In fact, it is worth asking how Kagame stayed so clean for so long in the eyes of the Western media. “The media establishment in the West is not invested in Africa and hasn’t ever really expended the energy in coming to grips with Africa, or thinking seriously about Africa,” says Howard French, a former New York Times correspondent and author of A Continent for the Taking, who, like Gourevitch, reported on the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide. “There is a compulsion to simplify at a radical level, to seek easily identifiable good guys and bad guys.”
In the post-genocide context, Kagame became the hero personified—Hutus, the lumpen villains. Faced with the evil of genocide this tendency was natural, as was the attempt by foreign reporters, including Gourevitch, to find a comparison, something to help the reader make sense of the unfamiliar. The Holocaust offered a similar tale of mass murder. “One of the most important things that Gourevitch did was to liken the Rwandan experience to the Israeli experience, to the Holocaust,” says French, who teaches journalism at Columbia and has written for CJR. “There is almost no better way to tap into the public imagination and produce a more predictable moral compass than to mention the Holocaust.” In his book, French criticizes Gourevitch’s “emotionally over-powering but deeply flawed analogies with Israel and with European Jewry and the Holocaust,” and argues that the comparison influenced American policy in the Clinton era.
Gourevitch has made the link to the Jewish Holocaust in a number of stories but most explicitly in his New Yorker article in 2000. “The analogy that’s sometimes made between Rwanda’s aggressive defense policy and that of Israel—another small country with a vivid memory of genocide which has endured persistent threats of annihilation from its neighbors—is inexact but not unfounded,” he wrote.
René Lemarchand, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Florida and author of The Dynamics Of Violence In Central Africa, agrees that the identification of the Rwanda genocide with the Holocaust is a powerful tool, as is Gourevitch’s talent as a writer. “To read Gourevitch is to read a really splendid piece of reporting. Unfortunately it is an extremely lopsided view of both [Kagame] and the events that brought him to power,” he says. The portrayal of Kagame, he says, “doesn’t stand up to the facts that are slowly percolating up to the surface.”
Gourevitch, of course, sees things differently. On the phone from New York, he energetically defends his depiction of Kagame against the accusation of bias levelled by critics like Lemarchand. “When I wrote about Kagame in my book, I introduced him with the most detailed description of an RPF atrocity that I had ever seen published,” he says, referring to the killing of thousands of Hutus by Kagame’s soldiers at Kibeho in 1994. “What I was trying to say is you have got to understand that this leadership came to power in bloody circumstances, that they were ruthless, they were not angels. They were confronted with appalling choices and they remained prepared to use appalling force in the name of securing, stabilizing, and re-organizing the country—and that this was how they looked at Congo from the start as well. I wanted to make it clear that this was what you had to reckon with in trying to make a judgment.”
Tertsakian at Human Rights Watch is not convinced, arguing that while Gourevitch may report Kagame’s atrocities and oppression, these acts are always subsequently justified, leading her to describe some of his writing as biased in favor of the Rwandan government. “It is not appropriate to draw an equivalence between the killings carried out by the RPF and the genocide. But the genocide should not be used as a justification for minimizing or excusing what the RPF did, and for the continuing repression in Rwanda today,” she says. Human Rights Watch and others often describe this continuing domestic repression as a “climate of fear” in the country.
The quest for comprehension of the genocide and its aftermath has often led to polarized viewpoints that obscure rather than illuminate the contradictions and complexities of post-genocide Rwanda. What is starting to emerge is a depiction of Kagame as a political leader capable of good and bad: his forces halted a genocide and went on a murderous rampage; he has brought peace and launched wars; he has stamped out corruption and stolen resources; he is hugely popular and crushes dissent. These apparently conflicting narratives, usually competing, should be read together for a proper understanding of the country and its leader.