Two books point accusing fingers at players in the Rwandan genocide
Ultimately institutions, governments and leaders will be judged by how each responded to genocide on their respective watch.
Such is certainly the case with the Rwandan genocide of 1994, during which close to one million were murdered in 100 days of savage mayhem orchestrated by the government.
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, for example, consistently refers to his lack of intervention in Rwanda as the “greatest failure” of his presidency.
Kofi Annan, who at the time was in charge of all United Nations peacekeeping operations and rebuffed General Roméo Dallaire’s plea for more troops, has been haunted by his inaction. Later, as UN secretary general, he declared “after the genocide, I realized there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support.”
In the past year, the significant books have emerged to examine critically the role of two distinct yet vital players in the Rwandan genocide: France and the news media.
In both instances, the analysis paints a tragic picture of misjudgement, misdeed and, in the case of France, outright complicity that should prompt serious soul searching at the very least, if not abject apology.
In his take-no-prisoners examination of France’s role before, during and after the genocide, Silent Accomplice: The Untold Story of France’s Role in the Rwandan Genocide, British journalist Andrew Wallis is intent on proving the land of liberté, égalité et fraternité was nothing short of complicit in the Rwandan genocide.
This is no trifling charge. And potential readers, wary of a diatribe unworthy of serious consideration, might want to ponder the comments of General Dallaire on the topic: “France could have led the charge to reinforce the UN mission through direct support to the Franco-African nations that were ready to come and stop the human catastrophe and civil war. The French government instead chose to intervene on the side of one of the most ruthless and destructive group of genocidaires in world history.”
Certainly any visitor to Rwanda today is struck by the constant vilification of France. Diplomatic relations between the two were recently severed at Rwanda’s initiative. And one can’t help but be dumbstruck by the French military’s stunning decision during the genocide to construct a volleyball court for its soldiers over one of the mass graves—a gross insensitivity noted pointedly on the site.
Originally a Belgian colony, Rwanda, under the pre-genocide regime of President Juvénal Habyarimana, looked principally to France as its source for aid and arms. The extent and nature of the military assistance is exhaustively detailed by Wallis in the early chapters of Silent Accomplice.
France, for its part, was the only western nation to take any interest in this small African nation in the period leading up to 1994. In some ways, this relationship was a piece in the larger puzzle of France’s “special relationship” with Africa. As noted French historian Gérard Prunier once put it: “France has seen itself as a large hen followed by a docile brood of little black chicks. Its former African colonies are not ‘foreign’ countries just like any other, but ‘part of the family,’ hence the special unit in the President’s office.”
France’s special Africa unit was headed up in the months before the genocide by none other than the son of former French president François Mitterrand, Jean-Christophe. From notes, interviews and documents, Wallis paints a very convincing picture of a leftist French president going to exceptional lengths to help a despotic leader in Rwanda with a clear record of human rights abuse, if not ethnic cleansing. (Heretofore confidential documents from the Mitterrand presidency released this summer in Paris confirm the French leader’s total involvement.)
If there is any constant thread in French foreign policy, particularly in Africa, it is a detestation of any increase in the influence of “les anglais,” defined in the broadest sense. And in the case of Rwanda, the French saw a re-energized, predominantly Tutsi, English-speaking army, schooled and trained in Uganda and Tanzania, running over the French-speaking cohorts of the old Hutu regime.
Although he spends regrettably little time analyzing the rationale for France’s attitude, Wallis has amassed fact after fact to show the huge involvement of French officials and troops stationed in Rwanda in propping up those who were perpetrating the mass killings. There is relatively little evidence provided to show direct French involvement in the killings, but the evidence given to illustrate French presence and active support is overwhelming.
Perhaps the most controversial component of France’s role was its decision to send several thousand troops to Rwanda as part of a “humanitarian mission” to rescue those supposedly fleeing the marauding genocidaires. Dubbed “Operation Turquoise,” the decision to intervene came directly from President Mitterrand. But what actually happened as a result of the French intervention was that tens of thousands of fleeing Hutu genocidaires were able to seek refuge in the French area of occupation in southwest Rwanda and ultimately escape into neighbouring Congo, where they are still gathered to this day, planning their return.
In the most compelling part of his book, Wallis chronicles how the French were received as conquering heroes by the Rwandan Hutus while blocking the fast-moving Tutsi army. And he draws the inescapable conclusion that many more Tutsis were probably murdered because of the intervention.
This outcome was, in fact, predicted by General Dallaire, who opposed the French intervention when it was sprung on him. “It struck me as deeply hypocritical: surely the French knew that it was their allies who were the architects of the slaughter.” Wallis also writes of the opposition from other groups and nations, including the Organization for African Unity, New Zealand and Human Rights Watch. However, the French were not to be deterred and the sordid details of some of their actions, including the building of that volleyball court, will not soon be forgotten.
Certainly Wallis leaves no stone unturned in his determination to build his case for complicity. However, the many interviews, documents and cross-references make such a compelling case that the occasional gratuitous anti-France references appear as unnecessary overkill. One would also have enjoyed reading more of the implications and rationale for some of France’s decisions.
In his concluding chapter, Wallis appropriately argues that at some point France will have to acknowledge what was done and make some form of apology. Interestingly, the U.S. president—Bill Clinton—and the prime minister of Belgium made special trips to Rwanda to apologize for their country’s inaction during the genocide. In both instances, these apologies were warmly accepted by the people of Rwanda.
During the recent French presidential race, the French role in Rwanda came up briefly as an issue. Critical articles regularly appear in the French media and French film crews are periodically in Rwanda doing serious investigative work. As part of this important educational endeavour, Silent Accomplice sets out a very convincing case against France. The facts, quite frankly, represent an indictment that at some point will have to be answered.
In March 2004, Carleton University hosted an international symposium on the role of the media in the Rwandan genocide, convened by journalism professor and former Toronto Star reporter Allan Thompson. Most of the papers presented at that symposium have now been collected by Thompson into The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, a fascinating if eclectic compendium.
At the outset, one starts with the bald fact that three Rwandan journalists were not only indicted but convicted of genocide, incitement to genocide, conspiracy and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. This marks the first time ever that journalists have been held accountable for their words under the United Nations Convention on Genocide. Thus the first section of the book is devoted to an analysis of the hate literature that polluted Rwanda in the days and months leading up to the genocide.
At the international end of the journalistic spectrum, one starts with another bald fact that the international media missed the story of the genocide for the first month. Missed it badly—and thus any opportunity to raise a public hue and cry that might have led to a different response at the UN. The second section of the book examines this side of the story.
The third section is devoted to an examination of the war crimes trial against the three journalists and what it means for the future, while the fourth section looks at the aftermath and the way forward.
For anyone vaguely interested in the ultimate power of hate literature, the articles by Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch on the role of Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) and Marcel Kabanda on the role of the twice-monthly newspaper Kangura are must-reads.
For many of us, comfortably esconced in the security of a predominantly civilized and rational media, the concept of hate literature being taken seriously or, even worse, contributing to a genocide is difficult to fathom. Many debates on the criminalization of hate literature in North America have been waged vigorously on the basic premise that such literature can and should be allowed in the open marketplace of free expression. Let there be no restriction on such debate, some have argued.
To this observer, the experience in Rwanda brings new meaning to such a debate, a point made strongly by both authors. When hate directed at one ethnic group becomes the common discourse of the state broadcasting company, the effects can be devastating. In chilling detail, Des Forges, whose Human Rights Watch had perhaps the most informed network of observers in Rwanda, outlines the lengths to which radio was used to incite more killing. “One foreign religious sister crossed dozens of barriers as she moved across Rwanda during the genocide; at each one, she found the guards listening to the radio. Others have testified that bands of killers set off to ‘work,’ singing the anti-Tutsi songs they had learned from RTLM. One witness said that it was RTLM who said the Tutsi were to be killed and another said the radio had taught that they ‘must kill them before they kill you’.”
Des Forges also highlights the refusal of the United States to use its jamming capacity both before and during the genocide to shut down the state radio, even when the devastating impact of its broadcasts was beyond doubt. Citing freedom of speech issues, U.S. officials decided no action should be taken. Five years later, President Clinton, learning from this bitter experience, issued a permanent policy directive permitting U.S. intervention in any future cases in which radio stations called for violence.
A similar clinical approach of analysis is brought by Rwandan journalist and writer Marcel Kabanda to the role of the twice-monthly Kangura, which became the print equivalent of state radio. It is perhaps most infamous for its publication of the so-called “Ten Commandments” in 1990. Through these commandments, the paper urged all Hutus to see Tutsis as the “enemy,” to break all “ties” with them and ultimately kill them. When one actually sees these commandments in bold, black type, the impact is nothing short of appalling. That such a campaign of hatred could be spawned over five years with most of the world unaware only adds to the sense of horror.
Altogether there are eight papers on the role of media in Rwanda that collectively provide a comprehensive analysis of the scene. Each takes a different tack, including an extraordinarily detailed analysis by Rwandan journalist Mary Kimani who listened to tapes of every radio broadcast during the genocide and then provided a detailed breakdown of who spoke and the essence of their message.
The largest number of papers (13) is dedicated to the second major topic, which is the international media’s coverage of the genocide. And here the territory is also fertile. Quite simply, for the first 30 or so days of the genocide, the world’s media framed the killings and mayhem as part of a civil war between invading Tutsis and the governing Hutus. While human rights groups were more accurately describing what was unfolding, the international media was otherwise distracted by the first free election in South Africa and the tragedies unfolding in Bosnia.
BBC journalist Mark Doyle, in his pithy, no-nonsense account, perhaps put it best: “Look you have to understand that there are two wars going on here. There’s a shooting war and a genocide war. The two are connected, but also distinct. In the shooting war, there are two conventional armies at each other, and in the genocide war, one of those armies—the government side with help from civilians—is involved in mass killings.” Unfortunately the nuance of this fundamental distinction was lost on the world media, principally because pitifully few were there doing the nuts and bolts job of reporting.
It should be noted that Agence France-Presse reporter Anne Chaon, who was on the ground in Rwanda in those early days, takes great exception to this conclusion, arguing it was the respective media back home that failed Rwanda, not the journalists filing their daily copy and photos. While the cases of individual journalists support this theory, a far more compelling case is made by veteran investigative reporter and author Linda Melvern.
In a powerful article she concludes, backed up by considerable evidence, that “there is no doubt that the events in Rwanda in April 1994 took the British and the American media by surprise, but the message that the violence in Rwanda was the result of ancient tribal hatreds was, quite simply, wrong. The use of this cliché dominated the early reports on the genocide.” Over and over, as Melvern and several of the other contributors make plain, the genocide was played out as a civil war with the inevitable conclusion that western powers were able to wash their hands of any moral, let alone legal, responsibility to prevent a genocide.
The third section of the book involves an analysis of the trial of the three journalists at the UN Special Tribunal for Rwanda. Much more narrow in scope, this section provides a detailed look at how the case was waged, the effect of various defences, and includes the complete decision of the tribunal. For students of this precedent-setting decision, this section provides valuable background reading.
The fourth and final section deals with the way forward, and includes a compelling article by the editor on the duty and responsibility of the press to report. In other words, journalists must start by simply doing their jobs. Period. Overall, this is one area where much more can and should be discussed. For example, there is a disturbing piece, by Lars Waldorf of the World Policy Institute, that documents the steps taken in post-genocide Rwanda to restrict press freedom. Where to draw the line between hate literature and free expression is a fascinating discussion, particularly in the Rwandan context. More could be said about this. Much of the western media’s decision to uproot reporters from Africa and deal solely with the tried and true topics of AIDS, pestilence and poverty, rather than find out what is really happening, is another area ripe for discussion.
In his introduction to the book, Kofi Annan writes: “There can be no more important issue, and no more binding obligation, than the prevention of genocide.”
To this end, both books ultimately provide new insights, if not important guideposts. As such, they are invaluable. As chronicles of heretofore untold aspects of one of the most vicious periods of the 20th century, both are indeed worthy of serious attention and reflection.