Jonathan R. Beloff
Researcher of the African Great Lakes

In the Crossfire: My Grandfather’s Persia and Rwanda

In the past, I wrote about my Grandfather’s admiration of the Gacaca system of truth and reconciliation. (Link) As I remember my late Grandfather, I find his complexities rather useful in understanding current events. The recent protests in Rwanda and its diaspora (#FreeKarenziKarake) are a response to the arrest by British officials of Rwandan General Karenzi Karake. The arrest had me thinking a lot of my Grandfather’s old stories of when he lived in Persia (now called Iran).

During the 1960s, my Grandfather lived and worked in Persia as a contractor to assist in the construction of roads, electricity and other infrastructure projects. This was way before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Americans could travel and work in Iran with very little difficulty. He loved his time in Persia. The food, culture, religion and people fascinated him. He told me of how he walked down the Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex as like it was yesterday, or how he visited the Imam Reza Shrine and the Fatima Masumeh Shrine in order to learn more about the culture and Islamic religion of Persians. Another one of his joys was celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim, which commemorates the near genocide of Persian Jews found in the Biblical Book of Esther. The Persian Jewish community welcomed him as one of their own as they celebrated the defeat of Haman’s plan to exterminate the Jews thanks to the heroics of Mordecai and Esther.

What I remember the most in my Grandfather’s old stories is of how he felt about his time there. He experienced such a sense of completeness, not because he worked in a different country. His feeling of wholeness stemmed from being able to help participate in the construction of an amazing country with equally loving people. In sort, he was a man helping out his fellow man.

By the time of the Islamic Revolution, which transformed Persia into Iran in 1979, my Grandfather had been long gone. His heart never truly left as his house contained Persian rugs, paintings and old pictures of his time there. I remember the first time I read about the Revolution and the infamous Iranian hostage crisis. This was when American diplomats in Tehran were held captive for over a year by supporters of the Revolution. I turned to my Grandfather to explain what Iran was like before, and what he thought about what happened. His response was saturated in sadness. He understood the reasons behind the revolution even if he did not fully agree with them. He witnessed the early frustrations, but hated how it victimised people whom he viewed as innocent. The Americans working at the embassy were like him so many years before. To him, he saw people who did care about the people living in Persia. They were the unfortunate pawns of powers beyond their control. They were not only hostages of the Revolution but also of prior American policy. How it was taken out on them was unjust in my Grandfather’s eyes.

The stories of my Grandfather remind me of what is going on in Rwanda today. As I wrote in an article for The Conversation (Link), the Rwandan General Karenzi Karake was arrested by British officials while departing London Heathrow Airport. He is accused of committing war crimes during and after the Rwandan Genocide as well as during the Congo Wars (1996-7 and 1998-2003) in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The arrest came as a surprise and raised many questions such as why is he now being arrested compared to his past trips? Why did the lower Spanish court, which had a superior judge throw out the charges, now demand his extradition? What is the role of extradition treaties for European nations? Rwandans justifiably were and continue to be still upset at the arrest.

The response to the arrest is being witnessed by the British High Commission. Protesters are in front of the embassy and continue to stay there with makeshift housing units with mattresses. Rwandans are demanding the release of General Karake demonstrating growing distrust in the international community.

Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to meet with a number of staff at the British High Commission. Many of these times, I meet them at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. The excellent centre was constructed and continues to be operated in a large part thanks to a British non-governmental organisation, Aegis Trust. The United Kingdom has done some amazing work for Rwandans since the end of the genocide. Perhaps most importantly, so many of the people within the embassy care about Rwandans, such like my Grandfather did when he lived in Persia.

Unfortunately, they are now caught in the frustrations of Rwandans thanks to policies they had very little, if at all, to do with. Their home country was put in a difficult position: a choice of either ignoring the extradition request or follow the law. The British government decided to follow the extradition law found within its European Union agreements. However, the people experiencing the brunt of the action are the British citizens working at the High Commission who care about Rwanda. Like the American diplomats in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution, they are the pawns of a bigger game of international law and politics. They are not colonisers or imperialists, they are people who care and want to help Rwanda’s growth and development, for they see the same promising future as do most Rwandans.

About the Author
Jonathan R. Beloff, PhD, is a researcher focusing on the regional politics and security of the African Great Lakes composing the nations of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have published several academic journal articles, book chapters, book reviews and editorials on issues facing central Africa. Since 2008, my travels to the region have led me to work and consult with numerous Rwandan and international government officials. Within these periods of foreign residence, with particular reference to my multiple extended stays in Rwanda, I developed unique skills to engage and consult with a range of different foreign officials as well as Rwandan elites and policymakers in the understanding and formation of public policy.
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