The BBC gets Rwanda wrong

It is a lot to ask the world to accept the multiple truths of Rwanda and it was too much for the film to explain this picture in all of its complicated nuance and actually share with us what remains untold about Rwanda’s story.

The Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda. Image credit Dylan Walters via Flickr CC.

Rwanda isn’t simple. Recently, the BBC’s This World documentary series broadcasted what they call Rwanda’s “Untold” Story. The film attempts to rewrite Rwanda’s genocide narrative and calls into question the events leading up to and following those 100 days. The filmmakers question the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front’s part in the downing of former president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane and in ending the genocide. The films go so far as to challenge the conventional death toll estimates and suggest that President Paul Kagame’s forces played a minimal role in ending the genocide. They interview researchers and exiled former members of the RPF to cast doubt on both Kagame’s past and his legitimacy today.

Unsurprisingly, the Rwandan government, along with Ibuka, a genocide survivor’s organization, denounced the film, leading to the suspension of BBC Kinyarwanda broadcasts in the country. The country’s parliament also charged the filmmakers with genocide denial; one of many vague sentiments criminalized in a series of purposefully murky laws used to quell any dissent, political or otherwise.

In rather dramatic fashion, complete with a distractingly cheesy soundtrack more appropriate for a thrasher film than a historical inquiry, the documentary attempts to expose ‘the truth’ of Rwanda’s recent history, as if there is only one truth. The irony is that the film tells us very little of what is in fact unknown. Rather than acknowledge the existence of many co-existing narratives by giving a voice to the voiceless, the filmmakers cherry pick interviews and give haphazard coverage of the events of the genocide, alienating a large swath of Rwandans and creating a film that often frustrates rather than enlightens.

Don’t get me wrong; the film had good intentions and the potential to be something much greater. It pushes us to question Rwanda’s positive development narrative by highlighting the dark sides of the regime and speak up for those thousands of Rwandans—both Hutu and Tutsi—who have indeed suffered at the hands of the ruling regime.

The film questions the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s account of the genocide and Kagame’s role in ending it. But the glib treatment of Rwandan history and the genocide distracts from the validity and severity of the film’s more valid claims. Within the first 10 minutes I was already turned off. The host explains Rwanda’s entire pre-colonial and colonial history in just two sentences (at 6:28), speaking as if ethnic identities were already solidified by the arrival of the Belgian colonialist. Let’s be clear. Ethnic divisions were neither invented by the Belgian colonial administration nor a source of pre-colonial so-called tribal warfare. Rwanda was a changing and complex state, where social relationships and the salience of ethnicity morphed over time and with the help of ruling elites. Ethnicity in Rwanda is difficult to define and cannot be determined by looking at differences in culture, religion, history, or language.*

The film tells the story of the 1994 genocide as if the Hutu Power movement was justified because of a pervasive fear of Tutsi incursions into Rwanda from southern Uganda. The film’s simplistic version of history makes it seem as if the genocidaires were forced to retaliate against Tutsi, coming across as borderline apologist for the perpetrators. The film forgets to mention the hateful and pervasive anti-Tutsi propaganda that payed a critical part is stirring up hatred. It mischaracterizes the RPF as a power hungry movement in yet another baseless ethnic conflict. In reality, the RPF was founded many years before the genocide in response to Tutsi persecution and well-documented waves of violence, starting in 1959. The launch of the civil war was about the right to return home for hundreds of thousands of stateless Rwandans – refugees living in Uganda, DRC, Tanzania, and Burundi. In his book, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, Mahmood Mamdani refers to the incursion not as an invasion but as an “armed repatriation” (p160).

The worst problem with this lack of contextual explanation is that it gives too much weight to the idea that the genocide was a spontaneous event caused by the downing of former president Habyarimana’s plane. The film even suggests Kagame should bear responsibility for the genocide if the RPF was indeed responsible for the crash. What they fail to explain is that who shot the plane down – while a point of wild contention, with proclamations and investigations bolstering both sides – is somewhat of a moot point. The downing of the plane set off the genocide, but it did not cause it. Scholars agree that the genocide was a highly centralized and planned event. The plans were laid before Habyarimana was killed. Even more disturbing is the film’s failure to mention that the United Nations was aware of the planned violence, including the location of stockpiled and imported machetes, grenades, and guns. This is omitted despite the choice to interview the former head of UNAMIR, Luc Marchal. Painting Rwanda as an ethnic powder keg plays into the Western imagination of tribal warfare and conflict for the sake of conflict.

The only real new information about the downing of the plane is from General Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former RPF official who has since survived several assassination attempts. His interview is important and his story is believable. Yet, all he offers as evidence is that he “was in the position to know” and was in meetings with Kagame when the plans were formulated. This isn’t the first time General Nyamwasa has made these claims and though this scenario is plausible, it is still possible that Hutu extremists could have downed the plane and the film does not make this clear. The fact that radical elements of the Hutu administration saw Habyarimana’s acquiescence – the signing of the Arusha Accords in 1993 – as treason goes unstated.

The most important parts of the film, like the rare interview with Nyamwasa and the footage of the Kibeho massacre, get lost amongst the unsubstantiated claims by researchers with dubious data. Alan Stam and Christian Davenport, two researchers from American universities, make the controversial claim that most of those killed during the genocide were in fact Hutu. They claim that just 200,000 Tutsi were killed, a number far below even the lower limits of most agreed upon estimates. Filip Reyntjens, another Rwanda scholar from the University of Antwerp also interviewed in the film, published a critique calling Stam and Davenport’s data collection methods “insufficient”. An even more thorough rebuttal by Marijke Verpoorten easily explains why their numbers are sketchy. Yet, the film offers no counter to these numbers, despite their controversial nature and the existence of a large pool of well-founded, balanced critiques of Rwanda by researchers as equally disliked by the government (i.e. Alison des Forges, Susan Thomson, Scott Straus, Lars Waldorf, Gérard Prunier, Philip Gorevitch, Mahmood Mamdani, to name a few). The BBC’s failure to interview a well-rounded selection of researchers falls far below the journalistic standards it should live up to. Even worse, the use of only Davenport and Stam’s claims certainly gives credence to the RPF’s nebulous policies criminalizing genocide ideology or denial, ultimately strengthening the government’s strict laws and giving the RPF a scapegoat to crack down.

A better version of this film would have taken a critical look at the delicate and contested balance between security and economic and social progress. It would have challenged the prevailing perspective that Kagame’s human rights abuses are justified by stability and peace in the country in a more forceful and balance way. It would have given a voice to a wider range of political dissidents and highlighted the lack of freedom of the press. It would have examined a government campaign of ‘oneness’ with little choice but to opt-in. It would have interviewed critics who are harassed on Twitter by Rwandan government trolls and followed the blogs dedicated to blasting Rwanda researchers. It would have mentioned imprisoned, tortured, assassinated, and disappeared journalists, teachers, human rights advocates, researchers, political opponents, and government critics. It would have mentioned the 40 bodies found in Lake Rweru earlier this year, and claims that none are Rwandan. It would have discussed about the secretive and sudden cabinet reshuffle and dismissal of the prime minister earlier this year. Rather than challenging statistics and events of the genocide with very little new and poorly documented information, it would have focused on the massacres and meddling by Rwandan troops both in Rwanda and in Eastern Congo through late 2013. The complexity and tragedy of this war is enough to fill a documentary 10 times over.

There are many sides to Rwanda’s story. It is an eco-friendly place of hope, innovation, available healthcare, and economic progress, but it is also a place whose government refuses to allow political identities to reflect the diversity of beliefs in Rwandaness. It is a lot to ask the world to accept the multiple truths of Rwanda – including the fact that many people love Kagame just as others fear him – and it was too much for the film to explain this picture in all of its complicated nuance and actually share with us what remains untold about Rwanda’s story.

A note: The formation of the Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa labels began to take shape during the rule of the Tutsi monarch Kigeli Rwabugiri (1860 – 1895). By the end of his rule he had solidified control over almost the entirety of modern day Rwanda. He ruled through a system of forced labor, slowly defining ‘ethnicity’ by political class and economic differences. These differences centered on the Tutsi cattle-owning ‘elite’ and the majority Hutu peasantry. However, ethnic identities did not fully crystallize until Belgian colonial rule, beginning in 1912. The Belgians systematically privileged Tutsi in leadership roles and the education system, entrenching the separateness of ethnic identity. With the use of identification cards starting in 1935, race overtook class as the social marker and conflict between Tutsi and Hutu increased.

Further Reading

A disturbing story

In this interview with Rasna Warah, journalist Michela Wrong debunks the myth of Rwanda as a model developmental state and a poster child for Western aid.