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Monday, March 16, 2009

An Unseen World War

Africa ignored (once again)

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Africais a continent easily forgotten by a great majority of Americans. In addition to being masters of sedating ourselves with all of our many distractions, we've also got our own problems to worry about these days, from our global war on terror to our burgeoning economic crisis. Still, the early 2000s have seen a rise in social awareness and activism among many Westerners. And with the success of movies like Hotel Rwanda and The Last King of Scotland, along with well-publicized celebrity humanitarian efforts, our collective gaze has been turned ever so slightly to the goings-on of Africa, a continent so full of beauty and culture and yet so rife with turmoil.

French journalist Grard Prunier's new book, Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe (Oxford University Press), will be of particular relevance to those in the West who are now paying closer attention to the decades-long conflicts and genocides that have slowly been destroying Africa and her people. Africa's World War is a fast-paced, intense overview of the roots of the Rwandan genocide, a tragedy that resulted in the death of at least 800,000 Rwandans and led to continued conflicts in neighboring African countries, including the Congo/Zaire. The book is part-memoir, part-historical account, written by a scholar and journalist who has reported extensively on Eastern Africa.

One of the most fascinating things about Africa's World War is Prunier's passionately stated, sometimes harsh assessment of the international community's reactions to the Rwandan genocide. Prunier asserts time and again that when there was a response from Western nations, including the United States, to the conflicts in Eastern Africa, that response was often ill-conceived, ill-informed and sometimes even harmful. He says, perhaps rightly so, "The international community considered the Rwandan genocide with a complex mixture of shock and indifference," and refers to the West's unintentional complicity in the genocide as the result of "incompetence and vacillation." The United Nations, he said, "looked like a cork bobbing up and down in a furious sea, barely able to react and totally unable to take initiative."

The trouble, Prunier suggests, is that most Westerners simply do not "get" Africa and its complex history-a history involving a once-ancient web of "segmentary tribes and a few sacred monarchies" that was shredded by 19th-century colonialism and then further obliterated by mid-20th-century decolonialization. It is this history that acted as a catalyst, Prunier says, to the crises and conflicts from Rwanda to Darfur. And it is also what makes African history so complicated that most Westerners are clueless about the depths of the crises of this continent, as well as to the elusive solutions of these conflicts.

Interestingly, much of Africa's World War is written in first person-which is both a strength and a liability. It is a strength because of the vitality that Prunier's personal experience with the subject lends to the text. It is this experience that gives Prunier an edge over other historians, who write from a distance of time and space. And yet, it is a liability because it causes readers to wonder just how objective a journalist Prunier could possibly be. As such, the content of this so-called "first full-length study of the conflict and its consequences" (according to the publisher) should be taken with a heavy grain of salt.

Ultimately, this engaging if not dizzying race through modern East-African history is a decent crash course for anyone intrigued by Africa's role on the international stage.