From the Archive | We wish to inform you that…

The Rwandan genocide was among the most shocking events of the 20th century. In this extract, Philip Gourevitch recounts the roles played by the media and the French state.

In 1994, twenty five years ago, the eyes of the world were on South Africa’s first democratic election, and the ascension of Nelson Mandela to the presidency. It was received, globally, as a moment of transcendent possibility. But at the same time horrific events were unfolding in Rwanda. Between 7 April and 15 July up to a million Tutsis were massacred, and up to half a million subject to sexual violence.

This is an edited excerpt from We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (Picador, 1998).

In 1987, a newspaper called Kanguka began appearing in Rwanda. Kanguka means “Wake Up” and the paper, edited by a Hutu from the south and backed by a prominent Tutsi businessman, was critical of the Habyarimana establishment. Its originality lay in presenting an analysis of Rwandan life based on economic rather than ethnic conflict.

Kanguka’s courageous staff faced constant harassment, but the paper was a hit with the small public who could read it. So in early 1990, Madame Agathe Habyarimana secretly convened several leaders of the akazu with the idea of launching a rival publication.

Related article:

They didn’t know the first thing about newspapers, but they were experts on human weakness – especially vanity and venality – and as their editor they hired a small-time hustler and big-time self-promoter named Hassan Ngeze, a former bus fare collector who had established himself as an entrepreneur, selling newspapers and drinks outside a gas station in Gisenyi, and from that vantage point had turned himself into a humorous man-on-the-street correspondent for Kanguka.

The paper Ngeze produced, Kangura – “Wake It Up” – billed itself as “the voice that seeks to awake and guide the majority people”. It began as little more than a lampoon of Kanguka, with an identical format that tricked readers into buying it. This ruse was helped along by the fact that just as Kangura appeared, the government seized several numbers of Kanguka.

But the paper’s irreverent tone was a bit too much like its opposite’s for the tastes of the akazu, and it annoyed Ngeze’s sponsors that he devoted large portions of the first issues to photo essays extolling his own virtues.

Arrest ploy

In July 1990, when Habyarimana’s security force arrested the editor of Kanguka on charges of high treason, they made a show of balance by simultaneously jailing Ngeze for disturbing the public order. The ploy worked on several levels.

Western human rights groups like Amnesty International issued joint appeals for the release of the two editors, bestowing on Ngeze an aura of anti-establishment martyrdom, when the truth was that he was a propagandist of the regime who had disappointed his patrons. At the same time, prison taught Ngeze that his welfare depended on his being a more diligent flunky, and he was an ambitious man who took the lesson to heart.

In October 1990, as Rwanda’s jails were being packed with alleged Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party accomplices, Ngeze was released to relaunch Kangura. (The editor of Kanguka remained conveniently locked away.)

Related article:

With the war as his backdrop, Ngeze struck a clever balance between his persona as a prison-accredited gadfly of the regime and his secret status as front man for the akazu. Even as he harangued Hutus to unite behind the president in the struggle against the Tutsi menace, he chided the president for failing to lead that struggle with sufficient vigilance.

While government officials still felt publicly constrained by international pressure from speaking openly of ethnicity, Ngeze published what he claimed were RPF documents that purportedly “proved” that the rebel movement was part of an ancient Tutsi-supremacist conspiracy to subjugate Hutus in feudal bondage.

He ran lists of prominent Tutsis and Hutu accomplices who had “infiltrated” public institutions, accused the government of betraying the revolution and called for a rigorous campaign of national “self-defence” to protect the “gains” of 1959 and 1973.

And he did all of this with his printing costs defrayed by government credit, giving away most of each print run to Rwanda’s mayors to distribute for free.

Hutu supremacist with the populist touch

A host of new periodicals appeared in Rwanda in 1990. All but Kangura served as voices of relative moderation, and all but Kangura are now largely forgotten.

More than anybody else, Ngeze, the Hutu supremacist with the populist touch, plucked from obscurity by the president’s wife to play the court jester, was writing the script for the coming Hutu crusade. It would be foolish to dispute his brilliance as a salesman of fear. When another paper ran a cartoon depicting Ngeze on a couch, being psychoanalysed by “the democratic press” –

Ngeze: I’m sick Doctor!! 
Doctor: Your sickness?! 
Ngeze: The Tutsis … Tutsis … Tutsis ! ! ! ! ! ! !

– Ngeze picked it up and ran it in Kangura. He was one of those creatures of destruction who turn everything hurled at them into their own weapon. He was funny and bold, and in one of the most repressed societies on Earth, he presented the liberating example of a man who seemed to know no taboos.

As a race theorist, Ngeze made British explorer John Hanning Speke look like what he was: an amateur. He was the original high-profile archetype of the Rwandan Hutu genocidaire, and his imitators and disciples were soon legion.

Although he was a practicing member of Rwanda’s small Muslim community – the only religious community, according to one Christian leader, that “apparently behaved quite well, and as a group was not active in the genocide, even seeking to save Tutsi Muslims” – Ngeze’s true religion was “Hutuness”.

The Ten Commandments

His most famous article, published in December 1990, was the credo of this newly crystallised faith: “The Hutu Ten Commandments”. In a few swift strokes, Ngeze revived, revised and reconciled the Hamitic myth and the rhetoric of the Hutu revolution to articulate a doctrine of militant Hutu purity.

The first three commandments addressed the stubborn perception, constantly reinforced by the tastes of visiting white men and Hutus with status, that the beauty of Tutsi women surpasses that of Hutu women. According to Ngeze’s protocols, all Tutsi women were Tutsi agents; Hutu men who married, befriended or employed a Tutsi woman “as a secretary or concubine” were to be considered traitors, and Hutu women, for their part, were commanded to guard against the Tutsi-loving impulses of Hutu men.

From sex, Ngeze moved on to matters of business, declaring every Tutsi dishonest – “his only aim is the supremacy of his ethnic group” – and any Hutu who had financial dealings with Tutsis an enemy of his people.

Related article:

The same held for political life. Hutus should control “all strategic positions, political, administrative, economic, military and security”. Hutus were further commanded to have “unity and solidarity” against “their common Tutsi enemy”, to study and spread “the Hutu ideology” of the revolution of 1959, and to regard as a traitor any Hutu who “persecutes his brother Hutu” for studying or spreading this ideology.

“The Hutu Ten Commandments” were widely circulated and immensely popular. President Juvénal Habyarimana championed their publication as proof of Rwanda’s “freedom of the press”. Community leaders across Rwanda regarded them as tantamount to law and read them aloud at public meetings.

The message was hardly unfamiliar, but with its whiff of holy war and its unforgiving warnings to lapsed Hutus, even Rwanda’s most unsophisticated peasantry could not fail to grasp that it had hit an altogether new pitch of alarm. The eighth and most often quoted commandment said: “Hutus must stop having mercy on the Tutsis.”

French aid

In December 1990, the same month that Ngeze published “The Hutu Ten Commandments”, Kangura also hailed President François Mitterrand of France with a full-page portrait, captioned “A friend in need is a friend indeed”. The salutation was apt. Fighting alongside Habyarimana’s Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR), hundreds of superbly equipped French paratroopers had kept the RPF from advancing beyond its first foothold in the northeast.

Initially, Belgium and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) also sent troops to back up the FAR, but the Zaireans were so given to drinking, looting and raping that Rwanda soon begged them to go home, and the Belgians withdrew of their own accord.

The French remained and their impact was such that, after the first month of fighting, Habyarimana pronounced the RPF defeated. In fact, the battered rebel forces merely retreated westward from the open grasslands of northeastern Rwanda to establish a new base on the jagged, rain-forested slopes of the Virunga volcanoes.

There – cold, wet and poorly supplied – the RPF suffered greater losses to pneumonia than to fighting, as they trained a steady trickle of new recruits into a fierce, and fiercely disciplined, guerrilla army that might have swiftly forced Habyarimana to the negotiating table, or brought him to outright defeat, had it not been for France.

A military agreement signed in 1975 between France and Rwanda expressly forbade the involvement of French troops in Rwandan combat, combat training or police operations. But Mitterrand liked Habyarimana and Mitterrand’s son, Jean-Christophe, an arms dealer and sometime commissar of African affairs in the French Foreign Ministry, liked him, too.

(As military expenditures drained Rwanda’s treasury and the war dragged on, an illegal drug trade developed in Rwanda; army officers set up marijuana plantations and Jean-Christophe Mitterrand is widely rumoured to have profited from the traffic.)

France funnelled huge shipments of armaments to Rwanda – right through the killings in 1994 – and throughout the early 1990s, French officers and troops served as Rwandan auxiliaries, directing everything from air traffic control and the interrogation of RPF prisoners to frontline combat.

Extension of the motherland

In January 1991, when the RPF took the key northwestern city of Ruhengeri, Habyarimana’s home base, government troops backed by French paratroopers drove them out within 24 hours. A few months later, when the United States ambassador to Rwanda suggested that the Habyarimana government should abolish ethnic identity cards, the French ambassador quashed the initiative.

Paris regarded Francophone Africa as “chez nous”, a virtual extension of the motherland, and the fact that the RPF had emerged out of Anglophone Uganda inspired the ancient French tribal phobia of an Anglo-Saxon menace. Swaddled in this imperial security blanket, Habyarimana and his ruling clique were free to ignore the RPF for long stretches and to concentrate on their campaign against the unarmed “domestic enemy”.

A few days after the RPF’s overnight occupation of Ruhengeri, Habyarimana’s FAR faked an attack on one of its own military camps in the northwest. The RPF was blamed and, in retaliation, a local mayor organised massacres of the Bagogwe, a quasi-nomadic Tutsi subgroup that subsisted in extreme poverty; scores were killed, and the mayor had them buried deep in his own yard.

More massacres followed and by the end of March, hundreds of Tutsis in the northwest had been slaughtered.

The good old days

“We were really terrorised in that period,” recalled Odette Nyiramilimo, a Tutsi physician and senator. “We thought we were going to be massacred.”

In 1989, when she was fired from the hospital, Nyiramilimo had been furious at the speed with which people she had trusted as friends turned away from her. A year later, she looked back on that time as the good old days.

Like many Rwandan Tutsis, Nyiramilimo first reacted to the war with indignation toward the refugee rebels for placing those who had stayed in the country in jeopardy. “We always thought those on the outside were well settled and better off,” she told me. “We had come to see our situation here as normal.

“I used to tell my exiled cousins, ‘Why come back? Stay there, you’re much better off,’ and they said, ‘Odette, even you have adopted the discourse of Habyarimana.’ The RPF had to make us aware that they suffered, living in exile, and we started to realise that we hadn’t thought of these exiles for all this time.

“Ninety-nine percent of the Tutsis had no idea that the RPF would attack. But we began to discuss it, and realised these were our brothers coming and that the Hutus we’d lived with didn’t regard us as equals. They rejected us.”

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.