In Other Words

Rewriting Rwanda

Rewriting Rwanda

Noires fureurs, blancs menteurs: Rwanda 1990-1994
(Furious Blacks, Lying Whites: Rwanda 1990-1994)

By Pierre Péan
544 pages, Paris: Mille Et Une Nuits, 2005 (in French)

Between April and July 1994, I spent most of my time reporting on the genocide in Rwanda for the BBC. One day I would be counting cadavers piled high in a rural church; on another, I would interview perpetrators or victims. I remember looking out from a half-destroyed Kigali hotel at red-hot tracer bullets forming an arc in the night sky. I recall interviewing the International Red Cross representative — one of the few foreign aid workers not to have run away — who said into my microphone, "I stopped counting at 500,000 dead."

What happened in Rwanda in 1994 is now fairly common knowledge. Just for the record, though, here are the facts as I understand them: The genocide was perpetrated by an extremist ethnic Hutu regime that responded to a military attack by ethnic Tutsi rebels by trying to murder all Tutsis — as well as those Hutus prepared to make peace with the minority Tutsis.

For several years prior to the genocide, the majority Hutus had received French diplomatic and military backing. By contrast, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who led the rebellion, had been brought up in exile in neighboring, English-speaking Uganda. By the end of July 1994, an estimated 800,000 were dead, the vast majority of them Tutsi. The operation was extremely well organized. The Hutus killed at a rate faster than the Nazis killed Jews in World War II.

Thus far, I think the author of Noires fureurs, blancs menteurs Rwanda 1990-1994 (Furious Blacks, Lying Whites: Rwanda 1990–1994) would hardly disagree with me.
But in this controversial new book, French investigative journalist Pierre Péan goes on to claim that the real catalyst of the genocide was not the Hutu regime, but the Tutsi rebel who allegedly shot down Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane on the night of April 6, 1994. This event triggered the genocide.

Tipped off by the publisher’s blurb on the cover, I prepared myself for crude historical revisionism. But this is not, for the most part, a crude book. Péan doesn’t deny the genocide. He says it was "barbarous." But, he says, the context is all-important, and the "official history" (told by the Tutsi rebels who won a military victory over the Hutu government and ended the genocide) fails to explain the entire story of such massive killing.

The context is the years that led up to the war — during which, according to Péan, the minority RPF forced itself onto the scene and committed gross human rights violations — and the years that followed. He cites the wars in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, which followed the genocide, as some of the worst acts committed by the RPF. Rwanda’s support for two invasions of the Congo undoubtedly contributed to millions of deaths in that country. This context is important and valid. It can also be twisted to distract from the indisputable facts of the genocide.

Péan relates how a cabal of white writers and propagandists in Europe have, according to him, lied by promoting the narrow "official" version of events while hiding examples of the RPF’s malfeasance. He then painfully attempts to exonerate France from blame for arming the Hutu génocidaires. Moreover, he glosses over some of the more important aspects of the French military intervention in southwest Rwanda at the height of the killing, when they created a so-called humanitarian zone — namely, that France allowed some extremist Hutus to escape; extracted some key members of the genocidal regime; and refused to support the United Nations in its efforts to save lives.

One of the main building blocks of Péan’s "other side" of the story is the judicial inquiry mounted by leading French investigating judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière. Because the crew of Habyarimana’s plane was French (and all on board were killed when it spiraled into the ground near Kigali Airport), Bruguière was mandated to investigate. Although the judge’s inquiry has not been made public and the case has not been brought to court, a March 2004 scoop in the French daily Le Monde revealed that Bruguière’s report claimed the assassination was organized by the RPF commander, Paul Kagame — who happens to be the current president of Rwanda. What’s more, Péan argues that Kagame committed this act knowing it would provoke a massacre; that Kagame knowingly sacrificed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in a calculated bid for power.

In 2004, I asked Kagame about Bruguière’s reported allegation. The Rwandan president said the accusation was ridiculous, part of a plan by French authorities to hide French connivance with Hutu extremists. Of course, it’s unsurprising that Kagame denies the charge. But it is still feasible the plane was shot down by extremist Hutus who feared the political compromises Habyarimana was considering, and so they killed him to serve as the signal that the genocide should begin. It is also feasible that Kagame’s men shot down the plane as an act of war, not realizing it would spark genocide. The author’s take is that the RPF surely must have known massacres on a huge scale would follow the attack. But how could anyone predict such a thing with certainty?

Péan interviews several people reportedly mentioned in the French judicial inquiry and numerous exiles now opposed to the Kagame regime. His nearly exclusive reliance on French sources — and on Rwandan opponents of Kagame — is a problem. He seems to swallow some stories and believe sources without stopping to question them. For example, the author claims to have a radio intercept (presumably collected by the Hutu government or the French) of a message Kagame sent to an RPF commander in Kigali in December 1993. In this message, Kagame allegedly says: "The general aim… is the physical liquidation of certain civil and military authorities at certain precise dates and on orders. You’ll get the list of victims later, but Number One is well known!"

Is it really credible that a military leader such as Kagame, who is widely respected (and feared) for his tactical skills, would send a radio message on such a sensitive subject on a frequency that the French or their Rwandan allies could intercept? Is it really credible that Kagame would incriminate himself in such a message and, further, phrase it in this rather childish way? It looks to me that some of the messages Péan attributes to the RPF could be propaganda planted by the French or their allies.

My doubts were reinforced by a few elements in this book that I know are wrong. For example, Péan accuses the commander of the small and beleaguered U.N. force in Rwanda in 1994, the Canadian Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, of being in the pocket of the United States. That is absurd; Dallaire was extremely critical of the underwhelming U.S. role during the genocide. His critiques were made in private during his U.N. command and in public in his 2003 book on Rwanda.

The ridiculous accusation that Dallaire was pro-American appears to come from the same school of thought, led by French politicians at the time, that there was an "Anglo-Saxon" conspiracy against France — a plot that Péan appears determined to unmask. Maybe there was a plot. But this work doesn’t prove one, and, frankly, the swipe against the Canadian general is so wide off the mark that it makes one question some of Péan’s other arguments. The book will be devoured by some and rejected by others. It will add to the debate but will not be seen as fair — like, I suppose, almost everything surrounding the awful history of Rwanda.

That is a shame, because Péan’s book contains interesting passages — especially those based on the archives of the French presidency and interviews with French soldiers who served in Rwanda. The discussions of Rwanda in the French cabinet are fascinating; the late French President François Mitterrand appears to have been at the forefront of those who suspected a plot against French interests in Africa. And some of the accounts of the key role French soldiers played in stopping a rebel advance in 1993 also shed some fresh light on the run-up to the genocide. The problem with this work is that the search for context — the other wars, the undoubted RPF abuses — is based, in part, on evidence of widely varying credibility. The six-year Bruguière judicial inquiry, for example, is offered as evidence alongside what look like dodgy radio intercepts. When attempting to reinterpret the history of one of the most violent episodes of the 20th century, a bit more consistency and credibility is required.

What Péan fails to do, perhaps for obvious reasons given his message, is actually step foot in Rwanda to pursue his questions. It is a serious weakness to his effort. His publisher tells me he did not visit Rwanda "by choice." After this book, though, it seems doubtful he would ever be allowed to go there as long as the authoritarian RPF government rules the country.