Rwanda in Six Scenes

Stephen W. Smith in the LRB:

A number of memories connected with Rwanda play in my mind like scenes from a movie, although I don’t pretend they add up to a film. In 1994 a genocide was committed against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. All else about this small East African country, ‘the land of a thousand hills’, is open to question and, indeed, bears re-examination. ‘Freedom of opinion is a farce,’ Hannah Arendt wrote in 1966 in ‘Truth and Politics’, ‘unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.’ The problem with Rwanda is not only that opinions and facts have parted company but that opinion takes precedence.

The first scene: I’m walking beside Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda and then a rebel leader, past low picket fences and small prefabricated houses in a residential suburb of Brussels. It’s cold and our breath mingles in the air as we speak. Kagame is swaddled in a thick coat. Even so, he remains a spindly figure with a birdlike face. I can’t warm to him, but I know him well enough by now to hazard the question that has been preying on my mind for a while: ‘Why is it always you, the vice-president, whom I meet when I have dealings with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and not Alexis Kanyarengwe?’ Kanyarengwe was the movement’s president. ‘Don’t worry,’ he chuckles. ‘You’re seeing the boss. Kanyarengwe is only our front man. You’d be wasting your time.’

This was in 1992. The RPF had been set up in 1987 in Uganda by Tutsi exiles. Kagame’s parents had fled with him to Uganda when he was four. At the time of our meeting in Brussels, Kagame was avoiding the French. A few months earlier, in 1991, he’d just returned to his hotel near the Eiffel Tower from a meeting with officials at the Elysée when the French police called him in for interrogation. They were inquiring into a murky incident that was never entirely elucidated. Police sources claimed that members of Kagame’s delegation were ‘roaming around town with bags full of cash to buy weapons’; Kagame claimed the police were trying to discredit him. Tensions were running high between the rebel movement and France.