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Man in the middle

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Rwanda's Kagame speaks on genocide and its aftermath

Kagame: "You will no doubt want to know why Rwandans were indulging in self-destruction." Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Kagame: "You will no doubt want to know why Rwandans were indulging in self-destruction." Photo by Lee Pellegrini

As the film Hotel Rwanda, with its account of heroic resistance to mass slaughter, was screening across America, Boston College was host to Paul Kagame, the man who led a rebel army that, outgunned and outnumbered, ended Rwanda's genocide while the rest of the world dithered. On April 11, Kagame, now Rwanda's president, told a capacity crowd in Robsham Theater about his country's post-genocide efforts at healing and rebuilding, and also about the hundred days in 1994 when close to a million minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slain with bullets and machetes by the extremist "Hutu Power" government and its allies.

Kagame was introduced by Pierre-Richard Prosper '85, U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, who praised the Rwandan as "a man who has confronted evil . . . and made a difference." The lesson of Rwanda, Prosper said, is that "we all have a responsibility to one another: to speak out, to condemn, and to act where we can and as we can." He advised the mostly college-age audience to take inspiration from Kagame's example, pointing out that Rwanda under Kagame was one of the first countries to send troops to help stabilize Sudan's Darfur region.

Kagame, tall and wearing a light-colored necktie and double-breasted suit that exaggerated his thinness, didn't cut a charismatic, much less a heroic figure, nor did he seem much like a politician. Standing stiffly erect, he spoke in a quiet, unemotional voice and a quaintly formal manner. "Distinguished ladies and gentlemen," he told the audience, "you will no doubt want to know why Rwandans were indulging in self-destruction." He spoke of the purported age-old antipathy between Hutu and Tutsi and said that until Africa was colonized, the groups had coexisted peacefully "as one people." The genocide, he said, "stemmed from the infamous colonial legacy of divide and rule, and the subsequent failure of the post-colonial government to reverse that pattern." Indeed, the genocide—which he characterized as "premeditated"—was "engineered by government," he said.

Rwandans themselves must take primary responsibility, Kagame added, but the developed world had the means to act and did nothing. "Did the international community fail [to act] because Rwanda was of no strategic importance?" he asked rhetorically. "Even as thousands of innocent people were killed by the hour, the western powers resisted using the proper term, genocide, instead calling it 'war,'" to avoid the semantic trigger that would have required signatories to the 1948 U.N. convention on genocide to intervene.

Kagame placed some blame on other African countries for failing to denounce the genocide, and on inaction by the Catholic Church, to which 65 percent of Rwandans belonged. The Church left its Rwandan followers "disillusioned and bitter," Kagame said. "Many were slaughtered in their places of worship." In this connection, he said, "we have a lot to learn from Boston College, particularly its efforts to deal with scoundrels in the Church"—an allusion to the Church in the 21st Century Initiative, BC's response to the sexual abuse crisis.

To prevent more calamities such as the one his country suffered, Kagame said, "we need to disaggregate the international community; if the U.N. isn't willing to stop genocide, regional powers should act and be supported in their actions." In addition, "countries that stand by during genocide should be held responsible," Kagame said, though he didn't say by whom or how.

As for Rwanda today, Kagame described the country's ongoing efforts to overcome the legacy of 1994. These include repatriation or resettlement of nearly half the population; rebuilding an economic infrastructure; prevention of reprisal killings; restoration of trust in government; and the beginnings of democracy. Kagame's devotion to democracy has been questioned by groups like Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, along with some from the BC community.

A small demonstration organized by Aloysius Lugira, adjunct associate professor of theology, protested Kagame's appearance on campus, and during a Q&A period that followed the speech, Kagame was asked why his government had banned the country's biggest opposition party and thrown the party's leader in prison.

Kagame started with a weak attempt at evasion, asking, "Which political party are you referring to?" but in the end he more or less answered the question. In the new Rwandan constitution, approved by an overwhelming vote of the people, "political parties are given the right to operate, but genocide ideology has been forbidden," he explained. "I'm certain that in the U.S. there are groups that have no right to exist. The Ku Klux Klan and the communist party have no right to operate here," he said, a note of uncertainty in his voice. Then, continuing on firmer footing: "I have seen parties in Europe being banned because of extremism." Critics should bear in mind that "what's good for the goose is good for the gander," Kagame concluded, to applause.

How well did this answer comport with the facts? In an e-mail the day after the speech, Lugira wrote that the opposition party in question had been formed by a disillusioned member of Kagame's own Rwandan Patriotic Front and had been banned because it "was involved in criticizing [the RPF], which was unacceptable to Kagame." In Lugira's view, Kagame "had to be the only bull in the kraal."

Some in the audience cut Kagame more slack. David Hollenbach, SJ, Flatley Professor of Theology, who has visited Rwanda since the genocide, said, "I don't want to defend everything Kagame has done, but I don't stand in high judgment of him. There may be some excessive human rights restrictions, but given everything Rwanda has been through, progress has been good." Abuchi Muoneme, SJ, a graduate student in physics, also viewed Kagame favorably. "I see him as the liberator of his people [and] as a reconciler trying to bring his country together," said Muoneme, a Nigerian who taught English in post-genocide Rwanda. "He's done his best, but it's going to take a while for Rwanda to become a true democratic society. Right now it's still haunted by the ghosts of genocide."

Elaborating on this point, Michael Kisembo, an Everett, Massachusetts, business consultant who hails from Uganda, and who was on campus to hear Kagame, said, "You need to bring order into the country, and then you can allow unabated democracy. They have first to heal and unite the people, and then build democratic institutions. That doesn't happen overnight."

In addition to the question about the opposition party, Kagame fielded queries on what it will take to end the troubles in Darfur (many more boots on the ground, and soon), the status of his country's relationship with the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (improving), and whether the Rwandan genocide might recur (only if the perpetrators, many now in prison or across the border in the Congo, are allowed to regroup and reenter Rwanda). At the end of the Q&A period, Kagame didn't linger in the spotlight but walked quickly offstage, acknowledging applause with an awkward sidewise wave.

Summing up the event, David Applegate '08 said, Kagame offered "no self-criticism. He wouldn't admit his own faults. But he's not as extreme [in that regard] as most politicians in America, who are, like, machines."

David Reich


David Reich is a writer based in the Boston area.

 

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