Rwanda in Six Scenes
Stephen W. Smith
A number of memories connected with Rwanda play in my mind like scenes from a movie, although I don’t pretend they add up to a film. In 1994 a genocide was committed against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. All else about this small East African country, ‘the land of a thousand hills’, is open to question and, indeed, bears re-examination. ‘Freedom of opinion is a farce,’ Hannah Arendt wrote in 1966 in ‘Truth and Politics’, ‘unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.’ The problem with Rwanda is not only that opinions and facts have parted company but that opinion takes precedence.
The first scene: I’m walking beside Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda and then a rebel leader, past low picket fences and small prefabricated houses in a residential suburb of Brussels. It’s cold and our breath mingles in the air as we speak. Kagame is swaddled in a thick coat. Even so, he remains a spindly figure with a birdlike face. I can’t warm to him, but I know him well enough by now to hazard the question that has been preying on my mind for a while: ‘Why is it always you, the vice-president, whom I meet when I have dealings with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and not Alexis Kanyarengwe?’ Kanyarengwe was the movement’s president. ‘Don’t worry,’ he chuckles. ‘You’re seeing the boss. Kanyarengwe is only our front man. You’d be wasting your time.’
This was in 1992. The RPF had been set up in 1987 in Uganda by Tutsi exiles. Kagame’s parents had fled with him to Uganda when he was four. At the time of our meeting in Brussels, Kagame was avoiding the French. A few months earlier, in 1991, he’d just returned to his hotel near the Eiffel Tower from a meeting with officials at the Elysée when the French police called him in for interrogation. They were inquiring into a murky incident that was never entirely elucidated. Police sources claimed that members of Kagame’s delegation were ‘roaming around town with bags full of cash to buy weapons’; Kagame claimed the police were trying to discredit him. Tensions were running high between the rebel movement and France. The French were providing military support – 150 soldiers, later increased to 300, plus significant arms shipments – to the Hutu-dominated Habyarimana regime in Kigali, which the RPF was fighting to overthrow. Rwanda was a former Belgian colony, with eight million subsistence farmers jostling for a livelihood in a territory smaller than Haiti, and with little in the way of mineral wealth. It was a place where France felt obliged to assert itself as a tutelary power in Africa, if only to maintain its credibility as a guarantor of its local ‘friends’ and protégés and to defend ‘la Francophonie’ in Rwanda against the RPF, which operated from English-speaking Uganda. As for Kanyarengwe, the RPF figurehead, events would soon show that Kagame was telling the truth: he, Kagame, was the main man of the insurgency. Kanyarengwe, the nominal leader, was a Hutu defector: as head of the Rwandan secret services, he had helped Habyarimana to power in a coup d’état in 1973, but they later fell out and in 1980 he fled Rwanda. Ten years later – and two months after the RPF’s military campaign was launched from Uganda – Kagame offered Kanyarengwe the helm of the rebel movement to deflect the charge that the RPF was a Tutsi organisation. Kanyarengwe accepted in order to spite Habyarimana.
In the 1990s I was the Africa editor of the French daily newspaper Libération. The combination of the paper’s independence from the notorious Franco-African networks and my US passport represented Kagame’s best chance of an unbiased hearing in France, where government officials routinely referred to his rebel forces as the ‘Khmers noirs’. At the time, French public opinion made short shrift of small-scale military interventions in Africa. In June 1992 I alerted readers to what the Libération headline called ‘The Elysée’s Secret War’ in Rwanda – a deployment which had not been debated in parliament and had received almost no attention. In May 1993, 11 months before the extermination of the Tutsis began, I warned that ‘genocide’ was looming. But I also fell victim to the RPF’s manipulation of the press: I wrote about the supposed activities of the so-called Zero Network – presidential death squads – as well as the akazu, literally the ‘small house’, said to be the command structure responsible for pre-genocidal killings of Tutsis. Habyarimana’s in-laws were said to run the akazu and while I didn’t accuse President Habyarimana himself, I did point an incriminating finger at his wife, Agathe, and her brothers, accusing them of organising massacres of the ‘Tutsis of the interior’, as the oppressed minority inside the country was known. It was their way of retaliating against the Tutsis of the diaspora who had invaded the country from Uganda.
There were indeed massacres of Tutsis before the genocide – but they were organised by other people and at different levels of the state apparatus. Today, with hindsight, I know that the Zero Network didn’t exist and I’ve come to refer to the akazu, which continues to be used as a default category in journalistic and academic writing, as au cas où – French for ‘in case’ – as in ‘in case we find no master plan for the genocide in Rwanda’. I can’t say whether there was or wasn’t a master plan for the extermination of the Tutsis, some Rwandan equivalent of the Wannsee Conference. Historians must lay that question to rest’; the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the special UN court based in Arusha and charged with trying genocidal planners and killers, has found no one guilty of ‘conspiracy to commit genocide’ since it started its proceedings 16 years ago.
The Zero Network was first mentioned in an open letter published in 1992 by another defector from the Habyarimana regime, Christophe Mfizi, who had been the head of the government’s propaganda office in Kigali. As he later explained, he was anxious to avoid a libel suit. So he used ‘Zero’ as a way of fingering Agathe Habyarimana’s brother, Protais Zigiranyirazo, the prefect of Ruhengeri, the presidential family’s home province. Without giving his full name, Mfizi accused ‘Mister Z’ of running a network of hit squads, a charge a Rwandan journalist called Janvier Afrika wrote up in elaborate detail the following year.
Afrika has since recanted his testimony, explaining in similarly abundant detail how it was suggested to him by the RPF. Whether or not this is true, it’s perhaps significant that he recanted only after the RPF had taken power in Kigali, in November 1994, by which time he had fallen foul of the new regime. He fled to Cameroon, where I lost his trail in 1998. The ICTR has never summoned him as a witness. For his part, Mfizi obtained political asylum in France in September 1996, having resigned as the RPF’s first ambassador to Paris. Ten years later he submitted an exhaustive report on the Zero Network – nearly 50,000 words – at the request of the ICTR’s Office of the Prosecution. He repudiated the term akazu, which, he wrote, could not take the measure of ‘the political reality, and even less so the criminal reality … of the period between 1980 and 1994’. However, he reiterated his accusations against Zigiranyirazo, whom he now named, although his evidence did not bring a conviction: in November 2009, ‘Mister Z’ was acquitted on appeal by the ICTR.
The second scene etched on my memory is set in a sombre living-room with a low ceiling 40 kilometres south of Paris. It is 1998; I’m sitting on a couch opposite Agathe Habyarimana, now the widow of the former Rwandan president, whose plane was shot down on 6 April 1994, triggering the genocide. Photographs of the slain general cover the walls. Next to Mrs Habyarimana, now in her mid-fifties, sit four of her eight children: Jeanne and Marie-Merci; Léon and Bernard. I’ve been seeing Bernard for some time and he has persuaded his mother to meet me on her return to France after two years in Gabon. There are many grandchildren underfoot; eventually they’re banished from the room.
What do you ask ‘the Lady Macbeth of the Rwandan genocide’, as Philip Gourevitch called her? How do you approach a conversation with someone who’s been portrayed as the latter-day incarnation of a legendary sorceress in Rwandan dynastic history? Or as the ultimate ‘Hutu power’ extremist, who some believed was behind the assassination of her own husband for accepting a power-sharing agreement – the Arusha Peace Agreement signed in August 1993 – with the Tutsi rebel movement? What can you say to someone who’s generally presented by journalists, human rights activists and academics as the engineer of the 1994 extermination campaign? I ask myself a simpler question: would her grown-up children huddle around her if there were grounds for suspicion that she conspired to murder their father?
Agathe Habyarimana recounts what she saw in Rwanda during the genocide, from the moment she and her family heard the explosion of the presidential jet, which was hit by a missile right above their heads at 8.25 p.m., with debris raining into their garden, until her evacuation by the French army three days later. ‘We collected the body parts and gathered them on plastic sheeting or carpets. We were able to identify my husband, Elie’ – she’s referring to one of her half-brothers – ‘and several other members of the delegation. But our efforts were hampered as we were under constant gunfire. I didn’t speak to any civilian or military authority, still less issue orders.’ In addition to her only brother, ‘Mister Z’, Agathe Habyarimana had two half-brothers. Elie Sagatwa was one of them; he was also her husband’s private secretary. If the akazu really was the nerve centre of the genocidal project kick-started by the president’s assassination, would Sagatwa and his sister have hatched a plot that involved Sagatwa’s own death, in order to kill a man they were both intimate with, and could easily have eliminated in some other, simpler way?
A few months and several meetings later, I published an interview with Agathe Habyarimana in Libération. The interview was a scoop, but the prospect of providing a platform for a notorious génocidaire had prompted a ruckus in the newsroom. One of my colleagues had described my piece as ‘revisionism’. I told the editor-in-chief that I was always eager to revise what I or others had got wrong and suggested my colleague should write a profile of Agathe Habyarimana containing all the incriminating facts he could muster, which could be printed alongside my interview. After ten days, the face-off ended with a bad compromise. There wouldn’t be a profile but my interview had to be kept short. So in fewer than a hundred words, headlined ‘I’m not afraid of the truth,’ Mrs Habyarimana said that she was ready to appear before the ICTR at any time, that the akazu was a portmanteau word, a term of convenience, and that her son Jean-Pierre had never been a ‘pal’ of Mitterrand’s son, Jean-Christophe, who was his father’s Africa hand at the Elysée in the 1980s and early 1990s. ‘So much has been invented without ever giving me a fair chance to reply.’ That was the only sentence I felt uncomfortable about publishing.
In the same year, 1998, the French judiciary opened an investigation into the downing of Habyarimana’s plane at the request of relatives of the French crew members who had died in the crash. This marked the beginning of a long legal tug-of-war between Paris and Kagame’s RPF regime in Kigali. Relations between the two reached their nadir in November 2006, when a French judge issued international arrest warrants for nine key members of Kagame’s entourage. Rwanda severed diplomatic ties with France. Much was written about the self-aggrandising investigative magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguière, and about France’s hostility to the RPF regime. The Spanish judiciary, widening an investigation into the murder of some Spanish missionaries, reached even more grievous conclusions. In 2008, a judge in Madrid, Fernando Andreu Merelles, issued international arrest warrants for 40 RPF leaders on counts of ‘acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and acts of terrorism’. The Rwandan leaders, first among them Paul Kagame, were held responsible for ‘the attack on the life of President Juvénal Habyarimana … with a view to preparing the final offensive to seize power and to create a situation of civil war’.
The Kagame regime fought back. In August 2008 it accused France of having played an active role in the ‘preparation and execution of the 1994 genocide’, and threatened to issue 33 arrest warrants targeting French politicians, including three former prime ministers – Balladur, Juppé and Villepin – and the army top brass. Since then relations have improved; France and Rwanda restored diplomatic ties towards the end of 2009. In February 2010, President Sarkozy spent four hours in the Rwandan capital to seal the reconciliation. He admitted to France’s ‘errors’ and, more specifically, ‘a form of blindness when we failed to discern the genocidal dimension’ of the Habyarimana regime. Speaking about the génocidaires still at large on French soil, he mentioned the government’s decision to refuse asylum to ‘one of the persons concerned’ – a transparent reference to Agathe Habyarimana, whose request had been definitively rejected by the Conseil d’Etat four months earlier. Only days after Sarkozy’s return to Paris in March, she was briefly taken into custody as a result of an international arrest warrant issued against her by Kagame’s government in October 2009. It was an event staged for the media. She was released the same day on condition that she report regularly to the police. Nine months later, in December 2010, a formal request for extradition had still not been submitted by the Rwandan judiciary.
The rejection of Agathe Habyarimana’s asylum request in France was largely based on akazu-linked charges brought against her brother before the ICTR. The ruling was made a month before the ICTR acquitted Protais Zigiranyirazo. As for Mrs Habyarimana’s surviving half-brother, Séraphin Rwabukumba, both the UN tribunal and the courts in Belgium, where he lives, have abandoned proceedings against him. It’s just possible that the akazu was a women-only conspiracy, or that Agathe Habyarimana acted on her own. But if so, why hasn’t the ICTR indicted her? And why did the RPF regime wait 15 years before issuing an international arrest warrant in 2009? It could be that there are simply no legal grounds for prosecution, or that Rwanda’s tardy arrest warrant was just a way of intensifying the pressure on France. It could also be that no one – least of all the RPF leadership in Kigali – is interested in a trial in which the downing of Habyarimana’s jet in 1994 would inevitably come under scrutiny.
A third scene, May 1994: I reach Butare, the biggest town in southern Rwanda, by car from neighbouring Burundi. On the way, I’m stopped at numerous Hutu roadblocks. The barriers are manned mostly by young people with clubs, hammers or machetes. At one, a small boy is holding a nail-studded cudgel with tufts of bloody hair. The smell of putrefying bodies by the roadside is sickening. The starter of my dilapidated car is defective and the militiamen lay down their weapons to give me a push. Being French – or French enough – I’m regarded as a friend. ‘Vive la France!’ They wave their hands, which I’d just shook, as I make for the next roadblock.
In Butare, the Catholic bishopric is a safe haven. The priests allow me in and provide me with a room for the night. From my window, I can see the imposing red brick cathedral built by the Belgians just across the street. I walk over there, knock at the presbytery door, stay for a while and then return to my room. The last surviving Tutsis in Butare hiding out in these two buildings, the cathedral and the bishopric. Whichever of the two they’re in, they believe the one across the street is ‘safer’. A young woman in tears begs me to hide her in the boot of my car and drive her out of the country. ‘I really can’t. We wouldn’t even reach the edge of town.’ ‘You want me to die.’ Throughout the night, I hear noises in the streets – drunken militiamen – and also above my head, when from time to time the Tutsis hiding in the double ceiling drag their numb bodies across the floor in an attempt to stretch or get a breath of fresh air. Twice in the night, furious fists batter at the wooden entrance door and coarse voices vow to return in search of ‘cockroaches’. When they finally go away, the ceiling weeps.
In the morning, over breakfast, I talk to the priests. They’re prepared to die with their ‘guests’ at the hands of the militia; they describe the militia as ‘God’s children who’ve lost their way’. I don’t like to leave without a modest offer of hope. ‘The RPF is advancing rapidly. Soon they’ll reach Butare, and it’ll all be over. Just hold out for a few more days!’ I stare into bitter smiles. ‘That’s no solution,’ someone says. ‘Why not?’ ‘Because they’ll kill us.’ ‘But why on earth would they want to kill you? You’ve stuck together, Hutus and Tutsis!’ ‘Precisely for that reason.’ I drive away dispirited and bewildered. It’ll take me a long time to grasp that, for many of the exiled Tutsis who are now returning, especially the generation raised or born abroad, the genocide is not only what happened over the hundred days between April and July 1994, but an entire history of violence, discrimination and hardship that began with the so-called Social Revolution of the Hutus in 1959. In their eyes, Hutus and Tutsis can’t live together on equal terms because, unless the minority keeps the majority in check, Tutsis will always be humiliated or killed. To pretend otherwise, as the ‘Tutsis of the interior’ did when they stayed in the country after 1959, is to betray the dead among your kith and kin.
A change of location: Nairobi, February 1996, two years into the new RPF dispensation in Rwanda. As I speak to Seth Sendashonga, his vivid eyes are glazed with sadness. I have just spent several weeks in Rwanda, and have returned bearing notepads full of crimes. It isn’t as if he doesn’t know what happened: on the contrary, I’d leaned heavily on Sendashonga’s contacts in Rwanda. In 1991, when he joined the RPF, Sendashonga was the only eminent Hutu-turned-rebel who was not a defector from the Habyarimana regime. He undertook to rewrite the rebels’ political platform, to explain to the children of exile what the land of their fathers was like and, more important, to build bridges with opposition parties in Rwanda. ‘Our agenda is not revenge but true democracy,’ he assured them. Under the new regime, Sendashonga became Kagame’s minister of the interior. But he could not accept the RPF’s reprisals for the genocide, including planned massacres and systematic killings. Kagame failed to respond to any of the 700 letters documenting abuses which Sendashonga sent him. Eventually, Sendashonga had to face the fact that he was only another front man. Six months before we met in Nairobi, he resigned and went into exile.
Poring over a table strewn with papers, Sendashonga and I compare two independent lists of people killed in Gitarama province, central Rwanda, during the first 11 months after the RPF took power. We move forward line by line, name by name, address by address, cross-checking dates. One list has been compiled by parish priests throughout the prefecture; the other established at neighbourhood level for 11 of the 17 communes in Gitarama. The two lists largely tally. The first comprises about 25,000 dead, the second 17,000. Assuming RPF reprisals were equally severe everywhere in Rwanda this leads to an extrapolated figure of 150,000 people killed between July 1994 and April 1995 in the entire country. Based on research completed in August 1994 in 41 of the 145 Rwandan communes, Robert Gersony, a UNHCR consultant, estimated that ‘between 25,000 and 40,000 persons’ were killed during the first 100 days of RPF rule. The Gersony report – in fact just briefing notes – was leaked to the press. Under intense pressure from Kigali and its allies, the UNHCR went on the record denying its existence. No Gersony report, no dead.
In February 1996, Libération published my investigation into the killings allegedly committed by the post-genocide regime. I estimated that ‘more than 100,000’ Hutus had been murdered during the RPF’s first year in power. Libération also published an interview with Gérard Prunier, a specialist on the Great Lakes region, and the eyewitness account of a Rwandan nurse who had described to me two sites where he claimed he had been forced to work: one near Kigali where, he said, prisoners were put to death (their skulls were crushed), and another in a game reserve, the Akagera National Park, where scores of Hutus were cremated. There wasn’t much of a reaction to the dossier, though the Rwandan embassy in Paris issued a strongly worded denial. The wire services picked up the story but it disappeared very quickly. It was just a sour note in a concert.
Seven months later, in October 1996, the Rwandan army dispersed the Hutu camps in eastern Zaire, today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than a million Hutus streamed back into Rwanda, while 300,000 fled deeper into Zaire. Of that 300,000 nearly two-thirds died over the next six months, according to a field study by Médecins sans frontières. They were killed or died of disease, exhaustion and hunger as they made their way across the African interior. The UNHCR spoke of ‘crimes against humanity’, but, again, there was hardly any response. Twelve years later, in August 2010, a fresh investigation by the UN put the number killed at ‘probably in the several tens of thousands’:
The extensive use of edged weapons (primarily hammers) and the apparently systematic nature of the massacres of survivors after the camps had been taken suggests that the numerous deaths cannot be attributed to the hazards of war or seen as equating to collateral damage. The majority of the victims were children, women, elderly people and the sick … the apparent systematic and widespread attacks described in this report reveal a number of inculpatory elements that, if proven before a competent court, could be characterised as crimes of genocide.
The new regime in Kigali went after Sendashonga in exile. In 1996, the day before Libération published the dossier on the RPF killings, he was ambushed and sustained two bullet wounds. He identified one of the two attackers as his former ministry bodyguard in Kigali. The other was Francis Mgabo, an official from the Rwandan embassy in Nairobi, who attempted to dispose of his firearm in the toilet of a nearby petrol station. The Kenyan authorities asked Rwanda to lift Mgabo’s diplomatic immunity, so that he could go on trial, but Kigali refused and for a time the two countries broke off diplomatic relations. On 16 May 1998 in Nairobi, during the evening rush hour, gunmen armed with AK-47 assault rifles opened fire on Sendashonga’s car, killing him and his driver. As his wife later revealed, he had been scheduled to testify before the ICTR. He had also set up an armed opposition group (Forces de résistance pour la démocratie), which attracted both Hutus and Tutsis. His wife claimed that the acting Rwandan ambassador in Kenya at the time, Alphonse Mbayire, had organised Sendashonga’s assassination. Mbayire was recalled by his government, only to be shot dead by unidentified gunmen in a bar in Kigali a month later.
The fifth scene: Kigali, January 2002. For six years, I’ve been persona non grata in Rwanda. Finally, I managed to persuade the foreign ministers of France and Britain, Hubert Védrine and Jack Straw, to take me on their plane as they make a joint tour of four African countries – the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda – and to drop me off in Kigali. Though it means they have to give up a seat for a reporter covering their entente cordiale, they agree. For the Rwandan authorities, it is tricky to deny me a visa as part of a Franco-British delegation. Védrine is the first French minister to visit Kigali after the genocide. The UK accounts for half of Rwanda’s foreign aid. So here I am, an unwelcome visitor, on sufferance and under surveillance after the ministers’ departure. To meet ordinary people means putting them at risk while RPF officials, many of whom I knew when they were still rebels, won’t return my calls. Finally, Charles Murigande, who is in charge of foreign affairs, comes to my hotel. I launch into a lengthy profession of good faith. He replies with a Rwandan proverb: ‘There’s no use drinking milk on a stomach full of hatred. It’ll throw up blood.’ With this, he draws his chair back and leaves.
In a town you know, there’s sure to be someone who wants to see you. Not that Pasteur Bizimungu and I are especially close, but the former head of state badly needs a friend. Before joining the RPF in 1990, he was the director of Electrogaz, a coveted post in Habyarimana’s dispensation. He gave up the position to become the rebels’ spokesman and then a member of their negotiation team in Arusha. Finally, the RPF picked him as the Hutu figurehead for the post-genocide government of national unity. He became president while Kagame effectively ran the country. The pretence came to an end in 2000, when Kagame took the top job for himself. Bizimungu created his own political party, Ubuyanja (‘Renewal’). It was a more ambitious idea than the RPF could allow: he was accused of rekindling ethnic hatred and placed under house arrest. So I am sure to find him at home.
The soldiers at the gate are taken by surprise: a white man, tailed by security agents in a car – probably from the Directorate of Military Intelligence – nervously fingering their cell phones. ‘M. Bizimungu doesn’t want to see anybody!’ But I’d already rung the bell. Pasteur Bizimungu shoots out and welcomes me. ‘Yes, I want to see him, absolutely!’ he tells the soldiers and whisks me inside. He locks the door and leans against it, breathing heavily. A volley of accusations about Kagame follow; I remember the expression ‘the dark side of power’. When it is clear that no one will order me out, Bizimungu leads me into his library. We talk until we are both exhausted. ‘You know, they were right,’ he says finally. ‘The explorers, the missionaries, the colonisers, about the Tutsis being liars. They are liars.’ I am thrown clean off balance. Bizimungu climbs a stepladder to reach down a book from a high shelf. In no time, he finds the passage he’s looking for, about the ‘Tutsi culture of duplicity’, which he reads out, stressing key words. I make my excuses and leave. Bizimungu has been driven mad.
After my visit, he was entirely cut off from the outside world. Two years of solitary confinement at home preceded his sentence, in 2004, to 15 years in jail. In 2007, the former president was pardoned by Kagame, who had by then won his first election with 95 per cent of the vote. No one could have mistaken the poll in 2003 for an exercise in democracy. After the legislative elections of 2008 even the RPF found the machine score – 98.39 per cent – embarrassing and lowered it to 78.76 per cent. The EU electoral observers duly documented this self-restraint, but the head of their mission, Michael Cashman, agreed with the EU delegate in Kigali, David MacRae, not to go public about it – it might have raised uncomfortable questions. For his re-election in August 2010, Kagame approved a slight erosion of his Soviet-style popularity, allowing his vote to drop to 93 per cent. Rwanda’s burgeoning Democratic Green Party had lobbied against the country’s admission to the Commonwealth, citing the regime’s gross human rights violations. Its vice-president was found decapitated but that didn’t stop Rwanda joining the postcolonial club, the 18th African Commonwealth state and – after Mozambique – only the second member that is not a former British possession. In 2008 Kigali had made English – instead of French – the official teaching language at all levels of the Rwandan educational system.
Rwanda, as a recent document has it,
is a one-party authoritarian state, controlled by President Kagame through a small clique of Tutsi military officers and civilian cadres of the RPF from behind the scenes. The majority Hutu community remains excluded from a meaningful share of political power. State institutions are as effective as they are repressive. The government relies on severe repression to maintain its hold on power … Rwanda is less free today than it was prior to the genocide. There is less room for political participation than there was in 1994. Civil society is less free and effective. The media is less free. The Rwanda government is more repressive than the one that it overthrew.
This is not the preamble to a new Hutu manifesto but an excerpt from the ‘Rwanda Briefing’ published last year by four senior figures in the Kagame regime who’ve now fled abroad: the former secretary general of the RPF Theogene Rudasingwa; his brother Gerald Gahima, one-time prosecutor general and vice-president of the Rwandan Supreme Court; the erstwhile chief of external security services Colonel Patrick Karegeya; and General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, the ex-chief of staff of the Rwandan army. Nyamwasa survived an attempt on his life last June, when a commando opened fire on him in Johannesburg, where he now lives in exile. The South African authorities laid the blame with the government in Kigali.
The authors of the ‘Rwanda Briefing’ may not be trustworthy advocates of freedom and democracy, or paragons of ethnic inclusiveness, but they describe a system they’re familiar with and a leader they know well. To his many Western admirers they have this to say: ‘President Kagame is a very polarising figure. His policies continue to divide Rwandan society along the lines of ethnicity and to fuel conflict. The likelihood of a recurrence of violent conflict, including even the possibility of genocide, is very high.’
A final scene: on 21 September 2006, President Kagame lectures on ‘Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development in Africa: The Rwandan Experience’ at Princeton. The country he describes – ‘different from the old system which plunged Rwanda into mayhem’, with ‘checks and balances’ in place after a ‘decisive break with exclusivist practices’ – is not one I recognise. Even in a packed auditorium, I have the same unsettled feeling in Kagame’s presence as I’ve had in the past. He seems unchanged: taking questions from the audience, he refers to ‘the genocide in the 1960s, the 1970s and 1980s’, as if ‘the one in 1994’ were merely one in a series – a hair-raising denial of the singularity of events between April and July 1994. But Goethe was right: ‘Everyone hears only what he understands.’ The students ask questions about gender equality in Rwandan politics, the fight against corruption and atrocity – a genocide? – in Darfur. How many of them have been moved by Hotel Rwanda, and how many know that Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero played in the film by Don Cheadle, is now a thorn in Kagame’s side? Rusesabagina continues to speak out for the ideals that led him to save more than 1200 lives during the genocide in Kigali. For Kagame, however, he is a ‘fabricated hero’ and a collaborator of the die-hard Hutu génocidaires exiled in Congo.
I am not arguing that we should all know everything there is to know about Rwanda. My point is that we don’t seem to want to know what happened in 1994, or what’s happening now. We’ve learned the wrong lesson from the organised massacre of 800,000 people, which we failed to prevent. Eager to pay off our moral debt, we’re blinded by guilt. The near total lack of media coverage of the ICTR trials and findings suggests that we’re happy to waive our best chance of grasping the inner workings of the genocide. We clamour for international justice but the detailed proceedings of the tribunal don’t interest us. At the same time, the denial of freedom and rights under the previous regime in Rwanda impels us to shower Kagame with leadership awards and aid money even as he denies them again. We are hypnotised by the 1994 genocide, and oblivious to the atrocities of a regime we regard as exemplary. Aid, we say, must be conditional on good governance – but post-genocide government is an exception. La Francophonie is at best ridiculous and at worst a vector of France’s influence, but the Commonwealth is honourable as it embraces a dictator who favours English over French. Democracy is a precondition of peace – but not in a post-genocidal state. Justice, truth and reconciliation heal – but not the wounds of exterminatory hatred. The invasion and plunder of eastern Congo are criminal – but not when they’re carried out by genocide survivors. Hutu power is bad, but Tutsi chauvinism is acceptable. We hold these opinions not because they’re right but because they put us on the right side. This makes Rwanda a more tragic place than it needs to be.