How not to write about the Rwandan genocide

How Rwandan history is told—and who does the telling—is important as it determines who is able to participate in conversations about the past.

Genocide Memorial Center, Kigali, Rwanda. Image credit Adam Jones, PhD.

In late August, 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.

Whether ordinary Rwandan or foreign writer, anyone who questions the RPF’s account of the genocide, or who seeks to broaden the conversation to lives lost, before or after the genocide, is likely to be accused of genocide denial. Since 2012, the label of “genocide denier” has been used to control domestic political opponents, Hutu or Tutsi alike, who wish to commemorate all lives lost during the 1994 genocide, or if they publicly criticize the RPF, President Kagame or government policy.

Yet, as Melvern tells it, people in the global North widely accept a version of Rwandan history in which perpetrators of the 1994 genocide “have tried to alter the story, diminishing the death toll, claiming the killing was in self-defense, and blaming the victims.” As such, her purpose in writing Intent to Deceive is to set the record straight on what we in the global North think we know about the 1994 genocide. To do so, she portrays the sensationalist idea of a double genocide, in which Hutu were also targets of genocide, committed by the RPF, as both widely-accepted and widely-believed beyond Rwanda’s borders. Nothing could be further from the truth. A cursory search of news stories, best-selling books, and academic scholarship demonstrate that the dominant version of Rwandan history in the global North is that Hutu extremists took control of the government and pursued a genocide against Tutsi, opposition political party members, and anyone opposed to the genocide, regardless of ethnicity.

This approach has a long pedigree, in particular among the political opponents of the current government, especially opposition figures living in exile (including Rusesabagina as well as Kayumba Nyamwasa and Victoire Ingabire), many of whom feature in Melvern’s book as powerful and looming figures, waiting in the shadowy wings for the right time to reclaim power in Rwanda. She also puts in her sights the American courts, the French state, and the BBC-sponsored documentary “Rwanda’s Untold Story” as evidence of the double genocide thesis. Legal and scholarly evidence to support a claim of a double genocide is non-existent, yet the analysis in the second half of the book rests on this unsubstantiated claim. Melvern’s text is rooted in such intrigues without compelling evidence. It is as if she has willfully overlooked decades of careful scholarship, legal proceedings, policy opinions, and personal testimony from Hutu and Tutsi survivors of the genocide, all of which make up the body of knowledge. As such, Intent to Deceive is better read as a political tract than the product of serious journalism.

To be fair, a handful of Rwandan political opponents do deny the genocide, offering up an interpretative denial, claiming the mass violence of 1994 was part of a civil war, and as such, could not possibly amount to the crime of genocide. Furthermore, the so-called “double genocide hypothesis” has been popularized by a few fringe academics, journalists, and members of a small and impotent Hutu Power clique. These individuals are center-stage in Melvern’s text, occupying her attention for much of the 264-page book. She suggests their intent to deceive is a political strategy, but she fails to illustrate how they might actually challenge the ruling RPF.

As my scholarship, and that of fellow political scientists Lee Ann Fujii and Scott Straus demonstrates, Rwandans themselves know that their Tutsi brethren were targeted in acts of genocide in 1994; they also know that they, too, were subject to war crimes and crimes against humanity throughout the 1990s. Yet, they cannot speak of these harms or lost loved ones. Rwandans living in Rwanda during the 1990s know that multiple forms of killing occurred at the hands of different actors—including militias, members of the armed forces loyal to the genocidal government, members of the the-rebel RPF, as well as enthusiastic ordinary people. Those who survived the genocide understand that there were different modes of violence of varying intensity and scale at different times, including during the Rwandan civil war (1990-94), during the genocide (1994), or after (1994-1999). Rwandans understand that multiple actors committed multiple acts of killing. They used to use the Kinyarwanda and French phrases “amarorerwa yo muri 94/les événements de 1994” (the events of 1994) and “muri 94/en 1994” (in 1994) to describe everything that happened in 1994, not just the genocide (itsembabwoko/le génocide). Some also use the language of war to describe the civil war and genocide period (intambara/la guerre). Today, it is illegal to speak in these terms, meaning most Rwandans now comply with using “the genocide of the Tutsi” (jenoside ya korewe abaTutsi muri 1994). Despite this complexity, Melvern describes the genocide in a singular way that functions outside of the experience of many Rwandans who survived the genocide, yet in footstep with the RPF’s version of events.

In my experience, and that of many other academics and journalists, Rwandans themselves know that they cannot speak of anything more than the violence they experienced or witnessed between April and July 1994. As Beatrice told me in 2017:

We used to speak of the genocide and massacres as a way to respect all lives lost. Now we must speak exclusively of the genocide against the Tutsi. How will Rwanda heal and move forward if some of us cannot speak of our harms? Without frank conversation, how can a middle ground be found? It can’t exist because the government won’t allow it. Instead, those of us who question the official narrative are considered [Hutu] extremists.

Ordinary Rwandans like Beatrice, who question the government’s genocide narrative, are enemies of the state, guilty of wishing to honor and remember the loss of their loved ones in violence that occurred before, in parallel to or after the 1994 genocide. Whether wittingly or not, Melvern’s analysis collapses Rwanda’s complex history of political violence—including in 1994—into a few pithy sound bites based on Tutsi victims and Hutu perpetrators.

This is certainly not unique to post-genocide Rwanda. Political leaders of all stripes regularly manipulate history for their own political ends. The US has a long and storied tradition of declaring war based on public falsehoods that are then rewritten to legitimate the leadership of the day. (President Donald Trump’s deceitful and self-serving response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is hardly unique.) A key difference is the role of investigative journalists who actually seek to hold the US president and his cronies accountable. When the American government seeks to politicize history, the institutions of the state are equipped (although not always willing) to push back, while academics and journalists stand ready to analyze and assess government excesses. Such journalism is not allowed in Rwanda, for questioning the RPF’s version is itself a form of genocide denial and punishable by law.

Melvern and others, such as Romeo Dallaire, the former commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda in 1994, who willingly participate in the government’s efforts to elevate the RPF’s political project as historical fact, legitimate a revised history of state elites, of heroes and villains, of good guys and bad ones. It is shameful that Linda Melvern’s Intent to Deceive denies the experiences of so many Rwandans who have lived through so much. We must be wary of writers who uncritically or, in Melvern’s case, willingly accept the violence of the RPF as the price of peace. Rwandans from all walks of life, of all ethnicities, deserve better from foreign interlocuters.

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