Subscribe to South Asia Citizens Wire | feeds from | @sacw
Home > Resources / Links > The Mass Murder We Don’t Talk About / A Deathly Hush | Helen Epstein (in (...)

The Mass Murder We Don’t Talk About / A Deathly Hush | Helen Epstein (in NYRB)

27 June 2018

print version of this article print version

[Two part review article on the 1994 Rwandan genocide]

The New York Review of Books, June 7, 2018 Issue

The Mass Murder We Don’t Talk About

Helen Epstein

In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front
by Judi Rever
Random House Canada, 277 pp., CAN$32.00

During the 1990s, unprecedented violence erupted in Central Africa. In Sudan, the civil war intensified; in Rwanda, there was genocide; in Congo millions died in a conflict that simmers to this day; and in Uganda, millions more were caught between a heartless warlord and an even more heartless military counterinsurgency.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Although the US had for decades backed dictatorships and right-wing rebels across the continent, George H.W. Bush had declared in his 1989 inaugural speech that “a new breeze [was] blowing…. For in man’s heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over. The totalitarian era is passing…. Great nations of the world are moving toward democracy through the door to freedom.”

Bush and his successors supported peace on much of the African continent by funding democracy promotion programs and sanctioning, or threatening to sanction, South Africa and other countries if their leaders didn’t allow multiparty elections and free political prisoners. But in Uganda, Ethiopia, and a small number of other countries, the Bush and Clinton administrations lavished development and military aid on dictators who in turn funneled weapons to insurgents in Sudan, Rwanda, and Congo. In this way, Washington helped stoke the interlinked disasters that have claimed millions of lives since the late 1980s and still roil much of eastern and central Africa today. The complicity of the US in those disasters has not yet been sufficiently exposed, but Judi Rever’s In Praise of Blood explores how Washington helped obscure the full story of the genocide that devastated Rwanda during the 1990s and cover up the crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which has ruled the country ever since.

The familiar story about the Rwandan genocide begins in April 1994, when Hutu militias killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, mostly with machetes and other simple weapons. The RPF, a Tutsi-dominated rebel army, advanced through the mayhem and finally brought peace to the country in July. The RPF’s leader, Paul Kagame, eventually became president of Rwanda and remains in power today. He has overseen a technocratic economic revival, the installation of one of the best information technology networks in Africa, and a sharp decline in maternal and child mortality. Political dissent is suppressed, many of Kagame’s critics are in jail, and some have even been killed—but his Western admirers tend to overlook this. Bill Clinton has praised Kagame as “one of the greatest leaders of our time,” and Tony Blair’s nonprofit Institute for Global Change continues to advise and support his government.

Over the years, less valiant portraits of Kagame and the RPF have appeared in academic monographs and self-published accounts by Western and Rwandan academics, journalists, and independent researchers, including Filip Reyntjens, André Guichaoua, Edward Herman, Robin Philpot, David Himbara, Gérard Prunier, Barrie Collins, and the BBC’s Jane Corbin. Taken together, they suggest that the RPF actually provoked the war that led to the genocide of the Tutsis and committed mass killings of Hutus before, during, and after it. In Praise of Blood is the most accessible and up-to-date of these studies.

Rever’s account begins in October 1990, when several thousand RPF fighters invaded Rwanda from neighboring Uganda. The RPF was made up of refugees born to Rwandan parents who fled anti-Tutsi pogroms during the early 1960s and were determined to go home. Its leaders, including Kagame, had fought alongside Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni in the war that brought him to power in 1986. They’d then been appointed to senior Ugandan army positions—Kagame was Museveni’s chief of military intelligence in the late 1980s—which they deserted when they invaded Rwanda.

In August 1990, two months before the RPF invasion, the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government had actually agreed, in principle, to allow the refugees to return. The decision had been taken under enormous international pressure, the details were vague, and the process would likely have dragged on, or not occurred at all. But the RPF invasion preempted a potentially peaceful solution to the refugee conundrum. For three and a half years, the rebels occupied a large swath of northern Rwanda while the Ugandan army supplied them with weapons, in violation of the UN Charter and Organization of African Unity rules. Washington knew what was going on but did nothing to stop it. On the contrary, US foreign aid to Uganda doubled in the years after the invasion, and in 1991, Uganda purchased ten times more US weapons than in the preceding forty years combined.

During the occupation, roughly a million Hutu peasants fled RPF-controlled areas, citing killings, abductions, and other crimes. An Italian missionary working in the area at the time told Rever that the RPF laid landmines around springs that blew up children, and invaded a hospital in a town called Nyarurema and shot nine patients dead. According to Alphonse Furuma, one of the founders of the RPF, the purpose was to clear the area, steal animals, take over farms, and, presumably, scare away anyone who might think of protesting. The Ugandan army, which trained the RPF, had used similar tactics against its own Acholi people during the 1980s and 1990s, so these accounts seem plausible.

At least one American was angry about the RPF invasion. US ambassador to Rwanda Robert Flaten witnessed how it sent shock waves throughout the country, whose majority-Hutu population had long feared a Tutsi attack from Uganda. Flaten urged the Bush administration to impose sanctions on Uganda for supplying the RPF, noting that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait only two months earlier and been met with near-universal condemnation, a UN Security Council demand that he withdraw, and a US military assault.

By contrast, the Bush administration, which was then supplying most of Uganda’s budget through foreign aid, treated the RPF invasion of Rwanda with nonchalance. When it took place, Museveni happened to be visiting the US. He assured State Department officials that he’d known nothing about it, and promised to prevent weapons from crossing the border and court-martial any defectors who attempted to return to Uganda. He then did neither, with the apparent approval of US diplomats. In 1991 and 1992 US officials met RPF leaders inside Uganda and monitored the flow of weapons across the border, but made no effort to stop it, even when the Rwandan government and its French allies complained.

Years later, Bush’s assistant secretary of state for Africa Herman Cohen expressed regret for failing to pressure Museveni to stop supporting the RPF, but by then it was too late. At the time, Cohen maintained that the US feared that sanctions might harm Uganda’s robust economic growth. But he hasn’t explained why Washington allowed the RPF—by invading Rwanda—to ruin that country’s economy, which had previously been similarly robust. Robert Gribbin, a diplomat then stationed at the US embassy in Kampala, has claimed that sanctions weren’t considered because they might have interfered with Uganda’s “nascent democratic initiatives,” without mentioning that Museveni’s security forces were torturing and jailing members of Uganda’s nonviolent opposition and also pursuing a brutal counterinsurgency in northern Uganda that would claim hundreds of thousands of Ugandan lives.

The UN may also have turned a blind eye to Museveni and Kagame’s schemes. In October 1993 a contingent of UN peacekeepers was deployed to help implement a peace agreement between the RPF and the Rwandan government. One of its mandates was to ensure that weapons, personnel, and supplies didn’t cross into Rwanda from Uganda. But when the peacekeepers’ commander, Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, visited the Ugandan border town of Kabale, a Ugandan officer told him that his peacekeepers would have to provide twelve hours’ notice so that escorts could be arranged to accompany them on patrols. Dallaire protested, since the element of surprise is crucial for such monitoring missions. The Ugandans stood their ground, and also refused to allow Dallaire to inspect an arsenal in Mbarara, a Ugandan town about eighty miles from the Rwandan border, which was rumored to be supplying the RPF.

Dallaire has not said whether he brought Uganda’s obstruction to the attention of the Security Council, and he didn’t respond to my interview requests. But in 2004 he told a US congressional hearing that Museveni laughed in his face when they met at a gathering to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the genocide. “I remember that UN mission on the border,” Dallaire said Museveni had told him. “We maneuvered ways to get around it, and of course we did support the movement [i.e., the RPF invasion].”

The likely reasons why Washington and the UN apparently decided to go easy on Uganda and the RPF will be explored in the second part of this article. But for Rwanda’s President Juvénal Habyarimana and his circle of Hutu elites, the invasion seems to have had a silver lining. For years, tensions between Hutus and Tutsis inside Rwanda had been subsiding. Habyarimana had sought reconciliation with Tutsis living in Rwanda—so-called internal Tutsis—by reserving civil service jobs and university places for them in proportion to their share of the population. Though desultory, this program was modestly successful, and the greatest rift in the country was between the relatively small Hutu clique around Habyarimana and the millions of impoverished Hutu peasants whom they exploited as brutally as had the Tutsi overlords of bygone days. While the elites fattened themselves on World Bank “anti-poverty” projects that created lucrative administrative jobs and other perks but did little to alleviate poverty, they continued to subject the Hutu poor to forced labor and other abuses.

Habyarimana, like the leaders of Malawi, Ghana, Zambia, and other countries, was under pressure from the US and other donors to allow opposition parties to operate. Many of these new parties were ethnically mixed, with both Hutu and Tutsi leaders, but they were united in criticizing Habyarimana’s autocratic behavior and nepotism and the vast economic inequalities in the country.

The RPF invasion seems to have provided Habyarimana and his circle with a political opportunity: now they could distract the disaffected Hutu masses from their own abuses by reawakening fears of the “demon Tutsis.” Shortly after the invasion, Hutu elites devised a genocidal propaganda campaign that would bear hideous fruit three and a half years later. Chauvinist Hutu newspapers, magazines, and radio programs reminded readers that Hutus were the original occupants of the Great Lakes region and that Tutsis were Nilotics—supposedly warlike pastoralists from Ethiopia who had conquered and enslaved Hutus in the seventeenth century. The RPF invasion, they claimed, was nothing more than a plot by Museveni, Kagame, and their Tutsi coconspirators to reestablish this evil Nilotic empire. Cartoons of Tutsis killing Hutus began appearing in magazines, along with warnings that all Tutsis were RPF spies bent on dragging the country back to the days when the Tutsi queen supposedly rose from her seat supported by swords driven between the shoulders of Hutu children.

In February 1993 an RPF offensive killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of Hutus in the northern prefectures of Byumba and Ruhengeri, further inflaming anti-Tutsi sentiment. At the time, the Organization of African Unity was overseeing peace negotiations between the RPF and the government, but the process was fraught. Habyarimana knew the RPF was better armed, trained, and disciplined than his own army, so under immense international pressure he agreed in August 1993 to a peace accord that would grant the RPF seats in a transitional government and nearly half of all posts in the army.

Even Tutsis inside Rwanda were against giving the RPF so much power because they knew it would provoke the angry, fearful Hutus to rebel, and they were right. Hutu mayors and other local officials were already stockpiling rifles, and government-linked anti-Tutsi militia groups (including the notorious Interahamwe) were distributing machetes and kerosene to prospective génocidaires. In December 1993, a picture of a machete appeared on the front page of one Hutu-chauvinist publication under the headline “What Weapons Can We Use to Defeat the Inyenzi [Tutsi Cockroaches] Once and For All?” The following month, the CIA predicted that if tensions were not somehow defused, hundreds of thousands of people might die in ethnic violence. This powder keg exploded four months later, when on April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Habyarimana was shot down as it was preparing to land in Kigali, the capital.

The French sociologist André Guichaoua happened to be in Kigali that evening. The country was tense, but peaceful. But Hutu military personnel panicked when they heard about the crash. That night they began hastily erecting roadblocks around government and army installations, while militiamen, many from the presidential guard, began moving into position. The killing of Tutsis began the following afternoon. According to Guichaoua, Tutsis suspected of collaboration with the RPF, which the killers blamed for the plane crash, were sought out first, but soon the militias were killing every Tutsi they could get their hands on. The vast majority of the victims would turn out to be internal Tutsis, who had nothing to do with the RPF.

Scott Peterson/Liaison/Getty Images

Rwandan Patriotic Front soldiers preparing to march into Kigali, Rwanda, 1994

For decades, blame for the plane crash that set off the genocide has fallen on members of Habyarimana’s army who were believed to be unhappy about the terms of the August 1993 peace accord. However, a growing number of academic studies, judicial reports, and other investigations now suggest RPF responsibility. They are based on eyewitness testimony from multiple RPF defectors who say they were involved in the planning and execution of the plot, as well as evidence concerning the origin of the missiles.

It’s unclear what motive the RPF would have had for shooting down the plane, but it may have wanted to ignite a war in order to abrogate the August accord, which called for elections twenty-two months after implementation. The RPF, dominated by the unpopular minority Tutsis and widely hated for its militancy, including by many internal Tutsis, would certainly have lost.

The RPF began advancing almost as soon as the plane hit the ground, and even before the genocide of the Tutsis had begun. According to Rever, the rebels actually made the situation worse. While Hutus were massacring innocent Tutsis, the RPF was further inciting ethnic hatred by massacring innocent Hutus. In mid-April RPF officers assembled some three thousand Hutu villagers in a stadium in Byumba and slaughtered virtually all of them. In June RPF soldiers attacked a seminary in Gitarama, killing several Hutu priests, and then, according to a four-hundred-page report compiled by a respected priest and human-rights activist named André Sibomana, proceeded to massacre roughly 18,000 others in the prefecture.

RPF defectors told Rever that the purpose of these mass killings was to strike fear in the Hutu population and provoke them to escalate the genocide into such a horrific crime that no political compromise with the former leaders would ever be possible. The August 1993 peace accord would then be irrelevant, and the population would have no choice but to accept an RPF takeover.

Some RPF operatives told Rever that they had even infiltrated Hutu militia groups to stoke ethnic anger and incite ever more indiscriminate reprisals against Tutsis. Again, this seems plausible to me. Kagame and other RPF commanders may have learned such strategies in Uganda while fighting alongside Museveni, whose rebel army reportedly committed similar “false flag” operations in the 1980s. After the genocide, war broke out in neighboring Zaire, as Congo was then known. When assailants killed hundreds of Congolese Tutsi refugees inside Rwanda in December 1997, US officials, Amnesty International, and The New York Times all blamed Hutu insurgents, but RPF sources told Rever that they themselves had done it. “Everyone knew that the RPF staged that attack. It was common knowledge in intelligence circles,” a former RPF officer told Rever. It was a “brilliant and cruel display of military theater,” said another.

Dallaire, the commander of the peacekeepers, remained in Rwanda during the genocide. In his harrowing memoir, Shake Hands with the Devil, he expresses puzzlement about the RPF’s troop movements. Rather than heading south, where most of the killings of Tutsis were taking place, the RPF circled around Kigali. When Dallaire met Kagame at the latter’s headquarters, he asked him why. “He knew full well that every day of fighting on the periphery meant certain death for Tutsis still behind [Rwandan government] lines,” Dallaire writes. Kagame “ignored the implications of my question.” By the time the RPF reached the capital weeks later, most of the Tutsis there were dead.

In May 1994, while supplies continued to flow to the RPF from Uganda, the UN placed the Rwandan government army, some of whose soldiers had participated in massacres of the Tutsis, under an arms embargo. By the end of July, the much stronger RPF had taken control of nearly all of the now ruined country. As it advanced, some two million Hutus fled, either to the giant Kibeho camp in southwestern Rwanda or to camps over the border in Tanzania and Zaire. Some Hutus returned home in the fall of 1994, but according to a UN report prepared by the human rights investigator Robert Gersony, many of them were killed by the RPF, either on suspicion of sympathy with revanchist Hutu militants or simply to terrify others.* These killings stopped during the run-up to a donor meeting in Geneva in January 1995, but then resumed after $530 million in aid was pledged.

Hutus once again fled to Kibeho, where they thought they would be protected by UN peacekeepers. But in April 1995 the RPF fired on the camp and then stormed it while helpless aid workers and UN troops, under orders to obey the RPF, stood by. At least four thousand Hutus, probably more, were killed, including numerous women and children. Thomas Odom, a retired US army colonel stationed at the embassy in Kigali, blamed the killings on Hutu instigators within the refugee population who, he says, stirred up the crowds, provoking panicked RPF soldiers to shoot. Several eyewitnesses dispute this.

In the enormous refugee camps in Zaire, Hutu militants—many of whom had participated in the genocide—began mobilizing to retake the country and launched sporadic attacks inside Rwanda. The RPF’s reaction was fierce, swift, and cruel. Hutu villagers who had nothing to do with the militants were invited to peace-and-reconciliation meetings, then shot point-blank or beaten to death with garden hoes. In 1997, thousands of Hutus fleeing indiscriminate RPF reprisals sought refuge in caves near the Virunga Mountains, where they were trapped and killed by RPF soldiers. Thousands more were killed in the environs of the town of Mahoko around the same time.

In order to neutralize the mounting threat from the Zairean refugee camps, the RPF crossed the border in 1996, invaded them, and herded most of the refugees home. But hundreds of thousands refused to return to Rwanda and fled deeper into Zaire. Some were ex-génocidaires and other Hutu militants, but most were ordinary Hutus understandably terrified of the RPF. Kagame’s commandos, who had by then received training from US Special Forces, tracked them down in towns and villages across the country and killed them. Hundreds of thousands remain unaccounted for.

To hunt down fleeing Hutus, RPF spies deployed satellite equipment provided by the US. The RPF also infiltrated the UN refugee agency and used its vehicles and communications equipment. US officials insisted that all the fleeing refugees were Hutu génocidaires and downplayed the number of genuine refugees identified by their own aerial studies, but in 1997 Rever, then a young reporter for Radio France Internationale, trekked through the forest and found vast encampments of malnourished women and children. She interviewed a woman who had seen her entire family shot dead by Kagame’s soldiers, a boy whose father had drowned while fleeing the RPF, and aid workers who told her they had seen mass graves that were too dangerous to visit because they were being guarded by Kagame’s soldiers.

Versions of Rever’s story have been told by others. While all contain convincing evidence against the RPF, some are marred by a tendency to understate the crimes of the Hutu génocidaires
or overstate the RPF’s crimes. But some, including the work of Filip Reyntjens, a Belgian professor of law and politics, have been both measured and soundly researched. Kagame’s regime and its defenders have dismissed them all as propaganda spouted by defeated Hutu génocidaires and genocide deniers. But Rever’s account will prove difficult to challenge. She has been writing about Central Africa for more than twenty years, and her book draws on the reports of UN experts and human rights investigators, leaked documents from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and hundreds of interviews with eyewitnesses, including victims, RPF defectors, priests, aid workers, and officials from the UN and Western governments. Her sources are too numerous and their observations too consistent for her findings to be a fabrication.

The official UN definition of genocide is not restricted to attempts to eradicate a particular ethnic group. It includes “killings…with the intent to destroy, in whole, or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (my emphasis). The RPF’s operations against the Hutus in the Byumba stadium, in Gitarama, Kibeho, the caves near Virunga, around Mahoko, and in the forests of Zaire do seem to fit that description. The RPF’s aim was, presumably, not to eradicate the Hutus but to frighten them into submission.

And yet in January, the UN officially recognized April 7 as an International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis—only the Tutsis. That is how the conflagration in Rwanda is generally viewed. And while the French army has been accused of supplying the Rwandan government with weapons during the genocide, US officials have faced no scrutiny for lavishing aid on Uganda’s Museveni while he armed the RPF in violation of international treaties and the August 1993 peace accord. Why have international observers overlooked the other side of this story for so long? And why are the RPF’s crimes so little known outside of specialist circles? That will be the subject of the second part of this article.

* After the genocide, numerous human rights reports described the ongoing killing of Hutus inside Rwanda. Gersony’s concluded that after the genocide officially ended, the RPF killed over 25,000 civilians, most of them Hutus, inside Rwanda, as well as two Canadian priests, two Spanish priests, a Croatian priest, three Spanish NGO volunteers, and a Belgian school director who attempted to report on RPF atrocities. Gersony submitted his report to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, who passed it on to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan, who decided to delay its release. Timothy Wirth, then US undersecretary of state for global affairs, met Gersony in Kigali and said the findings were “compelling.” But at a briefing back in Washington, he downplayed the report, claiming the author had been misled by his informants. Wirth admitted the RPF had killed people, but said it wasn’t “systematic.” ↩

o o

The New York Review of Books, June 28, 2018 Issue

A Deathly Hush

Helen Epstein

In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front
by Judi Rever
Random House Canada, 277 pp., $32.00

The UN’s definition of genocide is not restricted to attempts to eradicate a particular ethnic group. It includes “killings…with the intent to destroy, in whole, or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (my emphasis). Part One of this article explored the evidence presented in Judi Rever’s In Praise of Blood that before, during, and after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) killed tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocent Hutus. The claim that these killings constituted a “parallel genocide” has long been dismissed by many academics and journalists, including myself, as overstatement, and even as Hutu propaganda. But Rever makes a plausible case for it.1

Even if these massacres didn’t constitute genocide, it’s worth asking why the fiction has persisted that Kagame’s RPF rescued Rwanda from further genocide when much evidence suggests that it actually helped provoke it by needlessly invading the country in 1990, massacring Hutus, probably shooting down the plane of President Juvénal Habyarimana in 1994, and failing to move swiftly to stop the genocide of the Tutsis, as Roméo Dallaire—commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda at the time—suggested in his memoir Shake Hands with the Devil. The myth of the valorous RPF has for years been repeated not only in the media but also by officials in the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations. Even those who criticize Kagame’s repressive rule in Rwanda today praise his actions during the genocide.

The reputation of the RPF appears to have been shaped by a coordinated public relations effort designed not just for the benefit of Kagame but also, as will be explained below, to obscure Washington’s role in a particularly bloody period of central African history, as the Soviet threat was receding and a new Islamist one seemed to be looming.

The RPF has long demonstrated considerable skill at deception. According to defectors interviewed by Rever, the group incinerated or buried its victims in tightly guarded encampments off-limits to human rights investigators, and recruited and trained a cadre of smooth-talking Tutsi technocrats, drivers, fixers, and other informal ambassadors who spouted RPF propaganda to visiting journalists, tourists, and NGO officials. In January 1993 rebel operatives took an international team of human rights investigators on a carefully guided tour of RPF-held areas in northern Rwanda. The investigators’ report, which was greeted with much fanfare, blamed virtually all the violence on the Rwandan government. Other human rights reports deemphasized the ethnically charged nature of the RPF’s crimes, attributing them instead to “generalized violence” and not mentioning that virtually all of the RPF’s victims were Hutu. Some human rights investigators denied that the RPF had committed any atrocities at all. RPF defectors told Rever that the group further confused foreign observers by killing Tutsis in “false flag” attacks designed to both demonize Hutus and escalate the genocide.

The RPF has intimidated, abducted, or killed those who have attempted to report on its crimes. It has killed witnesses even in foreign countries, including Seth Sendashonga, interior minister in the post-genocide national unity government, who was gunned down in Nairobi in 1998, and the former RPF spy chief Patrick Karegeya, strangled in Johannesburg in 2014. This March, British police warned the Rwandan refugee and former Kagame bodyguard Noble Marara that Rwandan government agents were seeking to kill him on British soil. Non-Rwandans have not been spared. In 1997, according to an RPF defector with direct knowledge of the events, Kagame’s men killed four UN observers, three Spanish aid workers, and a Canadian priest who were collecting evidence of RPF crimes.

Rever has also been harassed. Belgian state security agents informed her that they had knowledge of threats to her life and gave her bodyguards when she traveled to Europe to interview Rwandan exiles. An unfamiliar man trailed her through a French train station; another glared at her over breakfast in a hotel. A terrifying answering machine message, which was muffled but “sounded African” to her, mentioned one of her small daughters by name.

While it’s possible to see how the RPF managed to silence or hoodwink some reporters and human rights investigators, it’s harder to understand why US government officials persisted in painting such a positive picture of it. According to Rever’s sources, the Clinton administration had satellite evidence of massacres in RPF-controlled areas during the genocide, and yet US officials have systematically downplayed RPF crimes against Hutus; refused to acknowledge the findings of human rights reports commissioned by Amnesty International, the UN, and other groups; undermined criminal investigations; underestimated the number of refugees fleeing the RPF in Zaire; and rewarded Kagame and his erstwhile ally Yoweri Museveni of Uganda with billions of dollars in foreign aid.

During counterinsurgency operations in 1997, the RPF barred Amnesty investigators from inspecting caves where fleeing Hutu villagers had been massacred. But based on interviews with local witnesses, Amnesty estimated that they contained between five and eight thousand bodies. David Sheffer, then US ambassador for war crimes, nevertheless concurred with the RPF that Amnesty’s estimate was “ludicrous” and that all the dead were Hutu militants. In a leaked memo quoted by Rever, Sheffer bizarrely bases his estimate that the caves contained only hundreds, rather than thousands, of bodies on the intensity of the smell emanating from them.

In late 1994 the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to investigate crimes committed during the genocide. Its investigators quickly amassed evidence of atrocities committed by both sides. However, in 1997, its first chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour, shut down investigations of RPF crimes and continued to pursue only those committed by Hutu génocidaires. She gave no reason for her decision at the time, but in a 2016 interview she claimed it was due to lack of capacity and to the fact that investigating the RPF was very dangerous—which it was. In 1999 Arbour quietly set up a Special Investigation Unit (SIU) to collect testimony and other evidence about RPF crimes. The report of this unit was leaked to Rever, and much of the damning information in her book is based on its findings.

The efforts of Arbour’s successor on the ICTR, Carla Del Ponte, to continue investigating the RPF met with fierce opposition from the US government. In her memoir, Madame Prosecutor: Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst Criminals and the Culture of Impunity (2009), Del Ponte claims that in 2003 US Ambassador for War Crimes Pierre Prosper urged her to hand over investigations of RPF crimes to the RPF-controlled Rwandan government itself. Del Ponte insisted that doing so would put witnesses at risk and requested that the Rwandans first demonstrate they could handle their own prosecutions impartially. Prosper once again pressed his case, and at a garden party later that day hinted that her term as chief prosecutor on the Rwanda tribunal might not be renewed.

Prosper, who now works for the Rwandan government on commercial litigation, has disputed Del Ponte’s account. But during their alleged confrontation, US Ambassador to Rwanda Margaret McMillion was drafting an agreement with Rwanda’s general prosecutor Gerald Gahima that would allow the Rwandans themselves to investigate “two to three” of the sites where the US had evidence that “massacres may have been committed in 1994 by members of the Rwandese Patriotic Army.” The agreement, reprinted in Rever’s book, states that the ICTR—which is supposed to be an independent UN body but was largely funded and apparently controlled by the US—would not prosecute Kagame or his soldiers “unless it is determined that the [Rwandan government] investigation or prosecution was not genuine.” Del Ponte was removed from the ICTR three months later.

The ICTR concluded its work in 2015, having indicted ninety-three Hutus but not a single member of the RPF. The Rwandan courts did convict two RPF captains of a murderous raid on a seminary in Gitarama in June 1994, but Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth maintained the trial was a sham. Senior RPF commanders who ordered the killings were never prosecuted, and the Rwandan court also declined to pursue the killings of thousands of others in Gitarama in the weeks that followed. Del Ponte’s replacement, Hassan Jallow, indicated he was “satisfied that the trial…was carried out with due process and in accordance with international standards of fair trial.”

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has, like Kagame, been portrayed as a champion of African development, despite a similar record of brutality. Since seizing power in 1986, Museveni’s security forces have massacred countless villagers across Uganda merely on suspicion of rebel sympathies and detained, tortured, and probably killed members of the political opposition. His henchmen have looted billions of dollars from the Treasury and foreign aid programs, rigged elections, and committed other human rights abuses.

Museveni backed the 1990 RPF invasion that eventually led to the genocide. And yet in June 1994, while that genocide was still taking place, he was welcomed at the White House by President Clinton and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake. During that trip, he also accepted a Hubert H. Humphrey public service medal and honorary doctorate from the University of Minnesota. Throughout the 1990s, even as Museveni’s troops were marauding in Zaire and forcing nearly two million people in northern Uganda into squalid internment camps where countless thousands died, Western journalists showered Museveni with praise. The New York Times noted that he had been compared to Nelson Mandela, and the World Bank, whose funding decisions are strongly influenced by the US, poured cash into Museveni’s coffers. Today, Museveni is widely praised for hosting large numbers of refugees from South Sudan, Zaire, and other countries, even though his army is partly responsible for the wars that drove them from their homes.

The silence surrounding Kagame’s and Museveni’s crimes is both disturbing and mysterious. Some have suggested that Clinton administration officials did not criticize Kagame because they felt guilty for not having intervened during the genocide, but this cannot be the reason. After all, those same officials appear to have helped the RPF, as well as Museveni, cover up similar crimes. The real explanation for Washington’s evasions is probably geostrategic and can be traced to the end of the cold war.

As the Soviet threat receded during the 1980s, a new one emerged. Across the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, young men galvanized by Islamist politicians and religious leaders were joining, in ever greater numbers, such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda, which were determined to install Islamist regimes in Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and elsewhere. In Uganda’s northern neighbor Sudan, the cleric Hassan al-Turabi rose to power alongside army colonel Omar al-Bashir, who overthrew the previous US-backed government in a coup in 1989. For years Turabi had been holding rallies around Khartoum calling for a “real Islamic revolution,” an end to the US-backed military dictatorship of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, and the breaking of the Egypt–Israel peace deal. Now he was inviting Osama bin Laden and other Islamist radicals to use Sudan as a base for their activities, thus threatening to turn the country into a “Holiday Inn for terrorists,” according to one US diplomat.
Sayyid Azim/AP Images
Hutu refugees arriving in Goma from Kisangani, Zaire, April 1997

Uganda borders southern Sudan (now independent South Sudan), and the US evidently came to consider it an important bulwark against Turabi, Bashir, and their Islamist allies. It was around this time that Washington appears to have formed a special relationship with Museveni, who met with President Ronald Reagan three years in a row between 1987 and 1989 and has since had more contact with high-level US officials than any other living African leader. During the late 1980s, Museveni even employed Reagan’s son-in-law Dennis Revell to manage his public relations.

Sometime around 1990, Museveni began assisting the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a rebel group comprising mainly non-Arabs from southern Sudan who had been fighting their government for years because of discrimination. Decades earlier, Museveni and SPLA leader John Garang had belonged to the same radical student group at the University of Dar es Salaam; in 1990 Garang was living in Kampala and meeting with US officials in various eastern African capitals. In 1992 US Customs agents in Orlando, Florida, caught Ugandan diplomats smuggling four hundred antitank missiles out of the US, reportedly for use by the SPLA. The case was then quietly dropped. More US weapons were found in Cyprus two years later, also allegedly destined for SPLA fighters via Uganda. Then assistant secretary of state for Africa Herman Cohen insists that the US didn’t support the SPLA in the early 1990s, but highly placed Ugandan and SPLA informants have told me that it did.

While Museveni was secretly arming the SPLA, he was also arming both the RPF and a Zairean rebel group known as the AFDL, whose members had been trying for decades to oust Zairean leader Mobutu Sese Seko. During the cold war, Mobutu had been Washington’s friend, but the relationship unraveled in the early 1990s. Mobutu, alarmed at the blatant aggression of Museveni and Kagame against his friend and ally, Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, found common cause with Sudan’s Bashir, who was also furious about Museveni’s support for the SPLA. The two leaders joined forces in support of various anti-Museveni and anti-Kagame rebel groups. These included some 30,000 Hutu militants who had fled into Zaire along with roughly two million others after the Rwanda genocide. The forces opposed to Kagame and Museveni camped out in southern Sudan and in Zaire’s weakly governed eastern provinces—a region home to roughly $24 trillion in strategic natural resources, including oil, gold, diamonds, and the coltan used in computer chips, the value of which was set to soar in the years to come. The prospect that these riches might conceivably fall into Sudan’s sphere of influence is most likely what drew Washington onto Museveni and Kagame’s side.

In 1996 the RPF invaded the Zairean refugee camps and herded most of the Hutus back to Rwanda. But hundreds of thousands fled deeper into Zaire, where, as described in Part One of this article, many of them were tracked down by the RPF and killed. Then the AFDL, along with the RPF and the Ugandan army, marched west to Zaire’s capital, Kinshasa, deposed Mobutu, took over the country in May 1997, and renamed it the Democratic Republic of Congo. After a brief hiatus, the Congo war resumed in 1998 and eventually claimed at least a million lives.2

In recent years, several scholars have uncovered details about Washington’s involvement in the invasion of Zaire by Uganda, the AFDL, and the RPF. In July 1994 two hundred US Special Forces troops began training the RPF in marksmanship, navigation, small unit management, and other techniques that would soon be used to track down and kill fleeing Hutu refugees in Zaire. The US also gave Rwanda aerial reconnaissance and radio intelligence that helped the RPF assess the strength and positions of Mobutu’s army. Rwanda was then under an arms embargo, but in 1995 the Clinton administration began transferring military vehicles and other equipment to Uganda, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. In theory, these transfers were to help the three nations defend themselves against terrorist incursions from Sudan, but some of the tanks, grenades, and other light weapons ended up in Zaire.

Even before the AFDL victory, Western diplomats and mining companies—including American Mineral Fields, based in President Clinton’s hometown of Hope, Arkansas—were already trying to stake claims to Congo’s riches. But Laurent Kabila, an old-fashioned Marxist who declared himself president after Mobutu fled the country, resisted these deals, and eventually much of Congo’s wealth fell into the hands of a murky network of politically connected Ugandan and Rwandan traders who have since looted untold billions of dollars’ worth of gold, coltan, timber, ivory, and other precious natural resources from Congo’s war-torn east. These exporters pay no taxes and employ legions of impoverished artisanal miners, including children, to work in dangerous conditions at starvation wages. This has helped keep global prices of cellphones, computers, and jewelry within reasonable limits, but at a grotesque human cost.3

The Congo war officially raged on until 2003, but shadowy militia groups, some of which have been linked to Uganda and Rwanda, continue to meddle in eastern Congo, where massacres are still a feature of everyday life.

Once the US became involved with Museveni and Kagame, it would have been imperative to portray those two dictators as heroes. This may explain why US officials downplayed RPF (and Ugandan army) crimes, suppressed UN and ICTR reports critical of the RPF, negotiated a deal to transfer prosecution of RPF killings from the potentially more neutral ICTR to the RPF government itself, and lavished praise and foreign aid on both Kagame and Museveni.

Rever doesn’t explore Sudan’s potential part in Rwanda’s story, or Uganda’s role as a conduit for clandestine US assistance to the RPF, SPLA, and AFDL. However, she does note that US Africa policy in the 1990s was driven by Richard Clarke, chairman of the Counter-Terrorism Security Group at the National Security Council between 1992 and 2003. Clarke and his protégé Susan Rice, who would help shape Africa policy for both the Clinton and Obama administrations, were both vehemently opposed to the Sudan government, even after Bashir distanced himself from Turabi, and even after dozens of intelligence reports about Sudan were revealed to be false. A few days into the Rwanda genocide, Clarke urged the UN to remove its peacekeepers; by the end of April, 90 percent of them had left, severely limiting what those who remained could do to stop the killings. Rice, Clinton’s special assistant on Africa, supported the brutal Zaire invasion and has long been a stalwart friend of Museveni and Kagame. As Obama’s national security adviser, she even attempted to block a UN report linking them to Congolese warlords responsible for atrocities.

Rwanda today is a nation in shock. Kagame, relentlessly at war with his critics, has shut down newspapers and imprisoned, tortured, and killed his nonviolent adversaries. His most charismatic political challengers, Victoire Ingabire and Diane Rwigara, languish behind bars. Kagame justifies his autocratic rule with the claim that some three million people—which would amount to virtually every adult Hutu then in Rwanda—participated in the genocide, and that he is therefore faced with governing an essentially criminal population.

More sober academic estimates suggest there may have been roughly 200,000 perpetrators of the genocide—still an enormous number, but only about 7 percent of the adult Hutu population at the time. Almost all Tutsis who died in the genocide were killed by a core group of militiamen and soldiers numbering in the tens of thousands. The participation of even 200,000 people in genocide is shocking, but it’s worth noting that 93 percent of adult Hutus didn’t participate in it at all. Yet their entire ethnic group has been demonized, deprived of political and civil rights, and subjected to cruel human rights abuses by Kagame’s regime. The RPF’s account of the genocide, so widely accepted by international observers for so long, has thus been doubly dehumanizing. It has not only valorized criminals; it has also portrayed millions of innocent Hutus as monsters, undeserving of human dignity and even their own history.

—This is the second of two articles.

1 “The Mass Murder We Don’t Talk About,” The New York Review, June 7, 2018.

2 Estimates of the numbers killed in the Congo wars range from roughly one million to over seven million.

3The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act contained a provision to ensure that minerals used by companies listed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission did not source minerals from Congo’s conflict areas. President Trump was criticized for significantly weakening Dodd-Frank, in part because of the anticipated effects on human rights in Congo. In reality, the conflict minerals provision of Dodd-Frank was never properly implemented, and atrocities continued to occur in eastern Congo. See Tom Burgis, “Dodd-Frank’s Misadventures in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Politico, May 10, 2015, and my “Congo for the Congolese,” NYR Daily, February 19, 2018.


The above articles from The New York Review of Books are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use