Why we must listen to those who have fled Kagame’s Rwanda

In a new book, Canada journalist Judi Rever details the
brutal actions of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the RPF. In this essay for OpenCanada, she
explains the need to uncover the story and asks: why has the world stayed so
silent on the issue?

By: /
9 April, 2018
Rwandan refugees carry their belongings on their way to Ruhengeri refugee camp August 1, 1994, shortly after returning back to the country which they fled because of the war between government troops and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Reuters File Photo.
Judi Rever
By: Judi Rever

Freelance journalist and author

One of the most vexing moral challenges for journalists who cover war is how to find meaning amid the trauma. Bearing witness to the suffering of others is daunting enough. But how we convey that suffering through the filter of our own privilege and bias can be even more problematic.

Two decades ago, when I was a young journalist, I went to Congo to cover an unimaginable humanitarian crisis. Rwanda’s army, backed by military allies from Uganda, had invaded the country and attacked UN refugee camps housing Rwandan refugees inside its eastern border. These forces eventually toppled president Mobutu Sese Seko. When I arrived in the region in May 1997, just days after the overthrow, nearly a half a million Congolese were internally displaced by the civil war, and another 200,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees who had lived in the camps had gone missing and were presumed dead. At the time, Rwandan troops were firmly entrenched in a country roughly the size of Western Europe.

The chatter among Western elites far removed from the carnage was initially euphoric; Mobutu’s 32-year reign had long been synonymous with decay and the West now expected nothing short of a renaissance in the heart of Africa. The man tapped to lead this dramatic transformation was Paul Kagame, now Rwanda’s long-time president,* whose Rwandan Tutsi soldiers had then been credited with stopping a genocide committed by Hutus against Tutsis in Rwanda, where up to a million people had been killed, three years before.

I knew then that the talk of renaissance in central Africa was a lie, and I wasn’t alone in this assessment. Humanitarian workers and a cabal of journalists who had been in the forests of Congo had seen what Kagame’s troops had done, and what it presaged for the region’s future.

During search and rescue missions with aid workers south of Kisangani, in the Congolese jungle, I learned how Kagame’s soldiers had hunted hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees across a brutal terrain. I interviewed dozens of orphans ravaged by disease, their faces hollowed out with grief, fear and hunger. Countless men and women, their voices trembling, told me stories of how Tutsi troops machined gunned their camps and, in some instances, forced survivors at gunpoint to bury their loved ones. Some refugees showed me their bullet wounds; I could barely fathom how they had managed to live another day. Local aid workers told me soldiers brought in bundles of firewood and barrels of gasoline to burn corpses in late April and early May 1997, days before I’d arrived. The remains of victims initially buried were eventually dug up and brought to more remote areas.

My whole world view shattered when I realized how Canada had downplayed the crisis as it was happening, and eventually acquiesced to the position of the United States that Kagame’s forces should be allowed to proceed, whatever the human cost. And I have never quite recovered from the stupor of learning that multinationals, some of them Canadian, struck mining deals with the killers, in the very midst of the slaughter. For years I was frozen in horror at the cynicism and sheer inhumanity of it.  

Despite UN findings, there has been no serious international attempt to try Kagame and his senior commanders for these atrocities.

International organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Refugees International and the Montreal-based International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development wrote devastating reports detailing the crimes in Congo’s jungle. A United Nations special rapporteur spoke of genocidal acts, yet it took more than a decade for the United Nations to thoroughly investigate these incidents and declare that Kagame and his army had probably 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. In fact, politically powerful insiders have worked to shield Kagame from prosecution at the International Criminal Court since 2002, despite compelling evidence that he has created and supported a succession of militia that have ripped Congo apart and feasted on its resources ever since. Several million Congolese have died from violence and war-related causes since he unleashed the war in 1996.

I will never forget the gaze and voices of victims in Congo and Rwanda. Nor will I forget the stories of why Rwandans fled their country in the first place, during and after the genocide of 1994. The stories I collected in Congo contained crucial clues about what the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) did years before. Hutus did not flee to surrounding countries — as the international media and Kagame’s government claimed — because armed Hutu elements were holding them hostage in the camps. They did not flee because they were all guilty of committing genocide of Tutsis and were afraid of going to jail if they returned. They told me they fled Rwanda because the RPF had killed their family members during the genocide, and they were afraid then of going back home to be finished off.

But the world did not listen to them then, or since. Even I had difficulty, at first, understanding what they told me. Why? Because I had absorbed the propaganda and been conditioned to believe that the RPF had stopped the genocide as soon as it routed Hutu soldiers and militia. It took me months after my trip to Congo and Rwanda in 1997, recalling these anecdotes and re-listening to interviews, to realize and finally accept that there were perpetrators and victims on both sides during the genocide in 1994. And it took me years of dogged reporting to finally uncover what the RPF had actually done, the depravity and organization of its crimes, before, during and after the genocide.

Along the way, Kagame’s operatives have tried to silence me. Strange men have attempted to lure me into dangerous situations; they’ve harassed, threatened and at times chased me in public places. My family has been targeted. Agents working for Rwandan embassies in Canada and Belgium reportedly laid traps for me. Belgian state security told me they had convincing intelligence the Rwandan embassy in Brussels posed a threat to my safety. The risk level was considered so severe that Belgium provided armed bodyguards and an armoured Mercedes for all my interviews in the country.

For many years, Western governments and a vast majority of journalists, rights groups and academics refused to believe the people who fled.

If that sounds terrifying, it hardly equates to the decades’ long nightmare experienced by Rwandan journalists, activists, Hutu civilians and Tutsis who refused to endorse these crimes and managed to defect. For their honesty and courage they have been accordingly silenced, hunted down, jailed or killed since Kagame took power. For many years, Western governments and a vast majority of journalists, rights groups and academics refused to believe the people who fled. They believed the propaganda of the RPF, whose army won a savage war in which Tutsis and Hutus committed genocide against each other.

If we had only listened to all victims — and not just those inside Rwanda over which the RPF has exerted control — we could have lessened or possibly prevented the wave of bloodshed after July 1994, when Kagame seized power. But the world did not listen. His intelligence apparatus set about killing Hutu males, in particular Hutu  recruits or soldiers of the previous regime. These were acts of androcide.  Hundreds of thousands more Hutus were killed in the counterinsurgency and in the forests of Congo.

The following are just a few of the alarming reports the West chose to deliberately conceal:

  • At the height of the genocide, a UN cable revealed that Kagame’s forces were shooting, stabbing and burning refugees and dumping bodies of victims in the Kagera River. Others were hauled off in trucks, according to survivors fleeing to neighbouring Tanzania.
  • In 1994, an international consultant with extensive experience in African war zones named Robert Gersony concluded that 40,000 Hutu refugees were slaughtered in less than one third of the country’s communes he visited, and he believed the operations were systematic and amounted to genocide. The UN buried his report to protect Kagame’s regime. A whistleblower released it online in 2010.
  • Early evidence from RPF informants indicated that on April 6, 1994, Kagame’s commandos had shot down the plane carrying Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira. Their assassinations triggered the Rwandan genocide, which claimed the lives of several hundred thousand Tutsis. Louise Arbour, the Canadian prosecutor of the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), shut down that probe in 1997. She argued that the tribunal did not have jurisdiction to investigate the plane attack. Yet Article 4 of the ICTR Statute specifically called for the body to investigate acts of terrorism.  
  • A political group comprised of Rwandan Hutu refugees conducted an incomplete investigation in camps in Zaire (which was renamed Congo) and Tanzania. That investigation listed the names of 20,000 victims, most from northern Rwanda, who had been killed in RPF zones by Kagame’s army. In many cases the names of witnesses to the killings were listed, and occasionally the names of the alleged killers, who were members of the RPF, were identified. The investigation, which I got access to, was submitted to the UN tribunal in 2000, but the court buried the findings.       
  • A Rwandan human rights activist and journalist named André Sibomana collected the names of 18,000 men, women and children who were slaughtered in the prefecture of Gitarama after the RPF seized the zone in June 1994. Rwanda’s former prime minister, Faustin Twagiramungu, and former interior minister, Seth Sendashonga, gave those names to the ICTR and to Belgium in 1996. No judicial action was taken. Sendashonga was gunned down in Nairobi by Kagame’s operatives. Sibomana, who devoted his life to the vulnerable and voiceless, died in 1998.

I consider it a privilege to be Canadian, because I have a reasonable assurance that our rights are respected. But that privilege doesn’t inure me to the suffering of others in far away places. And it doesn’t mean that I’m willing to stay silent as a group of violent criminals hijack international justice in the name of a doomed, geopolitical experiment. The silence has fuelled Kagame’s killing machine.

There is a shame in staying silent about history and our part in it. It’s a shame that’s insidious because it creates a false sense of powerlessness. Rwandans and Congolese are not powerless. Nor are Westerners who care about that part of the world. Victims long gone, and those still among us, matter. After all these years, let us listen to people who have fled Kagame’s Rwanda. They should be protected instead of betrayed.

Judi Rever is the author of In Praise of Blood, The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

*Paul Kagame became leader of the RPF’s military wing, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), in October 1990 after it invaded Rwanda from its base in Uganda. Kagame had grown up in Uganda and helped former rebel leader turned president, Yoweri Museveni, topple the regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, in 1979 and 1985. Kagame became President Museveni’s spy chief and was known for torturing enemies of the Ugandan state. Kagame became Rwanda’s de facto leader when his troops seized power in July 1994, and has received considerable international support to rebuild the country since the genocide. In 2000, he was declared president and has since won three presidential elections. Kagame and his ruling RPF have been accused of silencing and jailing critics, and assassinating opponents at home and abroad.

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