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A disturbing story




December 10, 2007

In October, 1998, Belgian journalist Peter Verlinden spent three hours interviewing an African-born Belgian rancher, Marcel Gerin, and his Mexican-born wife Gloria Martinez. The couple managed the Mpanga Ranch in southeastern Rwanda, a popular tourist stop near the southern extremity of Akagera National Park.

Gerin and Martinez were witnesses to (and almost consumed in) a little known episode of the Rwandan genocide. The episode raises serious questions about the behavior of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, in its campaign to crush the Hutu regime and end the 1994 genocide. And it begs the larger question: When does military action to stop genocide, become genocide itself? And why has no tribunal ever formally investigated the actions of the army that “won” the 1994 war?

(You can find my documentary Rwanda: Out of the Darkness here.)

Verlinden, a reputable Dutch-speaking journalist and writer, produced a documentary based on the couple’s testimony, called “The Killing Fields.” It drew considerable attention in Europe, but almost none in Africa, or North America . One can only guess at the reason: Perhaps allegations of atrocities by the “good guys” in the conflict--the RPF--only serve to confuse (or render overly complex) the accepted narrative of the events of 1994.

In any case, Verlinden summarized the story, and his researches around the story, in a statement, dated September 28, 2004, which he offered to the International Tribunal in Arusha. He said he was acting as an “intermediary and spokesperson” for the couple, who had left Rwanda, and were no longer willing to talk about the events they witnessed in 1994, for “very personal reasons.” One can only guess what those reasons are.

Here are the main elements of their story.

One week after the shooting down of Hutu President Habyarimana’s airplane in Kigali--the event that launched the genocide--Gerin and Martinez found themselves with 1500 to 2000 refugees at Mpanga Ranch. “They were counting on the two whites to protect them.” Verlinden writes. “There were no Rwandan soldiers (in the vicinity) and no Interahamwe. "

Around the 22nd or 23rd of April, they heard heavy gunfire a few kilometres away. Three days later a small group of soldiers arrived at the ranch. They spoke English and Swahili. Gerin described them as soldiers, but they were not in uniform. He concluded they were Ugandan. They arrested the couple, and their Rwandan helper, by the name of Innocent Katete. A short time later, one of the group fired three bullets into Katete, and ordered that no one should help the young man, because he was a “dying dog.”

The rebels (they were clearly members of Kagame’s army, advancing from bases in Uganda) took the couple into custody and brought them along on the route to the town of Mulindi. “There were barricades all over the road,” Verlinden writes, “manned by English-speakers.”

In Mulindi, Gerin and Martinez saw “a very large number of bodies. The corpses were obviously fresh.” It was April 26. The couple noticed that a lot of the armed militia were children. Later that day, the column decided to return to Mpanga. Martinez was with them when they stopped at the home of a man getting ready for bed, without interrogating him, cut off his head. They told her he was a traitor and a member of the Interahamwe.

Back at the ranch, Martinez says the leader of the rebel group, whom she named as George Kelinde, gave instructions to the rebel group that they should “wipe out everyone who moved.” No one, he said in Swahili, should be left alive. “She immediately alerted her husband,” Verlinden writes, “but for reasons of personal security, they were not able to intervene.”

Back again in the town of Mulindi “there were many corpses.” Verlinden quotes Gerin as saying that “the blood was still flowing, that these were people who had just been killed.” They numbered in the hundreds. The odor of death was “overwhelming.”

“He (Gerin) told of a child who was crying. A commander ordered a soldier to ‘make it keep quiet.’ Immediately after, the child was killed by a bullet.”

The couple pleaded with their captors to let them go. On the night of April 27, the militia agreed to take them to Kibungo.

“Along the road Gerin and Martinez saw with their own eyes how child-soldiers killed with machetes those whom they found on the roads (mainly the elderly, woman and children.) The rebels accompanying the couple told them, speaking about the Hutus: ‘We’ll win the war with their uniforms and their methods; we’ll do the same thing (as they do)’.

“On the main road, on the way to Kinbungo, Mr. Gerin drove through the blood of the victims who had just been killed. He said freshly killed bodies could be found all along the road. He insisted they were fresh corpses, because the blood was still flowing . . . The next day, the corpses had been taken away, and placed in common graves along the road.

“In Kibungo, again, a large number of fresh cadavers. The couple heard shooting everywhere during the night of the 27th and 28th. They saw no soldiers who spoke anything other than English and/or Swahili, and according to them, all the Interahamwe had left the area and all the barricades were occupied by new soldiers, and they could only conclude that these soldiers were responsible for a large number of the killings. The killers were not uniformed, but were well armed.

“According to the couple, at the same time as they were being questioned, Rwandans were being interrogated by the rebel soldiers and executed, the bodies added to those already in the church at Gahini. They insisted these were fresh bodies, added to the older corpses already in the church.”

Eventually, the couple were “rescued” by a Reuters news team in the area, and taken to the Tanzania border, and safety.

Concludes Verlinden:
“From a journalistic point of view, this testimony is very important, and probably also from the point of view of justice and of history. Marcel Gerin and Gloria Martinez did not stand to gain anything from these declarations—quite the contrary. For them this is a fight against the general opinion of the Rwandan tragedy. Accordingly they, and more and more academics and journalists, are beginning to better understand that what we know today (about the full story of the Rwandan genocide) is incomplete.

“Based on my researches of 1998-99 into this story and other researches on other aspects of the Rwandan story, I dare to conclude that we do not yet know all those responsible for what happened in 1994. If my testimony on this story can contribute to the completion of the dossier, I am prepared to give it.”

* * * * * * * * * 



Witness to Genocide -- A Personal Account of the 1995 Kibeho Massacre
by Paul Jordan

This excerpt is taken from an article which can be found in its entirety at http://www.anzacday.org.au/history/peacekeeping/anecdotes/kibeho.html

It is an account of what 32 members of the Australian Defence Force Medical Support Force witnessed at the Kibeho displaced persons' camp, a refuge for Rwandan Hutus, in April 1995. At the time the camp was surrounded by two battalions of Tutsi troops from the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), formerly the RPF, which regarded Kibeho, five hours west of the capital city Kigali, as a sanctuary for Hutu perpetrators of the 1994 genocide.

"On one side of the road, my half-section covered the hospital that contained fifteen corpses. In the hospital courtyard we found another hundred or so dead people. A large number of these were mothers who had been killed with their babies still strapped to their backs. We freed all the babies we could see. We saw dozens of children just sitting amidst piles of rubbish, some crouched next to dead bodies. The courtyard was littered with debris and, as I waded through the rubbish, it would move to expose a baby who had been crushed to death. I counted twenty crushed babies, but I could not turn over every piece of rubbish.

"The Zambians were collecting the lost children and placing them together for the agencies to collect. Along the stretch of road near the documentation point, there were another 200 bodies lined up for burial. The other counting party had seen many more dead than we had. There were survivors too. On his return to camp, Jon saw a baby who was only a few days old lying in a puddle of mud. He was still alive. Jon picked the baby up and gave him to the Zambians. At the end of our grisly count, the total number recorded by the two half-sections was approximately 4000 dead and 650 wounded. . . .

" . . . At 2.00 p.m. that day, we were rotated out of the camp. We felt sick with resentment at leaving the job incomplete, but there was very little that we could have done for those people. We estimated that at least 4000 people had been killed over that weekend. While there was little that we could have done to stop the killings, I believe that, if Australians had not been there as witnesses to the massacre, the RPA would have killed every single person in the camp."

Guilt, power, Rwanda


“Your guilt is our power.” Shelby Steele, research fellow at the Hoover Institution and Harvard University.

Oct. 21, 2007

In four decades of journalism, I’ve been called of a lot of things. But no one has ever accused me of harboring genocidal tendencies. Until now.

(You can see my documentary Rwanda: Out of the Darkness here.)

A Rwandan man who lives in Kigali and who calls himself a teacher and newspaper columnist posted a message on a U.S. Christian website. He said that my reporting on Rwanda’s post-genocidal politics was of the kind that was “in great part responsible for our country’s shameful history.” The man, who signed his name Ingina, warned that if I wasn’t careful, I might be counted among Rwanda’s “primitive genocidaires”--the term used for the organizers of the catastrophe in that country that left nearly a million people dead in 1994.

Normally I would copy and paste this kind of thing into the “Crackpot” folder on my desktop, and forget about it. It’s part of the junk mail in every journalist’s inbox, especially in the digital age when the printed word circumnavigates the globe in a nano-second.

But Ingina’s message had a special resonance. There was the distinct smell of something bigger here than just a spontaneous personal attack. I’ve found that anybody who challenges even small details of what I call Rwanda’s “genocide orthodoxy” comes in for special attention from the government. Some of that attention can be quite nasty.

Let me backtrack a bit.

Six months ago, I visited Rwanda for professional reasons. I’d been contracted to do some volunteer media training for a Canadian non-governmental agency. The visit allowed me free time for some freelance journalism (for CBC television) and for some blogging to my personal website. One of those blogs contained mildly critical comments about the country’s president, Paul Kagame. Kagame is a widely-respected leader who, 13 years earlier as commander of a rebel Tuts army, was instrumental in ending Rwanda’s genocide.

In the blog, I said that the Rwanda’s annual genocide commemorations, which last a full week, have a distinct political dimension. I expressed sympathy for hundreds of people who were made to sit under the hot sun for hours of speech-making, under the watchful eye of police, while VIPs sat comfortably in the shade, drinking bottled water.

My comments weren’t offensive enough to get me thrown out of the country, but they did have repercussions. A day or two later, word came down from the president’s office that I was not welcome in the newsroom of TV Rwanda, where I was supposed to do some media training. The country’s intelligence services keep a close eye on all communications in and out of the country by foreigners, especially those using the Internet. Rwanda remains uniquely conscious of its image in the West, even though the indifference by Western governments to the 1994 genocide remains a sore point here.

Anyway, I’d stepped on some tender feet, and I knew I was being watched. No big deal. I would find other things to do.

THE CONTROVERSIAL “HERO”

While in Kigali, I also made a point of reading the country’s only daily newspaper, the English-language New Times. The paper (like TV Rwanda) takes its editorial cues from Kagame’s office, and it is especially harsh on anybody who questions the president’s authority and style of government. (The newspaper recently fired an editor for publishing an “unflattering” photo of the president.) One of the most vocal critics, curiously enough, is Paul Rusesabagina. He’s the man at the centre of the movie Hotel Rwanda. Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle in the film) was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom by George Bush in 2006. The movie, and his autobiography, claim that Rusesabagina saved more than 1200 Rwandans for almost certain death, when he was manager of an important Kigali hotel. But that, say his critics, is a Hollywood fantasy. In his home country, he’s seen by many as an opportunist, a “divisionist,” a thief and even a gun-runner. Rusesabagina today lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium.

Rusesabagina’s “offense” is that he has called Kagame a ruthless dictator. He maintains that Kagame and his army are responsible for genocidal actions of their own against Rwanda’s majority Hutus, both before and after 1994. (See posting above, "A disturbing story.") Rusesabagina, who is much in demand as a speaker internationally, says that Kagame and his Rwanda Patriotic Front army have gotten away with mass murder--the killing of hundreds of thousands of Hutu civilians in Rwanda and the Congo between 1990 and today. These, he says, were reprisals for the bloodbath in 1994, and he says they amount to a “second genocide” which the world is, unconscionably, ignoring.

Rusesabagina thinks the West is reluctant to take Kagame to task for these atrocities, because it still feels guilty about doing nothing to prevent the 1994 genocide, and because Kagame is a strong, effective politician whom they believe they can work with.

Rusesabagina, it must be said, is given to hyperbole. For example, he likens the mood in Rwanda today with that of 1959, when a Hutu uprising ended Tutsi minority rule, at a great cost of human life. “The same kind of impunity that festered after the 1959 revolution,” Rusesabagina told the Reuters news agency last year, “is happening again, only with a different race-based elite in power. We have changed the dancers, but the music remains the same.”

He believes that Kagame is, even today, fomenting another genocide, this time against the majority Hutus, but that most Rwandans are too terrified to resist. “It frightens me to death when my countrymen are not talking,” Rusesabagina writes in his 2006 autobiography, An Ordinary Man. “We could be witnessing the roots of a future holocaust.”

Rusesabagina’s fear of another impending “holocaust” has some credence among European Africa-watchers, but here in North America, that kind of language is viewed as wildly over-the-top, bordering on hate speech. Gerald Caplan, a Canadian public policy analyst and co-ordinator of the “Remembering Rwanda” project, calls Rusesabagina malicious, dishonest and even “delusional.” “This is no honest and decent man any longer,” Caplan told me in an email. Caplan feels Rusesbagina will say anything to embarrass Kagame, a man he “loathes,” and he suggests that the hero of Hotel Rwanda has a hidden agenda--presumably to bring down the Kagame government through a mix of international pressure, spearheaded by an insidious alliance of Hutu expatriates with murky backgrounds

On a personal note, Caplan was annoyed with me for writing a ”warm, positive” article about Rusesabagina for an Ontario newspaper, and said he didn’t want to talk to me anymore because I had not given enough weight to his contention that Rusesabagina has a nefarious agenda.

Caplan’s animus towards Rusesabagina is understandable. They disagree fiercely about where, and how, Kagame is leading his country. Caplan, who has traveled widely in Africa, says that Rusesabagina’s claims about a “second genocide” are actually a threat to stability in the Central African nation, and that he is unable to prove his claims of large-scale government-ordered killings of Hutus today. Rusesabagina, however, is implacable. “All those voices are crying, seeking justice, and justice has got to be done,” he told me last June. “When Hutus killed Tutsis, I never kept quiet. How can I keep quiet when Tutsis are killing Hutus?” (Note: A number of other reputable Rwanda-watchers have no hesitancy in using the term "counter-genocide" when discussing RPF reprisals against Hutus.)

Whatever the merits of his case, Rusesabagina no longer subscribes to what many observers call a “culture of silence” that is pervasive in Rwanda. He talks loudly and often and, worse in the eyes of his critics, he gets paid for it. Largely on the basis of the success of the film Hotel Rwanda, Rusesabagina is very active on the US and Canadian lecture circuit. He says he's made "about 300" public appearances in the last three years. He’s also an able fundraiser. In his speeches, he’s sharply critical of Kagame. But in the Rwandan president he’s found a powerful enemy. Rusesabagina learned just how powerful in early September, when he was invited to speak at a fund-raising event in a suburban Chicago Anglican church. Three days before the event, the parish got an urgent long-distance call. An influential Anglican churchman, Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda, wanted the invitation rescinded. Kolini had been contacted directly by the Rwandan president: Rusesabagina was a troublemaker, Kolini was told, and he should not be given a platform in a church. The Chicago parish, unwilling to be drawn into a political dispute, agreed, and Rusesabagina’s talk was moved to another location.

Since then, Rusesabagina has had more problems. Last September, the Rwandan ambassador to Washington, James Kimonyo, shocked a meeting organized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition in Chicago, when he publicly accused Rusesabagina of raising money to buy arms for an invasion of Rwanda. The ambassador also implicated two former US ambassadors to the Great Lakes region, who were at the meeting.

Kimonyo offered no evidence, and Rusesabagina laughed off the charges, but the slander campaign was having an effect. In November, a meeting in Brussels to discuss his appeal for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Rwanda had to be relocated when the host institution, the Universite Catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, came under pressure from Rusesabagina's enemies and "dis-invited" him.

THE QUESTION OF RPF "ATROCITIES"

Rusesabagina’s credibility must, perforce, rest on the answer to the question: Is Kagame guilty of human rights crimes that approach the genocidal? Did he and his Rwandan Patriotic Front initiate policies that led to the systematic and deliberate extermination of Hutu men, women and children, beginning in the early 1990s and continuing even to the present day? And if these killings are indeed taking place, are they happening in a climate of impunity?

The record is incomplete, but at the very least, it’s clear that Kagame and the RPF were not too concerned about the niceties of humanitarian behavior in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. Human Rights Watch, for example, compiled a sobering record of civilian killings by RPF soldiers throughout the countryside in 1994. By not prosecuting the soldiers responsible for these extra-judicial killings, HRW said in a 1999 report, the government of Paul Kagame “signaled that the killing of civilians, if perpetrated in the aftermath of a genocide, was understandable and would be tolerated, so opening the way to the further slaughter which took place in the months and years after.”

Marie Beatrice Umutesi, a Hutu woman who survived months of horror in the jungles of the Eastern Congo after the genocide, says that this selective justice by the Kagame regime “is reinforcing in the minds of Rwandans that whoever has power has all rights, even that of murder.”

Even before the genocide ended, HRW says, the RPF and Kagame had developed a military strategy that was focused less on saving Tutsi lives, than achieving a conclusive victory in the field. “The genocide," concluded Human Rights Watch, "took place in the context of war and the RPF wanted to win the war, not just save the Tutsi . . . Rather than striking hard at (the) area of enemy strength, the RPF advanced rapidly through weaker regions in the east and south, then headed west and northwest again, building pressure on the capital and the northwest. The RPF strategy, praised by other military experts, may have offered the best chance for military victory but did not present the best possible plan for rescuing Tutsi.”

Without in any way seeking to excuse the genocide, but rather to clarify the context, Alan J. Kuperman elaborates on this thesis in a paper submitted in 2004 to The Journal of Genocide Research. The paper is provocatively titled "Provoking Genocide", and concludes: " . . . The genocide was foreseeable--and avoidable if the RPF had been willing to compromise either its aspirations or means of pursuing them. The evidence also demonstrates that the international community, by supporting the rebels' intransigence, inadvertently helped trigger the genocidal backlash."

The West’s pathetic record of indifference during the genocide is well-documented. Not so well known, however, is the fact that, a month into the holocaust, it was the RPF itself that was determined to keep foreign soldiers out of the country, even at the cost of Tutsi lives.

Human Rights Watch notes that when the Security Council discussed sending a peacekeeping force into Rwanda with a mandate to protect civilians, the RPF responded with a vigorous “thanks, but no thanks.” Kagame may have been worried that the French military would get in the way of his plans to sweep into power. So he had his lieutenants issue a message to the world that it was far too late to save any Tutsis. Indeed, an April 30 statement from the RPF political bureau said bluntly: “Most of the potential victims of the regime have been either killed or have since fled.” (The statement is highly questionable: the genocide still had weeks to run.)

 Concludes Human Rights Watch: “The tragic reality that hundreds of thousands had already been slain in no way negated the need to rescue tens of thousands of other who were still alive . . . We understand very well the reasons why the RPF would not want to accept an intervention force. But we cannot see any legitimate reason that the RPF might invoke to oppose a solution which would bring the necessary help to the civilian population without interfering with ongoing military operations.”

In subsequent years, the death toll of Hutus mounted, especially among those several millions who fled to neighboring countries, expecting they would be beyond the reach of the avenging RPF. Here, again, is Beatrice Umutesi:

“In October, 1996, the RPF invaded the Democratic Republic of the Congo and destroyed refugee camps. Thousands of Hutus were killed during these attacks; others had to re-enter Rwanda, while still others found refuge in the mountains and forest of the Congo. The RPF and its allies followed this last group all the way to Mbandaka, 2000 milometres from Bukavu. Approximately 200,000 Hutu refugees were killed in this pursuit. The massacres of the Hutu refugees in he DRC were described as independent and UN committees of inquiry as ‘acts of genocide’.”

The Kagame administrations prefers to characterize these cross-border incursions as search-and-destroy missions to wipe out the fleeing Interahamwe and other Hutus with genocidal blood on their hands. That may be the partly true; yet among the victims were many women and children who had never swung a machete in homicidal anger. The former US ambassador to Burundi, Robert Kreuger, tells of visiting a Hutu refugee camp in 2004 where 8,000 of the 45,000 inhabitants were orphaned children. "These were Hutus fleeing the Tutsi counter-genocide," Krueger said in a recent interview on Chicago public radio.

Umutesi warns that these unprosecuted, and uncondemned crimes may well be the seeds of future cataclysmic violence in Rwanda. “Kagame’s political opponents and other democratic forces find themselves at an impasse. In such a situation, the reaction in the past has always been the same--people take up arms to make themselves heard. The creation of armed movements that ally with political opposition abroad represents a logic of violence that risks sweeping away the logic of peace and reconciliation.”

The Revolution Eats its Own

The risks of speaking out aggressively against post-genocide atrocities can be severe. Seth Sendashonga, once a dedicated comrade-in-arms of Paul Kagame and Minister of the Interior in the new Tutsi government, became progressively more distressed about the anti-Hutu excesses of the new government, and protested loudly. He later fled to Nairobi where, in 1998, he was assassinated. His wife Cyrie is convinced his former Tutsi bosses ordered his execution. Amnesty International suspects the same. 

For more on the AI findings, please see http://www.amnesty.org/en/alfresco_asset/e361bac7-b276-11dc-b033-974214843c58/afr470191998en.html

A missed opportunity: Canadian journalists in Rwanda


(Published in The Tyee, Sept. 5, 2007)
Earlier this month, John Honderich, the former publisher of Canada’s biggest paper, the Toronto Star, wrote an impassioned opinion piece in the Star about the sorry state of press freedom in Rwanda. Honderich was upset with Rwandan president Paul Kagame. It seems that last month, Kagame ordered the sacking of an editor at the New Times, Rwanda’s only daily newspaper. The editor was responsible for a bit of lèse majesté; namely, he’d allowed the publication of a photo of Kagame that the president felt was undignified.

(You can find my documentary Rwanda: Out of the Darkness here)

“Strange indeed,” Honderich tut-tutted about Kagame’s latest behavior, in the tone of an uncle disappointed by a wayward nephew.

But it wasn’t strange at all. In fact, Kagame was being perfectly consistent. And Honderich should know. He is a familiar figure in the offices of the New Times. Over the past two years, he’s graciously volunteered several weeks of his time there as an unpaid consultant. He knows that the New Times is, in every way (except officially) a mouthpiece for the Kagame government.

He knows that Rwandan journalists are browbeaten and co-opted by the Rwanda government to do its bidding and spread its message. He knows that the newspaper, like Rwandan state TV, is effectively a bulletin board for Kagame’s political and social agenda, and that reporters who stray from a rigid editorial line put their jobs (and even personal safety) at risk. As a result, they censor themselves.

He surely knows that, on April 20, the editor of a fortnightly newspaper, Umurabyo, was sentenced to one year in prison, and fined more than $5000, for publishing a column critical of Rwanda’s justice system. (The charges included “divisionism and sectarianism.”) He surely knows that reporters for independent newspapers are sometimes harassed, beaten and even driven into exile for challenging the government’s agenda.

He knows that only this past summer, the government shut down an independent paper, The Weekly Post, on a bureaucratic pretext. He knows that Rwandan correspondents for international media (the BBC, the Voice of America) have been accused of “treason” by the state press for their critical reporting of Rwandan affairs.

Honderich knows all these things because he is an acute, sensitive newsman as well as an adroit news executive. But it was only after he left Rwanda that he went on record to chastise Kagame and his officials for their high-handed treatment of journalists and editors. While in Kigali, it seems, Honderich was far less vocal. Indeed, at an official function in late May, as he was preparing to return home, Honderich leant his professional authority to a gathering that included the country’s Information Minister, as well as Dr. David Himbara, an adviser in Kagame’s office who also happens to be a board member of the New Times.

According to the state media, who write the things they’re supposed to write, Himbara talked about building a culture of “open debate and transparency” in Rwanda. Honderich made his contribution by enthusing about the New Times’ “bright future.” He added something about how the paper was “boxing beyond its weight class.” All in all, his performance bordered on timidity, a missed opportunity to put a little starch in Canadian international co-operation, to put our principles where our money is. (Honderich did not reply to my emailed questions about his actions in Rwanda, or about my criticisms of how the New Times cravenly does the government’s work.)

Even though Honderich did an about-face with his commentary when he returned home, the incident raises questions for all Canadians involved in development programs in the Third World: To what degree should the fear of offending a host government prompt volunteers to soft-pedal professional and ethical standards in the course of their work? When is it okay to bite your tongue for the “good of the project,” and when do you stand on principle, even at the risk of being shut down?

The questions are especially tangled for Canadian journalists in Rwanda: How do you teach professionalism in an environment when open inquiry, and speaking truth to power, are actively (and even forcefully) discouraged? In Rwanda, several promising journalism students I spoke to said they would probably seek work outside the field when they graduated--in public relations, or in the NGO field--rather than struggle with the constraints on the media. How do they feel when visiting journalists fail to confront a repressive system?

Should we not insist that the government guarantee certain fundamental principles in the practice of journalism before we agree to take part in a development program? And when the state steps over the line, and violates a basic principle (like arbitrarily firing editors for their editorial decisions) should we not, as trainers and teachers, make a strong and unequivocal stand?

Honderich, it must be said, had an important constraint on his freedom to talk candidly. He wasn’t in Rwanda on his own, but rather as part of a Canadian taxpayer-funded program called the Rwanda Initiative. Under its auspices, dozens of Canadian reporters, photographers, editors, and journalism interns have traveled to Rwanda over the past two years. The objective is to help “professionalize” the Rwandan media in the wake of that country’s 1994 genocide, an event that devastated virtually all of the country’s institutions, including the media.

I was one of those volunteers: I spent two weeks this past spring teaching broadcast journalism at the National University of Rwanda. The Rwanda Initiative provided housing, and paid all my costs.

The Initiative is the brainchild of Carleton University journalism professor Allan Thompson. Two years ago, Thompson sold President Kagame and other Rwandan officials and academics on his idea. Why not let experienced Canadian news people donate their time and skills to teach young Rwandans the rudiments of balanced, responsible journalism? At the same time, Rwanda would provide an international training ground for dozens of Carleton journalism students looking for some foreign seasoning.

Kagame agreed. Why wouldn’t he? The Initiative would cost him almost nothing, and Rwandan journalists (and journalism students) would learn some much-needed practical and technical skills. Also, Kagame, a skilled political strategist, must have reckoned that his personal embrace of the Initiative could come in handy against critics inside, and outside, Rwanda who might want to challenge his “democratic” values.

The problem is, of course, that at heart, Kagame is not a democrat at all. A former military leader who has been likened to Napoleon, he’s more of a “soft totalitarian” who sees most reporters as an irritation, an unschooled rabble, even a political obstacle. (He was elected president with 90% of the vote, a result that says as much about his silencing of opposition voices, as about his electoral charisma.) He treats the New Times and its editorial staff as an extension of the state, and the newspaper’s editors comply. As a senior editor told me: “We do not fear to say that we echo the government’s position on most . . . things.” If that means putting a flattering photo of Kagame on the front page every day, so be it. As the editor explained, somewhat sheepishly: “The fact is that the president makes news.”

Indeed, after last month’s sacking of the editor, reporters and editors at the paper were told that the government and the New Times were to be regarded “like husband and wife.”

Charles Gordon, a former columnist with the Ottawa Citizen who spent two months with the Initiative in Rwanda, argues that the project’s primary job is education, not confrontation. “The best we can do is . . . to give them (the students) a sense of values so they can conduct themselves in a professional way at some point in the future.” He said Canadian journalists should think twice before urging Rwandans to confront the system. “Given Rwanda’s history,” said Gordon, “I can understand why the students may not want to charge the barricades.”

But it’s not only Rwandan students and journalists who have to deal with an intransigent system. I was in Rwanda for only a few days before I got a first-hand taste of the president’s sensitivity to criticism. I attended a genocide anniversary ceremony at which Kagame was the keynote speaker and I wrote a blog about the event. I commiserated with the hundreds of Rwandans bused into the event who had to sit under the hot sun listening to hours of speeches, while the VIPs sat under tents and sipped bottled water. I thought it was interesting that Kagame, who has a fluent command of English, spoke exclusively in Rwanda’s native tongue, and I speculated that this might have been a slight to the gathered diplomats. I wrote that his criticisms of the French government, and the role it played in the 1994 genocide, might have been a little heavy-handed.

I filed the blog to my website, and forgot about it. Several days later, however, I got a curious phone call. A senior official of Rwanda TV, where I was scheduled to do some media training, said she had read my blog, and was disturbed by what I had written. She said there were things about Rwanda that “you clearly don’t understand.” Subsequently, I was notified that I was no longer welcome at the offices of TV Rwanda. They were not interested in accommodating a Western journalist who spent so much time rooting around in the “shadows” of Rwandan life.

I later learned, from a good source, that Rwanda’s Intelligence Service had spotted my blog. The “watchers” notified the president’s office and the decision was made that I should not be allowed to bring my cynicism into the newsroom.

I was not the only Initiative media trainer in Rwanda to catch the censorial eye of the authorities. In September 2006, Gil Courtemanche, a columnist for Le Devoir in Montreal and the author of A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali, wrote a column that was sharply critical of Kagame’s governance. As a result, an Intelligence officer visited the National University to learn more about the Canadian and his activities in Rwanda. But Courtemanche had already caught a flight home.

Another Canadian newsman, Gary Dimmock of the Ottawa Citizen, has been filing blogs from Rwanda that are bluntly critical of the government. Dimmock, who specializes in investigatory journalism, worked under the auspices of the Rwanda Initiative for an opposition weekly in Kigali called Newsline. Dimmock told me that the government was so annoyed at what he was writing, that it ordered a local reporter to attack Dimmock’s credibility in a column of his own. The reporter agreed, reluctantly, “because he had to put food on the table.”

“Sadly,” says Dimmock, “journalists (in Rwanda) who dare to criticize or even challenge the Kagame regime are treated as criminals. These ordinary decent reporters, and there are many, need help from the international press to one day secure genuine press freedom.” That help, he added, should come from groups like the Initiative who are in a position “to truly fight for press freedom and make as much noise until there is a new dawn.”

These and other critical voices have put the Rwanda Initiative, and its founder Allan Thompson, in a difficult position. “We’re not a media watchdog. That’s never been our role,” Thompson says. “Frankly, I don't think we would be able to function on the ground in Rwanda, or make any kind of difference at all, if we made it our mandate to function as yet another media watchdog.” He said that this was the job of groups like Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders.

“In the final analysis, the only way we can make any difference in Rwanda and promote press freedom, even incrementally, is to be able to operate on the ground by sending dozens of Canadian journalists there."

Thompson agrees that the Rwandan government’s media policies “generally do not promote media freedom” but he said that independent newspapers and radio stations are allowed to operate and that the Initiative “can do more good by biding its time” and working from within the Rwanda media institutions to influence change. He noted that the Initiative is making “some headway” in a cause of a more vibrant media; for example, it has been able to send journalists to several independent media outlets in Rwanda, and they are able to work without restrictions.

I don’t feel this goes far enough. I believe that as role models for aspiring journalists in Rwanda, we have a moral obligation to insist on certain principles before co-operating with the government, and agreeing to work in Rwanda’s classrooms and newsrooms. We are there, after all, to teach, and when it comes to the practice of journalism, certain lessons are paramount. Like, editors should not be accountable to the president’s office; politicians should not arbitrarily decide who can publish and who can’t; and journalists should not live in fear of jail, of dismissal, or of physical injury if they write what they believe is the truth. If we don’t promulgate and defend these principles robustly and even aggressively, all other lessons—how to write a story, how to edit video, how to conduct an interview—become meaningless, and even though our hearts may be in the right place, we risk perpetuating a servile, frightened and deferential media.

The Continuing Travails of Paul Rusesabagina: Hero or Villain?


June 28, 2007
(Published in the Guelph Mercury on July 3, 2007)

Umberto Eco says a real hero is always a hero by mistake, that he dreams of being an honest coward like everyone else. It’s an aphorism that Paul Rusesabagina may soon take to heart. Heroism for the world’s most high-profile Rwandan is fast becoming a burden, with every humanitarian medal he receives, and with every lecture he gives.

In his book An Ordinary Man, and in the film Hotel Rwanda, Rusesabagina is portrayed as the man instrumental in saving more than 1200 lives during the 1994 genocide. The son of a Hutu man and a Tutsi woman, and the manager of Kigali’s top hotel, Rusesabagina was in a unique position to help people who flocked to the hotel looking for refuge from the machetes.

However, today, 13 years later, Rusesabagina is being called an opportunist, a liar, an imposter, a revisionist, a negationist, a traitor, a defender of mass murderers, a man profiting from the blood of a million victims. He lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium. He says he’s survived at least one assassination attempt. And he’s vilified every time he stands up to make a public pronouncement on Rwandan affairs.

He has his defenders, of course, people like Thomas Kamilindi, a well-known Rwandan journalist now living in the U.S. who insists that Rusesabagina helped save his life. George Bush gave Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a number of other humanitarian groups followed suit. But the groundswell of innuendo and animosity against him—a campaign led and fed by the administration of Rwandan President Paul Kagame—threatens to blacken his reputation.

Rusesabagina’s offense has been to speak up, loudly and sometimes rashly, on behalf of the majority Hutus who, he claims, have been disempowered in the modern Rwanda. He says Hutus are being killed today, and their killers are not being held accountable. “The failure of justice is critical,” Rusesabagina writes, “for it leaves our nation still in pieces and in danger of exploding again before long.” He believes Kagame to be something of a tyrant. He has even talked—mistakenly, I think—about a “second genocide.”

I’ve spoken to Rusesabagina at length, researched his story, and talked to many people about him and his allegations. I’ve heard enough to believe he’s sincere: I haven’t heard enough to say whether his most serious allegations are true or not.

Still, after a five-week visit to Rwanda this past spring, it’s my belief that the Kagame regime is exploiting this controversy over Rusesabagina to deflect attention from its own political failings and excesses. Rwanda remains desperately poor. Its prisons are full. Many genocide survivors are destitute. Kagame, an English-speaking Tutsi raised in Uganda, has passed draconian laws to enforce his version of why the genocide happened, and his vision of a society without ethnic divisions. Indeed, many Rwandans are afraid even to utter the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi.”

Reconciliation is the absolute orthodoxy; for the Tutsi victims to forgive their Hutu victimizers is now seen almost as a patriotic duty. (In his autobiography, Rusesabagina asks: “ . . . How in God’s name can a man “reconcile” with people he has raped, tortured and murdered? How can things ever be put right with the parents of a baby who has been ripped limb from limb?”)

Meanwhile, there is a virtual absence of political opposition, and the media is intimidated. In April, newspaper editor Agnès Nkusi Uwimana was sentenced to a year in jail and fined $6500. Her crime was to publish a letter-to-the-editor that complained that Tutsis were not being prosecuted for killing Hutus. Many Western human rights groups say the same thing. Paul Rusesabagina says the same thing. But to say it on the hills and on the streets of Rwanda is today a crime—a crime of ideology. A thought crime.

The main newspaper, the New Times, censors stories of ethnic killings because it doesn’t want to “enflame” the public. The principle seems to be: Better an ignorant public, than a fearful one.

While in Kigali, I was punished for writing a personal blog that characterized a public appearance by Kagame in an unflattering way. After the Intelligence Service read my blog, I was refused access to the state TV network where I was scheduled to do media training. I learned that the “watchers” also investigated another Canadian journalist, Gil Courtemanche, after a critical column he wrote for Montreal Le Devoir.

The Rwandan government and its defenders say, with some justification, that strong measures are needed to restore stability to a society that was shattered, root and stem, in 1994. There is zero tolerance for disagreement on issues of ethnicity.

But to smother dissent, to impose orthodoxy and to excoriate people like Paul Rusesabagina for what they say--or for their personal fame or success--can only lead to authoritarianism. Rwanda has been down that road before. What it needs now is a strong civil society, complete with earnest voices, disagreeable or otherwise.

*********

Rusesabagina has more than the Rwandan state to contend with. Now the world Anglican Church is putting his feet to the fire. Here's an article in a recent online edition of ChristianityToday. The "kicker" in this story is in the fifth paragraph from the end.

Rwandan Politics Intrudes on American Church
Archbishop told Anglican congregation to cancel talk by Hotel Rwanda subject Paul Rusesabagina.
Sarah Pulliam | posted 9/10/2007 11:29AM

A suburban Chicago church sought leadership from Rwanda amid theological disputes with the Episcopal Church. This week, it found itself in conflict with its leaders over Rwandan politics.

All Souls Anglican Church had scheduled Paul Rusesabagina, whose life was featured in the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda, to speak during Sunday morning services. The Wheaton, Illinois, church, a member of the Rwandan-led Anglican Mission in America (AMiA), had advertised Rusesabagina's appearance as part of a fundraiser to build a school in Gashirabwoba, Rwanda.

On Thursday, however, All Soul's pastor J. Martin Johnson received a message from AMiA President Canon Ellis Brust that Emmanuel Kolini, the Anglican archbishop of Rwanda, requested that the church not have Rusesabagina speak.

Rusesabagina has been at odds with the president of Rwanda. The archbishop feared that the event could create a strain in the relationship between the Anglican Church of Rwanda and the government.

"Truly I am horrified that we could have such a negative impact without meaning to," Johnson told Christianity Today. "I had no idea this was a controversial issue."

Rwandan president Paul Kagame has criticized the Oscar-nominated movie Hotel Rwanda for inaccurately portraying the country's 1994 genocide.

Hotel Rwanda highlights Paul Rusesabagina's role as a hotel manager who saved more than 1,200 Tutsi refugees. An estimated 800,000 people were massacred during 100 days of the genocide.

Kagame disputed Hotel Rwanda's portrayal of Rusesabagina as a hero. Kagame has said that Rusesabagina happened to be there and that he happened to survive because he was not in the category of those being hunted.

Rusesabagina criticized Kagame in his 2006 autobiography An Ordinary Man, saying that Kagame surrounds himself with corrupt businessmen.

"The same kind of impunity that festered after the 1959 revolution is happening again, only with a different race-based elite in power," he wrote. "We have changed the dancers but the music remains the same."

Instead of speaking at the church, Rusesabagina spoke at the nearby Wyndemere Auditorium in Wheaton Sunday night.
Director of Operations for All Souls Jennifer Merck, who was involved in organizing the original event, said many in the church were disappointed when Rusesabagina did not speak.

"My observation is that in the United States, we are so comfortable with our right to free speech," Merck said. "The fact that we listen to someone has nothing to do with whether we agree with him or not. That's not so true in the rest of the world."
Many, including Merck, left the Episcopal Church over the issue of homosexuality and chose to be under the oversight of the church in Rwanda.

"I don't know that we really knew then what it meant for us to be connected to Rwanda and frankly, we're beginning to find that out," she said. "It raises questions about what does it mean to live in the global church."

Since Rusesabagina had received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush, the All Souls pastor thought it would be a good way to attract attention for the school the church is trying to build.

"He was controversial or outspoken, but we have named him a hero in this country," Johnson said. "I thought it was a bit tacky because of the film, thinking, 'We're going a bit Hollywood with this, but oh well, it's for the good of the kingdom.'"

But after President Kagame found out Rusesabagina was supposed to speak at a church overseen by archbishop of Rwanda, he contacted Kolini, who then sent a message to the church requesting that the event be canceled, Johnson said.

"The bigger reality for us is having to accept the whole concept of obedience, and that is a harder cultural pill to swallow than I realized," he said. "I'm forced to encounter my own resistance and bias."

Johnson, who was previously a priest in the Episcopal Church, has been under the Rwandan authority since 2004. "He simply said, 'Please don't. Your church can't have this man speak there,'" Johnson said. "My initial response was, 'Can they tell us what to do?' We just have to say, 'Okay, fine, sorry,' and that's what we've done."

The church had sent out announcements to several people in the Chicago area and Johnson was embarrassed to have to cancel the event.

"I don't know if we'll simply have to get masters degrees in political science to keep working in the church," Johnson said and laughed. "I've never even been to Rwanda, but we are

The Forgiveness Fantasy (work in progress)


June 22, 2007

"Rwanda's key dilemma is how to build a democracy that can incorporate a guilty majority alongside an aggrieved and fearful minority in a single political community."--Mahmood Mamdani, "When Victims Become Killers"

"In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations . . . It is going to be uncomfortable, horrible to live in such a country!"--Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, "The Gulag Archipelago"

Eric Kazamarande has the chest, shoulders and heavy hands of a construction worker. He’s not tall. But even in his absurd pink prison garb, he radiates a primal strength. Armed with a machete, he must have cut a fearsome figure. Eric doesn’t remember how many blows it took to kill 12 Rwandans, but the two children he hacked to death probably offered a bit less resistance than the ten Tutsi adults he murdered. He chopped one man’s head off and carried it around the town of Kabukuba like a trophy.

When I first met Kazamarande in 1998, on a wooden bench outside the Rilima prison in central Rwanda, he didn’t talk much about the killings, except to offer what sounded like a carefully-rehearsed alibi. “We were driven by an invisible enemy that invaded our souls,” he told me. This enemy invader, whatever it was, proved highly efficient: it gave Eric and his fellow genocidists the strength to kill a million Rwandans in just a hundred days in 1994.

(You can see my documentary Rwanda: Out of the Darkness here)

Eric ended our interview with a deft finishing touch. “My heart is at peace,” he said, “because I have already confessed.” When he got out of prison, he pledged, he would visit the families of his victims, and beg forgiveness. At that point I turned off my video camera, and Kazamarande calmly walked back into his cell, escorted by a deputy warden. He would serve a total of about eight years.

Fast forward nine years . . . A few weeks ago, I saw Kazamarande again. He was now a free man. He’d found work as a baker. He was wearing a rakish leather Nike cap, and there was a cell phone in his pocket. There was a swagger in his step. He was doing all right. He’d wiped the bloodstains from his hands. He’d shown the requisite remorse. He’d knocked on doors, said I’m sorry, collected his forgivenesses like so many vouchers from the families and friends of his victims, and now he just wanted to get on with his life. As we talked, he occasionally brought his hands to his heart, to show his sincerity.

I couldn’t resist a question about guilt. Did he feel any after 13 years? “It’s not the kind of thing I think about,” he said. “For me it has gone.” Eric said the survivors of the genocide--the parents of the children he killed, the children of the man he beheaded--might still have unresolved anger, and grief. “But inside me, I don’t have a problem.”

Next to Eric stood Pelagia, an African woman in her mid 30s. She is a Tutsi. She’s lost more than three dozen family members in the genocide. When Eric was out hunting, Pelagia was one of the hunted. Now, 13 years later, she is one of the forgivers. They are neighbors. How does she feel about Eric?

Head slightly bowed, eyes avoiding mine (and Eric’s), she says softly: “The government has taught us that we are Rwandan and we are one.” She says she’s satisfied that the man next to her “has become a new person.” The past is the past, the blood has been washed away, and the African grasses cover the common graves. Yet there is little conviction in Pelagia’s voice, and she keeps a physical distance from Eric. She dutifully says the words that the government wants to hear.

I reflect on the words of Jean Hatzfeld, in his book A Time for Machetes: “The killer has no idea of the ordeal that begins for the victims once they have agreed to forgive, for in so doing they not only reopen old wounds but also lose the possibility of gaining relief through revenge. The killer does not understand that in seeking forgiveness, he is demanding that the victim make an extraordinary effort and he remains oblivious to the survivor’s dilemma, anguish and courageous altruism . . . "

Hatzfeld tells of one survivor, Francine, who shared her perspective of forgiveness. "A man may ask for forgiveness if he has had one Primus (beer) too many and then beats his wife. But if he has worked at killing for a whole month, even on Sundays, what can he hope to be forgiven for?" Hatzfeld quotes another survivor: "Only justice can pardon . . . a justice that makes room for truth, so that fear may drain away."

Reading a translation of Eric's interview, I see how he avoids any mention of justice. He assumes that forgiveness is his due, because he has served eight years in prison, and has followed the forms of admitting guilt. Watching him next to Pelagia, I wonder: Is this man really in touch with reality? He ends the interview on an unexpected, and chilling note. Ethnic peace, he says, is entirely in the hands of the authorities. Rwandans are by nature malleable, he says, and if the state decides to turn Tutsis loose against Rwanda’s majority Hutus “they would do it (the genocide) against us.” His meaning is clear, and deeply disturbing: All Rwandans are still capable of killing, he says. All it will take is another government of genocidal intent to start the bloodletting again. By depersonalizing the act of mass murder, by making it an act triggered by a malevolent state, Eric seeks to minimize his guilt, and to diminish his “agency.”

I would like Eric to meet Emmanuel Murangira. Emmanuel, a tall lanky man with a hole in his forehead where a bullet entered his brain, is one of a handful of Tutsi survivors in the school at Murambi, in southwestern Rwanda. Emmanuel has seen more death than most men: an estimated 50,000 people were slaughtered on the school premises in 1994 after a series of pitched battles between Tutsi civilians and attacking soldiers, interahamwe militia and ordinary Hutu citizens. Today, Emmanuel guides visitors through the "death rooms" where 1200 victims are carefully laid out in poses of death, their remaining flesh preserved by lime.

Striding through the charnel houses, Emmanuel is clearly disturbed by all the easy talk of remorse and forgiveness. He acknowledges that Rwandans were influenced by propaganda from above. "But if the people had refused this position, the genocide would not have reached the level it did. They were going around killing people, taking their possessions, hoping for their land, stealing everything they could get their hands on. The killers were fat and greedy--that’s why they agreed so readily with with what the authorities told them to do." In other words, the voices that drove the killers onward came from within themselves, venal and covetous. They simply wanted things that others had, and found a way to ideologize this desire.

This is where Rwandans find themselves today: If they hope to function again as members of a civil society, the survivors of the genocide will have to accept at face value the sometimes blithe acts of contrition of the killers like Eric Kazamarande; the killers will have to believe that they have been forgiven (or at least no longer subject to prosecution) and both Hutus and Tutsis will have to trust that they have nothing more to fear from one another, and that they will have a role to play in the shaping of Rwanda’s future.

What complicates this process of national forgiveness and reconciliation is, ironically, that it has been formalized as government policy. The only way out of Rwanda's ethnic nightmare, the politicians say, is for all Tutsi (and Hutu) victims to forgive their tormentors, as individuals and as a group. Some critics see this as not only impossible, but also inadvisable. Philosopher Roger Scruton, reviewing Charles Griswold's book Forgiveness: a philosophical exploration, has this to say. "When forgiveness becomes the public rallying cry . . . encouraged by civic and religious leaders, and praised far and wide for its power to heal, its slide into confusion and vulgarity is inevitable. It becomes identified with 'closure,' it is sentimentalized and transformed into therapy, and the criteria for its practice are obscured. It melds into forgetfulness of wrong, and is granted all too easily, once the expected public theatrics are performed."

Writing about the Stalinist outrages in the 1930s and 40s, Solzhenitsyn had this to say about the evildoers: " . . . For the sake of our country and our children we have the duty to seek them all out and bring them all to trial! Not to put them on trial so much as their crimes. And to compel each one of them to announce loudly: 'Yes, I was an executioner and a murderer.' " Solzhenitsyn says little or nothing about forgiveness.

This past spring (2007), I spent five weeks in Rwanda. It was the 13th anniversary of the genocide, and virtually every sentence I heard contained the “R” word—Reconciliation—sometimes preceded by the “U” word—Unity. It’s the mantra of the Tutsi-dominated government of President Paul Kagame. Unity and Reconciliation. This, we are told, is how the awful wounds of the genocide will be healed.

The healing process involves a number of steps. First, the killers must confess and beg forgiveness. The survivors are then required to forgive the people who tried to exterminate them. Everybody must attend weekly community tribunals, called gacacas, at which the murderers, rapists and looters who have eluded justice will be pointed out, accused, and be asked to confess. Meanwhile, the government will enforce a host of draconian laws and regulations against things like divisionism, negationism and “genocidal ideology.”

How draconian? Well, you can now be thrown into jail if you openly challenge the official orthodoxy of ethnic relations in Rwanda. Indeed, on April 20, newspaper editor Agnès Nkusi Uwimana, was sentenced to a year in jail and fined $6500. Her crime was to publish a letter-to-the-editor which complained that Tutsis were not being prosecuted for killing Hutus. Many Western human rights groups say the same thing. Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero of the film “Hotel Rwanda,” says the same thing. But to say it on the hills and the streets of Rwanda is today a crime—a crime of ideology. A thought crime.

Indeed, the new dogma is that there ARE no more Tutsis and Hutus, only Rwandans. “If you want to attack the problem of disunity,” one local official told me, “you attack it from the strongest point that created those divisions. So, no more Tutsis, no more Hutus . . . in Rwanda.” The speaker was comfortable in English because he was a Rwandan Tutsi who had been raised in Uganda—English-speaking Tutsis of Ugandan heritage are now a minority within a minority in Rwanda, but they hold the balance of power. (The second language of most Tutsis is French.) And it’s this very power that allows Paul Kagame, another Ugandan-raised Tutsi, to enforce the decree that there will be no ethnic divisions in Rwanda.

These attempts to officially "mask" ethnicity is wrong-headed, and even dangerous, say some Rwandans. In his celebrated book "Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak," French author Jean Hatzfeld quotes survivor Innocent Rwililia: "Here in Rwanda, it's a big deal to be Hutu or Tutsi. In a marketplace, a Hutu can spot a Tutsi at fifty yards, and vice versa, but admitting that there is a difference is taboo, even among ourselves. The genocide will change the lives of several generations of Rwandans, yet it is still not mentioned in our schoolbooks. We ourselves are never at ease with these differences, and in a manner of speaking, ethnicity is like AIDS; the less you talk about it, the more havoc it wreaks."

Political analysts J.-H. Bradol and A. Guibert argue that "to stress the absence of ethnic identities has become a means of
masking the monopoly by Tutsi military of political power. In this case, political discourse opposed to ethnism attempts to hide the domination of society by the self-proclaimed representatives of the Tutsi community." European academic Filip Reyntjens concurs; he says that while "the elimination of ethnicity is a worthwhile goal . . . the cynical manipulation of this objective as a tool for the monopolization of power in the hands of a small group is something quite different." (2004)

Meanwhile, the local newspapers, television and radio stations obediently censor stories that might put the lie to the fantasy of ethnic harmony. David Gusoniorye, news editor of the Kigali New Times, gave me an example of the kind of story he will keep out of the newspaper: A group of Hutus attacked a Tutsi wedding party, and several people were killed. But Gusonoirye decided not to print the story, because it might “send very strong negative signals” about ethnic togetherness. (Gusonoirye would not even use the words “Hutu” or “Tutsi” until I pressed him for details.)

This past July, according to the Toronto Star’s Debra Black, a New Times editor was sacked for approving the publication of an “unflattering” photo of President Kagame. “The rest of the staff,” Black wrote, “ was told . . . to avoid criticizing the government, the presidency and the law. They only needed to be told once for the message to sink in.” Meanwhile, Kagame tells journalists that they must take the initiative to improve their craft. The irony seems lost on him.

The independent media, for their part, know exactly what stories are too hot to handle: anything that exposes corruption or human rights violations within the army (Rwandan Defence Force), the ruling party, and the office of Paul Kagame himself. “I know this very well,” says Charles Kabanero, editor of the opposition Umeseso, “because most of my former colleagues who left the country wrote stories concerning those three areas.” Dozens of journalists have fled Rwanda because of intimidation and other threats. Earlier this year, Kabanero won the Golden Pen Award for his crusading journalism, and the authorities—embarrassed at the elevation of a critical journalist—promptly abolished the award.

I myself got a small taste of official disfavor when I wrote a blog about Paul Kagame that was mildly critical. The government’s Intelligence Service spotted the blog, and I was told that I was no longer welcome on the premises of TV Rwanda, where I had been scheduled to do some media training. An official told me I was not welcome because I did not “understand” things in Rwanda. I was too preoccupied with the “shadows” of life there.

Rwanda authorities are clearly on the alert for what Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker calls “dangerous ideas”--in this case the idea what any divergence from the official text of the genocide and the post-genocide healing process threatens the stability of the state.

Writes Pinker: “ It's hard to imagine any aspect of public life where ignorance or delusion is better than an awareness of the truth, even an unpleasant one. Only children and madmen engage in ‘magical thinking,’ the fallacy that good things can come true by believing in them or bad things will disappear by ignoring them or wishing them away. Rational adults want to know the truth, because any action based on false premises will not have the effects they desire.
“History also tells us that a desire to enforce dogma and suppress heretics is a recurring human weakness, one that has led to recurring waves of gruesome oppression and violence.”

* * * * *
For some Rwandans, the process of forgiveness came in curious ways. Solange Mukandayisabye, a 37-year-old hairdresser from Kibungo, was 24 when the genocide came. She lost her parents and four siblings in the mass slaughter at Nyarubuye Parish, in eastern Rwanda. Solange’s mother pleaded with the interahamwe to spare her, saying that relatives living next door would vouch for the fact that she was Hutu. But when the killers banged on the neighbor’s door, a woman inside denied the relationship. “We don’t know them,” she said. “Go ahead and clean up the neighborhood.”

The most efficient clean-up occurred in a classroom adjacent to the church, where hundreds of Tutsis fled, hoping for sanctuary. Solange was among them. They barred the door, and pressed against it with their bodies. But the interahamwe broke through. machetes and clubs flailing.

Solange crawled under bodies, and tried to hold her breath. She was covered in other people’s blood and body parts. After their first murderous sweep, the interahamwe sprinkled pepper over the wounds of the fallen. Anyone who flinched was quickly dispatched with a few blows. Solange, miraculously, had no cuts on her body, so she was able to remain still. Hours later, under cover of darkness, she pulled herself out of the carnage and fled.

For years after, Solange was consumed by the need to avenge herself on the killers, and on the townspeople who had condemned her family by denying them help. “I wanted to be a soldier. I wanted a gun, so I could go back to the neighborhood and kill everybody. But they wouldn’t accept me in the army because I had a child. I tried for three or four years. But they never took me.”

Finally, in 2001, Solange visited a Pentecostal church and heard a sermon on forgiveness. It was an epiphanic event: She says it transformed her life. By means of a profession of blanket forgiveness, she could now release herself from the past and the people in it. “I was ready to forgive everybody,” she said, “even those who did not ask me for forgiveness.” E. K. Stratton calls this process “unhooking”--detaching oneself from a traumatic past experience. This is a spiritual process, but it also has a practical side: It allows the individual to begin to forget. The perpetrators of an atrocity lose their psychological hold on their victims. Today, Solange has no interest in pursuing justice in the courts “because that would take me back to the situation I went through.” For the same reason, Solange will not take part in the annual genocide commemoration ceremonies--she is determined to avoid any experience that takes her back to 1994.

“My feelings (of vengeance) are all gone,” she says. “I don’t know what happened to them.”

*****

I would like to talk for a moment about fear. During my visit to Rwanda in 2007, I met a young European woman who was researching her doctoral dissertation. Her subject was how the children of genocide survivors, born since 1994, deal with the trauma of the event that they only know about from conversations, or from reading, or from commemorative events. To this end, the woman had spent several months living with Rwandan families, listening to their talk, and evaluating how the adults processed the genocide with their children.

She was reluctant to talk to me, and insisted I not use her name, or any information that might identify who she was, or where in Rwanda she was working. “Are you afraid of government retaliation?” I asked her. “No,” she replied. “I am afraid for the people. I am afraid that if their neighbors should find out what they are saying to me, and among themselves (about the genocide), that they would be harmed.” I expressed surprise that, 13 years after the killings, the anxiety level should still be so high, that people should still talk in whispers about what they had experienced.

I wanted to get this woman’s impressions about reconciliation and forgiveness. I had heard that Rwandans are, by nature, reluctant to reveal their true feelings, especially to strangers, but even among themselves. I had heard the expressions about the “tears that fall inside.” Given this tendency, how could we evaluate the expressions of reconciliation and forgiveness from the survivors?

The woman explained that when a Rwandan talks about a traumatic event, there are two voices: the interior one, and the exterior one. What we were hearing from the Tutsi survivors was the “exterior” voices of national healing. The interior voice, the voice of experience and pain, was suppressed.

“After such an event (the genocide) there are feelings of hatred and anger and vengeance which are natural and which anyone can feel and that must be dealt with. So effectively, either we express these feelings, or we don’t And if we express them, they must be contained in a space, in a psychological space, a judicial space, whatever, it must be contained somewhere. If it’s not contained, we come to renewed violence-- a new genocide or new massacres . . . Perhaps reconciliation can do something to contain these feelings in their interior life, inside themselves. But the question is about the long-term: If someone holds his feelings inside like this, what does it mean for the long term? I leave the question open, but it’s certain that the psychological question rests on this level.”

In her cautious, academic way, she seemed to be saying that the necessary psychological space did NOT yet exist in Rwanda--otherwise, why should people be so nervous about expressing themselves openly.

She continued: “There is a danger of of “mal-etre” (ill-being), of immense psychological suffering, and it is obvious today that the survivors are in a state of great suffering and I believe they can’t continue to look after themselves like this . . and so this question will confront the next generation: this conflict between the interior, which does not show itself outside. . . Will this be a burden on the next generation, or will these people find new space, will they be creative enough to construct a new space, will be next generation be able to do something about these feelings? . . . . The task now is very very very very difficult.”

Looking Back


May 15, 2007

You may leave Rwanda, but it doesn’t leave you. I’m back in Canada with Emmanuel’s genocide story in my head. And Theogene’s take on the process of forgiveness. And Emmy on the difficulties of practicing journalism in Rwanda. And the light in Jean-Bosco’s eyes when he talked about how his TV story helped fix the potholes on Kigali streets.

They were four of my students and I like to think they taught me as much as I taught them. Only half of my time in Rwanda was spent in the classroom, but that time was a rich vein. At its best, teaching for me is a joyful negotiation: I’ll give you something, and you give me something back. Occasionally, I get the best of the bargain. This was one of those times.

But it all happened accidentally. I was never supposed to be a Rwandan classroom at all. Blame it on a few loose words.

Ever since my first reporting trip there in 1994, Rwanda has taken up residence in a small corner of my brain, in the form of an anguished question mark. How could this genocide possibly have happened? When I signed up for the Rwanda Initiative last year, I thought this might be a unique (and oblique) way of getting me closer to an answer. I agreed to spend three weeks in the newsroom of TV Rwanda. I would help the reporters develop some professional reporting skills. In return, I would use those contacts to pursue some stories of my own, as a freelance journalist.

But something happened. In my first week in Kigali, I wrote a blog that upset some influential people, and these people decided that I would not be welcome in the country’s only TV newsroom. Something about my obsession with “shadows” that one still finds in Rwandan life. It was my first civics lesson in 21st-century Rwanda: Be careful—very careful-- what you say about life in the aftermath of the genocide. People are listening and reading, and weighing every word, every nuance, every opinion, especially if there might be an international audience. Some things in Rwanda may only be whispered. On reflection, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Rwanda is still in post-traumatic shock. When a visitor comes and unburdens himself of an opinion that may be even mildly critical of the government, it will set off alarm bells.

As a result, instead of going to TV Rwanda, I was re-routed to the campus of the National University in Butare. I would be teaching the fundamentals of broadcast writing to a group of journalism and communication students. As it turned out, the fuss over my blog was useful preparation for me as a teacher: It gave me insight into the environment that these prospective communicators would be launched into after graduation. If they decided on journalism, they would have to learn to walk a fine line. Tightrope walking is not necessarily a bad thing in this business: if nothing else, you learn to step carefully, you learn balance, you learn to be intensely aware of your environment. Up on the high wire, you learn to focus. Or else.

Happily, a number of my students also worked at TV Rwanda in their spare time. I could watch their work on the nightly news. We could discuss it. And day-by-day, I began to see things that they could do to improve their product—to create a better newscast—without risking the displeasure of their bosses, who have to be so mindful of politics. I told them that this was vital work: Television news can be—should be—a forum for public dialogue, and Rwanda was in urgent need of as much public dialogue as it could generate. Here are some of the things I told them:

1. “Let me hear more voices, and see more faces, in your news reports. Average people, talking about things that matter to them, in simple language. This is where politics starts. People talking to other people. Make your newscast a more democratic platform.”
2. “Don’t be in such awe of the politicians. Drop the titles, like ‘honorable.’ Ask them tougher questions. Be polite, but politely skeptical. Don’t take everything they say at face value. Ask them, politely, to back up their statements with facts.”
3. “Convince your editors to expand their news agendas. Rwandan domestic news consists almost entirely of press conferences and seminars. The images are boring to the point of catatonia. TV news should not be a government bulletin board, it should be an informed conversation. Take the cameras outside, videotape people where they live and work and play, and tell stories that have a greater social import. Rwanda is full of powerful human stories. Tell these stories. Over time, both your editors, and the politicians who rely on television to ‘get their message out,’ will see that this makes for far more compelling TV news.”
4. “In your writing, try to simplify, and try to stay away from bureaucratic jargon. You are professionals. Don’t parrot press releases. You are not publicists. You are journalists trained to think critically. Let that be reflected in the language and the scope of your reporting.”
5. “Let me hear more people talk, especially in close-up. I want to see their eyes, glance into their souls. And don’t paraphrase them. Don’t put your narration over video of their lips moving. Give them voice, even if it’s in an unfamiliar language. That’s how you get authenticity.”
6. “You, the reporters, are the agents of change. This change does not have to be confrontational. These things I’m talking about are not subversive, they’re common sense. So tactfully convince your bosses, convince officials, heck, tell the president, that it is in everyone’s interest to develop a more watchable, balanced and independent news media. It will be more work for you, but ultimately, much more satisfying. And it’s an exciting enterprise: you’ll be pioneers.”

And so on. Some of the students complained that, in their work, they were constrained by what they called “the editorial line.” One student called their work “appeasement.” That sounded dangerously blunt, but it may hold some truth. Public broadcasting in Rwanda is not public broadcasting in Canada. “Freedom of the press,” in the Rwandan context, is seen by many as a dangerous two-edged sword that needs to be managed and contained. This argument has some strong historic underpinnings—in 1994, for example, leading radio stations and newspapers were organs of genocidal propaganda.

But I also got the feeling that my students were holding themselves back, even censoring their own instincts. One student who worked regularly at TV Rwanda bluntly called it a culture of “laziness.” Many of the reporters, he said, just didn’t want to do the work needed to expand the boundaries of their craft. We didn’t have the time to explore this further in the classroom; it would be a great subject for some future master’s or doctoral thesis.

With the lessons out of the way, I asked the students to talk about themselves, their own life histories, and their own motivations. To my pleasant surprise, they were expansive and candid—more candid, in fact, than any students I’ve ever taught in Canada. And this is where my learning came. I learned things about how they viewed the limits of forgiveness: where the personal anguish and loss they suffered in the genocide came crashing up again the social imperative of national unity. One student gave me insight into reconciliation of the “heart,” as opposed to reconciliation by political decree. As they talked, they gave me hope that the next generation of Rwandan journalists does indeed have a strong voice and a social conscience that will help to break ground and heal wounds.

All that’s needed, perhaps, is a little more oxygen, a little more empowerment—an acceptance by authorities that the rewards of more open expression in Rwanda, may well outweigh the risks. Especially if the voices doing the expressing belong to people like Emmanuel and Theo and Emmy and Jean-Bosco . . .

"They fall, and falling they are given wings."


April 27, 2007

The Sufi poet Rumi has a wonderful poem about learning to fly by falling. You grow wings because you have to.

This week, I threw my 4th year journalism and communications class over a cliff.

“Your final assignment,” I told them, “is to produce a television documentary.” I held up a newspaper headline that talked about how they, the students at the National University of Rwanda, live under “appalling” conditions. It was more tabloid than truth, but I thought it was a good subject matter to get the students airborne.

If they failed, no matter. If they succeeded, they would brush against glory.

Eleven pairs of eyes looked at me expectantly. “We have three days to complete this,” I told them. “You will do all the work yourselves. Videotaping. Interviewing. Writing. Producing. Editing. Your deadline is Friday. Okay, how long should our documentary be?”

“Twenty minutes,” said Bernard. He’s fearless.

Whoa! Flying is one thing. But 20 minutes is supersonic. “Why don’t we go for eight minutes?” I said. “Even that’s an awful long time on television, where you measure in seconds.”

I looked out at them. Maybe three students had ever handled a digital camera. Four of them had some limited TV news experience. One had reasonable editing skills. Was I asking too much? Of course I was. That’s one of the sadistic privileges of teaching.

I said the project needed a producer and asked for volunteers. After a full minute, Jean-Pierre tentatively raised his hand. He wasn’t sure what a producer did, but it sounded like an interesting challenge. Jean-Pierre edits the student newspaper. He had delegation skills. He’ll do fine.

I divided them up into five teams of two. Team 1 would look at the bland student cafeteria food. Team 2 would investigate the scarcity of student housing. Team 3 would look at student bursaries (chronically late). Team 4 would pursue the Science student who had organized the survey that produced the story. And Team 5 would go after the university administration.

Over the next few hours, a half-dozen other students wandered into class, in that infuriatingly careless, casual way that many Rwandan students adopt. It’s a disregard for the clock that won’t serve them well as journalists later in life, but I’ve learned to roll with it. I told them to check in with their fellow students, and assign themselves to one or another of the teams.

We came up with a title: “Ibibazo: Inside Campus.” Ibibazo is Kinyarwanda for “problems.” We discussed whom they would interview. We drew up lists of questions. I gave them a 10-minute crash course on the use of the digital camera. Automatic and manual focus. Framing. Don’t shoot into light. Proper use of microphones. How to shoot sequences—wide, medium and tight shots. Cutaways. The importance of natural sound. “And listen, don’t talk while you are recording, because the camera will pick up your voices and it will ruin the ambient sound.”

They were anxious to get going. “Three more things. And these are REALLY important! Whoever is using the camera MUST wear headphones, so you know you’re getting sound. Second, use a tripod. We don’t want any shaky-cam. And third, and this is really really important, bring back lots of close-ups.”

Two hours later, they began straggling back. I slipped their tapes into the player. The first tape had absolutely no sound. I glared at Jean-Bosco, the cameraman, and he gave me a sheepish grin. “Wrong audio channel,” he said. In fact, he’d disobeyed the mandatory headphone rule. The next tape was a study in cinematographic epilepsy—constant undirected movement. (The crew forgot the tripod.) The third tape was a dizzying sequence of pans, zooms and tilts, the kind of thing you expect in Uncle Fred’s home movie, but not on television There was also a lot of their own chatter on the audio track.

Things were getting ugly. But I counted to 10 and followed the Golden Rule of Pedagogy: Don’t break their hearts before they’ve had a chance to learn something. I looked for something positive in their work, and found it: On all the tapes, the novice filmmakers showed enthusiasm (and some skill) in the “standup,” in which the reporter looks into the camera and says something profound. I complimented them on their camera presence, and sent them back out to re-shoot everything they’d done. And I put a little steel into the spine of the producer, Jean-Pierre. “Headphones, tripod, close-ups. And no talking while the cameras are rolling” I told him. “Make sure they remember.”

Over the next 24 hours, things began to happen. Emmanuel and Bernard came back with some inspired videotape illustrating cramped student housing—four men to a room, leaky bathroom plumbing. Other teams came back with some quite vivid student interviews, mostly in English, full of passion. The camerawork was steadier, the sound was good, even the framing began to show real imagination. And there was one extraordinary tape, shot in the campus cafeteria kitchen, with scenes that might have been lifted from Dante’s Purgatorio. I’m exaggerating, of course, but after their first efforts, this was like gold. Jean-Pierre was clearly putting on some pressure.

Neville, a particularly quiet student, showed a natural talent in front of the camera. He had no nerves, and he hit his standup on the first “take.” As for scriptwriting, I found a fluent writer: Ritah. She produced crisp, short sentences in a hurry, and wasn’t intimidated by deadlines. And Jean-Emmanuel showed a lot of promise in his interviews: he kept repeating his questions until he got the answer he wanted.

They shot a total of 10 hours of tape, and I said enough. The story was edited by a committee of three. In charge of editing was the unflappable Emmanuel Mungwarakarama who, over 13 hours, overcame computer crashes, power failures, audio problems, and a blizzard of technical glitches that would have driven most North American editors mad. He was a resolute titan who carried the project on his shoulders. I fought back the urge for editorial intervention. This had to be their work, their voices. No time for muzungu (white man) management.

“Ibibazo: Inside Campus,” a story of student life in Rwanda, will never make Cannes or Sundance. It’s choppy, there are too many different voices, there is no original music. It was produced with unreliable equipment, and has no post-production glitz.

But I think it’s fine. Remembering Rumi, I look closely at the students on camera, and I think I can see something. They’re not flying yet, but with at least three or four of them, I can see the first telltale signs of avian evolution. They’re growing wings.

Common Threads that Blind & Bind Us


April 22, 2007

All my life, I’ve been struggling against Traveler’s Myopia. It’s a common ailment. We think that globetrotting makes us smart; then, we land in a so-called “exotic” place, and we are surprised to find that the people are so very much like us, with many of the same impulses, dreams, dilemmas and sensitivities.

Last week, I returned from lunch to my classroom at the National University in Butare, and discovered on the blackboard a message of condolences to those Americans whose lives were shattered by the gunman on the campus of Virginia Tech. It stopped me in my tracks.

I’m guessing that one of the 4th year journalism and communications students—I never found out who—had taken the time to write the heartfelt message, in English. (The word “tech” was misspelled—a clue that the author was probably not one of the foreign teachers.)

I’ll be honest. I was initially surprised because, in my bonehead ex-pat fashion, I had imagined that two or three dozen violent deaths in a country far far away wouldn’t really register here. After all, this is genocide country: It’s a rare week when someone doesn’t discover another grave of anonymous Rwandans killed and hastily buried 13 years ago. Surely, I imagine, the survivors here are hardened to this kind of thing.

Wrong.

The students were transfixed by the reports on Sky News and CNN that come in by satellite to the campus TV room; they were shocked by the contents of the gunman’s video diary, fascinated by the tabloid tone of the coverage.

In the Broadcast Writing class that followed, we talked about emotionalism in reporting—good or bad?—and we discussed the propriety of repeatedly airing the “suicide tape.” (Most of the students felt it was a mistake to show the tape over and over again, but they were split fairly evenly on the question of emotionality.)

Later that day, I told the students to organize themselves into teams of two, and to come up with ideas for video stories that they would be producing over the coming week. Once again they set me back on my heels. I expected that at least a handful of story themes would touch on subjects related to Rwanda’s post-genocidal experience. The reconciliation between victims and victimizers, maybe, or the government’s ongoing battle against “genocidal ideology.”

But again I was wrong. The things the students came up with were things that would preoccupy students anywhere, whether the campus is in Butare, Berlin, or Burnaby, B.C. “The cafeteria food is awful,” said one team. “How can we live when bursaries are delayed almost every month?” said another. “There’s a new gymnastics club in town, just for women,” said a third. “Student housing is hopelessly inadequate,” said a fourth. Only one story idea even remotely touched on what happened in 1994. “The local football team has a chance to make first place in the national league for the first time since the genocide,” said Richard, who reports regularly for Rwandan TV.

Why should I have been surprised? They’ve lived half their lives in post-genocidal Rwanda. Like university students everywhere, their careers are in fast-forward. They look ahead, not back. There are immediate things to worry about, things they are in a position to do something about.

Later, over a cold Mutzig beer at the Ibis Hotel, a handful of students joined me and we talked about the highs and lows of working as young broadcast journalists in Rwanda. They were candid about the things that bothered them: an editorial line that was unfailingly pro-government, the long hours, the low pay, the lack of reliable equipment. But by the second round of drinks, the mood shifted. After all, these were young men, they were smart and adaptable, and they believed they could cope with almost anything. No, rather than complain, they wanted to talk about the things they liked about the job, its personal rewards.

“I did a report for the news on holes in the city streets,” one of them said. “Two days later, while walking to work, I saw the work crews on the streets, fixing the holes. I think my story may have made a difference. That made me happy.”

One small story. One small victory. It’s an equation of personal achievement that means the same in any time zone, any country, any hemisphere.

Newswriting as Conversation


April 18, 2007

“Tell me a story. Dites moi une histoire.”

I am hoping this will be the icebreaker in my opening class of a weeklong broadcast writing seminar. But the eight 4th-year journalism and communication students at the National University of Rwanda shift uneasily. They are not yet ready for that level of intimacy, even though we are crammed into a tiny classroom with barely enough room for eight rickety chairs, a desk and a blackboard.

“All right,” I say, after a long pause. “Maybe the stories will come later.”

The two Emmanuels, Richard, Jean-Pierre, Christine, Jean de Dieu, Theogene, and Donozius, seem visibly relieved as I go back to my lecture, and they to their note-taking.

Storytelling, I tell them, is at the heart of broadcast writing, especially when your subject is human interest. And we all tell stories every day, stories with a clear theme, characters, structure, flow. The stories come naturally, with a beginning, middle and end, succinct, and there are no wasted words. We are all born storytellers; with a little practice, we can turn this natural skill into effective broadcast writing.

Pause.

“C’mon, try it,” I said. “En Anglais ou Francais, either language.” I can see a wealth of stories behind those faces; all of them lived through the 1994 genocide, one of the most harrowing events in modern history. But it’s still too early.

I tell them about storytelling as community building. We share stories, discover what we have in common, draw closer together, feel more secure. Broadcast journalists, if they do their job right, help create a national dialogue, a conversation of collective citizenship. I turn to the blackboard and, with the brittle chalk crumbling in my fingers, scratch out the famous quote from Longfellow: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostilities.” I explain that we, as journalists, are here to uncover those “secret histories,” to reframe them and to send them out into the world.

One of the Emmanuels raises his hand. “What is ‘hostilities’?” he asks.

And so the day goes. We critique stories from the nightly TV Rwanda newscast, I have them write scripts, they struggle bravely with English syntax, I remind them to keep their sentences short. And every once in a while, I try to coax them to tell me a story “just so you can see the structure.”

The breakthrough does not come until the end of the second day. We are discussing a story I am researching, a story that deals with post-genocide reconciliation in Rwanda—of victims embracing their tormentors. I remark that some of the stories I’ve come across have an almost “miraculous” aspect.

That’s when I see that Theogene (nicknamed “Toto”) has his hand up. “I heard a story. I don’t know if it’s a miracle, but it’s true.”

His classmates lean forward to listen. “In the town of Byumba,” Toto begins, “there were two families living side by side. When the genocide started, the father of one family went into the house of the other family, and killed everybody. The only survivors were a boy and his sister.

“After the genocide, the man went to prison. He confessed, and after some years he was released. He went back to the house of his neighbors, and he saw the surviving boy, who was now a young man. And he asked forgiveness. After a time, the young man forgave him. But the old man was not sure. He didn’t believe he was really forgiven. So he went back to the young man, and said: I will believe that you forgive me, but you must do something to prove it. I need a symbol. You must marry my daughter.”

Theogene stops. He looks at our faces and savors our anticipation. He has come upon a first principle of successful storytelling: the dramatic pause.

“They were married,” he said. “And they are still married. They moved away, but they come back now and then to visit the old man.”

There is a collective sigh in the classroom, and other stories pour out.

We are learning.