Rwanda’s Untold Story. A reply to “38 scholars, scientists, researchers, journalists and historians” – By Filip Reyntjens

filip_reyntjensOn 12 October, 38 signatories sent a letter to the BBC’s Director-General to protest against the contents of the documentary “˜Rwanda’s Untold Story’ first broadcast by BBC 2 on October 1. The letter states that the BBC has been “recklessly irresponsible” in broadcasting the film which has “fuelled genocide denial” and “further emboldened the génocidaires”.

Only three of the signatories (Clark, Hintjens and Murison) are academics working on Rwanda (Linda Melvern calls herself ‘Professor’, but she is not; she has merely been an honorary professor at the University of Wales Aberystwyth). The others have either shown interest in Rwanda in the past or played a role there, or have a sectoral expertise, e.g. in genocide studies or international criminal law. Some are activists with a record of support for the Rwandan government.

I will limit myself to a critical examination of the four claims in the documentary called “untenable” by the signatories. Before doing so it is useful to point out that the documentary is not challenged on other important points (such as the RPF’s human rights record and democratic credentials), which allows us to suppose that the signatories agree with much in the programme.

First, the signatories are shocked by the fact that a witness in the programme is allowed to state that “only ten percent of the Interahamwe (militia) were killers”. This claim was made by a woman who was among the Hutu refugees slaughtered by the RPF in the Congo. She was very young when going through this gruelling experience, and she certainly did not conduct a scientific study of the number of militiamen actively involved in the killing of Tutsi. Her assessment doesn’t carry much weight, and one could indeed wonder why this was included in the programme at all.

In addition, the notion of “˜Interahamwe’ changed dramatically during the genocide. Before, they were the youth wing of the former single party MRND. A limited number of them (certainly much less than the 30,000 put forward in the letter) received a paramilitary training. When the genocide started, these distinctions were no longer made, as all those manning barriers and hunting down and killing Tutsi, including those from other political parties, were referred to as “˜Interahamwe’. In other words, it would be impossible to say how many of them were killers because it is unclear which entity we are talking about. What we do know is that about 70 percent of all Hutu males who were adult at the time of the genocide were convicted by Rwandan courts.

I do not need to dwell on the second claim considered untenable by the signatories. I agree with them that the figures provided by Professors Stam and Davenport on Tutsi and Hutu killed in 1994 do not appear to be based on solid research. At least the data they have published (not in a scientific journal or book, but merely on their website are insufficient to support their claim, which flirts with genocide minimisation or denial.

Third, the signatories wrongly state that only “Hutu Power extremists” and “génocidaires and a few ICTR defence lawyers” argue that the shooting down of the presidential plane was perpetrated by the RPF. Several others, including myself, not belonging to the above categories, believe that there are serious indications of the RPF’s guilt. The signatories go on to claim that French judicial evidence shows that the RPF could not have committed the attack, as the missiles “came from the confines of the government-run barracks”.

First of all, this is untrue: the report found that the missiles were fired from the limits of a military domain that is over one hundred hectares large and from a spot far away from the barracks.

Second, the findings were based on the assumption that the plane followed a normal approach, something that is not certain – as the report itself acknowledges.

Third, the report is one of thousands of pieces of evidence in the judicial file, and it is contradicted by other elements in the file. Had the expert report, which became public in January 2012, been as convincing as the letter wants us to believe, the judges would have dropped the charges against the Rwandan suspects ages ago. Claiming as the writers do that the RPF cannot have downed the plane is reckless.

The fourth issue forcefully addressed by the signatories is that the documentary “even tries to raise doubts about whether or not the RPF stopped the genocide”. Of course the genocide stopped after the RPF’s military victory, but the real question is whether putting an end to genocide was the RPF’s main objective. It is paradoxically one of the signatories, who according to the letter is “the authority on the subject”, who earlier expressed serious doubts about this. But General Dallaire’s memory now seems to fail him.

I limit myself to offering some quotes from Dallaire’s memoirs – Shake hands with the devil. The failure of humanity in Rwanda. These passages are self-explanatory and need no commentary. They show that the RPF was interested in military victory rather than in saving Tutsi. Dallaire asked Kagame “why he wasn’t going straight for the jugular in Kigali, and he ignored the implication of my question. He knew full well that every day of fighting on the periphery meant certain death for Tutsis still behind RGF lines” (p. 327).

At the end of April, when hundreds of thousands of Tutsi were still alive, Kagame told Dallaire: “Those that were to die are already dead. If an intervention force is sent to Rwanda, we will fight it” (p. 342). When Dallaire raised his worries about the fate of threatened Tutsi, Kagame had this chilling reaction: “There will be many sacrifices in this war. If the (Tutsi) refugees have to be killed for the cause, they will be considered as having been part of the sacrifice” (p. 358).

Kagame wanted all of the country, not parts of it. I came to believe he didn’t want the situation to stabilize until he had won” (p. 438). Finally, Dallaire had “dire thoughts as whether the (RPF) campaign and the genocide had been orchestrated to clear the way for Rwanda’s return to the pre-1959 status quo in which Tutsis had called all the shots. Had the Hutu extremists been bigger dupes than I?” (p. 476).

I too do not agree with everything shown and said in the documentary. I too am concerned about the use that is already being made and will be made of the film by those who deny the genocide. But that is not a legitimate reason to unfairly attack the BBC and the programme’s producers. One can only hope that the debate triggered by the film will contribute to establishing a shared truth about the tragedy that has unfolded in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region during the last quarter of a century.

Dr. Filip Reyntjens is Professor of African Law and Politics at the Institute of Development Policy and Management, University of Antwerp.

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10 thoughts on “Rwanda’s Untold Story. A reply to “38 scholars, scientists, researchers, journalists and historians” – By Filip Reyntjens

  1. In the documentary, you state that the ICTR was an instance of victor’s justice, since the RPF was shielded from investigation, while “those who lost the war” were prosecuted.

    I agree that the RPF hasn’t been, but should be held accountable for the massacres we all know they committed, but I find your phrasing regarding the prosecuted troublesome. Do you really believe that the convicted people who organized the genocide against unarmed Rwandan citizens organized those killings as part of the war? Does it make sense to state that they “lost the war”?

    All of this makes it sound like the actions of the Interahamwe were excessive, but understandable responses the RPF-initiated civil war, on par with the war crimes committed by the RPF. “Random acts of violence” as Prof. Stam called it in the documentary. This is not just ‘flirting with genocide minimisation’, but outright denial.

    The finer points of their letter can be argued, and I agree with most of what you state so carefully here, but the overall message of the documentary regarding the genocide, supported by your remarks, is too far from reality to contribute anything to the discussion on Rwandan history. Instead, after watching this documentary, audiences unfamiliar with the finer details of Rwandan history are left to accept the clearly false idea that four times as many Hutus were killed in those hundred days in 1994 than Tutsis – an outrageous and unsupported claim which obviously deserves a strong rebuttal.

    I wish you would distance yourself from the message of the documentary more forcefully, rather than accuse the signatories of an ‘unfair attack’.

  2. Dr Filip Reyntjens is creating a polemic discussion here: “the documentary is not challenged on other important points (such as the RPF’s human rights record and democratic credentials), which allows us to suppose that the signatories agree with much in the programme”.
    Firstly, the main point is aknowledging the past and dealing with present separately: the documentary mixed the two purposely to make a case of “untold story” and exploiting western TV viewers naivety of African politics. There is a genocide and there were dynamics of the aftermath.
    Secondly, Filip tries to conceptualise under what label killings were committed: “the notion of ‘Interahamwe’ changed dramatically during the genocide. Before, they were the youth wing of the former single party MRND. A limited number of them (certainly much less than the 30,000 put forward in the letter) received a paramilitary training. When the genocide started, these distinctions were no longer made, as all those manning barriers and hunting down and killing Tutsi, including those from other political parties, were referred to as ‘Interahamwe’ ”
    Filip is right here. But does it matter whether a killer committed killings under a name of Interahamwe or just as ordinary Rwandan organising roadblocks? Isn’t all about killings unarmed and innocent citizens simply because of who they are?
    Finally, whether the 38 scholars have not credentials or not, the point is whether the sources used in the documentary are more objective. The documentary relied so much on individuals who fall out with Kagame and yet they have worked with him over 25 years. It would have been best for the documentary to rely on both what it relied on plus the views of these scholars and eye witnesses.

    As general comment, the argument about whether RPF stopped genocide is irrelevant for the victims and survivors. Genocide happened and stopped. This debate should be dealt with separately too. Dr Filip is taking Dallaire quotes out of the context of the wars and dynamics of biased France intervention at the time. There was an extreme pressure to survive and win the Operations Turquoise than winning genocide regime. This was to deal with the source than the consequences.


  3. I’m glad Reyntjens agrees that the BBC relied on shoddy research when it advanced the claim that most of the 94 victims were Tutsi. I guess where i disagree with him is on the significance of that claim.
    To be absolutely clear: this doesn’t merely flirt with genocide denialism; it constitutes the very essence of it. Any viewer previously unaquainted with Rwandan history would come away from the documentary believing that the entire genocide was a trumped up myth and that the Tutsi were the true victims.
    This is no less appalling than if similar claims were made about Germans and Jews. It requires both an academic and a public repudiation. I would not want to be associated with such a project: Its smell lingers on anyone who touches it.
    On the other claims I am ambivalent. The ratio of killers among the truly innocent refugees in DRC (which i took to be the woman’s point) can only be guessed at. Who downed the plane to me remains something of a red herring. No matter who did, nothing about the assassination of a president justifies a genocide. And while it’s clear that ending the genocide wasnt Kagame’s top priority, it’s true that he was engaged in an existential war. The US, with far less of an excuse, disregarded the holocaust.
    The larger point, surely, is that while debate on these matters falls well within the bounds of acceptable discourse, genocide minimisation or denial does not. No serious scholar-and Reyntjens is surely that-should have anything to do with such projects, and i hope he will soon issue as full-throated a denunciation of the documentary as it deserves.

  4. Given that Filip Reyntejens raises question re the credentials of the writers of the letter I think it is important to state mine. I am an academic, I have been a professor for 20 years, I have carried out research in Rwanda for the last 12 years and lived in Rwanda from 2005 to 2013. I worked for the government from 2005-2008 and for an independent think tank from 2008 to date. My position on Rwanda is complex and ambivalent but I agree that the country is not democratic and there is evidence of human rights abuses as sent out in a recent report by the UK Government , for example.
    However, I can only agree with the letter writers that the BBC exercised poor judgement when it broadcast the programme and that it will fuel genocide denial

  5. I very much agree with you David.

    It should be quite possible to denounce RPF atrocities without flirting with genocide denial. Commentators on the left – see Edward Herman – have been particularly bad on this point.

  6. Rwanda’s story is told from the narratives of Kagame, his western backers and paid western academia to promote propaganda masterminded by Kagame to the detriment of the African people.

    Rwanda MUST not be discussed in an isolation, what happened in Rwanda must not be purely that Hutus murdered Tutsi, Kagame wanted the numbers, it was irrelevant of which tribe got slaughtered, they needed to create an impact –it was all about numbers and nothing else. The person who committed genocide in Rwanda is none other than Kagame with the help of Ugandan, president Museveni
    Some academia are nothing but a tool that Kagame is still using to promote his propaganda as he subject many people to the gravest human right abuses. As, an African, I am disappointed by the way some western “academia” visits an African country for a short time and start calling themselves “EXPERTS”, yet using Governmental datas, governmental propaganda and information to tell the world that they know what is happening in the country. African voices are ignored and their narratives are disregarded as it does not make better reading.

    Museveni and Kagame have committed genocide in numerous times, in Luwero Triangle, Eastern and Northern Uganda, in Rwanda and in Congo. While most people who called themselves “Experts” on the great Lakes region continues to side with Kagame and backing is claim of genocide committed against the Tutsi by Hutus (I totally disagree with such claim!!) The real reasons behind the killing was to create impact and that impact was impossible without the number – as I have already stated, it was all about NUMBERS.
    A thousand lies does not make it right, because it has been told and repeated too many times.

  7. @David Aronson. I have been interviewed for the documentary, but I wasn’t involved otherwise in its production. I have explained where I believe the documentary is (shockingly) wrong. Beyond that, I have no reason to “issue as full-throated a denunciation of the documentary as it deserves”, because I agree with most of it.

  8. @Pamela Abbott Hi Prof. your testimony here is excellent because you are exactly providing very reliable informations about the true atmosphere in Rwanda it is in real person because while you were serving for this givernment of Rwanda me to I was there at KIST where u worked,but that you know is a drop in an ocean ,first the historical background before 1959 about tutsis population oppression towards hutus and this lasted for 400years till 1959 left all hutus generation in humulity,despite their majority in number as number is also argued on in this conversation ,but after 1959 revolution hutus got power yes there was something like revenge of hutus towards tutsis for 30 after you should even count large number of tutsis owning top rich companies at Habyarimana’regime in Rwanda,now the 1990 war from Uganda started another anguish for the hutus especial those in provinced sharing border with Uganda ,there are more than enough documentations reporting about the attrocities including killings tortures kidnappings commited by this RPF led by Kagame and this was selective targeting hutus population now the PRF /Kagame ignored that they were reminding the hutus the miserable life of slavery before 1959 and that if they lose this war the same was going to happen to them again.but the RPF alone was not a big issue since their power compared to the FAR (former army) was very much small the truth that they do not want the world to know is that the most criminals we here in Rwanda we have are the USA of Bill Clinton UK of Tony Blair,Uganda of Museveni because they supported the criminals actions in all aspects ,providing funds,weapons,support in UN,UNSC,but putting only all kinds of pressure on the former government alone we know them as setting as unfair biased referes and we know that Kagame was trained in the US not for Rwandan interests but for other masters otherwise if he had no biased referees he would have accepted Arusha peace plan not to chose assasinate his predecessor simply because there was no hope to win elections.

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