Half-Truth and Reconciliation: After the Rwandan Genocide
On the Embattled State of Journalism in Kagame's Rwanda
If you have seen a machete, you know that the blade is gently curved, a curvature which splits open green coconuts as easily as it does human necks. In 1994, Rwanda imported from China many more of these agricultural implements than were needed for farming. It was preparation for a genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, or about a fifth of Rwanda’s population, were killed by the Hutu majority. (Those ethnicities were crystallized as recently as Belgian rule, barely half a century before.) Starting on April 7th, 1994, local leaders speaking on the radio called on militia groups and ordinary citizens to kill their Tutsi friends and neighbors, “the cockroaches.” People died on hillsides where sunflowers grew; in churches and schools; in marshes, among reeds where they had hidden.
If you visit Rwanda today, you may see schoolchildren in football fields dutifully swinging machetes. They cut only grass. Things appear to be all right. Are they?
Since the genocide, Rwanda has been widely praised for being a post-conflict success story. The government, led by president Paul Kagame—whose party, in 1994, succeeded in defeating the Hutu majority government and ending the genocide—has rebuilt infrastructure, invested in healthcare and gender equity, and made efforts to rehabilitate perpetrators. One of the most lauded efforts has been the installation of gacaca courts. These are local courts in which perpetrators beg forgiveness, the operating principle being mercy rather than punishment. Rwanda has multiple political parties, radio stations, and newspapers. Happy statistics will tell you that half of Rwanda’s parliament is composed of women. In many ways, it appears to be a stable democracy in a politically tremorous region.
In 2009, the journalist and writer Anjan Sundaram arrived in the country to lead a journalists’ training program. Funded by the UK and the EU, this program aimed to invigorate the skills of established reporters, further educating them in researching and writing news stories. The reporters were supposed to cover government initiatives, like efforts to emphasize the importance of washing hands.
Over four years, Sundaram supported a group of journalists who did more. The book he has written, Bad News, follows his students—journalists who were, for their work, beaten, imprisoned, and driven mad with fear. Rwanda, Sundaram learned, was not the peaceful democracy it appeared to be. It was a state whose grip over the population subdued most citizens into silence or false flattery. Through the clarifying lens of this book, Rwanda appears not as a democracy making rapid progress after the horror of genocide, but as a disguised North Korea—a massively repressive dictatorship demanding slavish devotion to the leader, president Paul Kagame.
I was oblivious to this when I visited the country as a foreign student in 2009, the same year Sundaram first arrived. I was with ten other undergraduates from various American colleges, visiting Uganda and Rwanda to study “post-conflict development.” On many bus rides through Uganda, we had learned, alongside other passengers consigned to the back seat, to politely stand up, all in a row, to avoid being jolted by potholes and speedbumps. In Rwanda, after our passports were stamped, we returned to the bus and savored roads smooth as a bolt of silk. Among the undulations of green hills, lush with coffee plantations, not a scrap of litter was to be seen.
We admired it then. Now, having read Sundaram’s book, the orderly environs appear menacing, achieved not by a civic-minded society but by a state whose dictates must be obeyed.
Rwanda is a scenic country. Green hills, luminous when a storm comes. In the capital, Kigali, the hills might look forlorn, tiled with asbestos roofs, but at night, streetlamps turn the slopes into a net of light. Even while riding in a crowded van that smells of ripe bananas, one feels charmed.
On a bus to Lake Kivu, then, we were taken aback by our own surprise at the two European cyclists who waved as we passed. They were traveling. Was it possible to be a fun-seeking visitor in this country? It had not crossed our minds. Despite the sights—one could trek to see Rwanda’s famous silverback gorillas in their volcanic mountain habitat—and despite the well-paved roads winding up and down the country’s hills, there were, too, pink-suited convicts, once génocidaires, farming on hillsides. There were churches throughout the country where, if you looked closely at the walls, you could still see blood. The genocide was not so much history as present texture.
With my fellow students, I visited an unfinished school near the town of Gikongoro. On that morning, riverine wind flowing down the slopes, a man appeared with keys and beckoned us to follow him. He was tall and said little, and he held a roll of toilet paper—why, we did not yet know. He led us down a row of ochre cottages. He unlocked door after door. Heaped on tables inside were bones and whole skeletons, preserved in lime. Some skulls were smashed in. Some skeletons wore clothes turned to rags. One’s hands remained raised in the gesture of please don’t. We bowed our heads, standing in the archival scent of mothballs.
Of the thousands who were slaughtered while seeking safety in that school building, two had been our guide’s wife and child. They were remembered now with drying bouquets laid beside anonymous femurs and rib cages. In our rooms that night, we would think of that man and recall the dent, left by a bullet, on his head. He was one of few people attacked not with a machete but with a rifle. He had escaped. Now he returned to the site of his family’s murder and unrolled toilet paper for sobbing visitors. At the end, he locked each door. Then he stood on a verandah and lit a cigarette.
Wherever we went, from hillsides to living rooms, those months of 1994 appeared only recently buried. The immense silence of the country was the silence that pulses after a scream has rent the air.
At the time, we believed it was only the unease of a society in recovery from trauma. But the assumption we made was that recovery was the aim. What I comprehend now, having read Bad News, is that a peaceful and stable society might not be in the best interest of a certain kind of government. For this government, the continuance of trauma and hindrance of healing can be of strategic use.
What I comprehend now, having read Bad News, is that a peaceful and stable society might not be in the best interest of a certain kind of government. For this government, the continuance of trauma and hindrance of healing can be of strategic use.
Take the public remembrance ceremonies that occur every April, the month in which the killing started. Survivors of the genocide have complained about these ceremonies. Women beat their chests and scream; children, too young to have experienced the genocide, observe their mothers and, frightened, cry. At a ceremony we attended, we were invited to descend into a crypt containing coffins; the invitation was nearly an order. This was no museum, where one could view photos and entertain gentle emotional disturbance. This was life, and we were—as we were supposed to be—destabilized by the eruption of grief.
Trauma is not an ordinary condition. It implies an injured society, vulnerable to further harm. The kind of government such a society needs is not meek or modest but immense, powerful, its presence unquestionable. It is in this extraordinary condition of trauma that civil liberties might begin to look frivolous. The insistence upon national security allows for governance without accountability. What we saw at the remembrance ceremony, and at the school stacked with bones, was not a reverent demonstration of public memory. These were not arrangements that honored the dead. They were, it now appears, methods by which the state gained the maximum capacity to govern.
* * *
One evening in the Kanombe neighbourhood of Kigali, capital of Rwanda, a mother and her two children drew the living room curtains and settled on a sofa to eat rice and peas. While they ate, they watched television. The screen showed a bright day, sun burning upon soil the color of rust. A man was running. A group of men were chasing him, machetes in their hands.
I turned to look at the family with whom I was living—mother, daughter aged five, son aged two. They held dinner plates in their laps, the glow of television on their faces, their backs resting on gold tasseled cushions.
On the TV, the man arrived at a steep incline. There was no sound, but his terror was clear. He was running for his life. He clawed at the slope. He managed to climb a little. But the men chasing him grasped his ankles and pulled him down.
This was genocide footage, aired on the national channel. The government was in the practice of broadcasting actual footage of the killings. I never understood why families watched it. At the time, I believed it a disturbed form of remembrance. Now I believe it was a state-sanctioned re-inscription of trauma, an exposure to the genocide that would mark the new generation of children. In this way the traumatized state would be sustained.
A paternalistic state thrives in the continuation of emergency. In the guise of efficiency and order, it can develop methods of control that demand instantaneous and countrywide obedience. Plastic bags, for example, were eliminated. Convicts continue to farm in open air—the thought being, where can they run? When footage of the genocide is aired, and when public remembrance ceremonies disturb children and make wrecks of their parents, the question must be asked: How much of this is genuine unburdening of grief, and how much machination by which the state reminds its citizens of what happened once, and could happen again?
In Bad News, Sundaram recalls a convict he met. He asked the convict what he, having once been a teacher, would have taught in schools to prevent the genocide. “Human rights,” answered the man, and Sundaram initially dismissed this as practiced blather. But the man continued:
“Young man,” he said, “maybe you didn’t understand what I meant by human rights. What I mean is that in this kind of country we don’t know where the state ends and where we begin… And if I don’t know where I begin, I am worth nothing, I don’t have any rights. Then how to feel that another person has rights?”
He gestures to the frightening notion that the state had taken up residence within its citizens’ minds. The state’s control, in this case, was so total that material methods of applying directives—fences, fines—weren’t necessary. The state’s commands became continuous with the citizen’s will. In this scenario, was a citizen picking up a machete and ending his neighbour’s life truly culpable, or was he merely a device of the state?
After the genocide, in which nearly all citizens were one of three: murderer, victim, or survivor, ethnic tensions were not so much resolved as suppressed. Though the genocide was, in broad strokes, a murder of Tutsis by Hutus, all discussion of Hutu and Tutsi relations was silenced. It was illegal, we were told, to discuss ethnicity on the radio.
* * *
Reading Bad News years later, in America, I find articulated, finally, the hostile undercurrent of our months in Rwanda. Friends asked, How do you like it? And the usual remarks of friendly people and lovely country seemed not untrue but inaccurate. What we declined to tell them over the phone was that the country seemed a great graveyard where we had arrived, uninvited. Our naïve complaints, stemming from unease, would have been laughable.
Unease, after all a gentle sentiment, was for the fortunate. Bad News closes with the names of dozens of journalists who were imprisoned, “disappeared,” or forced to flee the country after they criticized the government. (Those who followed the rules were allowed to carry on: “Your Excellency,” asks a journalist at a public program, “why are so many countries eager to study our roads, hospitals and poverty-reduction programs? Is it because the country is developing so rapidly after the genocide?”)
A journalist’s investigation and writing yields a written record of history, and more besides. “If you don’t write notes the world can be made different,” explains a journalist in the book. “People’s memories can always be questioned, molded.” The thought offers some comprehension of why a policeman at a political rally, having observed Sundaram taking notes, told him to stop. It allows us to understand why one of Sundaram’s students chose to leave the journalism workshop and defect to a group of the president’s yes-men. The freely written word grew so menacing to the dictatorship, the government made it impossible to make a living by practicing independent reportage. It became so that a journalist could not live in safety, or be assured of their sanity.
Sundaram tells of one of his most gifted students, a reticent man named Gibson who wrote for a newspaper called Umuseso. There was such demand for this newspaper that vendors would sell photocopies after originals ran out. When Umuseso journalists began to be persecuted, Gibson started a magazine, New Horizons. The first story he published offered advice to mothers whose children were malnourished. Harmless, but the implication did not escape anyone—Gibson was suggesting that his country struggled with malnutrition. The government disapproved. Gibson fled to the countryside. He soon found that there was nowhere to go.
Rwanda is divided into administrative units, each composed of a hundred families. The units are required to report overnight visitors. Hotels send daily records of all guests to security services, using Rwanda’s network of clean, paved roads. Where could a man hide? Gibson tried in despair to give up reporting. He took up farming. But he could not live in that way. Eventually he fled to Uganda, where he imagined agents coming for him and doctors out to murder him. “We had lost this intelligent man,” writes Sundaram. “The government had not needed to kill him; they had just made him useless, ruined his mind.”
The discomfort I felt in Rwanda was the visitor’s unknowing apprehension of a society in which the state felt itself threatened, and struck its citizens mute. Under the peaceful civic life—in the red-soil towns I visited there were no public protests, no gatherings, no posters pinned to tree trunks—existed a country, I now see, wrenched from violence to violence.
Bad News‘ coverage of Rwanda is a true uncovering. Sundaram’s extraordinary reporting returns political stakes to literary ambition, reminding us that writing always participates in political life. It can be easy to take that for granted here in America, where our rich journalistic and literary life is predicated on a freedom that allows intimate acquaintance with the written word. When we speak of the failures of the word, we might refer to aesthetic frustrations. When we write, we celebrate the strange turn by which a word’s pinning of feeling and fact is not limitation but announcement of release. Denied this release, a country finds itself denied a public record—and public life.