Skulls at the technical school in Murambi, where between 40,000 and 60,000 Tutsis were massacred over four days. Jad Davenport / National Geographic / Getty Images
Skulls at the technical school in Murambi, where between 40,000 and 60,000 Tutsis were massacred over four days. Jad Davenport / National Geographic / Getty Images

After the killing stopped: 20 years after the Rwandan genocide

The numbers are difficult to understand. The 20th century inured us to the arithmetical horrors of genocide, so rather than mention the approximately one million Rwandan Tutsis who were shot, beaten and hacked to death 20 years ago this spring, during the Hundred Days of April, May and June 1994, let us instead attempt to comprehend the 10,000 men, women and children murdered each day of those Hundred – or better yet, the seven people whose lives came to an unnatural and horrible end every minute, uninterrupted, for three consecutive months of unflinching brutality.

Twenty years on, we still seek answers to the nature of the Genocide Against the Tutsis, as it is known in Rwanda, because it is at once so simple and so complex. A switch is flipped and one part of the population of a country suddenly begins to murder the other part, until the horror is eventually, at great cost, ceased and the madness recedes. What accounts for such an outburst? Some recent books set out to complicate or undermine our received wisdom about the nature of the genocide, its perpetrators and its aftermath.

The story of the genocide depends on its frame; where we start determines what we see. Andrew Wallis's outraged Silent Accomplice: The Untold Story of France's Role in the Rwandan Genocide, recently reissued in an updated version, begins four years prior to the genocide, with the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front's invasion of the country in October 1990. The RPF's goal was to overthrow the corrupt, Hutu-­dominated regime of Juvenal ­Habyarimana. Faced with an existential threat to its continued existence, Habyarimana turned to his longtime friend, the French president François Mitterrand. Mitterrand, protector of francophone Africa, sent arms to the FAR, the Rwandan army, to put down the rebellion. The RPF was persona non grata, in no small part because it rejected the cosy French alliance; the RPF leader Paul Kagame, soon to be his country's president, did not even speak the language.

French politicians described the ensuing violence as the work of gangsters, but “the murders were a deliberate, ordered and centrally led terror by the very people in Rwanda with whom French politicians, the military and the secret services were working on a daily basis”. A UN special report declared these targeted killings of Tutsis, only the merest precursor to the charnel house of 1994, to also be genocide. Later, the return of the RPF pushed Habyarimana to distribute guns and machetes to members of informal Hutu-­extremist militias collectively known as the interahamwe. “We have finished our food,” militia members told French soldiers, asking for more grenades. “Will you give us some more?” They did.

France was their benefactor and enabler, blinded by delusions of neocolonial influence, and when Habyarimana’s airplane was shot down in April 1994, a genocide already in the planning stages – Kagame said Tutsi houses had already been marked by the interahamwe – lurched into furious motion.

“The French government were with the Rwandan government that [was] planning the genocide, knew everything that was going on and not only didn’t complain but did the opposite – legitimised and spoke on behalf of the government everywhere in the world,” argued Stephen Lewis, the former UN envoy for Africa. Silent Accomplice is thorough but narrow; it musters abundant evidence for its thesis of French complicity in the genocide, but one senses much of the story floating just beyond the borders of its narrative.

Arguing that a "double genocide" was under way – a line tenaciously held to by future French politicians, against all evidence – France proffered covert assistance to the Rwandan army under the guise of humanitarian operations. Hutu crowds cheered the returning French military, knowing that they would be protected from the surging RPF. French soldiers offered advice on how to slit the bellies of dead Tutsis to prevent their bodies from floating to the surface. The French failed to disarm the fleeing FAR troops and did not even jam the Hutu Power radio station RTLM, which broadcast the names of Tutsis such as Edouard Kayihura, co-author (along with Kerry Zukus) of the memoir Inside the Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising True Story … and Why It Matters Today.

Kayihura, who bills himself on his book’s cover as a “survivor of the real ­Hotel Rwanda”, sets out two tasks for his explosive memoir/jeremiad. The first is to tell his own story as a Tutsi ­lawyer who fled for his life at the start of the Hundred Days and wound up in the Hotel des Milles Collines, an unexpected protected zone in central Kigali.

Kayihura enlisted the assistance of trusted Hutu friends to flee his home after the violence began in April 1994. As machete-wielding men chanted “Everything which is in the world is for Hutu!” and RTLM broadcast the names of Tutsis to attack, Kayihura slipped past Hutu soldiers and arrived at the Milles Collines. The hotel was not a refuge so much as it was a gathering spot; when Kayihura entered, “a voice from deep inside of me said, thank God I will die with other people”.

As everyone who has seen the movie Hotel Rwanda knows, the Milles Collines’ manager Paul Rusesabagina (played in the film by Don Cheadle) single-handedly kept the savagery from the door, using a combination of charm and guilt to hold off the Hutu militants slaughtering Tutsis everywhere else in the country.

Kayihura takes ferocious exception to Rusesabagina's near-­canonisation and marshals his forces for a no-holds-barred attack on Rusesabagina's reputation. The hero of Hotel Rwanda was, in Kayihura's estimation, no better than a bystander to the events at the Milles Collines at best, and more likely a willing collaborator with the Hutu Power murderers who roamed the public rooms of the hotel. "Of all the people who were within the hotel during the genocide," Kayihura argues, "he would quite possibly be considered the furthest from a hero any of us could imagine."

Arriving from another hotel, Rusesabagina began charging hotel guests for the free meals provided by the Red Cross and sold them beer – the only available beverage – at extortionate prices. Those who chose not to pay could drink the chlorinated water from the hotel pool, which simultaneously quenched their thirst and made them violently ill. Once Rusesabagina had accumulated all of the hotel guests’ cash, he imported a willing bank employee, who drew up receipts for money stockpiled in savings accounts. Kayihura was threatened with expulsion from the hotel and sure death, after making off with some soft drinks from Rusesabagina’s private stash.

Kayihura takes umbrage at the creators of Hotel Rwanda – the director Terry George and the screenwriter Keir Pearson – for what he perceives to be their lazy glorification of Rusesabagina. George and Pearson are raked over the coals for their fast-and-loose approach to the genocide, their praising of the flawed Rusesabagina – even for the failures of their charitable organisation established to distribute some of the film's profits. Some of this smacks distinctly of sour grapes. George and Pearson may not be saints themselves, but their film remains the only mainstream effort, however flawed in its particulars, to tell the story of the Rwandan genocide.

The litany of accusations against the filmmakers also distracts from the fascinating story at the heart of the estimable Inside the Hotel Rwanda: how one unremarkable man became lauded as a hero on par with Raoul Wallenberg, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W Bush and built a successful second career as a purported human-rights icon. So far, so Hollywood; far more troubling is the nature of Rusesabagina's motivational speeches and sworn testimony. Rusesabagina places the 1994 killings in faulty context by "explaining" that the Hutus had once been slaves to the Tutsis and that what appeared to the world as genocide was actually part of a complex dance of attack and counter-­attack.

What’s more, Rusesabagina claims that one genocide has been succeeded by another. “Since 1994, Tutsi have been killing Hutu, and even now there are many who are being killed or who simply disappear.” He argues that the West is now invested in supporting the Tutsi out of guilt over the failures of 1994 and moreover that the genocide itself had been orchestrated by none other than Kagame, in a Machiavellian scheme to claim power in Rwanda. Most chillingly, Rusesabagina presents his wildly distorted view of recent Rwandan history, and his quasi-defence of Hutu Power, as a disinterested historical narrative from the perspective of a universally acclaimed human-rights hero.

A movie that dramatised his imaginary exploits has made Paul Rusesabagina into a real-life political figure of note. Rusesabagina has now established himself as a political force in Rwanda, his opposition party a voice of resistance to president Paul Kagame. Kagame has become a figure of some controversy in recent years; there have been suggestions that he has stifled dissent at home and orchestrated a sham election in 2010.

Patricia Crisafulli and Andrea Redmond's Rwanda Inc.: How a Devastated Nation Became an Economic Model for the Developing World, complete with blurbs from Bill Clinton and Jamie Dimon, brooks no such criticism of the man it views as Rwanda's Steve Jobs – or is he its Jack Welch? "As progress is made," they argue, "slowly but steadily, credit is given to one man: president Paul Kagame. A study of his leadership in Rwanda reveals strong parallels to a corporate leader: his comprehensive vision, exacting attention to details and drive for execution."

Any criticism of Kagame’s presidency is less a product of his failures than of his success. Crisafulli and Redmond are dismissive of Rwanda’s critics: “This scrutiny is largely a by-product of its tremendous success, given its strong economic growth and track record of lifting people out of poverty.”

Rwanda, Inc. is more interested in the aftermath than the genocide itself, and in Kagame’s steady leadership. Even at the RPF’s lowest moments, Kagame insisted on maintaining discipline. He refused to visit massacre sites during the genocide out of fear that anger would warp his judgement.

After the genocide, Kagame insisted on a culture of reconciliation; there would no longer be Hutus and Tutsis, only Rwandans now. Crisafulli and Redmond are impressed with Rwanda’s encouragement of small businesses run by women, including one cooperative in which a recalcitrant Tutsi woman comes to forgive her Hutu coworkers: “Today I forgive you. Your husband killed my children, but you did not.”

The boosterish Rwanda, Inc. credits Kagame for transforming Rwanda into an East Asian-style “developmental state”, where the government oversees the transformation of a heretofore-stagnant economy. While noting some drawbacks to the new top-down system – zero-corruption policies also promote governmental bureaucracy, with everyone afraid of signing off on new projects – Crisafulli and Redmond argue that the “Rwanda Model” of “poverty reduction, a strategy of private sector-led development, decentralised government, transparency and accountability at all levels” has been an unparalleled success. Rwanda, the quintessential failed state, has become, in their estimation, an African success story.

But perhaps the most substantial piece of received wisdom needing revision is the most fundamental: that the war between Hutu and Tutsi came to a resolution in Rwanda. Yes, as Crisafulli and Redmond note, Kagame has presided in CEO-like fashion over a revitalised country, eschewing revenge on the country’s Hutus in favour of reconciliation and progress. But that stability has come about – and here is where matters get tricky – in part by the destabilisation of Rwanda’s next-door neighbour, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kagame’s supporters around the world would argue, with some legitimacy, that the military incursions into Congo that began in 1996 were intent on freeing Rwanda of the unacceptable burden of the Hutu refugee camps on the Congolese-Rwandan border, each an ideal hiding spot for unreformed genocidaires.

"The war was not yet over," Kagame had told his fellow fighters after the remnants of the Habyarimana regime were toppled in the summer of 1994. The same international community that had left the Tutsis alone to face their deaths were now indiscriminately shipping aid to the refugee camps, "feeding the genocidaires and allowing them to rearm", according to Jason K Stearns' Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, a game attempt to wrestle with the dizzying complexity of the two-decade-long Congo war.

Allying with his former fellow officer in the Ugandan army, president Yoweri Museveni, Kagame helped to recruit a little-known Zairean rebel leader named Laurent Kabila as part of a pan-African coalition intended to topple the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu was indefensible and his support for the Hutu genocidaires threatened the fragile stability of Rwanda. “At the outset,” writes Stearns, “it seemed to be the perfect embodiment of a just war; Kigali was acting as a last resort based on legitimate security concerns.”

Rwanda supplied equipment and money to the rebels and effectively served as the general staff of the joint army. Border safety soon became an all-out offensive, in which Rwandan troops trained Zairean Banyamulenge – also known as Congolese Tutsis – to fight their government. A UN report accused Rwandan forces of killing tens of thousands of Hutu refugees, including women, children and the elderly – all obviously not Hutu Power militants. In the most uncomfortable irony of all, the report determined that the Rwandan troops – many of whom were survivors of the Genocide Against the Tutsi – “may have been guilty of acts of genocide against the Hutu”.

“When you are in the RPF, you believe in the unity of the country,” Kagame said of his party. But can you be Rwandan today and believe in the unity of the country without supporting the RPF? Kagame’s re-election in 2010 with 93 per cent of the vote, and the rumours of suppression of opposition parties on the pretext of quashing pro-genocide sentiment, have led many to openly question Kagame’s turn as Rwanda’s CEO. The 70 per cent decreases in child mortality and 8 per cent annual economic growth make Rwanda “a rare symbol of progress on a continent that has an abundance of failed states”, according to a recent New York Times Magazine profile, but stories of the Rwandan intelligence service hunting down dissidents and of Tutsi dominance of the political and economic structure are troubling.

Even more disturbing is continuing Rwandan involvement in the Congolese unrest. A UN investigation in 2012 determined that Rwandan soldiers were still crossing the border to join the vicious Congolese Tutsi rebel group M23. Kagame and the RPF are dreaming of creating a Tutsi-controlled buffer zone on the Congolese-Rwandan border – an insurance policy against another attack on Rwanda, but one that comes at the expense of a destabilised, permanently suffering Congo.

The story of the Rwandan genocide did not end in 1994. Instead, it quietly lingers on, just beyond its borders. Rwanda is a symbol of progress and Kagame is the poster child of a country that has, miraculously, rebuilt itself out of the ashes of mass death. Both he and it are to be saluted. But Rwanda is also accompanied by its shadow, Congo – racked by violence where Rwanda is now at peace, poor where it is prosperous, leaderless where it is efficiently managed. The Congo war is the Rwandan war, and the massive country to its west is Rwanda’s doppelganger, its conscience and its burden.

Saul Austerlitz is the author of Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community.

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