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DRC: ‘There was pain and tragedy in the Congo, but no genocide’ – Patrick de Saint-Exupéry

By Mehdi Ba, Romain Gras
Posted on Saturday, 27 March 2021 01:20

Rwandan army chief James Kabarebe addresses soldiers pulling out of eastern Congo September 27, 2002. Reuters - Antony Njuguna

Was there a genocide in the DRC? In his book ‘La Traversée’ (The Journey), Patrick de Saint-Exupéry recounts his Congolese odyssey on the trail of Rwandan Hutu refugees and tries to answer this persistent question.

“We got the Congolese into trouble because we were unable to deal with the crimes we had allowed to be committed in Rwanda. We thought that the vast Congo would be a great place to muddy the waters. And the Congolese paid the price.”

The tone is direct and familiar, it displays all of journalist Saint-Exupéry’s long-standing indignation. For him, the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 is not an event to be added to the many conflicts that this former Figaro reporter, who later founded the magazine XXI, has experienced throughout a career during which his internal compass has always suggested that he “run into trouble” – as one of his close friends put it.

Journalist Patrick de Saint Exupéry, author of ‘La Traversée’ in Paris on 10 March, 2021. (Vincent Fournier/JA)

26 years after the genocide, of which he was one of the few witnesses as a special envoy, Saint-Exupéry went back into the field, this time on the other side of the border: in the DRC, on the trail of Rwandan Hutu refugees who had found refuge there after having, for some of them, directly participated in the extermination of one million Tutsis. He has written an evocative account in La Traversée.

By motorbike, train or barge, this admirer of the Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist, (author of Exterminate All the Brutes!) is back to reporting on the trail of the massacres of the past, picking up in his equatorial epic the small pieces that make up the great History.

He has, in his ear, what he calls the “feedback effect”: “this unbearable hissing” that occurs when “the original sound and the echo sound are superimposed”. And he has this creeping question in mind,  one that has haunted the international community for more than 20 years: was a second genocide committed in the Congo by the same people who put an end to the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda?

We spoke to the author about his new book and about what answers he may have to that persistent question.

In September 1994, during the Franco-African summit in Biarritz, which you attended, President François Mitterrand mentioned in his speech “the genocide” in Rwanda. Was this a trigger that led you to undertake this journey, a quarter of a century later?

Patrick de Saint-Exupéry: François Mitterrand was standing at the podium with several African heads of state at his side, including Mobutu, the guest of honour at the summit. There, the French president referred to ‘the’ genocide in Rwanda, whereas his written speech, given to journalists beforehand, mentioned ‘the genocides’ in Rwanda. In all innocence, I asked which was the correct version between this singular and plural…

And how did François Mitterrand answer you?

From memory, he started to answer my question, because he didn’t really have a choice. But he gibbered an almost incomprehensible explanation. Then came another question on another subject. Then, on his own initiative, the president returned to my question — he was a bit clearer but still confusing. Then another question, and here he came back to it a third time…

Just after the press conference, I bumped into Bruno Delaye and Dominique Pin, who were in charge of the Elysée’s Africa unit. They were enraged and yelled at me. It’s surprising that they didn’t grab me by the collar! It was very strange to see these people displaying such anger in the middle of the large amphitheatre, in front of my colleagues, after a question that was nevertheless necessary.

No one could have suspected at the time that, for 20 or 25 years, a propaganda machine would be put in place to give substance to this wobbly presidential hypothesis of a double genocide — a hypothesis in which many people would get involved with all their energy.

It wasn’t written in advance. I mention this scene in a few lines in L’inavouable, without dwelling on it, because it seemed surreal at the time. It was much later, after seeing the thesis of the double genocide come up again and again, which was gaining momentum over the years, that I took advantage of having a little time to go back and see what it was really like.

At the beginning of the book, you mention the “point of no return” regarding this thesis, from which there is no turning back. Does this speech in Biarritz mark this turning point?

Yes, if we had to define it. In retrospect, this speech in Biarritz would probably mark this point of no return. From the moment François Mitterrand put the hypothesis in his words, the step was taken. The dynamics that followed were inspired by and fed by this presidential speech.

At the end of 1996, a rebellion supported by Kigali made an incursion into the east of the DRC and dismantled the refugee camps with weapons. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutus returned to Rwanda. Others, less numerous, flee to the west of what is still Zaire. What was at stake at that time?

At the time, it was considered that these refugee camps – which grouped together about two million people – were completely run by the Rwandan Hutu extremists involved in the 1994 genocide: whether it was a question of controlling the population, propaganda, rearmament, military training or the reconstitution of militias… These armed groups launched more and more raids on Rwanda, on the other side of the border, in order to destabilise that country as much as possible. As they themselves said at the time, they wanted to ‘finish the job’, in other words to complete the genocide against the Tutsis.

Among these two million people, there are the handful of people who inspired and implemented the genocide, there are the little hands – those who were dragged into this madness – and then there are also many innocent people. The fact remains that in terms of numbers, this was the largest gathering of criminals ever known.

But the same people who organised the genocide are going to use the microphones of the international media to their advantage and pretend to be the victims of the events. And the whole world will believe them – or at least pretend to believe them. At the risk of ending up with a complete reversal of the reality of things.

What led you, 25 years after these events, to undertake this “crossing”?

When I published L’inavouable [The Unmentionable] in 2004, this story did not seem to be a subject to me. Then, over the years, as I saw the thesis of the double genocide — proclaimed by more and more high officials, even at the UN — flourish, I was stunned. In particular, I was amazed to see the famous ‘Mapping Report’ being erected as a Bible of events.

I simply said to myself: “Maybe I was wrong. What if they were right? I have to go and see what it’s really like.” I had a doubt, I had time, I took advantage of it.

Let’s go back to the Mapping Report, which has been in the news since 2010. What was its mandate? Who were its authors? What were its conclusions?

It is an indefinable object, produced by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. I think a lot of money was invested in it but in the end it was never really endorsed. The text is dense, it was done by a lot of investigators — whose names are not known. The original plan was to draw up a kind of map of ten years of conflict in the DRC [from 1993 to 2003], but without a clear purpose.

The Congolese people I met on this trip tell of the massacres they witnessed: it is their life, their story. But when we compare their stories with the Mapping Report, we see that something doesn’t add up. The Mapping Report is like telling you about Waterloo in the words of Auschwitz.

During this long report, did the thesis of a double genocide appear to you as a credible scenario?

A genocide like the one that took place in Rwanda in 1994 leaves indelible traces. You would have to be deaf and blind not to see or hear them in the accounts of the survivors. But in the Congo, there are no such traces. There are, of course, those left by tragedy and pain.

To say that there was no genocide in the Congo is not the same as claiming that there was no pain. But the pain is different: it is not genocide. During my whole ‘journey’, I never thought: what happened here looks like genocide.

The witnesses you have met have vague descriptions of the nature of the events that took place at the time. This contrasts with the accounts from Europe or the United States, which describe these events in a much more categorical manner…

From the moment when statesmen — like Hubert Védrine or Alain Juppé in France — confuse the killings with genocide, why would I reproach someone who lives deep in the Congolese forest and hear these people on the radio for not making the distinction either?

There are propagandists who deliberately maintain this confusion. But when you talk to those who lived through these events, they put things in their place. They are not the ones responsible for the confusion: they are in Paris, Brussels, New York… The Congolese, in this story, have been taken in.

Since its release in 2010, this report has been set up as the main documentary source for those who defend the thesis of a genocide in the Congo. Have you tried to interview its authors?

This report is neither done nor to be done. You would have to question the people behind it to find out their intentions. I am not saying that everything in it is false, but insofar as the witnesses remain anonymous, the authors of the report are also unknown, and the events reported are vague and undetermined, it remains an unidentified documentary object.

It would be interesting to know the history of this Mapping Report but I have no information on who made it and why. What interested me was to confront its content with a field investigation.

What was Rwanda looking for by supporting Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s offensive to Kinshasa after the dismantling of the Kivu camps?

James Kabarebe, the former Rwandan Minister of Defence, whom I met several times in Kigali, told me. At the beginning, the objective of the Rwandans, who had only 3,000 men involved in this operation, was to dismantle the camps and pursue the fleeing genocidaires. But once they arrived in Kisangani, where they could have stopped their offensive, they found themselves facing a counter-offensive of mercenaries supported by France, which continued to support Mobutu. And that’s when they decided to continue to Kinshasa… because of Paris!

Since then, no reliable count of the number of victims of this war seems to have been established, with some sources suggesting 6 to 10 million victims. In your opinion, is there a reference work on this issue?

For me, it would be the study carried out in 2008 by two Belgian demographers for the European Union. Their work estimates that 183,000 Congolese died in the context of the war. But this study has always been kept in the dark.

Speaking with you a few days before the report of the Duclert Commission on the role of France in Rwanda is published, what do you expect?

I have no preconceived ideas. Like others, I will read the report and then we will see. It’s a bit like the parliamentary mission chaired by Paul Quilès in 1998: if they don’t do their job properly, elements that were ignored will probably be published later. In my view, the Quilès mission had done a quarter of the work: I hope that the Duclert mission will do a little more.

You started covering the relationship between Paris and Kigali in October 1990, at Le Figaro, at the time of the first RPF offensive. What do you think is needed for the relationship between the two countries to finally calm down and turn a page?

Reread March Bloch’s sentence that appears in the preface of La Traversé’: “One easily believes what one needs to believe.” We have to get out of the belief and accept to face the facts. It’s as simple as that.

We all have a tendency to make arrangements with the facts, to not want to take into account something that doesn’t suit us, to gloss over certain statements… What Marc Bloch tells us is that even if we easily believe what we need to believe, we are not necessarily right to believe it.

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