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New Year Resolution for 2008: Swim faster, Run longer, maybe return to cycling.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Book Review: An Ordinary Man

Where were you in April 1994?

I was just beginning my Advanced Continual Training (ACT) phase after BMT at 3rd Guards Battalion. The 2-month training was tough. But I remember the times the entire Alpha Coy got together on the parade square one night. With a small television hooked up to the main office, we all got to watch the Singapore Lions LIVE! - with the likes of Abbas Saad, Fandi Ahmad, Malek Awab, V Sundramoorthy, and Alistair Edwards - battle their guts out against other Malaysian states to eventually lift the Malaysia Cup later in the year. Then there were the fast marches in FBO and blistering push-ups on scorching tarmac. Bonds between my sectionmates were formed. I missed out on my birthday nights-off because I had the fever. Some of the guys went on to the Section Leader course, and the battalion finally won the coveted Best Combat Unit, beating the Commandos in 1995. Most of us became Men after ACT.

No big deal - on hindsight, that is - especially after what I've just finished reading.

In April 1994, innocent lives were slaughtered in Rwanda. Approximately 800,000 lives were killed - mostly hacked to pieces by machete - in 100 days. It is the most efficient (most number of lives taken within such a short period) genocide in history. So far.

Innocent lives killed not by armies from enemy states, but by neighbours and buddies and colleagues and teachers who, just 1-2 days earlier, were joking and laughing and eating alongside their victims. What led ordinary Rwandans to such madness? What made them kill their brethren? In a span of less than 100 days, neighbors against neighbors, husband against wives, wives against husbands. The list of probable insanity goes on. The method of killing was not like mass poisoning, or a suicide bomb that could kill several people at one fell swoop. No. The order of the day was a method unimaginable to sane human beings - a concerted effort in brutality and madness - hacking terrified ordinary fellow citizens to death by machete.

How did this happen? Ethnic cleansing. The Hutus against the Tutsis. A flaw in history, allowing the gradual ebbing of society and harmony in a once peaceful nation led by sovereignty. Then the Belgians kinda screwed it up along the way - or so the natives say - when European nations were playing the 'divide-and-conquer' game with each other in the 19th century. The Tutsis were seen as the elite, the favoured race. The Hutus were labeled as farmers and the lower caste. Identification cards even even segregated Rwandans if they were Hutu or Tutsi. Hatred was subdued. Tolerance was still bearable. Until there was a tipping point, and like they all say "All Hell Broke Loose".

"Do your work! Rid your houses of Cockroaches!" the national radio would blatantly proclaim, referencing the Hutus to slaughter the Tutsi 'cockroaches', even while they all lived under one roof.

The genocide was senseless. The support (or the lack of it) by the UN Security Council (then led by none other than Kofi Annan), the Clinton administration, and world powers, was even more unfathomable.

Yet, Paul Rusesabagina - a Hutu married to his Tutsi wife Tatiana - managed to keep over a thousand of his fellow human beings alive in Hotel des Mille Collines by pure guts and negotiation amidst the madness and danger surrounding the compound.

I've watched the movie 'Hotel Rwanda'. The movie gave you the sense of frustration in the world's attitude towards the genocide. The book, however, instilled a certain sense in the reader, an understanding of the entire situation.... that it should never happen again.

Never Again? It happened during the Holocaust and they said Never Again. It happened during Pol Pot's rule in the Killing Fields, and they said Never Again. Countless examples of genocide. It happened in Rwanda in 1994. Then now, the focus is on Darfur.

When will the senseless killings stop? Sometimes - based on the circumstances on how events unfold - you wonder if it would even happen in our own country.

Where were you in April 1994, when thousands of fellow human beings were being slaughtered?

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