27 May 2011

The history we're missing: stories in Africa

With uprisings sweeping the Middle East, and fugitive killers like Osama bin Laden and Ratko Mladic captured, this is a historic year. Lindsey Hilsum looks at the historic stories that are being missed.

With uprisings sweeping the Middle East, and fugitive killers like Osama bin Laden and Ratko Mladic captured, this is a historic year. Yet some pieces of the historical jigsaw are slotting into place almost unnoticed. Here are three from Africa from just this week.

First, Ratko Mladic wasn’t the only indicted war criminal to be captured. On Thursday, Bernard Munyagishari,
leader of the feared inherahamwe militia in the town of Gisenyi during the Rwandan genocide, was apprehended in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Journalists pay less attention to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda these days, but despite scandals about waste and corruption in the past, it is steadily processing the cases of those responsible for the mass murder of Tutsis in 1994. Ten days ago, the head of the Rwandan Armed Forces at the time, Augustin Bizimungu, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his part in the genocide.

I remember driving around Goma, in eastern DRC, with him in July 1994, as he denied that his soldiers had been responsible for killings – denied, in fact, that there had been killings at all. Back in 1996, I testified at the Tribunal. I had been the only foreign correspondent in Rwanda when the genocide started, and I testified because I felt it was a way of laying history to rest. As the Tribunal approaches its conclusion, maybe we are nearing a definitive historic record of that terrible time.

A child in Rwanda remembers the 1994 atrocities.

Then there’s another story with historical resonance. On 9 July, Southern Sudan will declare independence. In January, southerners voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to split from the north. This is the first new country to be born in Africa since Eritrea in 1993. Yet all is not well.

President Omar al Bashir – himself indicted for alleged war crimes in Darfur – seemed to accept the referendum vote, but last weekend he moved his troops and militia into the disputed Abyei region, the fault-line between north and south. They looted and burnt, so tens of thousands of refugees fled. People on the ground tell me that the south’s soldiers, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, are positioning themselves to fight. In January, people were full of hope, but now the fear is that independence celebrations will be swiftly followed by war.

War criminals: some of the world’s most wanted

So maybe I’d better end with a”good news” story. One of the enduring myths about Africa is that its natural state is bush full of lions and elephants, and other exotic species. This is the image beloved of colonialists and many white people who’ve visited Africa since – the idea that somehow African people and their domesticated animals are an imposition on pristine wilderness.

In fact, the colonialists arrived at a particular point in history in the 1890s, when a continent-wide epidemic of rinderpest had wiped out millions of cattle, and large numbers of people. That’s why there was so much bush. Today I read that rinderpest has become the second disease in the world to be eradicated (the first was smallpox).

Such a terrible disease, completely wiped out! That’s what I call history.

Follow Lindsey Hilsum on Twitter: @lindseyhilsum