“Hotel Rwanda” is a 2004 film, directed by Terry George, which recreates the routine in a hotel in Kigali. There, more than 1,200 refugees, as well as UN volunteers and TV crews, took shelter as conflicts between Hutus and Tutsis decimated nearly a million people in the surrounding area in mid-1994.
In one of the scenes, the cameraman played by Joaquin Phoenix manages to capture the moment when men armed with machetes and pieces of wood kill women and children in a neighboring neighborhood.
Paul Rusesabagina, the manager played by Don Cheadle, is astonished by what he sees, but, faced with the journalist’s hesitation, encourages the publicity of the scene. “I’m glad you recorded those images. And for the world to see it all. Only then will there be any possibility of someone intervening.” After all, he says, “how can they not intervene when they see such an atrocity?”
The cameraman, without the same hope, responds, defeated: “I think people who see this recording will say ‘my God, what a horror’, and will continue eating dinner.”
Massacres like those in Rwanda were replicated around the world in the following decades. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan. There has been no lack of invaded and destroyed territory, along with its sovereignty and self-determination, since then. The distance dampens the hearts and helps the digestion of those who just want to finish dinner in peace while the TV insists on reporting a world on fire — when it actually does.
In the coverage of the war in Ukraine, a series of speeches has been superimposed on the just solidarity with a population cowardly attacked by Russian troops that tries to encourage viewers to put down their forks and knives and notice, at least this time, the gravity of the situation.
Who are losing everything, leaving their homes and seeking refuge, they warn, are no longer the barbarians, but people “like us”. “This is not happening in a third world country. This is Europe,” says a correspondent in a video that has gone viral. “This is not Africa or the Middle East. Europeans are being killed,” says one analyst more explicitly.
“This is not a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan. It is a relatively civilized, relatively European place. It is a city where we did not expect this to happen,” follows, even more explicitly, another TV commentator, as if he had interrupted his vacation in the Alps to remember that he was still capable of feeling something for someone.
It is as if these European and North American analysts were saying: in a world in conflict, every death is regrettable, but some are more regrettable than others. White ones, for that matter.
This speech was analyzed by the jurist Thiago Amparo in his most recent column in Folha de S.Paulo. For him, it is necessary to emphasize that our pain is selective. Not to erase the reality of the pain of the Ukrainian population, but to reinforce that our empathy is proportional to the humanity that we conceive of those who suffer.
When someone says they are shocked to witness the agency against white people with blue eyes, they are actually introducing one more barrier among many obstacles for other people – without white skin or blue eyes – to be able to save themselves from the very same conflict.
Proof of this is that, after escaping the bombs in their cities, black, Arab and Asian immigrants who lived in Ukraine began to deal with insults and hostility from authorities unwilling to let them enter neighboring countries. These groups spend hours at the end of the line to board trains. There are also reports of physical and verbal abuse.
In the midst of the refugee crisis, the racism that operates in the countries of destination is ready to say not only who can die or live, but who can or cannot be welcomed in their neighborhood. It’s true for Europe, but it’s also true for Brazil — where the same president who promises to grant humanitarian visas to Ukrainians has already referred to Syrian refugees as the “scum of the world”.
Every war is a reminder of civilizational failure. But the way we report it reinforces rather than dismantles the people grinding machines, put to the test before and after a bombing. These gears are still active to beat the refugees who fled the war yesterday to die in the kiosk of the most popular beaches tomorrow. Does anyone really care?
In 2015, the world stopped dinner when it saw the image of a Syrian boy who was trying to cross the sea with his family and was found dead on a beach in Turkey.
Since then, the global refugee crisis has only worsened. The child became the symbol of this crisis. He did not survive the crossing, but was relatively immune to spectator indifference at being found face down in the sand. From the back, that boy could be any of our children.
With the traces of its origin, it would probably be another victim of the selective shock, triggered when it is necessary to separate who are the barbarians (and the children of the barbarians) and “us”.
Joaquin Phoenix’s character was perhaps optimistic thinking that someone would say “how awful” to see Rwanda’s ordeal before returning to dinner. Wars, hunger, discussions inside buildings, wrote Carlos Drummond de Andrade, only prove that life goes on and not everyone has freed themselves yet.
At this time when life, without mystification, is an order, no one says “My God” anymore. Unless when the victim resembles our projection of civility.