“Forming the connection between Gourevitch: Chapter 11 and Sontag: Chapter 4 and pages 125-126, Unit 3 Assignment 3, Nikolaos Paramythiotis

Chapter 11 (pages 141-171) in the Gourevitch reading and Chapter 4 as well as pages 125-126 from Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others” both focus on the theme of how imagery can serve a certain purpose in mass conflict. In her book, Sontag discusses the concept of which type of imagery depicting armed conflicts is thought to be 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 the examples of the British operation to Falklands in 1982 as well as 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, for the two countries wanted to publish a certain, controlled image of how they confronted their enemies. The use of imagery into one’s advantage is a theme that vividly emerges from Gourevitch’s description of how the Hutu Power regime managed to present, at least in the short run, the genocide the Rwandan Hutus committed against the Tutsis as a legitimate war to defend their own lives. During the whole series of events that made up the Rwandan genocide, the official lines of the Hutu Power regime that actually carried out this atrocity were that they had to fight back against the Tutsis that seeked to attack them, and there was not sufficient photo-coverage of the events of the genocide to make it clear that this was not the case. Moreover, after the French troops were deployed to help in establishing peace, it is even stated that although people 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 would be labelled as noncombatants of the attacking side, enabling them to further manipulate the public opinion on what was happening in Rwanda. Even the few images that were actually published in prestigious newspapers were not accompanied by the needed text to inform the general population of the real nature of what was happening. Distance also played a great role; it was believable that these images were not a result of a carefully prepared genocidal plan, but in the opposite “Rwandans were simply killing each other as they were wont to do, for primordial tribal reasons, since time immemorial”. When the massive-scale extermination campaign against the Tutsis was coming to an end, and almost one million Hutus who carried it out fled to outside the city of Goma, in Zaire, then the time to take pictures 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”. And as Gourevitch comments, they indeed served their purpose: the western world, at least before more details of what had happened in the area were released, was shocked with the “poor Hutus” who were “terrorized” and “forced out of their land” by the heavily-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, as well as the help previously mentioned, had as recipients those that managed to present themselves as victims, despite that for the last one hundred days, they systematically exterminated about two thirds, or eight hundred thousand members, of the antagonistic ethnic group in their country.

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