Tag Archives: “africa’s world war”

The jewel of the Black Continent.

Editor’s note: This is the tenth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 10 – March 30

It is a slow morning. I don’t know what restless spirit got into me during the night, but there I was – at midnight, at 2:30, at half-past five – snapping my head from the pillow, reaching for my phone to check the time. Maybe it’s the Congo, already, gnawing at my nerves. When I pull myself from bed just after seven, I don’t feel rested. Rising this morning is like a duty. One must get up and start the day.

Other problems, too: I am down to my last few Rwandan francs, reluctant to make another bank run, planning for a thrifty day. Worse still is the irritation, the dull stinging in my left eye. I have suffered from conjunctivitis before – in Zanzibar, in Lebanon; my suffering is always picturesque. Both cases were remedied easily enough; in the developing world, where eye infections are like the common cold, any pharmacy will carry the necessary drops. But that would entail another trip up the hill to Kamembe, and more money spent – more headaches to preoccupy me as I plan for the Congo.

Not surprisingly, my mood is gloomy. I decide to let the day take its course, giving myself over to my downcast spirit. It’s been a long ten days since leaving Kigali, and even at my most optimistic, I have to expect a difficult day at the border tomorrow. I can have a day to myself, I suspect, without admitting defeat.

And so I spend the morning at the Internet café, hopelessly contemporary, catching up on the news, reviving my online flirtations with girls I’ve met on my travels. There’s a certain sort of pathos in this, I think, and I have to ask myself if I’m lonelier than I’d like to admit. Drifting along, generally occupied and pleased with my work, with my traveling, I enjoy my solitude. More often than not I crave it, and respond to threats to it the way a mother bear treats threats to her cubs. But I wonder, too, if this is self-defense – if solitude, as comfy as a well-worn pair of jeans, is just easier for me than the alternatives. Can backpacking across Africa by myself be the safest route ? Is Congo – the horror! – the easy way out?

More emails. How’s the weather in Amsterdam? In Riga? In Rome? In the afternoon I have a quiet lunch at the Home St. François, another parade of dishes I can barely put a dent in. A pastor named Abraham approaches me, introduces himself, stands beside the table, neatly dressed, laptop case slung over his shoulder as he prepares for the long trip to Kigali. We’ve hardly spent three minutes in conversation when he asks for my email address and phone number. How quickly in Rwanda, in Africa, a perfect stranger will latch onto these brief encounters, hoping a friendship will grow from it. Yesterday, too, in the restaurant with Faustin and Lazare, a man who sat at our table as we prepared to leave asked for my email address. I was too polite to say no – but what could we possibly have to say? In the time it took to push back my chair and get up from the table, he had already opened to a fresh page in his day planner, uncapped his pen. I imagine, in a few weeks, I’ll be reading another email from a stranger, asking for my help in some small enterprise, or inquiring about the health of my parents in New York.

In the afternoon, overcome with fatigue, beat up physically, beat up spiritually, a financial basketcase, I return to my favorite table at the Hotel du Lac. In the time it takes me to order my coffee a fantastic storm has blown across the lake. Flashes of lightning, loud cracks of thunder. The rain blows across the hills in sheets and pounds on the tin awning. For thirty minutes, the rain is catastrophic. And then, again, the river is calm, the birds are singing. Somewhere on the hill across from us, I can hear the beating of drums.

For ten days I’ve skirted the shores of Lake Kivu here in Rwanda, but tomorrow, crossing into Congo, it will be a different chapter – maybe a different book. These Great Lakes states, steeped in blood, sharing so much of their troubled pasts. But here, in Cyangugu, just a few steps from another imaginary border drawn up in Brussels, or Paris, or Berlin, you appreciate how greatly, too, their histories have diverged. In how many places in the world, along how many seemingly arbitrary borders, are chaos and order so neatly divided? In Rwanda, they take such pride in the fight against corruption; at border crossings from Burundi and Uganda, a billboard greets you with the slogan, “Corruption: NO! Investment: YES!” In Congo? Already I’ve begun to stash small denominations on different parts of my body, unsure how many payoffs will be necessary to get me safely into Bukavu.

For 16 years, Rwanda has rewritten its history – a willful effort by a nation to decide for itself how the rest of the world will see it. I think of the story of President Kagame, after a speech to a crowded auditorium in Boston, snapping at the young man who had praised him for the safety and cleanliness of Kigali. “What did you expect?” said Kagame. “That we are dirty and live like savages?” The West – the whites – have been writing the history (literally and figuratively) of the developing world, the Third World, the non-white world, for decades. What chance does Rwanda – does any country – have of picking up the pen and starting on a fresh page?

Retire with dignity: does happy old age await Rwandans today?

This week I’ve exchanged some emails with my friend, the journalist Jina Moore, about the legacy of the genocide. Jina, like so many foreign journalists, had arrived in time for the genocide commemoration week in April; unlike the others, though, she would be spending the next ten months in the country, reporting – as she so often does – with deep thoughtfulness and insight on the challenges Rwanda faces. What we both wondered was whether there were still fresh ways to explore the genocide, whether there was anything new to be learned from the formulaic stories that would soon be filed by dozens of foreign correspondents in Kigali. Was there anything to be gained from more survivors’ stories, from the reopening of old wounds? [As a brief editorial aside, I have to note that, six months later, there’s been quite a lot to add, indeed.]

The most interesting stories – at least, to the extent that they’re so rarely told – would be, I think, the Hutu stories. It was Gerard Prunier, in Africa’s World War, who compared the genocide to Damocles’ sword, forever hanging over the heads of the Hutu population, reminding them of their guilt, ready to strike if they – the overwhelming majority – were perceived as a threat. What does it mean to be a Hutu, still vilified in your own country, still regarded with suspicion, sixteen years after the genocide? What does one do with the resentment, the anger, the fear? Does a Hutu man feel he has a common stake in Rwanda with his Tutsi neighbor? Can Rwanda ever find a way across its deepest, widest divide?

I wonder, too, what the legacy of the genocide is within the different Tutsi communities. It is reductive, after all, to treat Rwanda’s Tutsis as a single, unified ethnic group. What’s the relationship between the genocide survivors and the “Ugandan” Tutsis who dominate the government? Do the survivors feel exploited by their leaders? And how many of Rwanda’s Tutsis are survivors, how many returnees? Are these commemorations equally in everybody’s interests?

A tangent to all these thoughts: how is the genocide being taught today – both officially, in classrooms and commemorations, and unofficially, in Hutu and Tutsi homes? Thinking, too, of the demographic explosion in Rwanda. Take the number of children of both ethnic groups who were born after 1994, add the large numbers of returnees, and you have a significant portion of the population – half? more? – whose knowledge of the genocide comes secondhand. What is the story, I wonder, being handed down to them? And for those hundreds of thousands, those millions, what does it mean?

At night, lying in bed, I flip through an old Traveler’s Guide to the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi, dated 1951. Take away what 50 years of independence have taught us about the colonial era and you see such hopefulness, such innocence – if such a word can be used to describe the colonizers – in the descriptions of this ample tome. “The region bordering Lake Kivu and its outlet, the wild and torrential Ruzizi, is one of the most unforgettable beauty spots of central Africa,” we are told. “To all those who have visited it, it remains the jewel of the Black Continent.” Here, in painstaking detail, are described suggested tourist itineraries for visitors to these Belgian colonies – across which, we are told, run “72,266 miles of highways, of which 11,130 miles are main highways, 54,150 miles local roads, and 7,350 miles private roads.” The meticulousness is a wonder to behold; so, too, is the lost world described. Here is a railway schedule for the twice-weekly trip from Elisabethville to Port Francqui; there the fares for the regular Sabena flights from Albertville to Kigali, from Leopoldville to Brussels. Should you want to cruise the Congo River aboard the Lake Leopold II Line from Leopoldville to Kiri, you would do well to note that service is every 21 days. Should you have nine days to kill around Lake Kivu, a day-by-day itinerary – including hotel recommendations – will guide you along the way.

Thinking of this snapshot of a dimly remembered past. Thinking of Bukavu, a favorite playground of the Belgian colonists, once described, with its fertile, scenic surroundings, as the “Switzerland of Africa.” You’d be hard-pressed in 2010 to describe anything in the Congo as remotely Swiss. Instead, you’re likely to find a place that is – for better and for worse – richly, unmistakably Congolese.


Lies, machinations, and writing about Rwanda.

Last week the Committee to Protect Journalists – no friend to the Kagame regime – issued its latest critique of the Rwandan government, this time taking aim at the sloppy attempt to link the recent grenade attacks to rogue elements in, of all places, the Rwandan press corps.

In a press conference last week, Kagame accused Lt. Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former ambassador to India and chief of staff, and another senior ex-military officer, Patrick Karegeya, of plotting the first grenade attack. The president went on to say that journalists had met with Karegeya in South Africa prior to the attacks, leaving a not-so-subtle implication of impropriety. “There are those [journalists] who found Karegeya in South Africa and spoke to him. There are even those who went there, but have not returned,” he said.

No journalists were named, but Charles Kabonero and Jean Bosco Gasasira, founders of two private vernacular weeklies, knew that the president’s message was aimed at them. Both papers had conducted interviews with Karegeya. For his part, Kabonero makes no apologies. “I believe that Kagame is educated enough to know that, as a journalist, if I had a chance to meet [Osama] bin Laden I would not hesitate to do it [in order to] to get news. It’s the job. So, yes, I met Karegeya for journalism-related purposes,” he told CPJ.

'I am a great friend of the press,' Kagame has never been quoted as saying.

His Excellency PK’s distrust of the press – which at times veers toward violent suspicion – is perhaps only fitting. A man who’s managed to fine-tune Rwanda’s only English-language daily into a series of government-issued press releases can be forgiven for doubting the integrity and independence of other media bodies. Kabonero, meanwhile, refused to comment on whether his “journalism-related purposes” for meeting with Karegeya included plotting more grenade attacks – a favorite pastime of nefarious Rwandan journalists.

Meanwhile, something ambiguously referred to as the “Rwandan media fraternity” took pains to distance itself from Godwin Agaba, a journalist who fled to Uganda after alleging persecution by the Rwandan government over his links to renegade Lt.-Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa.

“The self-exiled Agaba recently faked his disappearance and announced that he had gone missing because of allegedly writing about General [Nyamwasa],” reported The New Times this week.

“In the wake of so many lies being peddled through international media organisations and groups, the Rwanda media fraternity is compelled to reveal and chronicle the deeds of Godwin Agaba, better known for theft, extortion, blackmail, impersonation and lack of respect for the journalism profession,” reads a statement from the media fraternity.

“It is unfortunate that Agaba’s lies and machinations have caught the attention of regional and international media watchdogs who have taken them hook, line and sinker,” adds the statement.

Agaba, a correspondent for the Uganda-based online news source 256news.com, has alleged that the Kagame government itself is behind the recent grenade attacks in Kigali. In an interview with the Berkeley-based KPFA Radio you can listen to here (starting at 1:12 mark), Agaba insists, “There is nobody from outside who is doing those bombings.”

This bears a little scrutiny. The suggestion that the government was behind the recent attacks and, in the words of KPFA correspondent Ann Garrison, “staging the bombings as an excuse to arrest its enemies,” is one that has been bandied around a bit in Kigali in recent weeks. But it seems less plausible than other likely scenarios – e.g., internal dissension in the RPA ranks – if simply for the fact that all eyes are on Rwanda right now, and the backlash from any government involvement in these attacks would be nothing short of disastrous for the Kagame regime. I refuse to believe that such a savvy government would take such a wild gamble – especially when it’s already proven it can get away with a continued crackdown on the press and opposition groups with little more than a firm slap on the wrist from the international community.

It discredits Agaba as a journalist to make such a bold accusation, without anything to back it up. (If anyone has seen any reports from Agaba which include evidence to support his claims, let me know.) Likewise, his insistence during the interview that the potential for election-year violence “could likely be more dangerous than what happened in 1994” seems entirely at odds with what every reasonable observer has to say about Rwanda.

Kagame on a previous visit to the CNN studios.

His Excellency PK, meanwhile, took his, ahem, charm offensive to the CNN airwaves this week to assure Christiane Amanpour and millions of viewers that he’s not the autocrat rights groups would make him out to be. (Download a podcast of the full interview here.)

“If you are talking about people in the human rights community from outside… I have an issue with [the criticism],” Kagame said, 16 years after he was hailed as a hero for ending a genocide that killed at least 800,000 people.

“You tend to make a judgment of a country, 11 million people, on what a couple of people have said and [they] don’t take into account what Rwandans say.”

Kagame added, “Nobody has asked the Rwandans…it’s as if they don’t matter in the eyes of the human rights people. It’s our own decisions in the end.”

This is a typical bit of sophistry by the president – a man whose sole defense against his foreign detractors remains the argument that it’s Us against Them. “You foreigners,” goes this line of reasoning, “can never understand what it means to be a Rwandan. You also, FYI, abandoned this country when we needed you most. Thus you should kindly keep your unsavory opinions to yourself, continue to invest in the Rwandan renaissance, and try not to poke around too much in issues that might affect this government’s sterling reputation/credit rating.” (For an example of the sort of hard-nosed reporting this government loves to see from the international press corps, click here.)

It’s a beautiful sleight-of-hand trick, both casting the president as the legitimate spokesman of the entire Rwandan population, and dismissing any niggling, ethnicity-related questions about how many of his countrymen would agree. And I think it plays upon, more subtly, the insecurities that many foreigners – journalists, diplomats, aid workers, scholars, et al. – have in this country: that we are always, despite our best intentions, on the outside looking in. (I base this both on my own personal experiences, and on countless conversations with the sort of people I would feel confident quoting as “experts” in my reporting.)

I bring this up now because I’ve spent quite a bit of time these past few weeks struggling to figure out just how to write about Rwanda. Since last fall, when I first proposed a story about Kigali to my travel editor at The Washington Post, I’ve written, scrapped, re-written and trashed a half-dozen well-meaning drafts that just didn’t seem to get to the heart of what it means to live in Rwanda today. This is a country of divisions, after all, Hutu-Tutsi (still, despite the government’s best intentions) and Before-After being the most obvious examples. But the reporting on this country is equally, and just as deeply, divided. If you’ve followed the news out of Rwanda for the past few months, or the past year, you’re likely to think that this is either a country of economic and technological marvels boldly striding into the 21st century, or an autocrat’s playground built on plundered wealth, where a silenced population cowers under the weight of a repressive regime. The reality – as with all countries, of course – lies somewhere in between. (Most Rwandans, I suspect, are more scared of hunger and disease than a lack of political representation in parliament.) But how to tell that story – how to tell any story?

It was heartening, then, as I wrung my hands in despair over another failed draft, to come to the final pages of Africa’s World War, by Gerard Prunier – a man who ranks among a very small handful of elite academics in the Great Lakes region. In the closing chapter, as he punctuates a magisterial account of how the Rwandan genocide and its immediate aftermath were the sparks that ignited an already combustible situation in the Congo, Prunier examines the difficulties that even he himself has struggled with in confronting the genocide and its legacy.

Intellectually the hegemonic position of the Rwandese genocide as a global frame of explanation was all the more tragic because it was almost impossible to achieve a reasonable modicum of objectivity on the topic. I have often asked myself why it was that there could be so many white Hutu and white Tutsi, so eager to prove the virtue of their adopted camp and the evil of the opposite one….

Why so much misguided passion? And especially by academics who could have been expected to be more objective on such a foreign topic?

I wouldn’t want to overestimate the value of what I write; but in looking at some of the heated debates I’ve had on this blog, or at my continued bumbling through what is, on the surface, just a travel story, I see strains of that same “misguided passion” – the need to justify and legitimize a point of view that, admittedly, shifts according to which way the wind is blowing my contrarian sails. Thus a fellatory forecast of Rwanda’s bright ICT future has me huffing about human rights, while a screed that makes Kigali sound like an African Pyongyang has me extolling the virtues of, yes, the Rwandan renaissance. In Rwanda, you feel compelled to take sides – so much so that, at times, I feel like I’m arguing less out of conviction than out of a need to have that conviction. But most days, everything is a bit muddled in my head. When writing about Rwanda, when talking about Rwanda, when living in Rwanda, we’re still grappling with the ghosts of a past we only dimly understand.

There is a tendency of the human mind to strive for coherence. Many writers routinely warn about “complexity” and “contradictions” and then immediately proceed to re-create a coherence that contradicts the wise warnings they have just uttered. And the situation in the Great Lakes is so horribly complex, so contradictory that one does not have to be American to fall victim to the syndrome of desperately wanting to find “good guys” and “bad guys” who could restore meaning and clarity to such moral gloom.