The power of imagery

Unit 3 Post 3

Chapter 11 (pages 141-171) in Gourevitch’s narrative about the Rwandan genocide and Chapter 4 as well as pages 125-126 from Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others” both illustrate the power of imagery in mass conflict. In her book, Sontag discusses the concept of which type of imagery depicting armed conflicts is considered appropriate to be published by the media. She points out that the media coverage of military operations is often limited, sometimes because of viewer discretion, but mostly because the world’s powerful countries do not want the public to know the way the conduct war. The author uses as examples the British operation to Falklands in 1982 and the involvement of the U.S. in the Gulf War in 1991, where TV coverage was censored and only certain photographers were allowed to be present. As a result, the two countries successfully controlled the image of how they confronted their enemies that would make it the public.

On chapter 11 of his book, Gourevitch analyzes how the Hutus managed to present, at least in the short run, the genocide they had just committed as a legitimate war in defense of their own lives. During the whole series of events that comprised the Rwandan genocide, the official lines of the Hutu Power regime were that they had to fight back against the RPF that attacked them. Because he photo-coverage of the events was not sufficient, whether this was true or not remained vague.  of the events of the genocide to make it clear that this was not the case. Even the few images that got published in prestigious newspapers were not accompanied by any text to inform the general population of the real nature of the events. Distance also played a role; it was believable that these images depicted “Rwandans simply killing each other as they do, for primordial tribal reasons, since time immemorial”, instead of a carefully prepared genocidal plan.

Moreover, Gourevitch describes how the French troops who were deployed to establish peace used the imagery to manipulate the public opinion on what was happening in Rwanda. As the author states, the soldiers did not care to help the people that were still being slaughtered every day. Their main concern was to “find any large concentration of Tutsis to rescue before the cameras” (p. 156) which they could label as noncombatants of the attacking side, to convince the world that the Tutsis were actually the murderers, and not the victims.

When the massive-scale extermination campaign against the Tutsis was coming to an end and around one million Hutus that carried it out fled to Zaire, then the time to for extensive photo-coverage had come. Pictures showing overpopulated refugee camps with people dying of cholera, in front of the Nyaragongo volcano that blew “rock-like dust” and provided a landscape of “hardened black lava” made international headlines. And as Gourevitch comments, they indeed served their purpose: the western world, at least before more details about the genocidal events were released, was shocked with the “poor Hutus” who were “terrorized” and “forced out of their land” by the overly nationalistic Tutsis. Humanitarian help arrived immediately, and the largest humanitarian-aid mission of the 20th century was organized. And that is a great instance of the manipulating power of imagery, as Sontag explains it: the favor of the public opinion and the humanitarian help by the West had as recipients the Hutus that managed to present themselves as victims, despite that they had just exterminated about eight hundred thousand Tutsis in the last one hundred days.