Chapter 3: The Power of a Word
“In the current situation in Africa and the world,
when you play with words you play with lives.”
Aminata Traore, Le viol de l’imaginaire
Genocide - Thunder against.
Adapted from The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, Gustave Flaubert.
Almost ten years after the assassination on April 6 1994 that triggered the Rwandan tragedy, the relentless hunt for those who have been tagged as “génocidaires” goes on. In the name of that hunt sanctified by the United States and other Western nations, we sat back and watched the army of the Rwandan Patriotic Front bomb the refugee camps in the eastern Congo and we applauded as hundreds of thousands of refugees were forced to return to Rwanda in flagrant violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention. We then watched passively as the same army accompanied by the armies of Uganda and Burundi invaded the Congo and inflicted a merciless war on that country that has left millions dead. The countries of Central Africa have been turned upside down in the name of hunt for “génocidaires”.
Rwandan prisons are overflowing with “génocidaires” waiting to be tried: more than 140,000 according to Paul Kagame. Some observers have remarked that the prison and the traditional “Gacaca” national justice system recently restored is being used to bring back a form of serfdom for the Hutu majority that had been abolished following the 1959 social revolution and Rwandan independence in 1962.
Whatever their political stripe or background, Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis live in constant fear of being accused of genocide, arrested and brought to court in Arusha or Kigali. Many fear assassination. Though Rwandans are now dispersed throughout the world, nowhere do they feel safe. Most astounding, and ridiculous, is that the two Rwandan Prime Ministers, both Hutus, who led the so-called post-genocide Rwandan governments between 1994 and 2000, that is after the RPF take-over, have been accused of being involved in genocide.
The first was Faustin Twagiramungu, leader of the MDR (Mouvement démocratique républicain), the main political party opposed to President Habyarimana. Twagiramungu was sworn in as Prime Minister of Rwanda on July 19, 1994, immediately following the RPF takeover. He remained in power until August 28, 1995, before fleeing to Belgium where he now lives. He returned to Rwanda in 2003 as the opposition presidential candidate.
In 2002, Mr. Twagiramungu applied for a visa at the Canadian Embassay in Paris in order to speak at a conference at the Université du Québec à Montréal where he had studied in the 1970s. After being interrogated at length at the Canadian Embassy, to his surprise he received a short letter from the Embassy denying him a visa. A few weeks later, the headline of the Canadian daily The National Post about war criminals in Canada referred to the Canadian Embassy’s refusal to grant a visa to the former Rwandan leader who, according to the Post, had been involved in the genocide. 31 In short, the Prime Minister of the government that supposedly ended the genocide had now become a “génocidaire” too. Canada had already received Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramngu with all the honours in December 1994 when he was looking for funding to rebuild Rwanda under the RPF. Either Canada’s institutional memory is short and selective, or the country has a policy of supporting the RPF government at all costs. Canada’s ambassador to France, Raymond Chrétien, refused to take responsibility for the Embassy’s actions: “The people responsible for visas here at the Embassy must have reasons that I am unaware of,” he told me in an interview. 32
The second Rwandan prime minister targeted was Pierre-Célestin Rwigema. Mr. Rwigema was sworn in immediately after Faustin Twagiramungu’s departure in 1995. He was a leader of the same party, the Mouvement démocratique républicain (MDR). Prime Minister Rwigema held office until February 2000 and diligently sought to bring the “génocidaires” to justice. Quite ironically, he represented the Rwandan Government at the solemn ceremony inaugurating the International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha on January 8, 1996. His speech on the importance of capturing and judging the “génocidaires” was particularly eloquent. 33
At the end of the 1990s, relations soured between the Rwandan Patriotic Front and Prime Minister Pierre-Célestin Rwigema, who decided to emigrate to the United States. Shortly after he left, he learned that Rwanda had issued an international arrest warrant for him and that he was being charged with the crime of… genocide. Rwigema pointed out that even former Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu is now in prison in Rwanda. Bizimungu was president from 1994 to 2001 and always a loyal leader of the RPF since 1990. The former president was accused of “embracing a genocidal ideology”. “If you are Hutu and you dare criticize the RPF regime,” Rwigema told me, “you are treated as a genocide perpetrator with the consequences of being jailed or killed. If you are a Tutsi and you talk against the system, you are treated as a negative element and sidelined. The RPF uses the accusation of ‘genocide’ to silence influential Hutus.” 34
As long as the word “genocide” and all its derivatives dominate the description of events in Rwanda in 1994, national reconciliation in Rwanda and peace in Central Africa will be unattainable. Who would ever to sit down and negotiate with people suspected of having taken part in such a horrible crime? What international power could ever agree to broker a regional peace conference with African leaders accused of harbouring “génocidaires”? How can serious and credible representatives of the vast majority of Rwandans come forward and take their rightful place when everyone of them could be accused anytime and anywhere of having been involved in genocide or of embracing the ideology of genocide?
The term is a gag order. Obviously, that pleases Kigali. But it also very helpful for Western powers, and particularly the United States, who brandish it like a weapon of mass destruction aimed at any African leader or regime that bucks the current. “You see what happened to Habyarimana and to Rwanda? Be careful! It could happen to you too.” Though the official reason for launching the never-ending war in the Congo was the refugee crisis and the hunt for Rwandan “génocidaires”, it is obvious that war in the Congo has nothing to do with “génocidaires” and everything to do with domination of the post-Mobutu Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Following major crises like the one that shook Rwanda in 1994, other countries have reacted in different ways and have still benefited from the support and understanding of other nations. Not every major crisis has led to an International Criminal Tribunal. In an interview, former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who presided over the creation of International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, hinted that he might have done things differently now.
“In some cases, we have created Truth Commissions,” noted the former Secretary General. “In South Africa, for instance, efforts were made to identify the criminals, but they were not punished. They are prevented from causing harm, but are not sentenced. Truth Commissions are based on what is probably the Christian principle that mercy and forgiveness are more important than justice. In fact, it is more important to maintain the unity of a country than to try to impose justice and tear the country up even more. We have to know how to forget and sometimes forgive or else we’ll find ourselves with a coup d’état, a prolonged war or a new war ten years later.” Are these prophetic words from Boutros Boutros-Ghali, or is it a simple observation of what has happened in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa?
Boutros-Ghali also recalls that following the Second World War General de Gaulle turned a blind eye to a lot of collaboration with the Nazis. He probably knew that justice at any cost would have obstructed any real national reconciliation in France. The former Secretary General also considers that Maurice Papon trial 50 years after the events took place was an error.
In both cases, South Africa and Vichy France, it is much easier to identify the systematic planning of discrimination, oppression resultant massacres based on race and religion than in the case of Rwanda under the Habyarimana government and after his assassination.
Why then did the United Nations not establish a Truth Commission in Rwanda as it did in South Africa, El Salvador and Guatemala? Boutros-Ghali’s answer to my question was curt and categorical: “Because the Tutsis wanted revenge”.
In other words, though justice is the antithesis of revenge, by creating the ICTR in November 1994, the United Nations astonishingly gave all the trappings of justice to what Boutros Boutros-Ghali says was the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s desire for revenge. Moreover, with the Security Council resolution creating the Tribunal and subsequent UN actions, international public opinion was led to consider the genocide itself to be like an “adjudicated fact” not to be contested. This of course jibed perfectly the RPF’s political strategy since well before 1994. The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s desire for revenge became the lofty and honourable justification for every military action taken since July 1994.
The Western powers who back the RPF claim that they are only seeking to bring justice to that part of Africa. Our knowledge of the history of European - and American - colonization and exploitation of Africa should protect us from believing such fairy tales.
Was there a genocide in Rwanda in 1994?
On September 14, 1994, on CBC’s French language magazine, Le Point, General Roméo Dallaire answered the following question from a Rwandan who lived in Quebec City: “In your opinion, was there a genocide in Rwanda, that is the carrying out of a plan to eliminate ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda?”
“I would say there was a national genocide, a genocide based on a political basis, not only ethnic,” replied Roméo Dallaire. “Many Hutus and many Tutsis were killed… I think that the explosion we saw could not have been planned. I don’t think that anybody could ever have planned an explosion of that magnitude.”
Roméo Dallaire unfortunately refused all my requests for an interview. Since his declarations after 1994 have been incoherent to say the least, I hoped to ask him if he maintained his September 1994 position. 35 General Dallaire’s interpretation of the events in Rwanda has clearly changed over the years, and it is not surprising since enormous pressure has been put on him.
In April 1994, Dallaire was military commander of the United Nations multinational force UNAMIR. Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh was the UN Secretary General’s special envoy responsible for political relations. His political attaché during the crisis was Gilbert Ngijol, from Cameroon. Ngijol’s view of events in Rwanda resembles Roméo Dallaire’s September 1994 position. Unlike General Dallaire however, Gilbert Ngijol has not altered his position one iota.
“There was no genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda,” Ngijol insisted when I met him in Paris in November 2002. “Among the rank and file population, there was little animosity between Hutus and Tutsis before the assassination of President Habyarimana on April 6. But after, it was another story”, he said shaking his head. “I remember one day just after the President was assassinated. I was on the third floor of the Meridien Hotel in Kigali. In one direction, I saw RPF soldiers killing women and children. On the other side, I saw militias doing the same thing. There’s no way that could have been planned.”
Former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu categorically rejects the idea that the killings were planned. “The RPF army may have killed more people than the Interahamwe militias did,” he declared. Under oath at the Tribunal in Arusha, Twagiramungu testified that probably more Hutus than Tutsis were killed. He pointed out that RPF soldiers took pictures of bodies of people in President Habyarimana’s party, the MRND. The RPF had killed those people. Obviously most were Hutus. They then used the pictures of Hutus as proof of the genocide against Tutsis. “We know they did it because some of victims in the pictures were wearing hats belonging to the President’s party.”
Even Justice Louise Arbour of the Supreme Court of Canada, who was Chief Prosecutor from 1996 to 1999, recently inferred that things were not as clear as the “terribles simplificateurs” would have us believe. Following a speech in Paris on the International Criminal Court in November 2002, the Kenyan journalist Ruth Nabakwe asked the former Chief Prosecutor why the Tribunal only indicted Hutus and no Tutsis. 36 “Do you foresee the Tribunal indicting Tutsis in the future”. Though Louise Arbour is a renowned hunter of “génocidaires”, her answer was troubling. “We must avoid seeing the world purely in ethnic terms,” she said. “It is not only a question of Tutsis and Hutus, but a question of political formations and alliances.”
After all these years, former Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour admits that the massacres were political in nature, and not only ethnic. Yet the sine qua non of a genocide is the that victims have a common ethnic, religious, racial or national identity? That is the fundamental characteristic of the only genocide that is fully agreed upon internationally, the genocide of Jews by the Nazis. If people who were so close to events or who were mandated to investigate them consider that the massacres were political, why are Rwandan Hutus still being burdened by this overwhelming and non-prescriptible charge?
Ramsey Clark was United States Attorney General under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He drafted and supervised the adoption and application of Civil Rights legislation in the mid 1960s. Since 1995, he has been counsel to Elisaphan Nkatirutimana, the 70-year old Seventh-Day Adventist pastor who was indicted by the ICTR for crimes of genocide, extradited from the United States to Arusha, found guilty in February 2003, and sentenced to ten years in prison. For Clark, crying genocide is like crying murder: it does not mean that a murder was committed.
“The use of the word genocide in such a pervasive undefined way as it is used in public discussion and media discussion about Rwanda is an attempt de demonize and dehumanize the Hutu peoples,” insists Ramsey Clark. “The insistence that there is only one ethnic group that is in conspiracy to destroy all the members of another group is contrary to possibility and to all experience. It’s an effort to simply manufacture consent of public opinion to condemn the great majority of the people of Rwanda. They talk of Tutsis and this thing called moderate Hutus, which probably means Hutus who supported the RPF. They don’t want to put it in a political basis, they want to put it strictly on an ethnic basis, which is a terrible falsehood.”
“It’s a political struggle, a political struggle that has been going on for years. Everybody knew that it was a political struggle since the colonial period. The exiled groups that had been colonial surrogates, the dominant Tutsi, had been trying to overthrow the government of post-colonial Rwanda. They invaded seven times between 1960 and 1967. Pretty dangerous too.”
It is particularly interesting to observe how the charge of “genocide against ethnic Tutsis” became part of the official narrative about Rwanda. Following the RPF victory in 1994, some people with fertile, elastic imaginations and hidden political agendas tried to prove that the genocide began in 1959 with Rwanda’s social revolution that resulted in the abolition of the monarchy and Rwandan independence in 1962. The accusation is about as subtle as a George W. Bush speech, but similarly it is not without method. Essentially, it is a convenient blanket rejection of everything Rwandans have achieved since independence and it sullies or compromises the reputation of everybody who has participated in any way in the development of Rwanda since then.
One striking example is the late Georges-Henri Lévesque, the Dominican priest from Québec City who founded the National University of Rwanda. Father Lévesque was also known as the mentor for those who led Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Articles on Father Lévesque and his contribution to Rwanda unfailingly draw a causal relationship between his work and the “genocide”, even though he left Rwanda at the end of the 1960s. Shortly before he died, Father Lévesque wrote an article in the Montreal daily Le Devoir denouncing attempts to link him and his work to the people who were being blamed for the massacres.
If we stick to facts and leave imagination to poets and novelists, the first use of the “genocide” charge in the international narrative dates back to January 28, 1993. It was used at a meeting with the press organized by William Schabas who was a member of an International Commission that had just returned from a two-week mission to Rwanda to investigate human rights violations. 37 Schabas was aware that members of the Commission had not reached a consensus on the use of the term, but he jumped the gun and made the accusation immediately after he returned from Rwanda. Schabas repeated the charge in an international press release he drafted to accompany the final report issued on March 8, 1993. 38 The press release was entitled “Genocide and War Crimes in Rwanda”. The charge is absent from the final report because Kenneth Roth, executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, threatened to withdraw his organization’s sponsorship and signature report if it contained the charge. 39
Eleven days after the Commission left Rwanda, the RPF launched a massive attack in northern Rwanda in reaction to the revelations. They called it a “punitive” attack and it resulted in thousands of civilian casualties and brought the number of internal refugees camped in and around Kigali to more than one million. The RPF released a press statement explaining that it had broken the cease-fire in order to stop the “genocide” and to counter the presence of French troops. 40 The “punitive” attack doubled the territory occupied by the invading RPF army and put it within 30 kilometres of Kigali. The RPF withdrew only after a cease-fire was reached, but the territory it had taken was declared to be a neutral an demilitarized zone, thus effectively removed from control of the Rwandan Government.
According to former Malian Minister of Culture, Aminata Traore: “In the current situation in Africa and the world, when you play with words you also play with lives.” 41 Westerners who played with the word “genocide” were also playing dangerously with Rwandan lives. Following is a description of how the RPF “punished” the population of the Byumba region north of Kigali after the charge of genocide was released internationally.
“On Thursday morning the rebels [RPF] began rounding people up in the whole area. Everybody was brought together: men, women and children, supposedly for an informational meeting. People were confident. The rebels were courteous and the peasants had nothing to hide. Things apparently got worse when they reached the place where the meeting was to be held. The rebels had the people entered the surrounding houses and then locked them from outside. They then attacked the houses with grenades. Survivors were killed with knives. The man who told me the story miraculously survived the massacre because he ended up under the bodies of his dead friends.” 42
According to the “right and proper tale”, the RPF “rebels” referred to in that description were saviours and liberators who put an end to the genocide.
After January 28, 1993, the charge of genocide appeared in all RPF documents and was heard in all speeches and interviews made by the RPF and its friends and representatives throughout the world. For strategic reasons, the Anglo-American alliance did not support the charge immediately, but most of the so-called human rights and humanitarian workers from Europe and North America began using the term with an ardour somewhere between nineteenth-century Christian missionaries and modern born-agains.
31 National Post, October 12, 2002, p. A1.
32 Interview with Ambassador Raymond Chrétien at the Canadian Embassy in Paris, November 21, 2002.
33 Discours de son excellence Monsieur le premier ministre Pierre-Célestin Twigema à l’occasion de la cérémonie d’ouverture du Tribunal pénal international pour le Rwanda, Arusha, le 8 janvier 1996.
34 Interview with Pierre-Célestin Rwigéma, 23 January, 2003.
35 Requests for interviews with Roméo Dallaire must go through his lawyer Harvey Yarosky. According Mr. Yarosky, Dallaire refused to meet me because he was finishing his book on Rwanda. A set of written questions were forwarded to Dallaire, but he still refused to answer.
36 Justice Arbour also refused to grant an interview for this book. When I met her at a public meeting in Paris, she claimed that because of her current position she cannot answer specific questions about the Tribunal. At my request, however, the Paris-based Kenyan journalist Ruth Nabakwe interviewed her and made her statements public.
37 Le Devoir, January 29, 1993, p. 6. See chapter 4.
38 Linda Melvern, A People Betrayed, The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide, Londres, Zed Books, 2000, p. 56.
39 The Gazette, February 8, 1997, B3.
40 RPF Press Release, February 8, 1993, “Resumption of hostilities in Rwanda”, in James K. Gasana, Rwanda. Du parti-état à l’état-garnison, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2000, p. 183.
41 Aminata Traoré, Le Viol de l’imaginaire, Arles/Paris, Actes Sud/Fayard, 2002, p. 69.
42 Marie Béatrice Umutesi, Fuir ou mourir au Zaïre. Le vécu d’une réfugiée rwandaise, preface by Catharine Newbury, Paris, L’Harmattan 2000, p. 29.