Paul Kagame
Paul Kagame; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

The UN’s definition of genocide is not restricted to attempts to eradicate a particular ethnic group. It includes “killings…with the intent to destroy, in whole, or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (my emphasis). Part One of this article explored the evidence presented in Judi Rever’s In Praise of Blood that before, during, and after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (1

Even if these massacres didn’t constitute genocide, it’s worth asking why the fiction has persisted that Kagame’s RPF rescued Rwanda from further genocide when much evidence suggests that it actually helped provoke it by needlessly invading the country in 1990, massacring Hutus, probably shooting down the plane of President Juvénal Habyarimana in 1994, and failing to move swiftly to stop the genocide of the Tutsis, as Roméo Dallaire—commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda at the time—suggested in his memoir Shake Hands with the Devil. The myth of the valorous RPF has for years been repeated not only in the media but also by officials in the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations. Even those who criticize Kagame’s repressive rule in Rwanda today praise his actions during the genocide.

The reputation of the RPF appears to have been shaped by a coordinated public relations effort designed not just for the benefit of Kagame but also, as will be explained below, to obscure Washington’s role in a particularly bloody period of central African history, as the Soviet threat was receding and a new Islamist one seemed to be looming.

The RPF has long demonstrated considerable skill at deception. According to defectors interviewed by Rever, the group incinerated or buried its victims in tightly guarded encampments off-limits to human rights investigators, and recruited and trained a cadre of smooth-talking Tutsi technocrats, drivers, fixers, and other informal ambassadors who spouted RPF propaganda to visiting journalists, tourists, and NGO officials. In January 1993 rebel operatives took an international team of human rights investigators on a carefully guided tour of RPF-held areas in northern Rwanda. The investigators’ report, which was greeted with much fanfare, blamed virtually all the violence on the Rwandan government. Other human rights reports deemphasized the ethnically charged nature of the RPF’s crimes, attributing them instead to “generalized violence” and not mentioning that virtually all of the RPF’s victims were Hutu. Some human rights investigators denied that the RPF had committed any atrocities at all. RPF defectors told Rever that the group further confused foreign observers by killing Tutsis in “false flag” attacks designed to both demonize Hutus and escalate the genocide.

The RPF has intimidated, abducted, or killed those who have attempted to report on its crimes. It has killed witnesses even in foreign countries, including Seth Sendashonga, interior minister in the post-genocide national unity government, who was gunned down in Nairobi in 1998, and the former RPF spy chief Patrick Karegeya, strangled in Johannesburg in 2014. This March, British police warned the Rwandan refugee and former Kagame bodyguard Noble Marara that Rwandan government agents were seeking to kill him on British soil. Non-Rwandans have not been spared. In 1997, according to an RPF defector with direct knowledge of the events, Kagame’s men killed four UN observers, three Spanish aid workers, and a Canadian priest who were collecting evidence of RPF crimes.

Rever has also been harassed. Belgian state security agents informed her that they had knowledge of threats to her life and gave her bodyguards when she traveled to Europe to interview Rwandan exiles. An unfamiliar man trailed her through a French train station; another glared at her over breakfast in a hotel. A terrifying answering machine message, which was muffled but “sounded African” to her, mentioned one of her small daughters by name.

While it’s possible to see how the RPF managed to silence or hoodwink some reporters and human rights investigators, it’s harder to understand why US government officials persisted in painting such a positive picture of it. According to Rever’s sources, the Clinton administration had satellite evidence of massacres in RPF-controlled areas during the genocide, and yet US officials have systematically downplayed RPF crimes against Hutus; refused to acknowledge the findings of human rights reports commissioned by Amnesty International, the UN, and other groups; undermined criminal investigations; underestimated the number of refugees fleeing the RPF in Zaire; and rewarded Kagame and his erstwhile ally Yoweri Museveni of Uganda with billions of dollars in foreign aid.

During counterinsurgency operations in 1997, the RPF barred Amnesty investigators from inspecting caves where fleeing Hutu villagers had been massacred. But based on interviews with local witnesses, Amnesty estimated that they contained between five and eight thousand bodies. David Sheffer, then US ambassador for war crimes, nevertheless concurred with the RPF that Amnesty’s estimate was “ludicrous” and that all the dead were Hutu militants. In a leaked memo quoted by Rever, Sheffer bizarrely bases his estimate that the caves contained only hundreds, rather than thousands, of bodies on the intensity of the smell emanating from them.

In late 1994 the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to investigate crimes committed during the genocide. Its investigators quickly amassed evidence of atrocities committed by both sides. However, in 1997, its first chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour, shut down investigations of RPF crimes and continued to pursue only those committed by Hutu génocidaires. She gave no reason for her decision at the time, but in a 2016 interview she claimed it was due to lack of capacity and to the fact that investigating the RPF was very dangerous—which it was. In 1999 Arbour quietly set up a Special Investigation Unit (SIU) to collect testimony and other evidence about RPF crimes. The report of this unit was leaked to Rever, and much of the damning information in her book is based on its findings.

The efforts of Arbour’s successor on the ICTR, Carla Del Ponte, to continue investigating the RPF met with fierce opposition from the US government. In her memoir, Madame Prosecutor: Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst Criminals and the Culture of Impunity (2009), Del Ponte claims that in 2003 US Ambassador for War Crimes Pierre Prosper urged her to hand over investigations of RPF crimes to the RPF-controlled Rwandan government itself. Del Ponte insisted that doing so would put witnesses at risk and requested that the Rwandans first demonstrate they could handle their own prosecutions impartially. Prosper once again pressed his case, and at a garden party later that day hinted that her term as chief prosecutor on the Rwanda tribunal might not be renewed.

Prosper, who now works for the Rwandan government on commercial litigation, has disputed Del Ponte’s account. But during their alleged confrontation, US Ambassador to Rwanda Margaret McMillion was drafting an agreement with Rwanda’s general prosecutor Gerald Gahima that would allow the Rwandans themselves to investigate “two to three” of the sites where the US had evidence that “massacres may have been committed in 1994 by members of the Rwandese Patriotic Army.” The agreement, reprinted in Rever’s book, states that the ICTR—which is supposed to be an independent UN body but was largely funded and apparently controlled by the US—would not prosecute Kagame or his soldiers “unless it is determined that the [Rwandan government] investigation or prosecution was not genuine.” Del Ponte was removed from the ICTR three months later.

The ICTR concluded its work in 2015, having indicted ninety-three Hutus but not a single member of the RPF. The Rwandan courts did convict two RPF captains of a murderous raid on a seminary in Gitarama in June 1994, but Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth maintained the trial was a sham. Senior RPF commanders who ordered the killings were never prosecuted, and the Rwandan court also declined to pursue the killings of thousands of others in Gitarama in the weeks that followed. Del Ponte’s replacement, Hassan Jallow, indicated he was “satisfied that the trial…was carried out with due process and in accordance with international standards of fair trial.”

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has, like Kagame, been portrayed as a champion of African development, despite a similar record of brutality. Since seizing power in 1986, Museveni’s security forces have massacred countless villagers across Uganda merely on suspicion of rebel sympathies and detained, tortured, and probably killed members of the political opposition. His henchmen have looted billions of dollars from the Treasury and foreign aid programs, rigged elections, and committed other human rights abuses.

Museveni backed the 1990 RPF invasion that eventually led to the genocide. And yet in June 1994, while that genocide was still taking place, he was welcomed at the White House by President Clinton and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake. During that trip, he also accepted a Hubert H. Humphrey public service medal and honorary doctorate from the University of Minnesota. Throughout the 1990s, even as Museveni’s troops were marauding in Zaire and forcing nearly two million people in northern Uganda into squalid internment camps where countless thousands died, Western journalists showered Museveni with praise. The New York Times noted that he had been compared to Nelson Mandela, and the World Bank, whose funding decisions are strongly influenced by the US, poured cash into Museveni’s coffers. Today, Museveni is widely praised for hosting large numbers of refugees from South Sudan, Zaire, and other countries, even though his army is partly responsible for the wars that drove them from their homes.

The silence surrounding Kagame’s and Museveni’s crimes is both disturbing and mysterious. Some have suggested that Clinton administration officials did not criticize Kagame because they felt guilty for not having intervened during the genocide, but this cannot be the reason. After all, those same officials appear to have helped the RPF, as well as Museveni, cover up similar crimes. The real explanation for Washington’s evasions is probably geostrategic and can be traced to the end of the cold war.

As the Soviet threat receded during the 1980s, a new one emerged. Across the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, young men galvanized by Islamist politicians and religious leaders were joining, in ever greater numbers, such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda, which were determined to install Islamist regimes in Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and elsewhere. In Uganda’s northern neighbor Sudan, the cleric Hassan al-Turabi rose to power alongside army colonel Omar al-Bashir, who overthrew the previous US-backed government in a coup in 1989. For years Turabi had been holding rallies around Khartoum calling for a “real Islamic revolution,” an end to the US-backed military dictatorship of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, and the breaking of the Egypt–Israel peace deal. Now he was inviting Osama bin Laden and other Islamist radicals to use Sudan as a base for their activities, thus threatening to turn the country into a “Holiday Inn for terrorists,” according to one US diplomat.

Sayyid Azim/AP ImagesHutu refugees arriving in Goma from Kisangani, Zaire, April 1997

Uganda borders southern Sudan (now independent South Sudan), and the US evidently came to consider it an important bulwark against Turabi, Bashir, and their Islamist allies. It was around this time that Washington appears to have formed a special relationship with Museveni, who met with President Ronald Reagan three years in a row between 1987 and 1989 and has since had more contact with high-level US officials than any other living African leader. During the late 1980s, Museveni even employed Reagan’s son-in-law Dennis Revell to manage his public relations.

Sometime around 1990, Museveni began assisting the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (2

In recent years, several scholars have uncovered details about Washington’s involvement in the invasion of Zaire by Uganda, the 3

The Congo war officially raged on until 2003, but shadowy militia groups, some of which have been linked to Uganda and Rwanda, continue to meddle in eastern Congo, where massacres are still a feature of everyday life.

Once the US became involved with Museveni and Kagame, it would have been imperative to portray those two dictators as heroes. This may explain why US officials downplayed RPF (and Ugandan army) crimes, suppressed UN and ICTR reports critical of the RPF, negotiated a deal to transfer prosecution of RPF killings from the potentially more neutral ICTR to the RPF government itself, and lavished praise and foreign aid on both Kagame and Museveni.

Rever doesn’t explore Sudan’s potential part in Rwanda’s story, or Uganda’s role as a conduit for clandestine US assistance to the RPF, SPLA, and AFDL. However, she does note that US Africa policy in the 1990s was driven by Richard Clarke, chairman of the Counter-Terrorism Security Group at the National Security Council between 1992 and 2003. Clarke and his protégé Susan Rice, who would help shape Africa policy for both the Clinton and Obama administrations, were both vehemently opposed to the Sudan government, even after Bashir distanced himself from Turabi, and even after dozens of intelligence reports about Sudan were revealed to be false. A few days into the Rwanda genocide, Clarke urged the UN to remove its peacekeepers; by the end of April, 90 percent of them had left, severely limiting what those who remained could do to stop the killings. Rice, Clinton’s special assistant on Africa, supported the brutal Zaire invasion and has long been a stalwart friend of Museveni and Kagame. As Obama’s national security adviser, she even attempted to block a UN report linking them to Congolese warlords responsible for atrocities.

Rwanda today is a nation in shock. Kagame, relentlessly at war with his critics, has shut down newspapers and imprisoned, tortured, and killed his nonviolent adversaries. His most charismatic political challengers, Victoire Ingabire and Diane Rwigara, languish behind bars. Kagame justifies his autocratic rule with the claim that some three million people—which would amount to virtually every adult Hutu then in Rwanda—participated in the genocide, and that he is therefore faced with governing an essentially criminal population.

More sober academic estimates suggest there may have been roughly 200,000 perpetrators of the genocide—still an enormous number, but only about 7 percent of the adult Hutu population at the time. Almost all Tutsis who died in the genocide were killed by a core group of militiamen and soldiers numbering in the tens of thousands. The participation of even 200,000 people in genocide is shocking, but it’s worth noting that 93 percent of adult Hutus didn’t participate in it at all. Yet their entire ethnic group has been demonized, deprived of political and civil rights, and subjected to cruel human rights abuses by Kagame’s regime. The RPF’s account of the genocide, so widely accepted by international observers for so long, has thus been doubly dehumanizing. It has not only valorized criminals; it has also portrayed millions of innocent Hutus as monsters, undeserving of human dignity and even their own history.

This is the second of two articles.

  1. 1

    “The Mass Murder We Don’t Talk About,” The New York Review, June 7, 2018. ↩

  2. 2

    Estimates of the numbers killed in the Congo wars range from roughly one million to over seven million. ↩

  3. 3

    The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act contained a provision to ensure that minerals used by companies listed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission did not source minerals from Congo’s conflict areas. President Trump was criticized for significantly weakening Dodd-Frank, in part because of the anticipated effects on human rights in Congo. In reality, the conflict minerals provision of Dodd-Frank was never properly implemented, and atrocities continued to occur in eastern Congo. See Tom Burgis, “Dodd-Frank’s Misadventures in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Politico, May 10, 2015, and my “Congo for the Congolese,” NYR Daily, February 19, 2018. ↩