Total Pageviews

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.


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.


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


Anonymous said...

I saw this blog a long time ago, and from that time I've been visiting, but I'd not seen where I could leave a message.

By the way, Claude, whatever gave you the idea that I was a woman?

I am an elderly man, maybe your age, if I'm to judge from your photo, and I don't work for government.

Mine is a personal opinion about President Kagame and the government he leads, and I can assure you I share it with many.

Please do not associate me with any hypothetical analyses about 'your' Rwanda!

Ingina y'Igihanga

JohnM said...

Claude, you have given a very useful overview. Thank you!