shot of Martine gathering children in her arms, like the traditional depiction of the Virgin Mary cradling Baby Jesus. This poignantly signifies Martine’s link with the Virgin Mary and Christian values. She remains a matronly, loving figure, supporting Augustin to overcome tragedy. Peck reveals this, in a scene awash with religious overtones, when they meet. Martine is bathed in light, white and pure, and Augustin collapses at her feet, assuming a foetal position. In grief, Augustin reverts to a small child unable to find his way, and Martine adopts the role of mother and shepherd.
Augustin inhabits a middle ground between the complicit clergy and the heroic actions of Paul and Martine. While not actively protecting those outside his immediate family, Augustin does not partake in, or encourage the killings. He is a victim of the genocide, devastated by his losses, and Peck anchors his narrative in religious imagery, highlighting his conflicted and tormented nature. He is not shown as Christian, nor like Martine, but rather as a symbol of the lost, of those needing to be saved. However, his life is renewed and resurrected by his relationship with the pure and selfless Martine, showing that he is fundamentally moral and compatible with her Christian values.
Augustin travels to Tanzania to visit his imprisoned brother, Honore. At three stages in this journey to emotional freedom, Peck prominently employs imagery of Catholic confession to frame the narrative: Augustin’s house, Honore’s prison and Hotel Kilimanjaro. At his home, Peck covers Augustine with lattice-worked shadow, redolent of the light of a confessional, as he revisits his past by reading a letter from Honore. The disembodied voice of Honore rings out, while Augustin is framed by the photos of his deceased wife and children. Augustin breaks down as his past overwhelms him and he moves from the living room to the bathroom, signifying that daily life and his past are incompatible. The bathroom, a place of privacy away from the business of daily life, represents his burying of his past in order to survive, and its cold, bare walls simulate Honore’s cell and Augustine’s inability to move on.
The second stage of Augustin’s renewal comes during his visit to Honore. Here Peck cuts between close-ups of Honore and Augustin. Honore is framed by a bare cell wall, while behind Augustin the open door of the barred cell is backlit by sunlight. Again, Peck evokes the translucent, dividing screen of the confessional, this time the prison door separating Augustin and the courtyard. Learning the truth about his family’s slaughter profoundly distresses Augustin, but also gives knowledge that can provide closure. Augustin is offered a door to embrace his new life with Martine, rather than the imprisoning memories the wall of photos represents.
The final confession occurs at the Hotel Kilimanjaro, named after the highest freestanding mountain in the world. It is apropos that the final stage of Augustin’s confession parallels Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. One of the beatitudes delivered is exceedingly relevant, “Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.” While here, he meets Valentin, a woman testifying at the ICTR, who, with her two boys, act as resurrected family figures imbued with angelic imagery. ‘Angel’ stems from the Greek word for messenger, and they provide a vehicle for Augustin to make peace with his past.
The relationship begins with Valentine’s disembodied crying floating through a wall, again like a confession. Augustin responds to her voice and enters the final stage of his healing process. Their relationship moves from disembodied to physical, starting with Augustine playing with Valentin’s children, stressing the importance of engaging with new life and accepting his soon to be born son as something new and exciting, rather than just being a living version of the photograph of his dead sons. Valentine then appears on the balcony, backed by clouds, solidifying her angelic quality, while her testimony at court mirrors the rape and pain of his wife. Eventually, on meeting, they both smile, a first for Augustine since the genocide, and Valentin’s children salute him as his two boys once did, which he returns. They say their goodbyes and climb stairs out of sight, evocative of an ascent to heaven. Peck emphasizes Augustin’s final rehabilitation by cutting to Martine stroking Augustin’s child while he delivers a monologue recognising how quickly life can end and his embrace of his new life with Martine and his child.
Peck’s Sometimes in April and Gourevitch’s We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families examine the complex forces at play during the Rwandan genocide. To do so, the inclusion of religion is essential, and it rises from each narrative in ways both explicit and implicit. While both acknowledge that some of the clergy, those entrusted to spread the Christian message and values to the masses, maintained their morality, they also stress that many clergy abandoned their Christian values, and played direct or indirect roles in the killings to retain power and influence, or to merely survive. Peck and Gourevitch contrast the actions of the clergy with other individuals maintaining a good, moral and ethical code. They accentuate the clergy’s complicity by assigning these individuals traditional Christian mores, values and a sense of godliness, and repeatedly depict them using Christian imagery and symbolism. The redistribution of Christian morality and the use of evocative religious imagery create a damning portrayal of the clergy’s role in the genocide. The efficacy and power of these representations lies in their choice to employ a religious framework that extends beyond Rwanda and is familiar to the wider Christian and Western world.
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