Posted 19 days ago
Unlike the current pandemic, Hilsum makes it clear that "untreated, cholera can cause death in twelve hours, althouhg it's easily cured by rehydration." This makes it a more localized epidemic than what we are currently experiencing with COVID, but our experience in the last year puts Hilsum's article a little more in perspective. And apart from that, her reporting on the history of the Rwandan Civil War was really good.
Zaire, the country that accepted the Hutu refugees after the civil war and where the epidemic happened, is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More curiously, many of the "refugees" were actually commanded to leave Rwanda after they participated in the genocide of Rwandan Tutsis. Hilsum writes about this contrast, as she visits a woman and her dying husband and is confused if she should feel sorry or "devine retribution":
I knew that it was possible, even likely, that she and her husband had participated in one way or another – they worked for the government that had ordered the killings, and had left the country as commanded. It was hard to know what to do with that thought as we watched her husband gradually expire under a relentless sun, so I put it in the growing category of things that were too difficult to contemplate.
Looking at it statistically, the WHO "estimated after several studies that some 50,000 people died in Goma in that period, 23,800 of them from cholera." This, of course, contrasts with the estimated 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsis who were slaughtered by armed militias of Hutus only weeks before (within a 100 day period). Hilsum even "found General Augustin Bizimungu, chief of staff of the army that had led the killings" nearby. So even though seeing cholera run through the camp must have been a terrible experience, it was impossible to completely detatch it from the reality of the situation. Hilsum writes:
Having failed to save Rwandans who were being murdered, the impetus was to help those who were dying of disease. The fact that these were the wrong Rwandans, the perpetrators rather than the victims of genocide, got lost in the rush.
But the moral of the story cannot be devine retribution, because the conflict continued. It didn't end with the refugees in Zaire, but rather morphed into a larger conflict that would be waged over the boarder of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
These were the lessons the refugees were learning after dark when the foreigners had left the camps. Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government responded by taking control of the whole area. They orchestrated the toppling of the Zairean regime and installed a new leader who was sympathetic to their cause. The country got a new name: the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Some refugees were forced back to Rwanda, where many were killed. Others fled further into the bush. The RPF’s war of revenge for the genocide was waged not at home in Rwanda but over the border in the DRC. A decade of conflict pulled in all the neighbouring countries and others besides. Some 5.4 million people died, mainly from disease and hunger. Large wars begat small ones, some of which continue to this day. Very few of those who survived the Goma cholera outbreak in 1994 can be alive now.
There is some writing of "spirits" that Hilsum should have omitted, but as a total piece, this was incredibly well-written. I wonder, though, what Rwandans and Congolese would think about this piece.