The 20th anniversary of the Genocide in Rwanda.

In  the 1920’s, after World War 1, Rwanda ceased to be a colony of Germany and became part of the Belgian colonial Empire.  The Belgian authorities decided to take a more direct role in running the nation than the relative autonomy the Kings of Rwanda had enjoyed.  They decided that almost all political power should go to ethnic Tutsis rather than the far more populous Hutus, the rulers of Rwanda would need Belgian military power to retain their crown and so the Kings could not revolt.

Of course it wasn’t quite that simple, the Belgian authorities needed to find a way to legitimise this policy so they turned to the racist, pseudo-scientific field of Hamitic theory.  This theory proposed that Tutsis were the descendents of North African migrants who… you know what?  It’s complicated, it would take a long time to explain and it’s utter bollocks.  The upshot of it is that racist Europeans used this field of study to ‘prove’ that Tutsis were racially superior to Hutus, and it stuck.  Tutsis became a form of upper class Rwandan whereas Hutus were the teeming multitude of the working class.  In 1935 Belgium introduced identity cards to Rwanda which labelled the bearer as either Hutu, Tutsi, Twa (a tiny minority) or ‘Naturalised’.  All of a sudden it was impossible to change tribes, as it had been before, if you were born a Hutu you could never become a Tutsi.  Social advancement was stopped in its tracks.

It couldn’t last forever of course, the Hutu emancipation movement began to gain ground, soured and became a Hutu supremacist movement.  They claimed that throwing out the Tutsis who, according to Hamitic theory, were migrants to native Hutu land anyway was the right thing to do.  Violence broke out, as it had before, and thousands died.

Sporadic outbreaks of deeply aggressive racial violence broke out over and over again, the predominantly Tutsi military killed many Hutus, Hutu gangs killed many Tutsis and it achieved nothing.  Eventually the Tutsi king was ousted and deposed and the Belgian authorities realised that they were going to have to leave.  They created a Republic with Grégoire Kayibanda, a Hutu, as president and left Rwanda a simmering mess of racial violence.  Huge numbers of Tutsis, probably rightly fearing for their lives, fled to neighbouring countries and launched guerrilla attacks on Hutus who would respond by murdering vast numbers of Tutsis.

A military coup under the command of a Hutu general in 1973 put a stop to the violence, though seething racism bubbled under the surface.  A combination of western disaster capitalism and a slump in the internal Rwandan coffee market caused the economy to collapse.  The Tutsi exiles began to organise themselves into a military force and they invaded in the late 1980’s.

Civil wars bring out the worst in people, I suspect for the same reason that family arguments are often the most bitter.  The propaganda spread by both sides was disturbing in the extreme.  One of the most widespread calls to arms was the so-called ‘Hutu Ten Commandments,’ including ‘The Hutu should have no mercy for the Tutsi’ and ‘The Hutu must be firm and vigilant against their common Tutsi enemy’.  Tutsi propaganda was no less vitriolic.  Finally, after a few years, the government of Tanzania managed to negotiate a ceasefire with the two sides and peace broke out, only the simmering hatred remained.

On April the 6th, 1994, an aeroplane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi, was blown out of the sky as it prepared to land in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda.  Everyone on board perished.

To this day there is fierce debate about who actually did it, though it seems, on balance, most likely to have been Hutu extremists unhappy with the peacemaking ambitions of the two presidents.  Whoever it was quickly became academic, blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of the Tutsi rebel army by the Hutu authorities.  They had been preparing for an outbreak of violence for some time, the Interahamwe (officially the youth wing of the Hutu extremist MRND party but literally translating as ‘those who attack together’) were armed, some with kalashnikovs and grenades but mostly with machetes, and waiting for a signal.  On April the 7th, one day after the assassination of the President, extremist Hutus, many of them soldiers, slaughtered almost all of the remaining moderate Hutus with any form of political power.  Across Rwanda radios crackled into life telling all Hutus that failure to take part in the coming violence, failure to pick up a weapon and kill their Tutsi neighbours, would be considered treachery worthy of a bullet.  Gangs of men, some organised and some not, took up arms and went into the streets.

What happened next is almost unfathomably horrifying.  The awful violence of it cannot be easily put in to words, though I feel duty bound to attempt it, if you’re reading this and you’re of a delicate sensiblity I strongly advise you to skip the next paragraph.

First some statistics; around one million people were killed in one hundred days of violence.  This is far more people than you will likely ever interact with in your entire life.  It is 400 murders per hour for over three months.  Most of the victims were killed with machetes, the perpetrators would often not use guns even when they had them.  Statistics don’t help, do they?  They’re too big to fit into your mind, too abstract.  Some other, non statistical data; Hutus who refused to take part in the genocide of the Tutsis were summarily executed.  Most of the victims were killed by people from their community, people they knew.  Rape of Tutsi women and moderate Hutu women was commonplace.  AIDS patients were dragged out of hospital and forced into rape squads in order to spread HIV to the Tutsi population.  Almost all surviving Tutsi women were raped at one point and it is likely that most Tutsi women who did not survive were raped then murdered.  Some pregnant Tutsi women had their stomachs cut open and their unborn children torn from their womb.  Tutsi men were rarely raped (though it did happen) but were instead castrated and their severed penises were displayed as trophies in public.  Victims of both genders had their genitals mutilated with acid.  Tutsi women had acid pumped into their vaginas.  Children were cut to pieces by men, grown men, with machetes.  Children were raped.  I can just barely imagine it, and I don’t want to.

The violence ended when the Tutsi army finally took the country and thousands upon thousands of Hutus fled to form filthy refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Cholera broke out and the death toll and squalor was unimaginable.

There is no genetic difference, at all, between Tutsi and Hutu.  None.  Even if there was it would be utterly irrelevant, the genocide would still be one of the most sickening events in human history, but the reason for this violence was a lie told three quarters of a century earlier to keep the powerful in power.  That’s the lesson to take from it, that’s the good that can come out of it; don’t believe what you’re told, don’t take it at face value.  I’ve written about this now because this year sees the 20th anniversary of this atrocity and I doubt anyone will even mention it.  There may be some late night slot on Radio Four or some well meaning, earnest documentary tucked away on some distant television channel but most people in Britain and America will hear nothing, say nothing or simply shrug their shoulders and say what was said at the time: ‘well, that’s Africa.’

I can’t accept that.  I won’t accept the gall it takes to write off a continent, I won’t accept ‘well, that’s Africa,’ or ‘well, that’s human nature’.  That’s not good enough, not by a long shot.  I won’t forget it, I won’t ignore it, I shall try to learn what lessons can be learned from it, I hope the rest of the world does the same.

The Pyre of Croesus.

SardisCroesus looked at the pyre beneath his feet and twitched in fear. The bindings around his wrists were tight enough to have cut off the blood flow to his hands and the smoke was beginning to billow upwards. His eyes and throat were dry. He was tied to a stake driven deep into this huge pile of smashed market stalls and the wailing of the fourteen sons of Lydian nobility tied up with him was a stark reminder of his absolute, abject failure.

He tried to distract himself, it wasn’t easy but the flow of adrenaline was strong enough to focus his mind on the little details around him. The marketplace, the agora, had been laid to waste by Median forces some time this morning and rough, calloused hands had seized him at midday. It wasn’t fair. At least the day was growing cooler.

Cyrus, the King of Kings, the guardian of the fire of fires, scourge of the Persians, conqueror of Babylon, was sat on his horse watching with a dispassionate eye. One hundred bodyguards were arrayed around the square, a dozen black clad magi waited in attendance, underneath Croesus their slaves busied themselves with the business of burning men and boys alive. Cyrus stroked his beard and wafted away the smoke with a hand that glimmered with precious stones.

It wasn’t fair. Croesus knew he had done everything right. He had consulted the oracle and, through her, had heard the voice of the divine urging him to war. He had sacrificed more than three thousand animals, given vast amounts of gold, and Apollo had spoken through his priestess; ‘make war with Persia, oh King, and you will destroy a mighty empire.’

One of the young men behind him had begun to scream. Fire is not a peaceful death, there is no dignity in agony, Croesus hoped the poor boy would go to Hades soon and drink the waters of the Lethe. It would be a blessing to forget this.

Even without the fire the noise of the city was deafening. Sardis had been the seat of Croesus’ power and Croesus had been wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. All that wealth, all that gold, all that art and the rich temples and offerings and statuary, all of it was going to be carted away by the unyielding hordes of rampaging barbarians who had tricked their way into the city. The screams of men and the wailing of women echoed off the sandstone walls. His home was being put to the sack, there was no way to stop it now.

The boy behind him was still screaming. Burning kills slowly. It had been a cruel decree, that fourteen of the sons of the most prominent families of Lydia were to be put to death along with their king, but Cyrus had always been cruel. It was a fate that Croesus felt, perhaps, he deserved. For his death to be entertainment. Dark clouds were rolling across the sky.

He had led a cursed life. Not to begin with, of course, to begin with he had built himself a fortune, a family and an empire. Vast acres of land had been his, and vast wealth with it, and he had always shown his thanks to the Gods. Then Atys, his poor son, had died hunting in the mountains and, perhaps, Croesus had gone a little mad.

He considered this while he stood on his pyre. He thought about the misery it had brought him and the conversations he had with Solon the sage about the measurement of happiness. Solon said that only the dead could be truly happy, their fate was fulfilled and such things pleased the Gods. Croesus had agreed at the time, now he didn’t care, he just wanted his son back. The boy behind him had stopped screaming now. Tears stung his eyes.


He lifted his head to see who had spoken and was surprised to find himself facing one of Cyrus’ magi. This one was young too, about Atys’ age when he had died.

‘The king of kings demands to know why you weep.’

It was a hard question to answer. He did not fear death really, he knew it came to all men and all his fear had been beaten out of him when he had been dragged before Cyrus in chains. Was it the betrayal of the oracle? Was it the suffering of his people? Was it the knowledge that unfathomable agony was creeping ever closer? He thought back to his time with Solon, to the first time he had held a conversation with Atys. Croesus opened his mouth to speak but it was too much, the exhaustion and the horror of the day, the callous gaze of the king of kings, the heat, the smoke, all rose up at once. Croesus wailed, far louder than even he expected, the catch in his voice laid bare his misery.

‘I miss my son.’

Silence rang out across the agora. A dark cloud threw them all in to shadow. Even the crackle of flames seemed to hush for a moment to salute his grief. Cyrus’ servants dared not move, even the slaves tending the fire paused in their labour.

Cyrus sighed and waved a hand.

Everyone sprung in to action trying to douse the flames. The pyre was too tall to scale and the fire was too hot to approach, slaves and bodyguards formed bucket chains as the magi shouted orders. Fire, though, fire is fickle. It is not a tool, it is a pet, mistreat it or grant it too much freedom and it will begin to disobey. Cyrus turned his horse and rode away.

Croesus stood and watched the flurry of activity below him. He was bemused at first, but when it dawned on him that he was to be spared he started to struggle at his bonds and shout advice to his captors. The sky grew darker. Not dark enough.

Dozens of men hauled at the pile of wood under him and it wasn’t going to be enough. The flames were climbing higher, the smoke was beginning to overwhelm him. Croesus could feel his hands getting hot, the inferno was creeping up behind him. It wasn’t going to work. He was going to burn to death and there was nothing anyone could do.

Fear gripped him again. Immediate and overwhelming. This was not fair. He had fought so hard, so valiantly, done all that the Gods had told him to do and lost everything to a man much stronger than he could ever be. His hands were charring. He had been respected, but he had never been worshipped like Cyrus. He could hear the screams of his people haunting his city.

In desperation he began to pray, tears streaming down his face, he looked up at the shaded sun and shouted; ‘Please! Please, Zeus, Hercules, Apollo, please, please, if I ever did anything, if ever any offering I made to you was acceptable then stand by me now, save me from the flames.’

The sky was dark already but it grew darker still. The gentle patter of rain became a pouring torrent.


He was dragged in chains before the king once again. He wasted no time falling to his knees, begging for mercy. Cyrus the Great, conqueror of Lydia, looked at the man he had broken. He had toppled warlords before, brought chiefs to heel and crippled ancient nations, he had his enemies impaled and traitors subjected to the most exquisite tortures but he had never seen anyone so utterly crushed. He reached out a jewelled hand.

‘What happened to you Croesus? I’ve given worse punishments to people far less deserving. Where is your pride? Where is the man who enslaved my people? Where is my enemy? I don’t understand. I want to.’

Croesus sat up and spent a moment in thought, kneeling before the might of the king of kings in the opulent palace that used to be his. He struggled to find the right words.

‘I suppose… I suppose I’m ashamed.’

Cyrus cocked his head, puzzled.

‘I’m not… I fought well. I fought very well. I took land and wealth and killed my enemies. I took slaves and… I shouldn’t have done any of it. All of it was sinful. All of it was wrong.’

Cyrus maintained his gaze, though it softened.

‘I shouldn’t have made war against you, of course, the Gods have seen fit to see me fail and make me your slave. They should have done that long ago. I miss my Atys. There are a thousand families out there who’ve lost someone. Someone I took from them.’

The king nodded, Croesus turned his gaze to the boy with him, Cambyses, son of Cyrus Prince of Persia.

‘It’s never right is it? Not really. War, I mean. Even when the Gods give their blessing it’s never right. Someone’s always after something trivial. I wanted land and gold. I was so petty. So sinful. There’s no mystery to it, it’s a simple horror; in peace sons bury their fathers, in war fathers bury their sons.’

Silence rang out in the hall of the palace of Sardis, the rumble of rain masked the screams of the dying.

I hesitate to call this historical fiction, there is some debate as to whether anything even remotely like this happened at all, but it is a story that some historians accept and it appears in Herodotus’ ‘Histories’.  Herodotus adds some odd bits and bobs and it reads somewhat like a fable, this is my attempt to write out what could have happened, take it all with a pinch of salt.  All named persons were real historical figures.

The job centre on a wet Monday afternoon.

You overhear some strange things.  You overhear some awful things.

I heard a woman, a grown woman, told off for failing to sign in to a God-awful, barely functioning government website enough.  She doesn’t own a computer, she said, she’s a ‘cosmetic nurse’, whatever the hell that is.  She wore an expensive coat and fashionable earrings.  She realised then that she was one of us now, the feckless unemployed, scroungers, the ones whose fault it all is. She looked sad. I felt sorry for her.

I heard a man, a grown man, asked why he had missed his last appointment.  He had tears in his eyes as he told her about having to go to court to say goodbye to his sister. She was being sent to prison that day. He said he had been told by the clerks that it would be fine, missing the appointment, but it wasn’t fine. He didn’t have any proof, just tears.

I spoke to my ‘advisor’, she’s cheerful and I like her, she asked if I’d found anything.  I hadn’t, I told her, everywhere’s been shut for Christmas.  That’s fine, she said, and sent me on my way.  ‘See you in two weeks’.

She’s nice, but she’s not my advisor.  She’s my warden.  She makes sure I’m not fiddling the system for my poverty wage.  She reads my activities on a pointless failure of a website and makes sure I’m not lying back and enjoying the high life on £71 per week. I’m unemployed, I’m a suspect in the murder of the British economy.

I’m a million miles from a banker, though.  They get help when they need it, no questions asked, no loan too great.

I watched my disabled students, when I had a job, struggle through ATOS and the withdrawal of their Education Maintenance Allowance.  I watched my pension vanish because I worked for the public sector and we can’t have nice things.  I watched them occupy the restaurant and give out leaflets and hold debates that looked like prayer meetings.  I watched them betrayed and chained into staggering debt.

I didn’t watch any bankers though.  I can’t afford to go where they are.

I listened to the government talk about how crap qualified teachers are and imply that anyone who isn’t a convicted paedophile could do their job. I listened to education lecturers grit their teeth and try to tell their students what that fish lipped narcissist of an education secretary had come up with now.  They tried to do it right, tried to talk about his plans with neutrality, but you can’t do that when someone’s just plain wrong.

He hasn’t really done anything much to private schools. Maybe helped them out a bit.

I watched London and Birmingham burn on the telly. Some looting, some deaths, horrible.  I watched people say ‘scum’ and ‘savage’ and ‘feral’ without really thinking it through.  I watched condemnation stream out without any effort at understanding. Looting is the sigh of the oppressed masses, the opium of the people.

If you loot a bank you’ll be okay, don’t smash any windows while you’re at it.

I’m sick of this. I’m sick of being told to get on board. I’m sick of the implication that austerity is somehow good for me and police murdering people and spying on the ones who care and only getting in trouble for lying if they said a twit on a bike said ‘pleb’. I’m sick of being smiled at by a warden and the idea of revolution being mocked because it comes from the mouth of a notorious pillock in the silly slot on Newsnight. I’m sick of insidious social darwinism and house price bubbles being called recovery and a ghoul for a chancellor and a bully for a prime minister and the little clique of Vichy cowards that don’t even try to pretend they’re not blue any more. Bring on summer. Bring on the campaigning season. Bring on the Met with water cannon and kettling and days of rage. Bring on righteousness. Bring on anger.

Bring on the end.


ishtargateshtargatebabylonI remember sitting on the banks of the Euphrates when I was young and watching the boats sail in. My father was relaxing in the heat of the high sun and the blue and gold walls of Babylon shone with its brightness. My mother was playing with my sister, teaching her to speak in her infancy, poking her pudgy belly and making her giggle. I splashed the water with a stick as the little boats rounded the bend of the river and came in to view.

The boats are small and round. Each of them carried a crew of two men and a donkey. They are made from simple wicker frames and the hides of a dozen creatures. They are shallow, trying to sail the fast river with a deep hull would be impossible, and they are hard to steer, so the rhythm must be precise. I watched them round the bend of our river and keep on coming. There must have been fifty boats that day, a hundred men and their pack animals keeping themselves afloat with their labour. I marvelled at the sight, and then I heard their song.

We are a hardy bunch, us Babylonians, we are stern and we follow stern gods, but that sight, so many men singing with joy of the summer air, moved something in me. I stood and watched, stupefied, clapping my hands together in my youth, my father beside me drinking it in. My head filled with mad dreams of running off to join the nomads, spending my days riding about the plains and building a little boat, singing and sailing it to the city. Once there I would do what they do, dismantle it and sell the hides and wood, load the rest of my goods onto my donkey and go to the market. Then I would leave on foot, against the flow of the river, heading off home to ride through the hills with my tribe. It would be a beautiful life, but it could never be mine. I remained a farmer after all.

As I watched them sail past and heard their songs I felt a pang of sadness. They were wild men, foreign men, and I would probably never see any of them again. I waved and they smiled back, strong arms pulling on oars, sunlight glimmering off the rapid water.

Later that day we went to the temple of Marduk. It always excited me, going into the city, the noise of it all and the bustle. We would see travelling Greeks in their togas and Egyptians in their tunics, Saka in their pointed caps and Jews in their robes, all the world flows through Babylon. When we passed through the second ring of city walls, through the carved lions of the Ishtar gate, the hubbub slowed. There were open spaces, grand houses, temple after temple and the palace of the king.

It was that time of year when the king walks alone to the temple and shows his supplication to the God of the city under the stern gaze of his statue. The priests of Marduk gathered around and bellowed their insults as the mounds of incense burned and sent great, gusting clouds of white smoke into the air. It was the dull bit at the beginning and I was a child, my mind wandered. I had always found him frightening, the God I mean, how his statue towered over us all and looked at us with such disdain. I understand it now, of course, he is stern because sometimes Gods have to be stern, but back then I just thought he was mean. A mean old God with a mean old face that liked to hurt people. I liked the guardian lions, and Ishtar, not the grim and unyielding protector.

The king stood up and nodded at the priest. I wanted to look away but father put his hand on my shoulder and steadied my nerve. Everyone stood in silence, we all knew what was coming next, the incense stung my eyes.

When the king nodded the priest set about him. He began with two hard slaps to the face, shouting like a wild animal. He stumbled back, everyone stood in absolute silence, staring at him. The priest looked into his eyes, then reached up and wrenched at his ear with all his might. A little blood spilled, a flash of anger over the his face, he had balled a fist.

The silence was deafening. If he struck back, if he lost his temper and assaulted the priest, we would all be doomed to an awful year. Nobody could remember the king ever having to take such a beating, but he was mindful of his duty through the pain and nodded again. Once more the priest raised his gnarled old hand and, with lightning quickness, slapped his face before grabbing hold of his ear, still bleeding, and pulling with all his might.

The King screamed, blood dripped onto the floor. He fell backwards, clasping a hand to his wound and howling. The priest’s face remained impassive as he squatted down, I felt my father’s grip on my shoulder tighten as we waited for the verdict.

I think I saw it before the priest and I fought the urge to smile. A glisten, small but visible, dripping down the face of the king. The tears had been drawn from him and spilled upon the temple floor. As the priest raised his arms in victory and the cheer began we knew Marduk would be pleased and the harvest would be good that year. I remembered the song of the boatmen, it was the happiest day of my life.

With thanks to Herodotus for his description of the Armenians rowing into Babylon.