How the state has intimidated, threatened, and murdered to cover up history

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a hapless bureaucrat named Winston Smith is tasked with shoving politically inconvenient documents down a slot called the memory hole. At the Ministry of Truth where Winston works, memory holes are actually flaps in the wall leading to an incinerator where ‘not even the ash remains.’

These holes, which function like a central vacuum system, are places where information goes to be forgotten. The government censors what the public sees and destroys any tangible proof that challenges the ruling party.

In so doing, the authorities manipulate thoughts and eradicate memory, essentially controlling history and writing people out of it.

Orwell’s prescient piece of writing finds deep resonance in Rwanda more than two decades after the genocide. Let’s take, for instance, the grisly case of Giti.

In April 1994, just after Rwanda’s president was assassinated and a killing spree got underway across the country, mobile units of Paul Kagame’s DMI intelligence network moved into Giti, whose luscious hillsides are dotted with banana crops and eucalyptus trees.

Authorities say that Giti was one of those rare communes where Hutus did not commit genocide against the minority Tutsi. Its mayor Edouard Sebushumba has for many years been lauded for having protected Tutsis.

But in reality, Mayor Sebushumba did much more than shield Tutsis from Hutu extremists in order to become a role model for Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). He struck a deal with the RPF and agreed to keep quiet about what really happened in his commune. For more than 20 years now, he’s refused to speak of how RPF intelligence apparatchiks organized the brutal slaying of thousands of unarmed Hutu peasants, clergy, and community leaders there.

“Many Hutus were rounded up and held in houses in Giti and in surrounding areas. During the night these people were massacred by agafuni, a kind of hoe,” said a Tutsi soldier who was part of the DMI paramilitary unit.

“We also covered the heads of victims with plastic bags to smother them. Some victims were dropped into a big pit where they were surrounded. Then they were gunned down.”

“It was work that was done daily,” he explained during a sit-down interview. “It’s difficult to estimate how many victims there were. It was certainly in the thousands.”

There were rotating units of these mobile forces in Giti and surrounding areas of Kinyami and Rutare over a period of two weeks in April 1994.

It was the first killing mission for this man, who was very young at the time and joined Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) just prior to the genocide because he believed he could help liberate the country. He quickly discovered otherwise.

“The language from my commander, now Rwanda’s inspector general of police, was that the Hutu population brought there was the enemy. The victims were mostly women and children because a lot of men who were stronger had escaped to the mountains. In fact the majority were women, children and old people.”

If this were merely the testimony of one rogue RPA defector, it could easily be dismissed. The problem is this: it is one of many detailed and graphic accounts from those implicated in the Giti killings and from Hutu survivors whose family members were hacked with hoes or blown to bits by grenades or torn apart by machine guns.

Thousands of victims were dumped into mass graves in Giti, a commune that became a clearinghouse for murder. The RPA eventually ran out of spots to bury victims in the town and in neighboring Rutare, and had to load refugees onto trucks at night to transport them to Gabiro at the edge of the Akagera Park. The operations were eerily reminiscent of the rolling death wagons in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. The victims were eventually burned and incinerated.

A former senior RPA officer on site in Giti described scenes of depravity under the direction of Jackson Rwahama, second-in-command at DMI who had worked in military intelligence for Idi Amin in Uganda.

The officer recalled images of agony and horror: hundreds of peasants were piled on top of each other in a large open grave, some dying slowly, others already dead. Eyes flickered and bodies twitched until life was extinguished—collectively and completely.

His testimony speaks to how one perceives suffering as it moves from the individual level into a realm of sanctioned mass violence that is acceptable. When human beings become corpses, stripped of feeling, of humanity. When they lose their africanness, their vital force, their muntu.

Not everyone succumbed to spiritual fatalism in the face of such carnage. A Rwandan student of mixed Hutu-Tutsi ethnicity found the body of his Hutu father murdered at Giti’s primary school. Horrified at first, he ran away, but later went to retrieve the body and bury him respectfully, so that his soul could rest in peace.

“His head was completely split with a hoe. And they had also crushed his ankles. It was sheer horror,” said the son, who fled Rwanda and is now living in Europe.

“When the soldiers were gone, we went back secretly and took him,” said the son, who was not targeted in the massacre because he looked Tutsi and his mother was Tutsi. The father was a well-known Hutu community leader.

The son said the entire courtyard of Giti’s primary school, including the classrooms, were full of bodies. It was impossible to know how many people—men, women and children—were murdered there, he explained, shaking his head.

On occasion the slaughter became a sick game for RPA killers. At a school between Giti and Rutare where Hutus were being gathered and murdered, there was discussion at one point to let a group of heavily pregnant women go free. After much back and forth, it was decided they be allowed to walk away. The women collected their belongings and started to leave the school, an officer explained. “Before the women even walked 50 meters, soldiers started shooting them in the back. They killed them.”

The crimes in Giti were premeditated and systematic, according to corroborating testimony from eyewitnesses and leaked UN documents. And they are consistent with the nature of crimes committed in other areas of Rwanda that were investigated for years by the clandestine Special Investigations Unit (SIU) set up by the ICTR to probe atrocities committed by Kagame’s troops. Kagame has had de facto control of the RPA for 25 years, ever since the bush war.

In the late 1990s and early years of 2000, Kagame strengthened his moral-political legitimacy with the help of Western media, governments, UN agencies, and NGOs—institutions that continued to see him through a glass, darkly.  The Rwandan leader solidified his reputation by espousing a binary narrative of good versus evil based on victimhood. His narrative was essentially this: his army saved Tutsis and Rwanda as a whole from oblivion; that even Tutsi refugees who had grown up in Uganda and later resettled in RPA-controlled areas before the genocide were victims of Hutu ideology. He has also contended that the West abandoned Rwanda in its greatest hour of need.

His foreign policy is based on victimhood and false claims of security threats, which have in turn been used to justify clampdowns on perceived and known critics everywhere. He has enacted laws that restrict the activities of political parties and has censored all forms of memory challenging his hold on power. The fear of arrest, disappearance and assassination is pervasive in Rwanda. The stark quiescence of the international community has enabled the president to create a totalitarian and militaristic state.

At his most base and outrageous, Kagame claims to represent the victims. The victims themselves—Tutsi and Hutu survivors of extremist violence—are not in control of the genocide narrative.

Kagame’s revisionist, well-crafted narrative has omitted that his own troops killed, it is estimated, hundreds of thousands of Hutus during and after the genocide. And that violence was not merely retaliatory; it was carefully executed and planned as soon as the Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and the genocide match was lit.

Dictating international justice

During the highly charged post-genocide years, it became extremely dangerous to testify against his regime. A lawyer working at the office of the prosecutor said RPA defectors that provided firsthand accounts of crimes by their army ‘kept disappearing’ in Uganda, Kenya, and other countries they had fled to. Another official who worked for the ICTR’s investigative unit said indictments for several large-scale RPA massacres could easily have been issued, and should have been. The evidence was so detailed and well corroborated that lawyers working with investigators considered them open-and-shut cases.

The unit culled reams of testimony on almost two-dozen large-scale RPA slaughter schemes. Lawyers under Carla Del Ponte decided to prosecute at the very minimum the following cases:

* The Byumba stadium massacre in April 1994, in which several thousands of Hutu refugees were surrounded at Nyacyonga by RPA troops and then brought to a football stadium where RPA military police used guns and grenades to annihilate an entire population of famished and desperate individuals. The killing went on all night, according to ex-RPA soldiers stationed inside and outside the stadium.

* The Giti, Rutare and Rwesero seminary massacres in April 1994.

* The Gakurazo slayings in June 1994, when RPA soldiers assisted by intelligence operatives rounded up Hutu clergy in Ruhango in southern Rwanda and brought them to a religious retreat that had sheltered Tutsis. RPA troops proceeded to execute fifteen people, including the Hutu archbishop of Kigali and an eight-year-old Tutsi boy who was killed by mistake while on the lap of one of the priests. At the time, his Tutsi mother was outside the dining hall where the bloodbath was about to begin. An RPA soldier on site recognized the mother (she was the sister of an RPA soldier in Kagame’s High Command). He warned her she’d ‘better get her son out of there!’ but at that moment it was already too late. The troops charged into the hall with their machine guns and unleashed fire. She found her son’s body broken in two on a floor awash with blood.

* The orchestrated killings in July 1994 in Butare, where RPA soldiers gathered several hundred displaced Hutus from Ntyazo, Ngenda, Runyinya, and Vumbi communes and promised them they’d be brought to a football stadium or allowed to go back home. Instead, these people were sent to the Groupe Scolaire, a series of buildings in the town. The RPA proceeded to separate males from females—some of whom were released. The men and boys were held in a veterinary school on the premises and were never seen again. Witnesses reported hearing killing in the woods next to the school over a two-day period. Journalists and UN personnel attempted to visit the site but were refused.

Adding to these crimes was the wealth of evidence from other individuals pointing to crimes against humanity and possibly genocide committed by Kagame’s army. These atrocities were carried out in 1994 and fell under the jurisdiction of the ICTR.

* After the genocide a highly respected Rwandan priest and human rights activist named André Sibomana began compiling lists with prisoners in Gitarama of people who had disappeared after the RPA’s 157th brigade, led by Fred Ibingira, seized control of the prefecture in June 1994. The lists include the names of an estimated 18,000 civilians, including women and children—who were killed from June/July 1994 onward under RPA occupation. A 400-page document was drawn up consisting mostly of handwritten names of victims, including letters of testimony to then interior minister Seth Sendashonga. The document was given to Belgian authorities by former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu in a bid to launch a civil case against the Rwandan government using universal jurisdiction. But Belgium did not respond to the request.

In 1996, Twagiramungu also gave a disk copy of the document to the ICTR, addressed to the UN’s special rapporteur Réné Degni-Segui. The ICTR did not act on the evidence.

Degni-Segui said he remembered receiving the file from Twagiramungu but said there was a ‘trafficking problem’ at the tribunal at the time and many files disappeared.

Meanwhile, Sendashonga gave a press conference in Nairobi brandishing the evidence before media and organizations such as Human Rights Watch. Yet his efforts received scarce coverage, with the notable exception of the French newspaper Libération. Sources said Human Rights Watch researcher Alison Desforges was contacted but did not pursue the matter.

Father Sibomana died in Rwanda in 1998. Sendashonga fled Rwanda in 1995 and was assassinated in Nairobi by suspected Rwandan agents in 1998.

* Robert Gersony, a US consultant with vast experience in war zones, was hired to assess the feasibility of Rwandan refugees returning to their homes after the genocide. Gersony and his team visited 91 sites, conducted interviews with an estimated 200 individuals and held 100 small group discussions.

Gersony found that Hutu refugees “were called for meetings on peace and security. Once gathered, the RPA would move in and carry out the killing. In addition to group killings, house-to-house searches were conducted; individuals hiding out in the swamps were hunted; returnees as well as the sick, the elderly, the young and males between 18-40 years old were victims. So many civilians were killed that burial of bodies is a problem. In some villages, the team estimated that 10,000 or more a month have been killed since April.”

In a verbal briefing, Gersony was more blunt: A cable from the UN peacekeeping mission UNAMIR said the following: “Gersony put forward evidence of what he described as calculated, pre-planned, systematic atrocities and genocide against Hutus by the RPA whose methodology and scale, he concluded, (30,000 massacres) could only have been part of a plan implemented as a policy from the highest echelons of the government. In his view, these were not individual cases of revenge and summary trials but a pre-planned, systematic genocide against the Hutus. Gersony staked his 25-year reputation on his conclusions which he recognized were diametrically opposite to the assumptions made, so far, by the UN and the international community.”

The United Nations and the US immediately undertook damage control and decided to conceal the findings. No further investigations were ever undertaken and those suspected of being behind the slaughter were not questioned.

The Rwandan Experiment

So why weren’t Kagame and his henchmen prosecuted, in the face of all this evidence? The answer is simple yet masks more complex motives. Washington and London made a political decision to cover up his crimes; this fact is not in dispute among independent observers at the ICTR. The decision to grant Kagame immunity became legally possible by removing chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte and replacing her with Hassan Jallow, a Gambian lawyer who was more than willing to exercise unfettered prosecutorial discretion in the name of Realpolitik.

Quite apart from the fact that the United States and Britain had been strategic military partners with the RPF before the genocide, what was behind the breathtaking display of cynicism that provided cover to Kagame, already a known quantity to satellite-wielding western intelligence services?

The ICTR’s politically motivated justice was based on a kind of perverse rationality that can only be referred to as The Rwandan Experiment. The thinking at the time was that since the country had experienced a popular genocide—one in which Hutu extremists were willing to kill Tutsis in broad daylight and enlist a certain percentage of the civilian population to join in—Kagame and his brutal yet disciplined rebel force appeared be the best candidates to stave off further bloodletting. (A note of caution is needed here: while historians have been keen to use the word ‘popular’ to denote the active participation of Hutu civilians in carrying out murders against their Tutsi neighbors, the actual number of perpetrators is estimated to be 7 to 8 percent of the Hutu population, or 14 to 17 percent of the adult male Hutu population, according to the academic Scott Straus.)

The assumption that Kagame was a safer, more disciplined bet seemed to exclude the possibility of a third path that encouraged Hutu and Tutsi moderates. And it proved to be as dangerous as it was wrong. First, it failed to take into account the atrocities the RPA had already committed during a three-year invasion war that shed stark light into the nature of Kagame’s brutal leadership. And, second, it proved devastating for millions of civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo whose lives would be lost after his army invaded the country in 1996 and unleashed a war of epic proportions.

A lawyer who worked in The Hague explained the matter in an email to me:

Mrs Del Ponte’s removal from the post of ICTR prosecutor, by the Security Council, reflected the calculation of the United States and the United Kingdom that Kagame, whose demeanour and conduct in the region were well known to these States, was nonetheless the best guarantor against future genocide in Rwanda and Burundi.  Mr Jallow, Mrs Del Ponte’s replacement in Arusha, was selected on the basis of his agreement that he would not seek to prosecute RPF/RPA personnel.

Suffice it to say that I have seen Mr Kagame as a serious destabilising force in Rwanda and the wider region.  Whilst I am not immune to arguments rooted in Realpolitik, it is my opinion that these arguments are misplaced in this case.  In particular, the de facto immunity from prosecution enjoyed by Mr Kagame has served to embolden his authoritarian tendencies domestically as well as his tendency towards international (mis)adventurism, initially on security grounds, but since at least 2001 for economic reasons.  In a nutshell, Mr Kagame needs the wealth extracted from the DRC for domestic-political reasons.

The lawyer said the International Criminal Court had a watertight case against Kagame after 2002 while Rwanda was sponsoring murderous militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet again, though, others interests conspired to protect him. This time, it was South Africa’s strategic interests in the DRC that came into play. The country’s then president Thabo Mbeki enjoyed warm relations with Kagame and the ICC’s chief prosecutor at the time Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

In time, the Prosecutor formed a collegial relationship with former South African President Thabo Mbeke (whom Mr Moreno invariably referred to as “Theo” in his inimitable manner).  The South Africans, as we knew to an extent at that time, and I confirmed later through meetings with former security officials around Mr Mbeke, were ‘playing’ Mr Moreno in pursuit of South African strategic interests.  Here, I refer to the importance of the DRC to the South African resource-extraction sector, and the belief of the South Africans that the best guarantor of stability – or relative stability – in a number of areas of importance to South African firms was the RPA and its client militia.

The lawyer said while the ICC should have, more than a decade ago, arrested Kagame’s warlord Bosco Ntaganda (“a former RPF sergeant and a very nasty piece of work”), Moreno-Ocampo acquiesced to the Rwandan president’s demands that the militia leader be left alone.

When the situation in Ituri was pacified, to the degree that this occurred, Ntaganda shifted himself (back) to the Kivus, where he was fighting through the second half of the 1990s, and did Kagame’s dirty work in that area (again) for several years.  Mr Moreno travelled to Kigali and asked Mr Kagame point blank for Ntaganda—and Mr Kagame told him that this was not going to happen.  The Prosecutor did not object.

In 2013, less than a year after Moreno-Ocampo left the ICC and Fatou Bensouda became chief prosecutor, Ntaganda surrendered to the court. He is now standing trial. Lawyers contend that the Rwandan-born warlord ordered his militia to commit murder, rape, sexual enslavement, and pillaging. “Victims were killed by bullets, by arrows, by nail-studded sticks. Most of them were mutilated, some were decapitated and their head borne as a trophy,” a lawyer for the victims said.

The vast extortion empire in eastern Congo that Ntaganda ran on behalf of Kagame will be under examination in The Hague. But skeptics are doubtful that the warlord will actually testify against his godfather, who is expected to tamper with Rwanda’s constitution and seek a third term in office in 2017.

Yet Kagame’s reputation is crumbling as he increasingly alienates his inner circle and promotes terror within and outside Rwanda’s borders. His crimes over the last 25 years are more exposed than ever, and are no less raw.

In truth, Kagame had no greater moral authority to lead Rwanda than Colonel Theoneste Bagosora, a retired chief of staff in Rwanda’s defense ministry who is considered the architect of a devastating genocide that robbed the country of its humanity.