opposing histories

Genocide in Rwanda: The mechanisms of denial

By Laetitia Tran Ngoc

Posted on March 12, 2020 11:01

Participants hold candles while holding a night vigil during a commemoration ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, at the Amahoro stadium in Kigali
Participants hold candles while holding a night vigil during a commemoration ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Rwanda April 7, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Denial is integral in any genocide story, and the Rwandan case is no exception. — A British investigative journalist has looked into the methods used by genocide deniers to create an alternative history of events in Rwanda.

In this well-researched book, Intent to Deceive: Denying the Rwandan Genocide, investigative journalist Linda Melvern methodically analyses the strategy implemented by Rwandan génocidaires to promote their biased version of events.

In April 2014, 20 years after the genocide of the Tutsis, the BBC broadcasted “Rwanda’s Untold Story,” a documentary which presented the conflict as a double genocide whose main victims were, in reality, Hutus.

Ten years earlier, on the tenth anniversary of the massacres, a controversial investigation conducted by French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière – in which he alleged that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was responsible for shooting down President Habyarimana’s plane – had cast a shadow over the commemorative ceremonies.

If denial is an integral part of genocide, the Tutsi genocide has the particularity of being openly called into question within perfectly respectable circles outside of social media and conspiracy theory blogs.

After authoring two seminal works on the Rwandan genocide, denial takes centre stage in British investigative journalist Linda Melvern’s latest book. Using specific arguments and a large body of witness accounts and documents, Intent to Deceive: Denying the Rwandan Genocide exposes how genocide deniers have crafted an alternative history of the Rwandan genocide.

Disinformation campaign at the United Nations

According to Melvern, genocide denial had already taken root in the early days of the massacres.

“The masterstroke of the genocidal government was to use its membership of the UN Security Council to spread the theory of spontaneous, out of control violence and promote the legitimacy of its actions within an international platform,” Melvern writes.

She continues: “over the course of three months of genocide, not one other representative requested the side-lining of a diplomat who continued to legitimise the massacres.”

The diplomat’s false account of events was actively embraced by many countries keen to justify their inaction. Today, there is no doubt that the world turned its back on Rwanda during the genocide, but the critical role this indifference played in constructing denial has received much less attention.

Melvern’s book shows the catastrophic impact the UN Security Council’s misguided ways had on the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

In addition to operating with an inadequate budget and staff, the restriction of its jurisdiction to the year 1994 prevented it from being able to refer to key documents, such as evidence of arms purchases prior to 1994 and government records proving that the regime’s racism had become increasingly virulent as from 1990.

Despite its limitations, the ICTR succeeded in acknowledging for the first time that the genocide was planned, but Melvern reveals that its work fell far short of its potential and how genocide deniers exploited every grey area.

Network of lies

Melvern furthers her case by delving into the intricate network through which these theories were communicated, focusing on the involvement of a segment of the press, which in some instances repeated verbatim a revisionist vocabulary.

READ MORE: Rwanda: The tragic end of Kizito Mihigo, from reconciliation to death in a cell

“After the government’s military defeat, the defeated officers agreed that the RPF had caused the entire catastrophe, by having invaded [the country]. This had been a civil war. Afterwards, they needed to use the Western press to get their message across,” Melvern writes.

And they clearly succeeded in getting their message across: “No doubt we should refrain from being naïve, as this isn’t a case of the good guys versus the bad guys,” wrote Jean-Marie Colombani in an editorial published on 18 June 1994 for Le Monde, after the Tutsis had been massacred daily for two months.

In August 1995, ethnologist Pierre Erny argued in French daily La Croix that two genocides had occurred in Rwanda, while in Libération, reporter Stephen Smith, without denying the reality of the Tutsi genocide, insisted on the fact that there were “neither good guys nor bad guys” in Rwanda, but on the contrary victims and executioners in both camps.

Following the arrest of Ferdinand Nahimana, the radical regime’s chief propagandist, in Cameroon in 1996, the historian gave interviews to Cameroon’s governmental daily Cameroon Tribune as well as to pan-African monthly Africa International in which he presented himself as a misunderstood victim and reiterated the “complexity of inter-ethnic massacres” in Rwanda.

One of the book’s notable anecdotes relates the story of Robert Gersony, a US consultant and ardent advocate of the theory that the RPF systematically massacred the Hutus, providing a fascinating example of how a fabricated story can continue to persist and gain traction over the years.

Although disproved by US forensic analysis, Gersony still supports his dubious theory to this day and now journalists like Judi Rever, author of In Praise of Blood, a book published in 2018 which also promotes Gersony’s double genocide theory, are carrying on the torch.

Years go by, ideology lingers on

Melvern observes that after an initial period marked by confusion and a lack of analysis in the years following the genocide, a new trend in the media’s coverage of the Rwandan genocide has emerged: “the ideology is still alive and it has had a pernicious influence on the most highly-regarded institutions, including The Guardian and the BBC,” the journalist said.

READ MORE: Controversial Rwanda interview earns BBC Africa journalist sack

Although they acknowledge the reality of the “massacres” committed against the Tutsis, the proponents of this ideology interpret the facts in such a way that they claim the legal definition of “genocide” can be disputed.

A number of partisans of this ideology can be found in academia, where some experts have given it a veneer of respectability, while often looking past factual reality. In a book published in 2010, Sorbonne University Professor André Guichaoua argues that the RPF deliberately shot down the plane carrying President Habyarimana, thereby sacrificing the Tutsi population in its quest for power, and adds that the genocide did not begin until 12 April and was a desperate attempt by the government to fend off the advance of RPF rebels.

However, this stance disregards an enormous body of evidence indicating that the mass slaughter began on 7 April.

Melvern’s book points out how the partisans of this position have a tendency to quote one another and use the same sources for their supposedly exclusive information. For example, in 2017, American academic Helen C. Epstein used a similar analytical framework in her book which alleges that the RPF assassinated President Habyarimana with the help of the United States and Uganda.

Melvern notes that the “source of Epstein’s allegations was Filip Reyntjens, professor emeritus at the University of Anvers, who himself had obtained his information from Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, a génocidaire sentenced by the ICTR and considered to be the architect of the Rwandan final solution.”

Enormous task ahead

Although the abundance of information presented and the complexity of the subject covered in Intent to Deceive: Denying the Rwandan Genocide make for a difficult read, this first exhaustive analysis of the history of Tutsi genocide denial is an essential resource which helps guide readers through the labyrinth of literature on Rwanda’s history.

The book also does a tremendous job of demonstrating the methods by which the denialist narrative thrives on estimates, extrapolations, and disregard of any evidence that conflicts with it.

Given the seductive power of convenient and reductive denialist theories, is opting for a methodical and rational approach effective?

Melvern’s answer is a resounding yes: “Only facts can fight lies. And this is just the very beginning. I find it incredible that no academic research has been produced on the Interahamwe militias.” It’s true that there’s an abundance of unanalysed records, new documents have been declassified and many of those involved in the genocide have yet to testify.

As journalist Patrick de Saint-Exupéry noted, what is said after a genocide comes first and foremost from those who have a vested interest in denying what happened. Some 26 years after the events unfolded, research on the history of Rwanda’s genocide is only just beginning.

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