Last spring, after a five-week visit to Rwanda, I produced two television news pieces for the CBC. Together, the stories challenged the prevailing view about healing and reconciliation in that Central African country, 13 years after the genocide.
The stories were anecdotal. They featured two Tutsi women and one Tutsi man who survived the slaughter, and one Hutu man who had killed a dozen people with a machete, and was now free. I used their stories as a frame for my thesis: that Rwanda was far, far away from healing, despite the platitudes of the government. My script said that for the victims I had met (and by extension, for all the survivors of the genocide), the memory of the slaughter was still too fresh to expect them to forgive the people who had carried out the killings.
This thesis flew in the face of official orthodoxy, but the final edited stories did not quote a single high government official. In fact, there was only one pro-government voice: A low-level village-level functionary who echoed the official line on ethnicity in Rwanda, namely, that henceforth, there were "no more Hutus, no more Tutsis, no more Twas (Rwanda's third ethnic group)" in the country.
I realized, after the stories aired, that my journalism could be viewed as being unbalanced, unsupported, polemical. Where were the voices of the Rwandans who insist that they have indeed forgiven their tormentors? Where were the stories of the Rwandans who were hunter and hunted in 1994, but who in 2007 had reconciled, and now live as neighbors?
Had I not crossed the ethical line by focusing on the negative? Indeed, some Rwandan officials could even argue that I had left myself open to criminal prosecution, under Rwandan laws against “negationism” and “divisionism.”
On the surface, these criticisms are valid. But they fail to take into account the extraordinary realities on the ground in Rwanda, and the obstacles that are placed in the way of a Western reporter trying to understand the social dynamics. I don’t say this lightly: If ever there was a story that required the application of “situation ethics” in reporting, that was it.
The Problem of Forgiveness
The essential reality of Rwanda, I believe, is obscured behind a carefully calibrated campaign based on the mantra of reconciliation and forgiveness. Survivors are expected to put the past behind them, to “make peace” with the confessed killers, even when the killers hide behind moral alibis (i.e. they were “provoked” into committing genocide by ghostly voices.)
To work effectively in Rwanda, you need special strategies, special filters. My first concern, when speaking to survivors of the genocide, was: How open will they be with a Western journalist? How honestly will they respond to my questions? In my preliminary research (while preparing for my trip, I reviewed dozens of academic papers, read scores of newspaper articles, and several books dealing with reconciliation and forgiveness) I came across a poignant Rwandan expression about how “tears flow within.” In Rwandan culture, one survives sorrow if one has a certain inner strength. Grief is often internalized, and not openly expressed, so it is traditionally understood that one can help someone by genuinely listening to his or her suffering.
In Rwanda, I met a European academic who was doing field research on the social effects of the genocide. She told me, on deep background (since she wanted to protect her sources), that Rwandans who lived through the trauma of the genocide spoke about their experiences with two different voices. The external, public voice said, “I forgive.” But the deeper voice, the soul’s voice, often expressed much more negative emotions. (My source insisted I not use her name, or even the town where she was working, lest somebody identify the people she was studying. There would be reprisals, she said.)
I spoke to students at the National University of Rwanda. They struggled with the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation. One young man, whose family was wiped out in the slaughter, said he understood why the government wanted Rwandans to forgive. But he himself could not. Why? Because he had never learned who killed his family. Until he looked the murderers in the eye, he could not even think about forgiveness. Nor could be ever marry a Hutu woman, he said through clenched teeth. The killing, for him, had created an impassable ethnic divide.
A Rwandan psychologist told me the government was wrong when it urged genocide survivors to forgive before they were ready to do so: Forgiveness had to come in its own time, on its own terms, without compulsion.
At the same time, academics are casting a critical eye on the Kagame government's policy of de-ethnicization. Writes Andrea Purdekova of Oxford University: "Today, the Rwandan government tries to impose co-existence by pretending that there
is no reason not to coexist. The government tries to attract to the pole of unity by prescribing its own vision of it and by forbidding anything that runs against. It thus creates a ‘false togetherness’ by swamping individuality and discouraging dissent." (January 2008)
Words Behind Words
All of this information came into play when I met survivors, and turned on the camera. It cast a special light on their answers, and how I framed these answers in my script. It informed my reaction when one of my interview subjects, Pelagia, told me, with downcast eyes and a halting voice, that she had forgiven a notorious killer, Eric, who was now her neighbor. “We are like brother and sister,” she told me. But her demeanor projected an altogether different message; she seemed perplexed, afraid. I was convinced she was saying the very things that local officials wanted her to say. It was Rwanda’s “culture of obedience” prompting her public voice.
Was it presumptuous or paternalistic of me to characterize her answer this way in my script? I don’t think so. A reporter in the field, especially in a post-conflict zone, must be more than a stenographer. It’s our job to give context, to paint the grey zones, to listen and observe with our hearts and a quality of discernment. Had I just recounted the words verbatim, I felt it would have been a lie. Context is the deep tissue of journalism.
Another possible criticism of my journalism in Rwanda is that I did not spend enough time getting the official version of things. I didn’t interview the president. I didn’t interview the official survivors’ organization. I made no effort to counterbalance the negative things I was hearing from survivors.
This is true. And intentional. The government’s position is well known, and didn’t need me to amplify it. Kagame’s information machine (some critics would call it a propaganda machine) is very effective. He controls the print and broadcast media. When the New Times newspaper published a photograph of Kagame that he found unflattering, the reporter was summarily fired, and the staff put on notice. The relationship between the government and the newspaper, they were told, would be like “husband and wife”. An editor who published an article highly critical of “Tutsi justice” was jailed for a year. Reporters critical of the government have been badly beaten.
News and Guilt
Meanwhile, his government’s warm and fuzzy message of reconciliation between Rwanda’s Tutsis and Hutus has gotten wide international press, in a West still burdened by guilt for its indifference to the 1994 genocide when it was happening. Well hidden behind Rwanda’s new, modern image, are some harsh realities: Overcrowded prisons, a limping economy that cannot help many of the 300,000 genocide survivors, a Hutu majority that is woefully under-represented in government, and lingering distrust between the two dominant groups.
Against this backdrop, how would I apportion the few minutes of air time the CBC was giving me? What would stay? Who would I leave out? In a choice between the official with his polished message, and the broken widow struggling to keep a family alive on $30 a month, it was an easy call. There wasn’t room for both. My guiding principle in difficult parts of the world has always been this: To follow the humanity, to value the Anecdote over the Big Picture.
And it’s not only a journalist’s social sensitivity that leads me to this principle. It’s also practical. The Big Picture stories, the ones that carry the voice of authority alongside that of the victims, are often complex and difficult to verify. The small stories, the tightly focused human narratives, are far more reliable guides to the truth.
Is this classic “balanced” journalism as we know it? Perhaps not. But I believe that in the final analysis, it is just as valid. Because it relies on the journalist’s most important skills: discernment, integrity . . . and the ability to verify from the gut.
NOTE: The Rwandan proverb is: "les larmes coulent dans le ventre" which translates literally to "tears flow in the belly".
I found this in an academic paper written by Deogratias Bagilishya, a psychologist at the Transcultural Psychiatry Clinic of the Montreal Children's Hospital. The paper is personal testimony from a Rwandan father whose son was killed in the Rwandan genocide and is titled "Mourning and Recovery from Trauma: In Rwanda, Tears Flow Within."