Rwanda in Six Scenes

Copyright The London Review of Books

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *