Worse was to come in October 2010, when a UN report looking back at a decade of horrors committed by various armed groups in Congo from 1993 onward revived accusations of war crimes and ethnic massacres against Kagame’s forces. The report was the result of a ‘mapping exercise’ to assess the extent of infringements of humanitarian law in the Congo. It found that tens of thousands of Hutu civilians and fighters alike were hunted and killed in a series of massacres following Rwanda’s 1996 invasion, perpetrated by Kagame’s and Kabila’s forces. In its most incendiary passage, the report’s authors said the attacks, “if proven before a competent court, could be characterized as crimes of genocide.”
Many observers—including some human rights activists—say the counter-genocide allegation goes too far. Gourevitch was certainly quick to slam the report, in a posting on his New Yorker blog that closely resembled the Rwandan government’s own response, quoting Rwandan officials, questioning the standards of proof and sourcing, and suggesting—as Rwandan officials also did— that the initial leak was designed to detract attention from the UN’s own failings in protecting civilians in the Congo. Gourevitch’s review of Linda Polman’s book, The Crisis Caravan, followed in October, in which he reminded New Yorker readers that, “fugitive Rwandan genocidaires were succored by international humanitarians in border camps in eastern Congo, so that they have been able to continue their campaigns of extermination and rape to this day.”
In Gourevitch’s view, responsibility for the massacres that followed the break-up of the camps by the Rwandan army is laid at the feet of the humanitarian organizations, not the Rwandan government. “The Goma camps figure as the ultimate example of corrupted humanitarianism—of humanitarianism in the service of extreme inhumanity . That there would be another war because of the camps was obvious long before the war came,” he wrote. The tens of thousands of Hutu deaths that the UN Mapping Report chronicles were, then, “the ultimate price of the camps.”
Yet events in Rwanda are precipitating an overdue reassessment that sees Kagame in a more complex—and accurate—way, than the dominant narrative long nourished by Gourevitch’s work. “The change is down to this concatenation of events: the Nkunda report in 2008, the elections, and then the Mapping Report,” says Jason Stearns, a former coordinator of the UN Group of Experts and author of a forthcoming book about Congo, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. “To keep reporting the old success story of how far Rwanda has come since the genocide is to ignore these things.”
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.