issue 313 - June 1999
We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
by Philip Gourevitch
(Picador, ISBN 0 330 37120 7)
Country Of My Skull
by Antjie Krog
(Jonathan Cape, ISBN 0 224 05936 X)
As I write, NATO planes are bombing Belgrade and Pristina and ‘ethnic cleansing’ is being inflicted on the Kosovans by the Serbs. Most likely the conflict will have escalated by the time you read these words. It is a sobering moment to read Philip Gourevitch’s extraordinary and chilling account of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, an occasion on which the ‘international community’ manifestly failed a country and its people, with catastrophic consequences.
Gourevitch sets out to probe the logic of genocide; examining how such acts are possible and asking what it is in a society that makes communal killing a natural and normal response to social problems. He shows how the roots of the slaughter lay in the colonial history of Rwanda. Far from being – as was often claimed – an ancient tribal enmity, the rivalry between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority was a construct of the Belgian colonial regime, which fostered a Tutsi élite and used the Hutus as a downtrodden workforce. Here too was shaped the ethos of authority and compliance, a community ethic which was to lead inexorably to Hutu ‘work parties’ whose daily duty was to kill Tutsis. Genocide became ‘an exercise in community building’ and the very antithesis of a collapse of civil order; the massacres were a product of order, following decades of authoritarianism, indoctrination and propaganda from Rwanda’s Hutu Power leaders. As Gourevitch points out, although the slaughter was a low-tech affair – done largely by machete – it was accomplished at astonishing speed. More than 800,000 people were killed in less than a hundred days in the most efficient mass killing since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Gourevitch’s anger at the international response to the genocide is palpable when writing of the ‘relief effort’ which swung into action following the invasion of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front and the collapse of the genocidal regime. When the conflict spilled over Rwanda’s borders, the refugee camps were manipulated and controlled by the interahamwe, the murderous Hutu militia, and, in a colossal miscalculation by the international agencies, aid was largely directed towards the perpetrators of the atrocity who had fled the country, while the survivors inside Rwanda were left to fend for themselves. Furthermore – in a reversal of the anticipated obligation to remember – they were regarded as wearisome for being unable to put the past behind them and ‘move forward’.
Philip Gourevitch has written a heartfelt, deeply distressing and immensely important book which deserves the widest possible readership. The reminder of just what we are capable of, for good and ill, could not be more timely for, in the words of Primo Levi: ‘It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.’
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which convened in Spring 1996 and concluded work last year, is often advanced as a paradigm of how to begin repairing a devastated society. In Country Of My Skull, the poet and journalist Antjie Krog has given us a clear and eloquent narrative of the setting up of the Commission, under the chairing of the redoubtable Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the methodical way in which, day on day, it attempted to lead all South Africans to a consideration of their shared, traumatic past. Antjie Krog has woven together strands of direct testimony by both victims and perpetrators, a lively chronology of the hearings and a more personal, subjective diary of the period. The book is much more than a dull trudge through the facts and is greatly enlivened by a poetic lightness of touch. It is not a slight to say that Country Of My Skull has neither the intensity nor the urgency of Gourevitch’s book. Reconstruction is, by its nature, a messy, complex and fragmentary process and Antjie Krog has delved admirably into the inner workings of South Africa’s unique approach to healing itself and forging a whole country from the dross of apartheid.
by Robert Wyatt
(Hannibal HNCD 1440)
by Pete Moser, Adrian Mitchell
Attempting to sum up Robert Wyatt’s contribution to pop is a difficult job. Not to suggest that the man’s career is anyway over – this covetously nice boxed set of five EPs disproves any such thing. Wyatt, a singer and writer who came to prominence in the 1960s with the British band Soft Machine, developed a career which combined artistry with an unswerving passion for social justice. This is reflected in many of the pieces collected here and while Wyatt has always been outspoken in his Marxist sympathies he has never been doctrinaire.
This collection takes as its starting point the end of the Softies in 1971 and traces a trajectory up to the present day with selections from last year’s album Shleep plus various remixes. Most of the material is available elsewhere on Wyatt’s numerous releases, but the beauty of EPs is in its size. These ‘extended plays’ – each one less than an album, but more than a single – offer a format that allows for a short, concentrated exploration around a thematic grouping. There’s a 1974 cover of ‘I’m A Believer’; the shimmering sorrow of ‘Shipbuilding’, an eloquent indictment of Thatcher and the Falklands war in just minutes; and tracks from the 1982 film Animals. Wyatt’s music can be sparse, but it’s also simultaneously vulnerable and taut; Sakamoto had a point when he described his as ‘the saddest voice in the world’. That is, in a sense, the beauty of Wyatt’s work. Even when he’s on a roll – delivering a mighty cover of Victor Jara’s ‘Te Recuerdo, Amanda’ or ‘Amber And The Amberines’, written after the US invasion of Grenada – there’s the tenderness of farewell in each of them. Hear this for the songs, the passion, the players: Brian Eno, Fred Frith and Paul Weller all make appearances. Wyatt’s one of a kind.
It’s not often that the New Internationalist is cited as an inspiration behind a CD, but Start Again does – rather disarmingly – precisely that. Prompted initially by an NI issue on human rights, poet Adrian Mitchell and musician Pete Moser assembled soloists, musicians and children’s choirs from Manchester, Morecambe and London to realize a project celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. Divided into three parts, their work has a strong stage presence – enhanced perhaps by the musical influence of shows such as Godspell or Hair. Lead vocalists Jan Ponsford and Tyndale Thomas turn in some good performances; the interplay between solos and choirs effectively managed and Start Again’s energy cannot be denied.
Start Again is available from:
The Hothouse 13-17 Devonshire Road, Morecambe, LA3 1QS, UK
(01524 831997) for £11.50 inclusive of P&P.
Children of heaven
Directed and written by Majid Majidi
(World distribution: Miramax)
I’m hard pressed to think of a lovelier film ever produced about children. Ali, the nine-year-old at the centre of this Iranian feature, is marvellous and, like the long line of urchins who have graced world cinema, his pain and confusion can melt the hardest hearts. But Children of heaven is also a profoundly disturbing film because it tries hard to paint an affable face on the harsh body politic of modern Iran.
Facing regimentation and patriarchy Ali and his younger sister, Zahra, navigate tiny streets and tightly restricted lives. A search for Zahra’s lost shoes – torn but still pink – takes us on a journey into the larger society. As in the Italian classic, Bicycle Thieves, the loss of an ordinary but essential object forces a crisis almost impossible for a poor family to overcome. Brother and sister share one last pair of beat-up sneakers. Forced by fear to act in secret, away from their father’s wrath, they draw closer together and into contact with others even poorer.
Against this grim, sometimes comic children’s dilemma, director Majidi bathes the streets of old Teheran in a warmth of colour and glowing light. Throughout the school yard and the old city’s many open spaces, mature, cooling trees soften the harsh regimentation that rules civic life. The children dash from home to school along narrow but immaculate streets. Exhilarating camera-work that features lengthy and rapid tracking shots follow the running children. It’s a strong visual motif that builds to a climax mixed with sadness and comedy.
For the majority of film viewers in the West, weaned on the values of a secular state and the goal of equal rights for women, Iran presents some real problems. How can the land of the Ayatollahs, even now in its more moderate ‘face to the West’ guise, sell us the picture of a socially tolerant society? A nagging scepticism makes me question any film acceptable to the Iranian state.
Above all, Ali and Zahra’s story illustrates good behaviour for children. Boys take note. It’s your duty to respect and protect your sister. But is this respect meant to provide a moral example in a country sadly lacking rights for girls or is the filmmaker trying to show us an Iran that already exists? What’s the connection here with other recent Iranian films – such as Leila – sharply critical of the repression faced by women and girls?
Ali fears adults in a manner perhaps incomprehensible to middle-class Western kids. This is ironic because every adult in the film behaves with kindness and concern for others. From the father, to the strict school principal and the rich old man in need of a gardener, all melt from their gruff exteriors to eagerly display warm hearts. In Children of heaven men at all levels of Iranian society do the right thing. This makes a great film for children needing a good exemplar of brother-sister love. It may prove a little harder for adults, thinking about Iran, to swallow .
Reviewers: Louise Gray, Peter Whittaker, Peter Steven
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
Regicide has quite gone out of fashion. On a sunny January morning in 1649 the forces of Parliament, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, beheaded the English king Charles I. The accepted view is that this clash of monolithic forces was a straightforward power struggle, categorized by Sellar and Yeatman in their satirical 1066 And All That as ‘Cavaliers: Wrong but Romantic; Roundheads: Right and Repulsive’.
Throughout a lifetime of groundbreaking scholarship on the English Civil War, historian Christopher Hill has laboured to challenge these simplistic notions. He has shown convincingly how, inside this rebellion of landowners and the middle class, was another revolution: one with roots stretching back to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and which prefigured such twentieth-century direct action movements as the Poll Tax campaign, anti-road protesters and land-rights activists.
For a brief period in the mid-seventeenth century there flowered an abundance of movements, sects and radical groups, questioning the institutions and dogmas of their society, offering new and challenging economic and political solutions. These groups differed widely in their beliefs and tactics but all shared the view that the defeat of the King was not the end but the beginning of social change. It is the story of these people – Quakers, Ranters, Levellers and Diggers – that Christopher Hill tells so splendidly in his book, The World Turned Upside Down.
Who were these men and women with such a powerful vision of a transformed society? The Leveller movement grew out of the anti-enclosure agitation of the early part of the century and it had a strong presence in the New Model Army. Leveller pamphleteers took advantage of the newly liberated printing presses and a torrent of literature poured forth, arguing for a more representative government, a much wider franchise and a fairer division of the land.
The most famous of these pamphlets, John Lilburne’s An Agreement of the Free People of England became the much-discussed manifesto of the Levellers and a rallying cry for both the masses and the radical elements among the army. Lilburne and his fellow pamphleteers Richard Overton, Thomas Prince and William Walwyn were imprisoned in the Tower of London by Parliament and Lilburne was tried for treason. A campaign was started to discredit them and their ideas. Cromwell himself branded them ‘a despicable and contemptible generation of men; persons little differing from beasts’. There was a bloody and brutal purge of Leveller regiments and several small rebellions were crushed. Despite their failure to implement their programme of reform, Leveller ideas remained widely popular among the common people and their thinking was the basis of much of what followed in subsequent years.
The Diggers – who called themselves True Levellers – emerged in the aftermath of the defeat of the Levellers. On 1 April 1649 a group of Diggers occupied a patch of common land in Surrey and began to build cottages and plant crops. Similar settlements sprang up in other parts of the country. Their philosophy was summed up by Gerrard Winstanley: ‘... not only this Common or Heath should be taken in and manured by the People, but all the Commons and waste ground in England, and in the whole World, shall be taken in by the People in righteousness, not owning any Property; but taking the Earth to be a Common Treasury, as it was first made for all.’
Though never as numerous as the Levellers, the Diggers represented a much more direct challenge to the rights of property and land ownership, and all means were used to suppress them. Their cottages were torn down, their crops destroyed and they were harried wherever they attempted to settle. In some of the worst famine years of the century, their heroic attempt to build a new and fair society on patches of waste ground was always going to be doomed. But, as the songwriter Leon Rosselson says in his eulogy to these brave individuals: ‘They were dispersed, but still the vision lingers on.’
Wherever people strive for a better world, they carry forward the Diggers’ belief in justice and community. Christopher Hill rightly salutes them as ‘those nameless radicals who foresaw and worked for – not our modern world, but something far nobler, something yet to be achieved – the upside-down world.’
The ‘Levellers’ and ‘Diggers’ dream of a just and equable world remains as valid today as in 1649. The work to achieve it is carried on by other hands and in many and surprising places, as predicted by the Quaker Edward Burrough: ‘Our principles you can never extinguish, but they will live for ever, and enter into other bodies to live and speak and act.’
The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution by Christopher Hill, is published by Penguin, 1975 (ISBN 0140137327).
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