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Rwanda: Genocide Anniversary Reflections

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Apr 21, 2009 (090421)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Before the 10th anniversary, the international movement known as Remembering Rwanda was motivated by a fear that the genocide was being forgotten by the rest of the world. That concern has proved premature. Rwanda is probably as well known today as any tragic event very far from western countries, and causing direct harm to none of them, can be. ... Yet at the same time, as in virtually every other genocide, denial is alive and kicking." - Gerald Caplan

Take a look at Google Trends tracking of internet searches for "Rwanda genocide" ( and you will see that the 15th anniversary of the genocide this month produced only a modest spike in interest, compared to that 5 years ago on the 10th anniversary. Nevertheless, both the realities of that past event and the present consequences loom large in interpretation of African realities, particularly in the continent's most intense conflict zones which still seem to cluster to the west and north of Rwanda.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains brief reflections by Gerald Caplan and Gerard Prunier, two engaged scholars who have written regularly on Rwanda, highlighting some of these issues, along with links to reviews of recent books by both authors. Caplan's most recent book provides a clear and concise analysis of continent-wide issues, in a series aimed primarily at upper secondary-school readers but useful for others as well. Prunier's recent book, focusing on the Congo as well as Rwanda, has evoked strong critical as well as positive reviews. The critics convincingly argue that, despite his extensive knowledge, Prunier has oversold his case against the current Rwandan regime by mixing in a substantial dose of unreliable rumor with his usual impressive array of better-documented details.

A wider range of views can be found in a Global Voices blog roundup, available in French, Spanish, and Italian as well as in English. See: "Rwanda: Fifteen Years after the Genocide" - April 14, 2009 or

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Rwanda, including references to analytical reports released five years ago, visit

Also included below, a list of recent books noted on Rwanda. You can also find these and other earlier works at or or


Many thanks to those of you who responded to the most recent appeal for voluntary subscription payments to support AfricaFocus Bulletin. If you haven't yet, and are able to do so, please help AfricaFocus reach more people with reliable information on Africa. Send in a check or pay on-line through Paypal or Google Checkout. See for details.

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Memory and denial: The Rwandan genocide fifteen years on

by Gerald Caplan

Pambazuka News, April 2, 2009

[Caplan's most recent book is The Betrayal of Africa - see below. He was among the professional staff who produced the Organization of African Unity 2000 report Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide, available in pdf format at: or]

April 2009 marks the 15th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda of most of its Tutsi population and of many Hutu who refused to embrace violent extremism. Five years ago, the world marked the 10th anniversary of what almost the entire world regards as one of the definitive genocides of the 20th century. Perhaps it was somehow symmetrical that both the first and the last genocides of the 20th century took place in Africa.

In 1904, soldiers representing Imperial Germany deliberately sought to exterminate the Herero people of Namibia, then the German colony of South-West Africa. Anxious to occupy the lands of the Herero, the German colonial army came precious close to achieving its grisly, racist goal. Before it ended, some three-quarters of 80,000 Herero were dead. Exactly 90 years later, the racists were powerful Hutu extremists in Rwanda who conspired to annihilate the minority Tutsi people, largely to avoid sharing power and wealth with them. Like the Germans before them, the genocidaires in Rwanda were remarkably successful in executing their plot. Before they were defeated, about three-quarters of all the country's Tutsi had been murdered, often in the most sadistic ways imaginable. Exact numbers remain unknown to this day, but it is possible that as many as a million Tutsi were killed in the 100 days of the genocide.

But very like South-West Africa, outside influences were key to events in Rwanda. Had European missionaries not invented an ideology that blatantly set Tutsi against Hutu, had the Belgian colonial government not institutionalised this false ideology, had the French government not offered all possible support to the Hutu government of Rwanda in the years immediately leading to the genocide, the genocide might never have happened. Once triggered, it was the Security Council, urged on by the United States, that refused to take a single step to stop the slaughter.

Before the 10th anniversary, the international movement known as Remembering Rwanda was motivated by a fear that the genocide was being forgotten by the rest of the world. That concern has proved premature. Rwanda is probably as well known today as any tragic event very far from western countries, and causing direct harm to none of them, can be. Tragically, one of the forces that revived the memory of 1994 was the conflict that began in Darfur, western Sudan, in 2003. When the secretary-general of the United Nations commemorated the 10th anniversary of Rwanda in 2004, his cry was that Darfur must not be allowed to become 'the next Rwanda'.

And so Rwanda's international role was finally crystallised: It was the latest acknowledged failure of the solemn, eternally repeated, never heeded, pledge of 'Never Again'. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future, Rwanda's invidious distinction will be replaced by Darfur, and the international community will vow not to permit 'the next Darfur'.

At the same time as Rwanda was being turned into symbol of betrayal by the international community, it was attracting the interest of western filmmakers. This entirely unanticipated phenomenon has also given the genocide a renewed lease on life, as it were. It is probable that more feature-length films and full-length documentaries have been made about the genocide than any other contemporary international crisis save Iraq or the so-called 'war on terror'.

Not all the films were of top quality and few bothered to show the critical and malevolent role of western influence in Rwandan history. The most popular film, Hotel Rwanda, the one that really dragged Rwanda into mainstream western consciousness, had as its hero a man who now trivialises the genocide. Nonetheless, his story, overblown as it may have been, combined with the others, has assured that the genocide in Rwanda is in little danger of being forgotten.

The Deniers

Yet at the same time, as in virtually every other genocide, denial is alive and kicking. Here is yet another common thread that binds the people that suffered through what many consider the three classic genocides of the 20th century - the Armenians, the Jews and the Rwandan Tutsis. The bitter and apparently never-ending fight against deniers, or revisionists, is a common cause among the survivors of all these genocides, one that will be highlighted in Rwanda in April 2009 as people from all over the world will gather to mark the 15th anniversary of the genocide of the Tutsi - Remembering Rwanda 15, or RR15.

If much of the world now remembers the genocide in Rwanda, the battle against those who deny that genocide is much less familiar though no less insidious than its Armenian or Holocaust equivalents. The persistence of Holocaust denial remains a reality everywhere in the world that anti-Semitism rears its head. In some countries it attracts elites. In the west it is the preserve of a lunatic fringe, and usually more an irritation than anything else. But there is always a well-earned fear that it could explode into something more ferocious, especially as anti-Semitism and opposition to Israeli policies sometimes become difficult to distinguish.

Denying the Armenian genocide is a decidedly more precise phenomenon. It exists only when attempts are made to recognise the genocide for what it is, either by resolutions of legislative assemblies or through education. And unlike either Holocaust or Rwanda denial, it is invariably orchestrated by the Turkish government and its acolytes, most of them on that government's payroll. By a terrible irony of realpolitik, among the most steadfast collaborators of the Turkish government in its hardball efforts to prevent recognition of the genocide is its close ally Israel and some powerful Israel support groups throughout the western world. Whether Turkey's unexpectedly vehement condemnation of Israel's recent aggression against Gaza changes these equations is still not at all clear.

Rwanda is a different case

For one thing, in much of the English-speaking world, denialism has been very much a fringe phenomenon, largely peddled by a motley coalition. There are anti-American left-wingers who are perversely convinced that Rwandan president Paul Kagame, in their eyes the evil genius behind the conflict (they deny it was a genocide), was an American stooge. There are those who have ties of some kind with the defence at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Sometimes these are the same people. They are still largely unknown to most English-speakers who have seen the movies, or admire General Romeo Dallaire (another American puppet, in the twisted view of the deniers) and have no reason to doubt that a genocide actually was carried out.

Naturally the small band of leading deniers are well-known to the Rwandan diaspora community, which is not only wounded by the denials but fails to understand why their lies are given any media attention at all. At least as ominously, the deniers' reach and influence has been spreading, metastasising like a malignant cancer, thanks to the anarchy of the blogosphere and to the embrace of the deniers' arguments by a small but influential number of left-wing, anti-American journals and websites.

Google Rwanda and you're quite likely get a deniers' rant featuring the tiny band of usual suspects - French Judge Bruguiere, former UN Rwanda chief Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, Robin Philpot, former Australian investigator Michael Hourigan, American academic Christian Davenport - each enthusiastically citing the others as their proof that the entire so-called genocide was really an American imperial plot. That there is no evidence for this assertion, that every single reputable scholar who has studied the genocide has categorically disagreed with it, carries no weight with this incomprehensible band of true believers. At the same time, the harsh criticisms of the present Rwanda government by respected human rights advocates has unhappily provided a certain illogical legitimacy to the deniers' pernicious cause.

Thanks to the reach of Hotel Rwanda, which has been seen by more people than all other Rwanda films combined, many ordinary English-speakers are likely to know of only one Rwandan, Paul Rusesabagina, and to believe him a hero of the genocide, a righteous man who saved Tutsi lives at great personal risk. That he now is the most prominent person in the world claiming Kagame's rebels were as deadly as the genocidaires, that he insists Rwanda today is comparable to Rwanda during the 100 days, and that he openly works with known genocidaires and western deniers against the Kagame government, is still not grasped by his western admirers. That's why the uncritical adulation in which he is held and his own fierce determination to spread his message makes him a serious threat that should not be underestimated.

In Europe and in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, genocide denial is more mainstream. In large part this is due to longstanding ties between the pre-genocide francophone Hutu elite and assorted government and church officials in western Europe and Quebec. But as elsewhere, deniers in these areas reflect a miscellany of motives. A number are former genocidaires themselves, some being protected by political and religious allies of the old regime, others walking free and peddling their poison. All of these Rwandans and non-Rwandans cherish a fantasy of someday reviving 'Hutuland' and the 'demographic democracy' that prevailed from 1959 to 1994, in other words, a Hutu dictatorship based exclusively on Hutu constituting a large majority of the population.

Others have acted on behalf of the defence at the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda). Some simply cannot abide Kagame and his inner circle of former Ugandans. A few are well-known non-Rwandan academics, taking every advantage to disparage the Kagame government while consciously cultivating a generation of Rwanda-hating Congolese. The harm being done will be felt throughout the Great Lakes region for decades.

So the final assault common to the classical genocides of the 20th century - the denial that it ever happened - continues to be an ugly shared reality for all those touched by the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the genocide of the Rwandan Tutsi. The 15th anniversary of the final genocide of the 20th century and of the millennium provides an opportunity to unite all those affected by the three of them in a sustained and systematic counter-attack against deniers of all kinds.

It also moves us into the new century/millennium. It should pre-empt the many friends of the Government of Sudan from insisting, as the al-Bashir government routinely does, that the crisis in Darfur is very much the responsibility of its own victims.

Gerald Caplan, The Betrayal of Africa. Toronto, Canada: Groundwork Books, 2008. 144 pages.

". . . a small book for such a large continent with such huge issues, but this is no superficial primer for neophyte travelers and liberal do-gooders. . . . Caplan and his publishers have produced a book that is popularly written in style, designed with tables and maps that illustrate superbly the basic concept that history does count. . . The Betrayal of Africa nicely explodes stereotypes that are still used today to justify economic and political exploitation. . ." - AfricaFiles, Hugh McCullum []

Gerard Prunier, "Rwanda's Ghosts Refuse to be Buried"

[Excerpts only. For full article see]

The ghosts still wander in the hills above the Great Lakes, both in Rwanda itself and in the neighbouring Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Like most ghosts, they are very much alive.

They are the survivors of a horror they will never manage to forget - those the Rwandans call "bapfuye buhagazi" or "the walking dead".

These are the girls who had abortions after being raped by the interahamwe (the Hutu militia which carried out the killings), the widows, the mothers who saw their children slaughtered before their eyes, the children who grew up after seeing their parents die, the killers haunted by remorse and the killers who feel no remorse at all.

The ghosts are also the bystanders who pretended there was nothing they could do, the innocents later unjustly accused of murder, the guilty perpetrators who fear discovery and those who are known and who are blackmailed, the Hutu refugees who never came home and who still live in DR Congo, the Tutsi refugees from the Congo who fled the massacres there and who still linger in Rwandan camps, the madmen and the broken women.

In many ways, the perpetrators of the genocide have succeeded.

They have managed to encase the whole country in a gigantic airless bubble where everybody pretends that life goes on but where, in many ways, it actually stopped on 7 April 1994.

The perpetrators have never apologised. In fact, no truth and reconciliation commission based on the South African model has been offered to them, where the real perpetrators are actually present and can be cross-examined.

The substitute is the largely artificial structure of the gacaca courts - set up by the Rwandan government based on a system of community justice.


The perpetrators have also imposed their ethnic logic on the new regime - described by some as a dictatorship - where any mention of the word "Tutsi" or "Hutu" is strictly forbidden by law.

This means that any lucid examination of the relationship between Tutsi and Hutu before, during and after the genocide is now impossible.

It is like discussing an infectious disease without being allowed to use the words "germ" or "contagion".

Rwanda is now locked into an ideological straight-jacket providing a relentless and official interpretation of history from which all shades of meaning have been sanitised.

Belated atonement

Which brings us to the second lot of ghosts - those who live far away from the Great Lakes in the Western world.

Guilt has kept the West fixated on the genocide:

  • Guilt of the Belgian colonisers who were vaguely suspected of having contributed to this mess through their old colonial policies
  • Guilt of the French government which had supported some of the worst excesses of the Hutu regime beyond the normal limits of political alliance
  • Guilt of the Americans who had refused to use their capacity for military intervention when it was called for
  • Finally guilt of the international community when the United Nations compounded its initial blindness by displaying a massive case of multilateral cowardice.

In response, and much like in the case of the Holocaust in Europe, there has been a pronounced move towards belated atonement in the West.

The result has been predictable. Governments from London to Washington have rallied to the new regime of President Paul Kagame without looking too closely at its behaviour.

A backlash of this is a rancid wave of revisionist literature - casting doubts on the scale of the genocide - that has begun to wash ashore, particularly in France and French-speaking Africa.


Gerard Prunier, Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe. Oxford University Press, 2008. 576 pages. (UK editions 2009) or

Review by Andrew Rice in The Nation, April 20, 2009

[Excerpts only. for full review see]

In The Rwanda Crisis (1995), Prunier was reasonably sympathetic toward Kagame, but in Africa's World War he casts Rwanda's president as the villain, apologizing in an endnote for wanting "to believe in the relative innocence of the RPF." His sense of disillusionment matches that of a number of Great Lakes specialists, such as the late Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch, who by the end of her life was banned from entering Rwanda because of her strident criticism of the RPF. The title that Columbia University's Mahmood Mamdani gave his book on Rwanda, When Victims Become Killers, sums up the overall turnabout in the narrative. Prunier makes it clear he's determined to revise previous judgments. ...


Kagame is not afraid to invoke the legacy of the genocide to silence international criticism, and that has proven to be an effective tactic. ... Prunier intends for his book to be a corrective. "The RPF calculated that guilt, ineptitude, and the hope that things would work out would cause the West to literally let them get away with murder [in the Congo]," he writes. "The calculation was correct."


Yet even Prunier is not averse to repeating conspiratorial rumors, some of them first advanced by the very writers he elsewhere dismisses as crackpots, so long as those stories advance his argument that Kagame was the malevolent mastermind of Congo's destruction. ... [There is] a pattern of argument that recurs throughout the book: Prunier introduces substantiated charges, proceeds to eye-popping allegations and then barrels off the deep end. His zeal undermines his cause. ...

Review by Thomas P. Odom in Small Wars Journal, January 2009 | go directly to review at

Odom's own 2005 book detailing his experiences as U.S. military attache in Congo and in Rwanda in the early post-genocide period is Journey Into Darkness: Genocide In Rwanda



A tale of dark conspiracy woven with incompetence made me wonder if there was indeed a fictional Congo with an eastern neighbor, Rwanda, out there. Prunier's writings suggest there has to be a parallel universe. Certainly there are elements of recognizable truth involved in Prunier's tale if you have the regional expertise to recognize them. Without a firm grounding in the region, however, one risks being fooled ...

To be more direct, let me just say that as a participant in some of the events described in this book, I found numerous errors of fact, doubtful analysis, and dubious sourcing, I am disappointed to say the least because I looked forward to reading the book as a follow on to Prunier's earlier works on the Rwandan tragedy. In contrast to those efforts, this book is neither good history nor good journalism. Good history relies on analysis of facts, personal accounts, public documents, and at least makes a stab at balanced analysis. Journalism implies writing without an agenda.

Prunier sets the tone for this work by his dedication to Seth Sendashonga, the exiled former Interior Minister who was assassinated in Nairobi in 1998. Sendashonga, Hutu member of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), fled Rwanda after a falling out with then Vice President Paul Kagame. In exile, Sendashonga pandered a story of RPF killings that challenged credibility. ...

Recent Books on Rwanda

After Genocide: Transitional Justice, Post-Conflict Reconstruction, and Reconciliation in Rwanda and Beyond by Professor Philip Clark and Zachary Kaufman. Columbia University Press (2009) Hardcover, 428 pages or

The Antelope's Strategy: Living in Rwanda After the Genocide by Jean Hatzfeld Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2009) Hardcover, 256 pages or

As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda by Catherine Claire Larson Zondervan (2009) Paperback, 288 pages

Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda by Lee Ann Fujii Cornell University Press (2009) Hardcover, 212 pages

The Bishop of Rwanda by John Rucyahana Thomas Nelson (2008) Paperback, 256 pages

Justice on the Grass: Three Rwandan Journalists, Their Trial for War Crimes and a Nation's Quest for Redemption by Dina Temple-Raston Free Press (2008) Paperback, 320 pages.

Led By Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide by Immaculee Ilibagiza Hay House (2008) Hardcover, 264 pages

The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda by Scott Straus Cornell University Press (2008) Paperback, 273 pages

Silent Accomplice: The Untold Story of France's Role in the Rwandan Genocide by Andrew Wallis I. B. Tauris (2007) Hardcover, 256 pages

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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