The Rwandan Genocide's Long Shadow Still Reaches All the Way to America

The still-disputed accusations of French professor's alleged links to the 1994 killings, and the Obama administration's decision to finally cut aid to the post-genocide government, are reminders of this terrible event's power to still effect events today.

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A Rwandan villager holds the ethnic identification card of one of 5,000 Tutsis massacred in the Ntarama Church compound in April 1994.(Reuters)

In December of 2008, producers of an NBC reality show called Wanted accused Goucher College French professor Leopold Munyakazi of participating in the Rwandan genocide. Though their evidence was almost entirely circumstantial, and despite the challenges of understanding Munyakazi's complicated history as both a prisoner and one-time employee of Rwandan President Paul Kagame's autocratic government, the accusation alone was enough to ruin Munyakazi's life and career. He is now unemployed, and has been facing potential deportation for over three years. The incident, made fresh this week thanks to an article by his one-time college president, is a reminder of the degree to which the country's 1994 genocide looms over the American understanding of Rwanda and its politics. The U.S.'s recent withholding of military aid from the Kagame government is a reminder of just how morally and politically complicated the U.S.'s post-genocide engagement with the country has been--a larger story that Munyakazi's ordeal is very much a part of.

As Goucher College president Sanford Unger alludes to in a soul-baring essay in the latest issue of New York magazine, the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations never formally accused the professor of war crimes, and the accusations came through a television network, rather than a formal extradition request. But Unger had brought Munyakazi to Goucher as part of a program that helped place persecuted or endangered academics in U.S. institutions, and the possibility that Munyakazi was in fact guilty bothers Unger to this day:

I couldn't shake the feeling that in our embrace of Leopold and in our eagerness to act on our principles, we had ourselves been somewhat naïve--so sure of our own grand purpose that we neglected to investigate the hazardous moral environment we were parachuting into. I very much wanted to believe that I could sort out the story myself, after the fact, almost as an act of absolution. Doing so would restore my own confidence as well as Goucher's dignity; it would also show that the tools of free inquiry we believed in were still themselves sharp, and of use. I hoped...

... The college was never called out in a media firestorm, and I was never really required, publicly or privately, to defend the decision to hire a refugee from a war-torn country. Yet the more I find myself thinking about the case, the more I wish I could get to the bottom of it. The mystery is too interesting, too perplexing, to let go. But every time I sit quietly and try to work my way through the story, I think of the scenes of horror I thankfully know only secondhand, remember the words of [Rwanda activist] Alison Des Forges, and resign myself to the fact that I will probably never know the truth.

Most of all, Unger says he is haunted by the possibility that his own humanitarianism brought a potential war criminal to his campus, and by what this says about the challenges of upholding liberal, humanitarian values in a world of seemingly infinite moral ambiguity.

And I have come to live with serious doubts of my own--about Leopold, about my own part in his ordeal, and about the high-minded idealism that brought him to Goucher. Is his case a simple matter of good intentions gone awry, or a profoundly discouraging allegory about how difficult it can be to identify injustice in the world and repair it? I'm no longer sure the two are very different, or that the sincerity of our humanitarian impulses can ever be reliable proof of the worthiness of our actions. But I find it difficult to accept that we must all simply suspend judgment and take the world as we find it. Ignorance is its own kind of exile.

In 2009, Munyakazi was the subject of a searing article in The New Republic, which also critically examined the genocide accusations, and expressed uncertainty of both the charges against Munyakazi and of the accused man's own account. The government of Rwanda's Paul Kagame had indicted Munyakazi in absentia, and its evidence was far from airtight:

...there is an objective truth at the root of this story--something terrible did happen in Rwanda in 1994, and Leopold Munyakazi either did or did not take part in it. The question is whether it is possible, at this late date, to unearth a verifiable set of facts about his actions.

For now, the Rwandan indictment represents the most authoritative account of Munyakazi's alleged crimes. I gave copies of the indictment to several genocide experts. After reviewing it, none were convinced.

... On the other hand, some aspects of Munyakazi's own account are damning. It doesn't look good that he was issued a gun during the genocide. And his claims that he never witnessed any killing during the period described in the indictment seem doubtful. Scott Straus, a University of Wisconsin professor who has written two books on the genocide, directed me to a reliable report that listed five mass graves containing more than 5,000 bodies found in the immediate area of Munyakazi's home.

But Straus stressed that, as incriminating as the circumstantial evidence might appear, he still believed the Rwandan prosecution was politically motivated. "It sounds to me like there's some ambiguity in the case," he said. "And the current government is exploiting that ambiguity."

It's possible, the TNR article continues, that Munyakazi's tangled history with the Kagame government, coupled with his revisionist (and even slightly inflammatory) pro-Hutu interpretation of the Rwandan genocide, was the real cause of the indictment:

In 1999, Munyakazi was released from a prison in the town of Gitarama. He'd been held without trial since being swept up in a wave of arrests a few months after the genocide. The timing of Munyakazi's release seemed suggestive to Des Forges: It came before the large-scale reconciliation program began, during a more limited effort to reduce the genocide prisoner population by culling the weakest cases. "I would say ninety-nine percent of those people who were released during that time were people who had nothing to do with the genocide," says Aloys Habimana, a Rwandan lawyer who works for Human Rights Watch.

Des Forges had another reason to doubt the indictment's version of events. Munyakazi hadn't just been released from prison. He actually seemed to have been welcomed out. He'd been able to secure a teaching position at a new public institute in Kigali and moved openly in the capital's intellectual circles. Technically, Munyakazi's release was only provisional, and he was not supposed to leave the country. But these terms seem to have been laxly enforced. Munyakazi was issued a passport and traveled abroad twice. He'd returned to Rwanda both times--not the mark of a wanted man.

When Munyakazi eventually did leave Rwanda for good, he claimed that it was because of political pressure. Des Forges could recognize his story. In 2003, there was a presidential election, which Kagame won with more than 90 percent of the vote. Both during the campaign and after, opposition politicians--most of them Hutu--suffered extreme harassment. Some were arrested on the loosely defined charge of "divisionism." Many human rights activists, such as Aloys Habimana, were forced to flee the country. In exile, once-reasonable voices of opposition turned into zealots.

American policy towards Rwanda is undergoing a dramatic shift, after a UN report confirmed the Kagame government's support for the M23 insurgency in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. On July 21, the U.S. suspended $200,000 worth of military aid to the country, and on Wednesday, Stephen Rapp, head of the U.S. Office for Global Criminal Justice, suggested that Kagame could be brought before the International Criminal Court for his government's role in fueling the insurgency. The withheld funding is a tiny percentage of the U.S.'s $200 million aid package to Rwanda, and it's unlikely that Kagame will ever be hauled before the ICC -- neither the U.S. nor Rwanda are signatories to the Rome Statute.

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The embattled Munyakazi. (AP)

But the U.S. position on Kagame has abruptly flipped. Kagame was once lauded as a visionary leader able to heal his nation's genocidal divisions while building one of the most prosperous and least-corrupt countries in Central Africa. But he exported much of Rwanda's ethnic woes to the eastern Congo, where his government has had either an official or proxy military presence since the mid-'90s. For the U.S., the long period of official tolerance that followed the country's 1994 genocide is apparently at an end.

How could this figure into Munyakazi's case? As Unger writes in his New York essay, over the course of the U.S. government's various efforts at deporting Munyakazi, the possibility that the Rwandan government might torture or persecute him for his political beliefs if he returned was treated with at least as much urgency as his potential guilt. Kagame is hardly a democrat: opposition leader Victoire Ingabire has been imprisoned since October 2010 on charges of terrorism and "genocide denial," and Kagame has used accusations of "genocide ideology" or "divisionism" to cow or even imprison some political opponents.

To Munyakazi's supporters, the professor is a victim of Kagame's heavy-handed campaign to control the official narrative of the Rwandan genocide and preserve the foundational ideaof his 18-year-old rule. Munyakazi's deportation case has been pending for three years; he is currently unemployed and living with his family in a small apartment in Baltimore. Will the U.S. government, exasperated by Kagame's meddling in the unstable Congo, start to view the embattled French professor in a different light as well?