Rwanda: The Danger of a Sanitized Narrative

How a British NGO changed the course of Rwandan history and helped fuel impunity in Africa’s Great Lakes region

Rwanda: The Danger of a Sanitized Narrative
President of Rwanda Paul Kagame at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, South Africa, June 11, 2009 (Matthew Jordaan/WEF)

By Judi Rever

The passion of war has long inspired propagandists. Some have sought to influence public opinion for pecuniary or career reasons. Others have claimed loftier motives, like promoting human rights or addressing humanitarian emergencies. One of the most notable crusaders to emerge in recent times is Rakiya Omaar, the co-founder of the London-based rights group African Rights. She is also author, with British scholar Alex de Waal, of the defining book Death, Despair and Defiance—a colossal compendium of Hutu-on-Tutsi violence published just weeks after the Rwandan genocide ended. Observers eager to understand this three-month killing spree relied on their astonishing 750-page creed published in September 1994; it offered in real time a list of perpetrators and a sweeping narrative of how Hutu ideologues conceived years in advance their genocidal project against the Tutsi. African Rights, a new NGO from London, appeared to have set history in motion, and quickly so. Its impact on legal proceedings was substantial, at least initially. Death, Despair and Defiance was considered the bible by the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

But just how did Omaar and de Waal—neither of whom spoke Kinyarwanda or were versed in Rwandan history—produce such an authoritative, insider-driven opus on the mechanics of killing? How did they get access in so little time to a massive archive of witness testimony? With the help of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), of course.

Luc Reydams specializes in international criminal law and justice and teaches politics at Notre Dame University in the United States. His groundbreaking research on African Rights, recently published, is both a feat in investigative journalism and academic scholarship. His article “NGO Justice: African Rights as Pseudo Prosecutor of the Rwandan Genocide” in Human Rights Quarterly deconstructs the NGO’s murky operations and methods. Reydams also provides compelling evidence that African Rights became a RPF front organization and its account of the genocide was produced with the “full and active support of the RPF.” The RPF, under Paul Kagame, won the war and has been in power since 1994.

Eventually African Rights ended up on the RPF payroll, working closely with intelligence operatives and even moving to a building that housed the Directorate of Military Intelligence, Reydams reveals. By that time, de Waal had left the organization. Yet even before de Waal and Omaar parted ways, African Rights had become enormously prescriptive and influential; it scolded the international community about who was morally right during the war, who should be arrested and why. It staunchly defended the RPF against reports that its troops had engaged in violence and shamed other human rights investigators and journalists for calling attention to RPF abuses: “Allegations that the RPF was massacring civilians were ‘hysteria’ and journalists who ran such ‘stories’ were not doing their work properly.” Reydams aptly points out that “human rights reports usually do not defend a warring party. Yet, Death, Despair and Defiance does exactly that. The RPF’s resumption of the war is presented as humanitarian intervention and, therefore, a ceasefire was out of the question.”

Not surprisingly, African Rights’ work, which provided a one-sided, sanitized version of the Rwandan genocide, did not stand the test of time.

A former ICTR investigator had this to say: “After a few months, we realized that Death, Despair and Defiance was not so accurate, some incidents (not the major ones though) were impossible to verify; the accounts in the book, very precise, were not confirmed by our witnesses. At that time, Death, Despair and Defiance was seen as not very reliable and clearly Rakiya Omaar was not considered an expert witness who could be used in court. To my recollection, she was met by ICTR investigators at the beginning of the work in 1995. The request to access her sources was never successful and the relation with her became difficult. She did not shy from criticisms against the ICTR. Her links to RPF became quite obvious in subsequent reports on protection of witnesses and other stuff, with no words at all on the RPF’s own crimes.”

The work of Omaar and de Waal should have been discredited publicly long ago, but it wasn’t. And the impact of their research has been nothing short of devastating. Their book primed public opinion on the conflict and shaped the way the world saw the RPF as moral victors and Hutus as perpetrators. Their research has been absorbed and regurgitated uncritically by experts and human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch’s seminal account of the genocide, Leave None to Tell the Story was published in 1999 and became the subsequent bible at the ICTR. That book cites Death, Despair and Defiance a record 42 times.

Most troubling is how the NGO has fueled RPF impunity over the years. African Rights categorically denied RPF crimes, helped shield Paul Kagame’s government from prosecution, and even defended its war of aggression in Congo.

In a separate interview I conducted, a Tutsi survivor who worked for African Rights on the NGO’s second edition of the book—published in 1995—told me he collected testimony from Hutu peasants on RPF killings. When he went to Omaar to discuss incorporating this research, he said she told him flatly: “now is not the time.” In later years when he was doing research for African Rights ahead of traditional Gacaca court proceedings, he emphasized the issue of Hutu accounts of RPF massacres. Again she told him to let it go. “Now is not the time,” she insisted. The Tutsi survivor was eventually threatened by the RPF’s chief intelligence enforcer Jack Nziza, and was forced to flee the country to escape death.

At a minimum, Omar could come clean about what she may have observed in RPF zones where she traveled with RPF cadres in places such as Rusumo in May 1994. Aid workers reported that Kagame’s Tutsi forces called Hutu refugees to a ‘peace meeting’ in Rusumo then proceeded to tie up men, women and children before stabbing and killing them. The bodies were placed on trucks and eventually dumped in the Kagera River, according to a UN protection report released by Refugees International in mid-May. I can imagine that Omaar could fill another book on the secrets she has kept.

De Waal, for his part, dutifully transcribed Omaar’s survivor accounts. He now teaches at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is considered an academic powerhouse for his extensive work on Rwanda, Sudan and the Horn of Africa, and has long held sway in British media, having published in The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement and being regularly cited by the BBC. In his interview with Reydams, de Waal brazenly takes credit for creating a narrative of the genocide. He admits he met with senior RPF officials such as Theogene Rudasingwa and Patrick Mazimpaka in the spring/summer of 1994:

“The dominant narratives in the media for the first part of April were tribal killing and chaos,” de Waal told Reydams. “Journalists and quite a number of aid workers were contributing to this. The point of the ‘Who is killing, who is dying’ report, and an article I wrote in the Times (‘Rwanda genocide took three [sic] years to plan’) was to remedy that. I also wrote a piece ‘The genocidal state’ for the Times Literary Supplement at the same time but they held on to it until July and only published it then (to my enormous frustration as it was the most serious piece.) It was quite an uphill struggle, and in order to do it, as you will see, I decided it was necessary to craft an alternative narrative.

“When I first discussed it with Rwandese in London (almost all Tutsis; some were RPF and some not) their focus was on the politics of the interim government and a different set of narratives. One of them was Mazimpaka: he was flailing. They provided me with documents such as the Hutu Ten Commandments but said they weren’t that important. When the genocide-as-conspiracy narrative took off, the RPF took it up, for obvious reasons.”

As Reydams points out, Theoneste Bagosora, the Hutu colonel who African Rights named as the architect of the Rwandan genocide, was acquitted of conspiracy and any direct role in the genocide by the ICTR, as were three other accused individuals who stood trial in the Military I case. “No one, for that matter, has been convicted of conspiracy before April 7, 1994. The genocide-as-conspiracy narrative, which African Rights helped to propagate, failed to convince the judges,” Reydams writes.

As though this wasn’t shocking enough, de Waal used his formidable intellectual skills to critically shape the way the West viewed Rwandan Hutus and the menace they posed to the Tutsi-led government in Rwanda. In one of his more rabid essays in November 1996—a few weeks after Rwandan troops had invaded Zaire—de Waal openly advocated war. In an op-ed in The Guardian titled “No Bloodless Miracle”, de Waal said there could be “no bloodless political solution” to the conflict in Central Africa. He launched a passionate plea for an armed attack against refugee camps that housed more than a million Hutus in eastern Zaire. He claimed that the inhabitants of Mugunga refugee camp—where some 175,000 Rwandan men, women and children were living—did not have a well-founded fear of persecution in Rwanda, were not bona fide refugees, and should not qualify for protection under the Refugee Convention. The Hutus there, he said, were “fugitives from justice or migrants.”

He argued that peaceful negotiations would be a chimera and that Hutu extremists in the camps could not be disarmed. “War cannot be stopped,” he warned. “If we are not prepared to go and destroy the Hutu militias, we should not stand in the way of the people who are prepared to do so.”

De Waal’s dualist approach to conflict in the Great Lakes—one side was good and the other was evil—shamefully served to fuel the violence.

We know how it ended of course. Kagame’s troops attacked the camps, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees further west into the Zairean jungle, where Tutsi soldiers eventually hunted them down, hacked and shot them, and buried them in mass graves. In 2010, the United Nations said the Rwandan Patriotic Front may have committed genocide against Hutus in Congo.

In June 2016, likely pre-empting the release of Reydams’ investigation, de Waal wrote a lengthy essay in the Boston Review titled “Writing Human Rights and Getting It Wrong”. He admitted he was wrong about the genocide being planned years in advance, but said he did not regret his “role in helping to write the genocide narrative for Rwanda in 1994 or transcribing and publishing survivors’ testimonies. They are uncooked and authentic.”

What he does regret, he admitted, is his silence in 1997 as the RPF “spun the singular genocide narrative to justify its emergent dictatorship and its escalating military operations in Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

De Waal’s mea culpa drew immediate praise from his legion of academic followers. However his words rang hollow to many. His confession was too little, too late for Kagame’s victims in Rwanda and Congo, whose suffering over the course of 22 years has been incalculable.