How not to write about the Rwandan genocide

By Susan Thomson /Africa as a Country/ – In late August 2020, the Rwandan government abducted Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of the Hollywood film, Hotel Rwanda. His forcible return from Dubai to Kigali has put Rwanda and its ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front back in the headlines. Rwanda’s government accuses Rusesabagina of leading an armed struggle against it. Speaking at a press conference last weekend, Rwandan president Paul Kagame told reporters that Rusesabagina had been brought home on charges of treason, kidnap, and murder. One might expect a representative of the Ministry of Justice to speak about Rusesabagina’s alleged crimes. Not so in Rwanda, where the President sets the tone about who can speak about who did what to whom during the 1994 genocide.

During the 1994 genocide, Rusesabagina was a hotel manager, whose story was the basis of the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda, with Rusesabagina portrayed by Don Cheadle. The film chronicles Rusesabagina’s central role in saving more than 1,200 ethnic Tutsis at the infamous Hotel Mille Collines in Kigali as fighting between government forces and Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) raged close by. When “Hotel Rwanda” was released, the RPF leadership praised the film, going so far as to send a contingent of government officials to New York for its official launch.

In 2006, George W. Bush awarded Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Honor, which raised hackles in Kigali. Rusesabagina used this international acclaim to criticize the government, mostly in Western capitals. By the end of 2011, the RPF leadership had labeled Rusesabagina an ethnic ideologue and genocide denier.

Fast forward to September 6, 2020 and a press conference, as reported by The New York Times, in which Kagame framed Rusesabagina’s crimes as a denial of the RPF’s official version of the 1994 genocide, “ … saying that other survivors from the Hôtel Mille Collines dispute [Rusesabinga’s] depiction as a hero.” Previously, Rwandan officials have dismissed Hotel Rwanda as “pure fiction” and accused Rusesabagina of “propagating lies and misinformation” about the genocide, according to The New York Times. The President’s allegations are a product of selective memory and an ever-changing political climate that equates political criticism with denial of the 1994 genocide.

Hotel Rwanda indeed provided Rusesabagina an international platform, which he used to criticize the government’s post-genocide policies and practices. As I wrote in my recent book, Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace (2018), the RPF deploys the specter of a return of genocidal violence to manage dissent. Rusesabagina is now considered an enemy of the state because of his public criticism of the moral authority of the RPF government to remake Rwanda on its own terms. The crafting of a particular image of Rwanda as peaceful, stable, and a beacon of economic development, the RPF has long relied on sympathetic journalists and academic scriptwriters to write its version of events into the public record, a record which in turn provides the basis of allegation of genocide denial and treason for critics such as Rusesabagina, as well as for critics who lack international prominence. The history of the genocide and how it is presented as a singular event driven by ethnic hatred is hardly surprising, given the prominence of some writers for the RPF’s official position.

The latest salvo is by British investigative journalist, Linda Melvern. Her latest book, Intent to Deceive: Denying the Genocide of the Tutsi (published by Verso this year) is a regurgitation of the government line, rooted in a selective reading of history that is deployed to reformulate who is a regime critic. Melvern is no stranger to Rwanda. She has dedicated almost 25 years to writing about the circumstances of the 1994 genocide. She authored A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide (2000) and Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide (2004). Melvern has also acted as a consultant to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

But, Intent to Deceive is based on a fallacy that informs the indictment against Paul Rusesabagina and other critics like him: That the winners and losers of the Rwandan genocide are settled history. How Rwandan history is told—and who does the telling—is important as it determines who can participate in conversations about the past, something Melvern overlooks as a critical part of how societies recover from mass violence. The ways in which the history of the Rwandan civil war and genocide is interpreted and recorded matters too, because it raises necessary questions about the ways in which this past will be seen in the future.  As Melvern herself notes, there are always winners and losers in how official histories are told, retold, taught, and memorialized.

In Rwanda, as in other divided societies and regardless of who holds power, history has been interpreted and rewritten to suit the political agendas of the protagonists—in this case, since 1994, the ruling RPF and its leader, Paul Kagame. Political elites, whether in Rwanda or elsewhere, regularly and creatively revise national histories to justify their policies and actions, and to harden their grip on power, often acting without regard for the lives and livelihoods of their citizens.

Melvern leads the reader into believing that denial of the 1994 genocide is so wide-spread and so pernicious that it represents a threat to the stability of the current Rwandan government. In Melvern’s telling, the violence of 1994 was committed only against the minority Tutsi population. There is no denying genocide, in the legal, political and social meaning of the word, occurred in Rwanda in 1994; and scholars generally agree on the intensity and scale of the event. But scholarship also demonstrates there was mass violence committed against civilians of all ethnicities, including the Hutu majority and tiny Twa minority, in the broader context of civil war (1990-1994), during the genocide, and from 1994-1999, as the new government, led by the RPF rebel group turned ruling party, left no stone unturned in securing the country. I do not write the preceding sentence to deny or diminish the horrors of the 1994 genocide. Quite the opposite. Unlike Melvern, I fully acknowledge other mass crimes took place in Rwanda before, during and after the 1994 genocide. Recognizing the human costs to Rwandans of all ethnicities—Tutsi, Hutu and Twa—so that their suffering can be addressed, repaired and memorialized is vital to the long-term prospects for peace and stability in the region.

Instead, Melvern misleads her reader. She systematically rewrites the history of the Rwandan genocide to sublimate the human rights abuses of the RPF government, in both Rwanda and the region. In other words, Melvern fails to disclose that speaking of RPF atrocities or abuses is to deny the genocide of the Tutsi. It may be that Melvern’s deception comes from a place of worry. After all, as Tutsi survivors of the 1994 genocide know all too well, genocide denialism is sadly part of the socio-political landscape in Rwanda and beyond. Melvern correctly notes that the rhetoric of denial is the last of Gregory Stanton’s 10 distinct stages of genocide, in which perpetrators deny their acts of genocide and do all they can to cover up evidence of their crimes.

Melvern’s concern is literal denial that genocide occurred in Rwanda. Rigorous scholarship dismisses this possibility, with most treading carefully to affirm genocide in Rwanda, to honor survivors and in recognition that the genocide continues to live in them, to paraphrase the anthropologist Jennie E. Burnet. To suggest otherwise is to insult survivors of the genocide. Indeed, there can be no denying that a handful of ethnic Hutu political elites, as well as some scholars and pundits, either relativize the violence of the 1994 genocide or flat-out deny it ever happened. Where Melvern’s analysis flounders is assuming all instances of genocide denial in contemporary Rwanda are forms of literal denial, without due regard to multiple periods of systematic and widespread violence against civilian populations in Rwanda and in the region, throughout the 1990s, at the hands of multiple actors. Melvern thus conflates literal denial with the politics of genocide denial, unable to distinguish between denial to avoid individual culpability and denial intended to rewrite Rwanda’s history of political violence to suit the ruling RPF.

To be sure, defense lawyers at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda—a court established in November 1994 to try genocide crimes—regularly employed minimizing or denialist language in defending their clients. Such denials are best contextualized as part of the accused’s right to legal defense. More critical in Melvern’s case is equating literal cases of genocide denial with the politics of denialism, led by the RPF leadership and their supporters, who use the phrase “genocide denier” to suss out its critics and manage political opponents. In 2008, the RPF revised the constitution to legally call the events of 1994 “the genocide against the Tutsi.” This naming formalized Tutsi as the sole victims of the genocide and Hutu as the lone perpetrators. It also framed the RPF as the sole heroes of genocide, as the only military force capable of ending the violence, in the face of a withering United Nations peacekeeping force.

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