By Judi Rever
Oct 17, 2013
Toronto – It is simply too embarrassing for Paul Kagame to visit the West anymore, as eager as the Rwandan president is to pose as a respected African statesman. His visit to Toronto last month was stirring evidence of this.
On September 28, the president slipped into “Toronto the Good” to meet with members of the Rwandan diaspora and celebrate Rwanda Day. The Canadian government had gone to great lengths to avoid commenting on the private visit, except to say that if the leader did set foot in the country, the RCMP and local police would be obliged to provide security, since as head of state he qualified as an internationally protected person.
But it is hard to shield a man whose reputation precedes him. By mid-morning on the Saturday in question, a few hundred Rwandan and Congolese protesters were staking out the Sheraton Hotel on Queen Street, right across from Nathan Philips Square where they suspected Kagame and his delegation were staying. The protesters called for the president’s arrest on war crimes charges, unleashing recordings of sirens and shouting epithets with megaphones that the hotel was harboring a mass killer inside, as red-faced staff and patrons looked on in disbelief.
Meanwhile, police officers — a few wearing goofy navy blue shorts and others in trademark cargo pants — escorted protesters out of the hotel’s car park and onto the street. Demonstrators held placards sprayed in paint the colour of blood, their posters displaying orphans, corpses and three progressive politicians languishing in Kigali jails: Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu mother and leader of the United Democratic Forces, Deo Mushayidi, a Tutsi opposition leader slapped with a life sentence, and Bernard Ntaganda, leader of the opposition PS Imberakuri, jailed on murky charges of “divisionism.”
A good number of protesters were victims of lethal military campaigns carried out by Kagame’s Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) since the early 1990s. One man and his family narrowly survived the Kibeho massacre in April 1995 when Rwandan soldiers shot into crowds at a displacement camp. Shortly after returning to his native village in Kigali rural, his wife and baby boy were slaughtered by Kagame’s troops, he said, and dumped in their outhouse. Another man of mixed Tutsi and Hutu ethnicity lost his parents and siblings in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo after being hunted by RPA soldiers across a territory the size of Western Europe. Another man, small in stature, was orphaned at the age of six after losing his family during the Congo chase in 1996-1997. Left to fend for himself in the dense equatorial jungle, he ate whatever he could get his hands on and continued to run way from the killers until taken in by a local Congolese family.
Their stories spilled out fast and furiously, amid the sirens that blared in a normally restrained city known for its Victorian mores.
The demonstration, while vitriolic, could have been worse; relatively few protesters actually showed up compared to the thousands that organizers had hoped for. That’s because Kagame shrewdly kept the venue under wraps all day. On its website, the Rwandan embassy in Ottawa urged supporters to come to Toronto to celebrate Rwanda’s economic and social progress since the genocide, but failed to disclose the location of the meeting. In the end, scores of finely-dressed and well-coiffed Rwandans were flown in and put up at the posh Westin Harbour Castle along the shores of Lake Ontario — while other Rwandan Canadians wishing to see their leader in person were privately contacted and given transport to the event.
By mid-afternoon, social media had leaked information that the president would be speaking at an arena at Downsview Park in a barren neighborhood of northwestern Toronto where RCMP and Toronto police maintained a heavy presence. Hardcore critics quickly converged on the park, their faux-blood-dripping banners reading: ‘Kagame Kills Babies’ and ‘Kagame a murderer in the DRC.’ When the presidential car finally arrived, the protesters chanted and threw eggs and stones, managing to crack a window as the vehicle veered past the security barricade. At the same time a group of naked Quebecois feminists appeared out of nowhere like fiery leprechauns, their white breasts painted with ‘Kagame Guilty of Rape’ and ‘Rapist Go Fuck Yourself’ – a reference to a militia called M23 that Rwanda has supported in the Congo whose members have raped, killed and displaced thousands of civilians.
The entire scene was humiliating, especially for a head of state once courted by western governments, diplomats and human rights activists. In Toronto, Kagame appeared to be in survival mode.
Not that he doesn’t maintain a coterie of loyal fans: among them former US President Bill Clinton, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bono, Howard Buffet, Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
And that’s because Kagame’s achievements, while far too historicized, remain intact. He is rightly credited with routing Hutu extremists responsible for a three-month killing spree whose primary targets were the country’s minority Tutsi. These extremists, drawn from members of the former Hutu government, army and militia — and backed by willing executioners among Rwanda’s peasantry — were intent on exterminating Tutsis individually and as a group, and went about slaughtering a great number of Hutu dissenters that got in their way. The victims of this genocide are estimated to be in the several hundreds of thousands.
Except that isn’t the entire story. Kagame and his formidable entourage know this. Many Rwandan academics know and acknowledge it. The International Criminal Court for Rwanda, set up in the aftermath of the genocide, knows it as well, yet refuses to acknowledge or act on it.
The Rwandan president has cleverly gambled on the West believing a binary narrative of good versus evil in Rwanda. Others in the West who know better – including officials in Washington and London — chose a cynical calculus after the genocide: that despite his dubious past, Kagame was the best guarantor of stability in a sea of ethnic extremism.
Except the calculus appears to have been dangerously wrong. How do we know? Because a growing number of Hutus and RPA defectors are now seeking to expose a fuller, if not grimmer account of what really happened in Rwanda before and after Kagame’s ascent to power.
What has emerged is an historical portrait of an army under Kagame’s direction that engaged in mass killing of unarmed Hutu civilians, before, during and after the genocide.
Victims and critics tell of his army displacing upwards of a million people in northern Rwanda before the genocide, of carrying out a campaign to bring war to the population, firing on displacement camps and assassinating Hutu political opponents.
They also say that as soon as the genocide was unleashed in April 1994, RPA death squads began highly organized ‘sweeping’ operations in the northern and eastern prefectures of Byumba and Kibungo, hunting down Hutu men, women and children in their homes, in swamps and on plantations, killing them on the spot or calling them to meetings and slaughtering them there. Two of Kagame’s senior officers, now generals that have served as UN peacekeepers in high profile missions in Africa, allegedly commanded these gruesome operations, the objective of which was to exterminate as many Hutus as possible, according to ex RPA soldiers.
In 1994, the United Nations conducted a partial investigation of these war crimes, under a team led by a US consultant named Robert Gersony.
A UN cable released anonymously gives an account of Gersony’s findings: “In a two-hour briefing, 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 chose to bury Gersony’s explosive report in an effort to provide political cover for Kagame and his newly installed government.
Estimates of those killed by the RPA during the genocide and thereafter in areas such as Gitarama, Butare, Kibuye, Gikongoro, Cyangugu, Gisenyi and Ruhengeri are dramatically higher. Officers have spoken of Hutu male recruits being rounded up, put into trucks and driven at night to various killing grounds near the Gabiro Training barracks and elsewhere in Akagera National Park, where they were dumped and burned, their ashes mixed with soil or spread across the park’s lakes.
Estimates of hundred of thousands of Hutus killed by Kagame’s army in this manner for years do not come from Hutus themselves, but from former officers and soldiers of his own Tutsi-led army who could no longer stomach the atrocities committed by their regime. One senior officer that was close to the Gabiro operations said he believed the crimes amounted to genocide.
“This is going to come back. This is going to be generational,” the officer said with trepidation.
But all these crimes are history now, as Kagame scrambles to maintain his flagging legitimacy abroad and his grip on power at home and in eastern Congo, where his army first invaded in 1996, and militias he’s supported have stoked war ever since.
In 2003, Rwanda passed a controversial law that condemns individuals for denying or grossly minimizing genocide, or attempting to justify genocide or destroy evidence related to it. Individuals found guilty are liable to a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 20 in prison.
Ironically, as the scale of RPA operations during the 1990s becomes clearer, it could be argued that the Rwandan president should at least be tried for genocide denial, if nothing else. But of course the current law forbids denying only the official genocide that we all know and recognize, the one perpetrated by Hutu extremists against Tutsis.
So for now, as long as Kagame stays at home and can control the levers of judiciary, government and his army, he may have many years still ahead.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
By Judi Rever