One Man’s Rwanda

Philip Gourevitch softens some hard truths
February 1, 2011

There had been ethnic massacres in Rwanda before, but nothing on the scale of the genocide that began in April 1994. The killing had been over for nearly a year when a young American reporter, Philip Gourevitch, set foot in Rwanda for the first time the following May. The bodies of the dead were reverting to bone but memories were still raw. Gourevitch wrote of accidentally crushing a skull beneath his foot, so thick were the dead at a massacre site, and of the eerie emptiness of a country where so many had died so violently and so recently. In his first dispatch from Rwanda for The New Yorker, seven months after arriving, he wrote, “It almost seemed as if, with the machete, the nail-studded club, a few well-placed grenades, and a few bursts of automatic rifle fire, the quiet orders of Hutu Power had made the neutron bomb obsolete.”

Over three years, Gourevitch spent months at a time in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, committing himself more wholly to the story of the genocide’s aftermath than perhaps any other foreign journalist. The New Yorker ran eight of his lengthy articles during this period as he travelled tirelessly across Rwanda, to remote villages and regional towns as well as the capital. He met ordinary Tutsi survivors, imprisoned Hutu perpetrators, and the leaders of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, the rebel army that had ended the genocide and taken control of the country. Gourevitch developed enduring contacts within the upper echelons of the RPF. He often interviewed Major General Paul Kagame, the head of the army, who would, years later, become president.

From his first New Yorker article about Rwanda, Gourevitch portrayed Kagame as calm, intelligent, thoughtful, and questioning—a man who, having stopped a great evil, was working against immense odds and in difficult circumstances to fix his broken country. That portrayal has remained fixed over the years. In his most recent Rwanda article, in May 2009, Gourevitch wrote, “Kagame…led the rebel force…that stopped the genocide. He has presided over Rwanda’s destiny ever since, and he has come to be recognized, by his adversaries and his admirers alike, as one of the most formidable political figures of our age.” Gourevitch went on to list Kagame’s achievements in creating “one of the safest and the most orderly countries in Africa”: per capita GDP has multiplied, national health insurance and free primary education are available to all, tourism is growing, the capital is clean (plastic bags are banned), Internet and cell phones reach across the country, drivers wear seatbelts, civil servants arrive at work on time, there is construction, rule of law, and justice.

Gourevitch’s early articles formed the basis of a book that won a clutch of awards and became a best seller. The compassion and clarity of writing, the attention to detail and in-depth interviews, and the freshness of his outsider’s eye meant that after it was published in 1998, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda became required reading for anyone interested in Rwanda, Africa, genocide, or journalism. He defined an image of Rwanda and Kagame that has held firm for more than a decade.

The rebirth of a nation from the ashes of genocide, of course, was a beguiling tale and Gourevitch is far from the only journalist to have been won over by it. “There has been a tendency in the media in North America and in the U. K. to treat Kagame with kid gloves,” says David Anderson, professor of African politics at the University of Oxford. “A trope has emerged that sees Kagame and Rwanda as ‘the good guys,’ so that is how it is covered.” That has continued. In 2007, for example, Fortune published an article titled “Why CEOs Love Rwanda.” In 2009, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria described Rwanda as “the biggest success story out of the continent” and “a poster child for success.” That year Kagame made the “Time 100” list of the world’s most influential people, and in the accompanying hagiography Kagame was described as “the face of emerging African leadership” by the influential evangelist Rick Warren, a member of an international fan club that includes Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and the heads of Starbucks and Google.

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Gourevitch’s writing “was extremely influential in helping Kagame establish a degree of international traction,” says Anderson. “It gave Kagame a credibility and a profile, portraying him as a force for good.”

Indeed, the success story of Kagame’s post-genocide Rwanda has served as a foil to the seemingly relentless gloom reported from elsewhere on the continent. It is backed by a genuinely felt desire to fight the image of a basket-case continent. But as the chief chronicler of Rwanda’s post-genocide era, Gourevitch’s writing has proved as polarizing as the country and its leader, attracting huge praise for what it reveals and damning criticism for what it omits.

Unlike most other leaders on the continent, Kagame sets a good example: he abhors the corruption that blights his neighbors. He calls himself “Rwandan,” not “Tutsi,” as he tries to build a non-ethnic Rwanda, something that is a social imperative as well as politically expedient given that Tutsis make up just 15 percent of the population.

In some ways his Rwanda is a burgeoning success story, representing the gradual realization of a man’s vision on a continent where political inspiration can be hard to find. But worrying currents have swirled through the new Rwanda from the start, some of them finding their origins in Rwanda’s neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Soon after arriving in Rwanda, Gourevitch crossed the border to the Congo (then called Zaire) and visited the vast, squalid refugee camps that had been established by international humanitarian organizations to house the genocidaires—the soldiers, militias, and ordinary people responsible for the killing—as well as Hutu civilians who had fled the RPF advance. He met Hutu Power leaders who had organized the genocide and were still ordering incursions into Rwanda from the safety of Congo, where they were fed and watered by charities. Gourevitch wrote:

In the summer of 1994 some two million Hutus fled into exile at the behest of the leaders and radio announcers who had earlier urged them to kill. This most rapid exodus in modern history…made the RPF victory possible and, at the same time, rendered it incomplete. In effect, the refugees, clustered in camps just beyond Rwanda’s borders, constitute a rump state; the government, the army and the militias that presided over the genocide remain intact and in arms around the camps, reminding Rwanda by both their absence and their presence that the fight is not over.

In late 1996 Kagame ordered his troops to break up the camps and repatriate the Hutus. Soon after, Gourevitch described a “boiling swarm” of hundreds of thousands of Hutus being marched back into Rwanda. “The homecoming mob, as a rule, was ominously mute,” he wrote.

An unknown number more fled west into the Congolese forests, and were pursued by the Rwandan army and its allies under Laurent-Desire Kabila, a Congolese insurrectionist who was appointed leader of the rebellious forces, thus cloaking the Rwandan invasion in the garb of a national rebellion. There followed a series of ethnic massacres of fleeing Hutus, militants, and civilians alike.

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.)

In that first Rwanda article in 1995, Gourevitch references Des Forges three times. But in the years thereafter her absence is startling. So is the absence of criticism of Kagame and his rule, despite the accumulating evidence against him.

In the same 2000 article in which he turns on Kabila, Gourevitch wrote that, “Despite Rwanda’s size, General Kagame, who became the country’s President in April, has built its Army into the most formidable fighting force in central Africa…what distinguishes his commanders and soldiers is their ferocious motivation. Having single-handedly brought the genocide to a halt, in 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Army has continued to treat its almost ceaseless battlefield engagements as one long struggle for national survival.”

And then Gourevitch all but stopped reporting on Rwanda, Congo, Central Africa, and the genocide. He returned to the United States, where his career flourished. His second book, A Cold Case, was about an unsolved New York murder. He reported on domestic politics for The New Yorker, was appointed editor of the literary magazine the Paris Review, and co-wrote The Ballad of Abu Ghraib with Errol Morris, about torture and abuse by U. S. forces in Iraq.

As the years of Kagame’s rule—now as president—went on, the dominant narrative around him of reconciliation and visionary rule was buffeted by growing evidence from Congo—of ethnic murder, political meddling, and economic exploitation—as well as by increasing repression at home in Rwanda. Yet the broadly positive reception that Kagame received in the media persisted. “The authoritarianism has deepened with time, not lessened,” says Anderson. “Sometimes the rose-tinted spectacles can be blinding.”

Rwanda’s misadventures in Congo have been the basis of criticism of Kagame beyond the two Congo wars fought between 1996 and 2002. In December 2008, a UN report detailed links between the Rwandan elite and a rebel Congolese Tutsi warlord, Laurent Nkunda. The UN’s Group of Experts on the Congo, appointed to monitor violations of international sanctions imposed in the Congo, showed what many already suspected: that Nkunda, a rebel general accused of war crimes, was supported by members of Kagame’s inner circle, and that Rwanda was directly benefiting from the theft of minerals dug from the resource-rich hillsides of eastern Congo.

Just weeks after the Nkunda report was published, Gourevitch returned to Rwanda for the first time in years. The report was the talk among Rwandans: it fell like a bomb, damaging Kagame’s carefully maintained international reputation. The New Yorker published Gourevitch’s most recent full-length article on Rwanda in May 2009, a few months after the UN report had been published. Yet Nkunda is not mentioned until the third-to-last of fourteen pages, after which the links between the warlord and the Rwandan regime are briskly dismissed in a series of quotes from Kagame and his generals.

More recently, the signs of growing repression in Rwanda itself have grown more clear. International press coverage of Kagame’s landslide election victory in August 2010 was dominated by stories of a pair of local-language newspapers being closed down, opposition parties banned from running, an attempted assassination of a dissident general in exile, and two gruesome murders of Kagame critics. An editor working for one of the banned newspapers, Umuvugizi, was shot in the face and killed in Kigali, a virtually crime-free city; and in the southern town of Butare, a senior figure in one of the blocked opposition parties had his head all but severed by machete in an attack echoing the genocidal murders of 1994.

Kagame’s inevitable victory marked no change in leadership, policy, or style of government, but there was a departure in his portrayal in the Western press. “Doubts rise in Rwanda as election approaches” was the New York Times headline before the vote. “Rwanda’s success story fails to silence concerns about rights,” said The Washington Post. “In the run-up to the election we saw unprecedented reporting on Rwanda exposing the repression and abuses inside the country. We’ve never really seen that before,” says Carina Tertsakian, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who was thrown out of Rwanda in the months before the vote.

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.

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.

Gourevitch is writing a new book about Rwanda and how it has been put back together after the genocide, and it remains to be seen how he chooses to depict Kagame in the light of recent events. But in our conversation he hinted at a change. “There is this idea that Kagame is either the messiah or the devil, and this simplistic polarization is not helpful,” he says. “There is a lot of truth in the idea that he saved Rwanda from total annihilation, but there is a huge price that has been paid along the way for stability and order.”

Gourevitch, like French, says the foreign press “has a hard time” reporting the complexity of African politics in general and Kagame’s domestic accomplishments, his human rights record, and his behavior in the Congo, in particular.

“Even at its most defiantly promising, Rwanda’s story has never stopped being deeply troubling,” Gourevitch continues. “Kagame’s been its chief author for sixteen years now, and he’s got seven more as president under the constitution. That’s a long time—most Rwandans are too young to remember the time before he came to power, and nobody knows how he will leave and what happens then. So, frankly, the verdict is out.”

Gourevitch’s influential reporting played a key role in revealing the horrors of the genocide, but controversy over his portrayal of post-genocide Rwanda mean that, for Gourevitch’s writing, too, the verdict must still be out. 

Note: Philip Gourevitch responds to this article, and the author replies, here.

Tristan McConnell has reported from Africa since 2004. He is currently senior Africa correspondent for GlobalPost and East Africa correspondent for The Times of London. He lives in Nairobi, Kenya.