No heroes in genocide
Role of Rwanda's president is questioned
Jonathan Curiel, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2005


He waves a cardboard sign scrawled with dark ink. It reads, "Paul Kagame is a criminal," "Shame on UOP," and "3,000,000+ Congolese killed." Daniel Nikuna holds his message high so people streaming out of the Stockton arena can't miss it. If Nikuna wanted to surprise the passers-by, he succeeds: Men and women who have just heard Rwanda's president hailed as a leader of high moral standing now hear a strong voice of dissent.

"There's not democracy in Rwanda," Nikuna tells the crowd gathered around him. "How can you be democratic and then kill 3 million people in Congo?"

A few minutes later, one of the 20 other protesters, Makuba Sekombo, hurls another inflammatory charge: In 1994, he says, Kagame's group orchestrated the plane crash that killed Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana.

The crash touched off the genocide that consumed hundreds of thousands of Rwandans. "I don't think (Kagame) deserves the attention he's getting in America," says Sekombo, who carries a sign charging that Kagame's administration is a "Looter of Congo wealth."

In July 1994, Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front stopped the genocide that killed at least 800,000 in Rwanda. That's an established fact. In the 11 years since, Kagame has been praised by everyone from President Bush to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Kagame's peacemaking deserves the world's accolades, but the demonstrators at his Stockton visit are a reminder that genocidal conflicts can't be reduced to simple equations in which one side is unquestionably good.

In the past two years, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have roundly criticized Kagame's government for measures they say oppress Rwandans' civic freedoms. The 2003 election that gave Kagame the presidency was fraught with "fraud, arrests, intimidation and appeals to ethnic fears and loyalties," according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

It also said Kagame's government has done "little to investigate and prosecute its soldiers for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the genocide or subsequently."

These alleged war crimes, in which soldiers from the Rwandan Patriotic Front are said to have killed tens of thousands of civilians, pale by comparison with the overall genocide instigated by Rwanda's Hutu extremists. But the alleged revenge killings reveal a pattern of abuse that continues to this day in Rwanda, say critics of Kagame's regime.

Filip Reyntjens, a professor of African Law and Politics at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, and one of the world's top experts on Rwanda, goes so far as to call Kagame "a dictator" who uses "structural violence" to maintain his grip on power.

After the Patriotic Front came to power, Kagame was appointed vice president, then (in 1998) elected chairman of the front, then (in 2000) voted into the presidency by the country's transitional National Assembly.

"If he opens up the political system, he's going to lose power. He knows that, so he's not going to do that," says Reyntjens in a phone interview from Antwerp.

Reyntjens says the international community has turned a blind eye to Kagame's abuses because it is burdened by guilt over not doing more in 1994, when Rwanda was run by men with machetes who massacred babies in the streets of Kigali.

U.S. officials knew widespread killing was taking place 11 years ago, but decided only to rescue American expatriates from the central African country. After Kagame's troops ended the genocide, U.S. officials wanted to see Rwanda as a "good guys-bad guys dichotomy," portraying the Rwandan Patriotic Front as the good side, Reyntjens says.

The intervening years have only reinforced the narrowness of this view of events.

Reyntjens argues that the best-selling book on Rwanda's genocide published in 1998, "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families," is "a thinly veiled apology for the RPF, whose crimes are systematically minimized or explained away."

"Hotel Rwanda," the hit 2004 film that was showered with attention at the Oscars, leaves out any details of the patriotic front's checkered history, which is intertwined with the Congo, where Rwandan troops have interceded in a proxy war that has raged on and off since 1998.

Initially, Rwanda sent its soldiers into the territory of its western neighbor to stop attacks by Hutu extremists who'd fled there, but the Rwandans soon began exploiting the rich minerals in the eastern Congo -- and it was this emphasis on mining resources (such as coltan, which goes into cell phones, and diamonds) that drove Rwanda's interests there, according to United Nations inquiries that concluded that Rwandan soldiers committed murder, torture, rape, arson and extortion.

The involvement of Rwanda's troops in the Congo has led to the killing of more than 3.8 million people since 1998, according to the International Rescue Committee. In December, the group said that more than 31,000 Congolese civilians continue to die monthly as a result of the conflict.

This is why people like Sekombo, a Congolese American who lives in San Jose, say they were compelled to drive to Stockton last month to protest Kagame's visit to the University of the Pacific. Fisticuffs almost broke out between anti-Kagame demonstrators (who all seemed to be from the Congo) and Kagame supporters.

In the next few months, a French magistrate investigating the 1994 crash of Habyarimana's plane will release a report linking Kagame to the tragedy, Reyntjens says. The magistrate has concluded Kagame gave the go-ahead to shoot down the plane, reported the French newspaper Le Monde, which previewed the still-classified report.

Kagame would have been motivated to give the OK, his detractors say, because he knew the resulting bloodshed would justify a takeover of Rwanda's government by his Rwandan Patriotic Front. Kagame dismisses France's investigation as a fantasy, saying the French were trying to cover up their own involvement in the genocide.

Whom to believe? A detailed account of the 1994 tragedy, "Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide," by investigative journalist Linda Melvern, suggests France supported the Hutu-led government in its killing spree.

Melvern, whose book was published on the 10th anniversary of the genocide, practically exonerates Kagame, saying Hutu extremists wanted Habyarimana, a Hutu, dead because he was willing to enter into a peace accord with the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

The truth may never be fully known. But unlike 1994, when pleas to intervene in Rwanda were widely ignored -- both before and during the genocide -- an international spotlight is now on Rwanda, a country the size of Maryland.

Although the lessons of Rwanda continue to be debated, Reyntjens, the Belgian professor, argues that the story hasn't changed in 11 years.

"It's quite understandable that people who discovered Rwanda through the genocide would have reasoned in terms of good guys and bad guys, because we saw the bad guys on television wielding their machetes, so the others had to be the good guys. But (Rwanda) is not the story of good and bad guys, it's the story of bad guys, period."

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