For some reporters, the massacres in Congo in 1996 and 1997 were an early indicator that perhaps they had not got the full measure of Kagame. “I started to realize things were going wrong when Rwanda invaded Congo,” recalls Chris McGreal, former Africa correspondent for London’s Guardian newspaper. “When we saw the scale of the killings of refugees it was quite apparent that the RPF was behaving one way in Rwanda and quite another outside its border.”
But where some saw worrying signs, Gourevitch did not; instead, he saw in the camps a justification for the attacks that followed. His witnessing of the camps also molded his long-standing antagonism toward the humanitarian organizations that sheltered the Hutus and enabled the command structures of the genocide to persist.
In a 1997 New Yorker article, Gourevitch discussed the attacks on Hutus in Congo. “Many of the killings appeared gratuitous, and several death-squad-style massacres had been reported,” he wrote. But later in the piece he allows Kagame ample opportunity to dismiss the reports: Kagame “was not denying that a lot of Rwandan Hutus were being killed in the Congo. But, he said, ‘these are not genuine refugees. They’re simply fugitives, people running away from justice after killing people in Rwanda—after killing!’ They were still killing, he said.”
In the same article, titled “Continental Shift,” he wrote of “the nebulosity known as the international community [that] is ultimately accountable to nobody. Against such impunity, the Congolese rebellion offered Africa the opportunity to supplant the West as the arbiter of its own political destiny.”
Among foreign reporters working in Africa, the New African leadership was in vogue, and Gourevitch embraced this: Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, and, of course, Kagame—all were widely lauded as guerrilla-democrats who would steer Africa in a new direction. To that list Gourevitch was quick to add Kabila, in 1997. “Like his chief political allies, the leaders of Uganda and Rwanda, who are pragmatic advocates of national self-reliance, Kabila must now translate the liberation struggle from a fight against a corrupt old order into a fight for a new and exemplary model of governance,” he wrote in an article called “The Vanishing.”
Kabila went on to reveal himself as yet another greedy despot and, to his credit, Gourevitch wrote a long corrective in 2000 entitled “Forsaken.” “Three years after Laurent-Desire Kabila proclaimed himself President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the streets of the capital are draped with lies,” Gourevitch began.
By then, it was increasingly clear that Kagame’s own rule was tipping toward autocracy and that he too was capable of a ruthlessness in Congo and at home. The late Alison Des Forges, of Human Rights Watch, perhaps the other most high-profile foreign chronicler of the Rwandan genocide, published her detailed account of it in 1999. Of the 590 pages in Leave None To Tell The Story, a dozen deal with war crimes allegedly committed by the RPF. She argued that RPF leaders should be held to account for the murders of perhaps 30,000 during and immediately after the genocide.
“In their drive for military victory and a halt to the genocide, the RPF killed thousands, including noncombatants as well as government troops and members of militia. As RPF soldiers sought to establish their control over the local population, they also killed civilians in numerous executions and in massacres. They may have slaughtered tens of thousands during the four months of combat from April to July,” Des Forges wrote after her extensive investigations.
Des Forges, who had signalled the Rwandan genocide to a disinterested world in its first days and provided evidence against genocide perpetrators at an international tribunal, nevertheless insisted all along that Kagame’s regime also be held to account for human rights abuses, ethnic revenge killings, and oppression. Des Forges was eventually blocked from entering the country after publishing a report in 2008 criticizing the lack of fair trials in Rwanda. (Des Forges was killed in a plane crash in the United States in February 2009.)