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Remembering What Others Prefer to Forget : SEASON OF BLOOD: A Rwandan Journey. By Fergal Keane (Viking: $21.95, 198 pp.)

August 04, 1996|Carter Coleman | Carter Coleman was a stringer for Time magazine's Nairobi bureau. His first novel, "The Volunteer," set in East Africa, will be published next year by Warner Books

In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve begot two sons: Abel, a shepherd, and Cain, a farmer. Envious of his brother Abel, whose gift of a firstborn from his flocks found higher regard in God's eyes than his own gift of crops, "Cain rose up against Abel his brother and he killed him." Cain was condemned to wander the Earth, protected, oddly, by God's proclamation that "whoever came upon him would not strike him down."

In the last 40 years, this bloody paradigm has been repeated periodically in Rwanda. Hutu farmers, traditionally short and dark-skinned, have risen up against Tutsi shepherds, who are typically taller and lighter-skinned. Long envious of the Tutsi's cattle herds, the Hutus resent the old days of the Tutsi aristocracy and suffer from a lingering sense of inferiority.

After four centuries, hundreds of thousands of Hutus and Tutsis are related through inter-marriage, and the tribes are no longer easy to distinguish physically. But in April 1994, the Hutus began killing their Tutsi brethren at a rate rivaling any genocide in human memory. They were whipped into a frenzy by leaders bent on killing every last Tutsi, a story chillingly retold in "Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey" by BBC television journalist Fergal Keane.

Today, the Tutsis lead an uneasy government of national reconciliation with groups of moderate Hutus, after triumphing in the bloody civil war. But the specter of continued conflict and more genocide continues to haunt Rwanda, as Keane repeatedly points out.

"Remember the figures," he pleads, in his compelling, first-hand account of the tragedy. "Never ever forget them: in one hundred days, up to one million people were hacked, shot, strangled, clubbed and burned to death. . . . This is not to ignore the vast numbers who were wounded, raped and terrorized, or the thousands of orphans whom I found clustered around derelict buildings across the country."

Keane, who has produced a book of brief but carefully considered reportage, history and meditation, arrived in Rwanda about two-thirds of the way through the killing season. The book follows him and his camera crew first into territory captured by Tutsi rebels, past rivers flowing with bloated Tutsis and churches piled high with mutilated Tutsis. Then he enters the shrinking domain of the retreating Hutu killers. Keane's depiction of the journey is captivating, his history of the conflict lucid and the whole of the book very disturbing.

"Season of Blood" is a descent into hell and succeeds on the strength of its novelistic narrative. The cast of characters--the good soldiers, the children literally dying of sadness, the monks undone by the slaughter at their orphanage, the drunken killers--are all very well drawn. There are passages rich and ironic enough to recall the African travel writing of Graham Greene. Keane's is the only major book on the Rwandan genocide to have appeared so far, perhaps because the other journalists who were there would prefer to forget what they saw.

"Those of us who spent time in Rwanda to a man can't remember," says Aidan Hartley, a reporter seasoned in the African civil wars. "Keane was moved by what he saw. Everyone else was silent or cynical." Indeed, the author makes you feel what it was like to observe such devastation precisely because he records his own emotional reactions to events as they happen. And throughout his riveting odyssey, he weaves a lucid history of the African conflict:

In 1918, the Treaty of Versailles awarded the former German colony of Ruanda--as it was then known--to Belgium as a League of Nations protectorate. The Belgians chose to administer the territory through the existing Tutsi monarchy. Outnumbered 10 to 1, the Tutsis ruled the Hutus, and the Belgians introduced ethnic identity cards differentiating the two tribes.

In 1959, the Tutsi king died and the Hutu majority, angered by its diminished status, massacred thousands of Tutsis. Many more fled to nearby countries. Three years later, Rwanda gained independence with a Hutu government and launched yet another blood bath that produced a second wave of Tutsi refugees. A third and fourth purge of Tutsis occurred in 1967 and 1973.

The Tutsis fought back in 1990 when Tutsi soldiers--along with refugees from 1959 and their sons and daughters who had grown up in exile--invaded Rwanda from Uganda. They were unlike any other guerrilla army in Africa, highly disciplined, not given to rape and pillage. After six months of fighting, in which French troops helped repulse the Tutsi advance, a cease-fire was signed.

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