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Impediments to establishing truth about the Rwandan genocide

The real scope of the horror has never been fully aired, or acknowledged

AfricaHuman Rights

Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, Kigali, Rwanda. Photo from Flickr.

Facing history means facing ourselves. No history is hermetically sealed. One of the most serious historical tasks is to examine our role in shaping and interpreting events. It is only after scrutinizing ourselves that we are able to see where we have erred, what we may have overlooked or dismissed. In examining the Rwandan genocide, which occurred 30 years ago, we are forced to ask several disruptive questions: why would events crucial to our understanding of that history be removed from the public record? What would justify such a removal? Or worse, once we get access to a hitherto hidden historical record, why would we choose to minimize or deny it?

The crucial element that has not been revealed about the Rwandan genocide, that Rwandan authorities and their international backers do not want to disclose, is what I’ve spent decades trying to understand. A handful of others have also tried to examine this sordid chapter of history, but the full truth has lurked in the shadows.

The truth is that hundreds of thousands of Hutu civilians were systematically slaughtered by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in Rwanda during and after the genocide. Hutu community leaders, peasants, old people, children and babies were exterminated. And the victims’ families—these Hutu survivors—have been silenced and demonized ever since.

The full scale of RPF killings has never been investigated and clarified. These crimes have never been classified by researchers or prosecuted in an international court of law. The scope of the horror has never really been fully aired, or acknowledged.

The use of violence and propaganda to control historical narrative is integral to the powerful rise of the RPF and its leader, Paul Kagame. The official narrative of the genocide was forged in this stark climate. Since then, Kagame’s government has killed, blackmailed, jailed or silenced anyone who has openly challenged its account of the genocide. Concomitantly, the United States and its allies have succeeded in covering up the most serious evidence of RPF atrocities. The criminality it could not keep under wraps has been reframed as reprisal killings.

To my knowledge, no organization or academic institution has ever carried out empirical studies with Rwandan Hutus who fled to neighbouring countries in 1994, during and after the bloodletting. No rigorous interviews were conducted in Hutu refugee camps in neighbouring Congo, Zambia, Tanzania, and later Uganda, asking Hutus what they experienced in 1994, why they ran away, how their loved ones died and why they chose to languish in seething camps instead of returning home after July 1994. There are no serious quantitative and qualitative studies with Hutus—or Tutsis for that matter—in exile, free from the spectre of reward or punishment, that tell us what they endured in their most excruciatingly difficult moments. If these studies do indeed exist, they have been largely buried. The lack of empirical studies has impeded our full understanding of the genocidal violence and is a colossal failure on the part of journalists, NGOs, researchers, the United Nations, and anyone else interested in human rights and the rule of law. This gap also underscores our lack of empathetic imagination in the aftermath of war. Our knowledge of what happened during the genocide is based solely on accounts of Rwandans inside a country that is tightly and violently controlled by the state.

Thirty years after the genocide, the official narrative of the RPF’s record remains intact: that Kagame’s army stopped the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus, liberated the country and restored peace. The claim that Kagame stopped the genocide and restored peace is verifiably untrue. It is also wrong to say that only Hutus were perpetrators, that only Tutsis were victims in 1994. What is starkly clear, though, is that the RPF has leveraged the genocide against Tutsis to dramatic effect.

Skulls of victims on display at a church where they had sought refuge during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The site now serves as the Ntarama Genocide Memorial, Ntarama, Rwanda. Photo by Scott Chacon/Flickr.

Among the most serious historical impediments toward establishing the truth is the degree to which Kagame and his political cadres controlled the crime scene, geographically speaking, in the aftermath of violence. It has always been dangerous for Hutus and Tutsis to provide candid testimony or evidence of what the RPF did in zones under its control. After the genocide, the RPF used its formidable cadres, which were called abakada, to become the interface between the RPF and UN agencies, NGOs, human rights investigators, academics and international journalists. These abakada played a crucial role in Rwanda’s statecraft and propaganda system. They were interpreters, taxis drivers, fixers and escorts which meant that the experience of outsiders was mediated by people with reasons to be loyal to Kagame. These people are called Intore today. So in this respect, the victor and the local institutions and agents supporting the victor became the legitimate voice or vehicle through which information about the violence was collected.

Two key figures in the early propaganda system of Kagame’s regime were Rakiya Omar and Alex de Waal who together wrote a huge compendium on the genocide published in September 1994. It was a compelling narrative of Hutu on Tutsi violence, with a list of perpetrators and drawing a portrait of the RPF as heroic. De Waal would later boast about and then apologize for creating a narrative of the genocide—the conspiracy to commit genocide, that the Hutu government planned years in advance to exterminate Tutsis (that was never proven by the UN court by the way). It turns out that Omar and De Waal’s organization, African Rights, received money from the RPF. African Rights was a front for the RPF. But their book, Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance did indeed influence the seminal account of the genocide that Human Rights Watch wrote, entitled Leave None to Tell the Story. It set history in motion. Human Rights Watch published their investigation in 1999, five years after the genocide. Its researchers had ample time to do interviews with Hutus in refugee camps in countries surrounding Rwanda. They also could have done extensive interviews with ex-RPF Tutsi soldiers on the mass killings and burning of bodies by the RPF at a military training camp called Gabiro on the edge of Akagera Park. Instead, these killings merit barely a paragraph in Human Rights Watch’s report, which was more than 770 pages long in 1999. The RPF’s enormous crimes, which mirrored those of the Third Reich, were essentially buried. The degree to which Human Rights Watch in its early work minimized or dismissed RPF criminality is appalling, by any objective measure. Another example would be the Byumba stadium massacre, in which Kagame’s military rounded up thousands of Hutu civilians and slaughtered them with grenades, guns and agafuni hoes in a soccer stadium in April 1994. This heinous, pre-meditated crime warranted half a sentence in Human Rights Watch’s probe into RPF crimes in Leave None to Tell the Story. Human Rights Watch did not investigate the annihilation of Hutu civilians in the commune of Giti, either. Giti was used by the RPF as a clearing house for murder, yet it is often described by academics as an oasis of peace where Hutus did not kill Tutsis. Many scholars have built their careers on peddling certain narratives even if they turn out to be historically wrong. They appear unwilling to admit their mistakes and set the record straight.

By far though, the biggest impediment to establishing a complete and accurate historical record of what happened in 1994 has been the refusal by the UN court, which was set up after the genocide, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, to prosecute the RPF for its role in the violence. Instead of trying the RPF for the act of terrorism of shooting down the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and for organizing death squads in the north, east and south of the country, the UN granted Kagame’s regime de facto immunity. It transferred the jurisdiction for prosecuting RPF crimes from the UN to Rwanda, essentially allowing the killers to prosecute themselves. This was a deal set up at the time by the US ambassador for war crimes, Pierre Prosper, who later became Kagame’s lawyer. The level of impunity is all the more shocking given that the United Nations and aid agencies knew—from early to mid-May, 1994—that the RPF was killing Hutu civilians in the east of the country and dumping their bodies in the river. They knew that the RPF had seized those areas very quickly. The Gabiro military training camp on the edge of Akagera Park was taken by RPF troops within a week after President Habyarimana was killed on April 6, and became a staging ground for executions and the mass burning of Hutu victims. Kagame’s military moved swiftly down the eastern swathe of the country to the south by the end of April. By mid-May, bodies were found floating in the Kagera River, and in the southeastern portion of Nyabarongo river. Those were zones controlled by the RPF at that time. Officials and military observers from the United Nations, whose peacekeeping mission was commanded by Romeo Dallaire, knew who the killers were in those areas. Journalists were escorted to the east of the country, at Rusumo Falls, near the border of Tanzania and were roundly told that those bodies were Tutsis killed by Hutu génocidaires. The journalists reported exactly what the RPF told them, which was pure propaganda. The UN allowed the narrative to gain traction despite knowing that Hutu forces had in fact been defeated in that zone and had fled more than a month before. The images of corpses floating in the river came to symbolize the horror of the Rwandan genocide.

Paul Kagame speaks at an event to mark the 17th commemoration of the Rwandan genocide. Photo from Flickr.

Ten years ago, I was taken aback by a photo that was was a part of a visual montage from Reuters of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The photo was taken on May 6, 1994 somewhere between Kigali and Tanzania, which likely meant Rwamagana, or Ngoma, in the eastern prefecture of Kibungo, both firmly in the hands of RPF soldiers for weeks. The photo shows the fresh corpses of victims lying face forward with elbows tied behind their backs. This is a signature technique of the RPF, called akandoyi, which involves tying a person’s elbows so tightly behind their back that their head tilts downward, the rib cage stretches, the lungs and the diaphragm become tight and acute respiratory stress set in.

In October 1994, survivors of RPF violence had tenuous hope for justice after a UN consultant named Robert Gersony documented the massacre of some 40,000 Hutu civilians by RPF troops in less than one-third of the country’s communes he visited. Gersony believed the killings were systematic. The UN buried his report to protect Kagame’s regime. A whistleblower released it online in 2010. In August, 1994, the United States ambassador to Burundi at the time, Robert Krueger, tried to sound the alarm to the State Department about RPF atrocities. His urgent cables appeared to have been ignored, though, judging by the unbridled support and legal protection that Washington gave to Kagame after the genocide. The US political and defence establishment green-lit Kagame’s invasion of neighbouring Congo in 1996, even as his troops were exterminating Hutu refugees in their campaign to unseat then dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. It took more than a decade for the United Nations to thoroughly investigate these incidents and declare that Kagame’s army may have committed its own genocide against unarmed Hutu civilians in Congo. Despite the UN findings, published in 2010, there has been no serious international attempt to try Kagame and his senior commanders for these atrocities. Instead, politically powerful insiders have worked to shield Kagame from prosecution at the International Criminal Court since 2002. The result is that Rwanda has created and supported a succession of militia that have ravaged Congo and feasted on its mineral resources ever since. Several million Congolese have died from the violence and from war-related disease. Over the last two years, Kagame and his commanders have steered a new rebellion in eastern Congo, killing hundreds of civilians, raping women and displacing an estimated 1.7 million people.

The question is why, in the face of such staggering evidence, has the international community refused to sanction or prosecute Kagame and his commanders over the last three decades? None of the usual boiler plate justifications we’ve heard in the past are convincing. But those concerned with justice and the future of Central Africa should seek answers to this question. As Western officials pay homage to Tutsi victims of Rwanda’s genocide, they need to examine their own roles in facilitating Kagame’s predation and pillaging in the region.

Judi Rever is a journalist from Montréal and is the author of In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

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