On New Year’s Eve, 2013, Rwanda’s former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya was strangled to death in an upscale Johannesburg hotel. According to a South African inquest, Karegeya, who’d fled Rwanda six years earlier, had been lured into a deadly trap by operatives working for Paul Kagame, the leader of the regime he’d once served.
As a youth, Karegeya embodied the promise of postcolonial Africa. He was born into a pastoralist family in 1960 and seemed destined for a life of family, clan, and cows, but his sharp intelligence was recognized early on, and he was encouraged to attend university. He grew up to become a sophisticated government official, known to diplomats and foreign journalists for his charm, humor, and insights into African politics.
Michela Wrong’s Do Not Disturb follows Karegeya’s life from African herd boy to BMW-driving government spy to renegade refugee who fell prey to the boredom, loneliness, and conspiracies of exile. She also provides a refreshingly critical portrait of Kagame, who was celebrated after the 1994 Rwandan genocide for quelling the violence, fostering the rebirth of the economy, and bringing a Singaporean efficiency to agricultural planning, malaria control, and street cleaning. Bill Clinton hailed him as “one of the greatest leaders of our time,” and the World Bank poured money into his country.
But as Wrong shows, the tall and grave-looking Kagame was no African Abraham Lincoln. His corrupt military junta has massacred thousands in Rwanda and in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, staged fake elections, and imprisoned and assassinated his critics. Wrong compares Karegeya’s fate to that of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, also murdered, in all likelihood, on the orders of a leader who’d beguiled the West with his apparent commitment to modernization.
Most of Wrong’s account deals with the clumsy cloak-and-dagger attempts of Kagame’s henchmen to kill Karegeya and his fellow exile Kayumba Nyamwasa, Rwanda’s former military chief of staff, who has survived several attempts on his own life. Early on, she states that her subject is not the Rwandan genocide, and Do Not Disturb speeds through it, and through the civil war that preceded it. But the three-month bloodbath, in which some 800,000 died, nevertheless overshadows her story.
Why did thousands of Hutu Rwandans suddenly start killing their Tutsi and moderate Hutu neighbors in April 1994? The causes were far more complex than most accounts, including Wrong’s, convey. In recent years, new information about the events leading up to the genocide has come to light that also helps us better understand the personalities of Karegeya, Nyamwasa, and Kagame. Wrong’s decision not to go into these details gives Do Not Disturb a move-along-nothing-to-see-here flavor that deflects scrutiny of Karegeya and Nyamwasa, with whom she clearly sympathizes. But if we consider those seldom explored realities of Rwandan history, it seems clear that the tragedy of Karegeya’s life is not that he died for opposing an “African regime gone bad,” as Wrong’s subtitle suggests, but that from the beginning of the civil war, he, along with Kagame and Nyamwasa, was so steeped in blood as to be beyond redemption.
All three men were members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel army that formed in neighboring Uganda during the 1980s. It was made up mostly of ethnic Tutsis whose parents had fled Rwanda around the time it became independent from Belgium in 1962. For more than a century, the majority Hutu population had been oppressed by Tutsi chiefs who subjected them to forced labor and cruel punishments, including the burning down of entire villages, if they resisted. Belgian colonial officials, influenced by then fashionable ethnological theories that Tutsis were racially superior to Hutus, reinforced this inequality. When the country transitioned to independence, riots broke out as Tutsi gangs fought to retain control and Hutu gangs fought back, killing innocent Tutsis and burning down their houses. Grégoire Kayibanda, a Hutu, was elected the country’s first president in 1962, by which time hundreds of thousands of Tutsis had fled to neighboring countries.
In the decades that followed, the Tutsi refugees clamored for the right to return to Rwanda. In 1990 Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana reluctantly agreed in principle, but the process was extremely slow. He was apprehensive not only because repatriation threatened to ignite long-standing conflicts over land, but also because the RPF was highly militaristic, and he feared, correctly, that its aim was to topple him.
In October 1990 the RPF invaded Rwanda, and went on to fight a three-and-a-half-year civil war against Habyarimana’s government; it seized power in July 1994 after the genocide ended. As vice-president and minister of defense from 1994 to 2000, and then as president, Kagame installed a brutal dictatorship under which thousands have been killed in indiscriminate massacres, government critics have disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances, and legions of spies keep watch over villagers throughout the country, on the lookout for any sign of dissent. Every seven years, Kagame claims victory in elections that observers characterize as neither free nor fair.
For Wrong, the RPF fighters were liberators led astray by Kagame. Like most Africanists, she portrays the RPF’s initial struggle against what she calls Habyarimana’s extremist regime as a just one, because he denied the Tutsi exiles the right to live in their native country. The problems began, in her account, with the animus of Hutus, which she claims the RPF encountered as soon as its forces crossed the border from Uganda in 1990. “Our soldiers would pass by and the farmers would throw stones at us,” a former RPF fighter complained to Wrong. “You’d drive past a local woman, trying to say ‘hi,’ to make yourself look like a good rebel, and she would tell you the worst words you ever heard.”
Along with most other Rwanda experts, Wrong attributes this hostility, and the genocide, to “centuries of resentment [that] Hutu serfs had built up toward their arrogant royal [Tutsi] overseers.” The RPF’s 1990 invasion, she writes, “radicalized a state in which relations between Hutus and Tutsis were already toxic.” Hutu elites then electrified the antagonism with vicious propaganda, including in the Hutu-extremist magazine Kangura (Wake Them Up), which promoted hatred of Tutsis before the genocide, and on the notorious Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, which urged the annihilation of Tutsis while it was going on.
What Wrong and many others don’t acknowledge is that, horrible as this ethnic hatred was, it was not based solely on Hutu paranoia about what the RPF would do if it took over the country. It was also based on what the RPF actually did: during the civil war, it committed atrocities against the mostly Hutu population of northern Rwanda that have barely been recognized by historians, journalists, and even human rights investigators. These RPF crimes were methodical but they weren’t genocide. However, they did incite anti-Tutsi hatred and reprisals, setting off a chain of violence that eventually culminated in the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis.
Although much has been written about Hutu-on-Tutsi violence in the years before the 1994 maelstrom, RPF abuses during this period were largely concealed both by Habyarimana’s totalitarian repression and by the RPF’s nimble propaganda. Wrong barely mentions them—they merit a single phrase on page 419 of her 488-page book. But they, and the international community’s near-total disregard of them, are what set Rwanda on the path to genocide.
In 2001 Alphonse Furuma, one of the RPF’s founders, fled Rwanda and published an account of the group’s crimes.1 Between 1990 and 1992, he wrote, the RPF set out to clear the predominantly Hutu borderlands of northern Rwanda in order to establish a base from which to launch further operations, using
systematic massacres, laying of mines, looting of properties, demolition of homes and other building as well as destruction crops [sic] so as to displace the population and create an RPF/RPA [Rwanda Patriotic Army] controlled territory free of the Hutu. These crimes were carried out for example in the Districts of Muvumba, Ngarama, Bwisigye, Kiyombe, Mukarangye, Cyumba, Kibali, Kivuye, Cyungo, as well as in Kinigi, Butaro, Cyeru and Nyamugari from 1990 to 1992. Military operations were carried out against known civilian targets, in most cases peasants.
In 2014 the journalist Judi Rever interviewed Father Giancarlo Bucchianeri, who had been a missionary in Kiyombe, one of the areas mentioned by Furuma. One morning in 1991 he was notified that the RPF had planted land mines around a spring where local children played. When he arrived on the scene he saw dozens of “shredded” bodies. The RPF had also gone on a killing spree in the surrounding villages and even broken into a church clinic and shot nine sick children in the head. “Brain matter was all over the floor,” Father Bucchianeri told Rever. “I have never seen anything like it in my life.” Theogene Rudasingwa, Kagame’s former chief of staff, confirmed to Rever that “from the word go, Hutus were being killed in the areas we operated in and were trying to control.”
As the RPF marauded through northern Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled to makeshift camps south of the war zone, while others went all the way to the capital, Kigali, where Claude Gatebuke, one of the authors of this article, grew up. He played soccer with Hutu children whose families had witnessed the RPF raids. The rebels would murder anyone, they told him—women, children, men, the disabled, the elderly. Typically they’d arrive in a village, declare it “liberated,” and call everyone to a meeting. Sometimes they’d announce that food would be distributed. Hundreds of people would assemble, and then the rebels, many of them children themselves, would surround the crowd, throw grenades into it, and start shooting indiscriminately. In order to survive, some of the villagers hid under piles of dead bodies, pretending to be dead.
Claudine, Antoine, and Gerard—whose real names can’t be printed because they fear that Kagame’s regime would retaliate against relatives living in Rwanda—came from areas affected by the RPF onslaught. Speaking from exile in the US, they described to us in detail the killings of over twenty people they knew from three villages in 1991. Some were beheaded, some shot; some had their heads bashed in with garden hoes. A slaughtered baby was hung from a tree. Others were forced to serve as porters and sex slaves for the RPF.
Before the 1990 RPF invasion, Habyarimana presided over a nation where corruption was rife and many Tutsis faced discrimination, particularly in the military and civil administration. But Habyarimana’s Rwanda was also home to countless ethnically mixed marriages, soccer teams, and friendships. The RPF wrecked this fragile social armistice. Gerard was thirteen when the rebels swarmed into Kinigi in January 1991, slaughtering his neighbors and an uncle. He was on his school’s soccer team, and in the weeks before the attack, several Tutsi teammates whom he’d regarded as close friends vanished after informing him that they were joining the RPF. The departures, which were reported across the country, not only heightened Hutu fear and prejudice, but also motivated deadly reprisals against innocent Tutsis, to which the RPF responded with further indiscriminate attacks against Hutus, a cycle that continued all the way to the genocide.
The RPF’s most brutal offensive occurred in February 1993. While the number of Hutu casualties is not known, estimates range from thousands to tens of thousands. Claude’s uncle Bernard, who’d joined the huge exodus from the war zone, said there’d been so many dead bodies on the road out of town that it was impossible for cars to pass.
Throughout Do Not Disturb, Wrong glosses over the RPF’s pre-genocide brutality. Of the looting and killing spree Gerard witnessed in northern Rwanda, she writes that, on January 22, 1991,
700 RPFinkotanyi [warrior youth] poured down the mountain slopes, broke into Ruhengeri jail, captured hundreds of head of cattle grazing on a government farm, and looted warehouses, the bank, a police station, and a military outpost before returning, laden with food, cash, and military hardware, to their mountain hideaway.
About the February 1993 massacres from which Claude’s uncle barely escaped, she writes:
The RPF resumed its offensive, pushing south into the most fertile part of the country. First thousands, then hundreds of thousands of Hutu peasants were pushed off their land, with numbers ballooning to an estimated 950,000, up to 15 percent of the population.
The murders of thousands of innocent Hutus are not mentioned.
Unlike most RPF members, Karegeya and Nyamwasa weren’t refugees. Their parents were Ugandan citizens who had settled there before independence, when the British colonial administration welcomed Rwandan migrants. After the RPF invaded Rwanda, Uganda’s leader, Yoweri Museveni, who secretly supported it, employed Karegeya in the Uganda Revenue Authority’s anti-smuggling unit, enabling him to supply the RPF with weapons. After the RPF seized power, he ran Kagame’s External Intelligence Department, which, according to historians and UN investigators, has been implicated in murdering dissidents and looting natural resources in neighboring Congo.
Nyamwasa has been accused by Spanish and UN investigators of helping to organize the massacres of mainly Hutu Rwandans and Congolese during and after the genocide and the murder of expatriates inside Rwanda, including three Spanish aid workers who are believed to have been investigating mass graves containing some of the RPF’s Hutu victims. (Both Karegeya and Nyamwasa have denied the accusations.)
The split between Kagame and his two security officials Karegeya and Nyamwasa didn’t occur until around 2001, when he began to suspect them of plotting against him. After two prison stints, Karegeya fled to South Africa in 2007, where he was joined in 2010 by Nyamwasa. Later that year, the two men established the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), whose professed aim is to bring freedom and democracy to Rwanda.
Wrong has written several highly regarded books about other African countries. Yet she fails to appreciate not only the extent to which the RPF’s early crimes set the stage for genocide, but also that these crimes so entangled Karegeya and Nyamwasa in a skein of lies as to cast doubt on the aims of the RNC. Their conflict with Kagame thus seems less like a battle over principles than an internecine struggle among scoundrels.
Wrong is hardly the only Africanist who continues to downplay the RPF’s pre-genocide crimes. A nearly one-thousand-page French government report on the genocide released in March mentions them only in passing2; in a recent tweet, Peter Pham, who served as Donald Trump’s envoy to the African Great Lakes Region, referred to the RPF’s victims as “incidental.”
Habyarimana is partly to blame for this misunderstanding of the roots of the genocide. Four days after the RPF invaded Rwanda, in October 1990, his army staged a fake RPF attack on Kigali. In fact, the RPF never made it to the capital, but the fake attack served as a pretext to detain thousands of alleged RPF collaborators, some of whom were tortured and killed. Once the ruse was revealed, the international community greeted all reports of RPF crimes with skepticism.
But Habyarimana also stifled reports of RPF atrocities that were true, even though most victims were his own supporters. A former army chief of staff, Habyarimana had seized power from Rwanda’s first postindependence leader, the leftist Grégoire Kayibanda, in 1973. He then went on to model his rule on the right-wing authoritarianism of Zaire’s CIA-backed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Habyarimana allowed the free market and corruption to flourish, enriching many Hutu as well as Tutsi businessmen, but he insisted on cult-like loyalty. Until 1992, opposition political activity was banned and the media was tightly controlled. On special occasions, the entire country—schoolchildren, farmers, civil servants, business people, everyone—stopped work and sang along as the radio blasted songs praising Habyarimana. You couldn’t change the station, because there was only one.
For some reason, this government-controlled station—known as Radio Rwanda—barely reported on the RPF massacres of Hutus, at least at first. Claudine, who was then living in Kigali, urged someone she knew at the station to investigate the killings. “Oh no,” her friend replied. “That was the job of the intelligence services, not the media.”
Claudine suspects that Habyarimana, who was primarily concerned with promoting an image of Rwanda as a stable country and maintaining his own grip on power, may not have realized how important it was to highlight RPF abuses against civilians—not only because of their cruelty, but also because not doing so enabled the RPF to deny them and to spread the falsehood that all the violence was being committed by Hutus against Tutsis. From the beginning of the civil war, the RPF filled the media vacuum inside Rwanda with its own programming through Radio Muhabura (meaning “guide” or “explorer”). Broadcast initially from Uganda, Radio Muhabura publicized atrocities committed by Habyarimana’s government and Hutu gangs against Tutsis and called for the liberation of Rwanda from tyranny. The BBC soon began rebroadcasting these reports, enhancing the RPF’s credibility. From then on, international media and NGO coverage of human rights in Rwanda emphasized atrocities committed by Hutu gangs and Habyarimana’s forces against Tutsis. RPF atrocities against Hutus are mentioned, if at all, deep inside long reports, none of which connect these atrocities to Hutu perceptions of the RPF as terrorists and of ordinary Tutsis as their undercover accomplices.
Nevertheless, even many children knew what was going on. Nadine Kazuba, then age twelve, remembers being taken by her father to visit one of the camps near Kigali that were home to hundreds of thousands of displaced people. There, she and her younger brother met a family of orphans. The oldest, a boy about Nadine’s age, told them their parents had been slaughtered by the RPF. They were wearing the clothes they’d fled in months before and lived in one of the countless squalid huts covered with leaves or plastic sheeting that spread across a hill as far as the eye could see. “It was like watching a movie in shades of gray,” Nadine recalls. “Why would people live like that if their own area was occupied by liberators?”
Another problem was that most Hutus spoke only Kinyarwanda or broken French. Tarnished by association with Habyarimana’s crumbling cold war dictatorship, they were easy to dismiss, even when telling the truth. Most RPF officers, by contrast, had grown up in Uganda, where they benefited from UN-sponsored education programs. Speaking polished English, they ferried journalists around the areas they occupied and chose what they saw and whom they spoke to.
The RPF was also assisted by influential sympathizers in the international human rights community. These included the former Carter administration official Roger Winter, who visited the RPF during the civil war. A month after the January 1991 massacres in northern Rwanda, Winter’s organization, the US Committee for Refugees, published an account of the fighting that made no mention of RPF atrocities and blamed all the violence on Habyarimana’s army.3
Then, three months after the genocide, a tiny NGO called African Rights issued a 1,201-page report entitled Rwanda: Death, Despair, and Defiance that galvanized sympathy for the RPF among journalists, scholars, NGO officials, and Western policymakers desperate to make sense of the carnage. It blamed Habyarimana’s army and the Hutu militias for virtually all the violence and attributed reports of RPF atrocities during the genocide, which are now known to have occurred, to “hysteria.” The RPF’s pre-genocide crimes merit a few paragraphs on page 1,081 of the report.
Even the respected Human Rights Watch investigator Alison Des Forges failed to recognize the importance of the RPF’s crimes. They are described, with few specifics, in two paragraphs on page 701 of her highly regarded Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (1999).
Although Western scholars increasingly acknowledge that the RPF committed atrocities, the Rwanda government does not. The genocide of the Tutsis is commemorated annually in a national day of mourning, and memorial sites dedicated to Tutsi victims are found throughout Rwanda. But under Kagame’s dictatorship, Hutus risk imprisonment or death if they dare speak about the victims of RPF crimes. Many of their dead remain buried in unmarked mass graves, and they aren’t allowed to mourn them. One Hutu survivor told the anthropologist Yuko Otaki that he couldn’t even say, “‘I want to remember our neighbors.’ If you say that, you go to prison.”
“The bodies are still there, but we can’t do anything,” said another. “The government will say that ‘You have genocide ideology.’” The pain of being unable to mourn—what Otaki calls “unspeakability”—was so intense that some Hutu survivors experienced hallucinations, as if haunted by the souls of the dead.4
During the 1990s, two Canadian priests who had attempted to document RPF crimes were murdered by government agents, according to a UN investigation and eyewitnesses. After the opposition leader Victoire Ingabire spoke in front of Kigali’s Genocide Memorial about the need to commemorate Hutu as well as Tutsi victims of the Rwandan conflict, she was jailed for eight years. When the popular singer Kizito Mihigo sang about this, he was arrested and died behind bars under mysterious circumstances.
In her 1967 New Yorker essay “Truth and Politics,” Hannah Arendt recounts a conversation—perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not—between former French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and a representative of the Weimar Republic. Who would future historians blame for the outbreak of the Great War? asked the German. “This I don’t know,” Clemenceau replied. “But I know for certain that they will not say Belgium invaded Germany.” For that to be believed, Arendt wrote, “would require no less than a power monopoly over the entire civilized world.” The RPF seems to have enjoyed such a monopoly.
The belief that Hutu hatred of Tutsis derived not from RPF crimes but from historical grievance alone may have been influenced by lingering prejudices, conscious or not, against the supposedly less civilized Hutus. To those who knew little of the Hutu–Tutsi rivalry, the Rwandan genocide may have needed no more explanation than the Freudian idea that deep inside we are all killers whose death instinct could erupt at any moment. The notion that Africans are especially prone to explosive violence runs through Western writing from Herodotus, who wrote of the “wild men and wild women” of Africa, to the present-day media’s coverage of the continent, which emphasizes the strange and gruesome.5 The Rwandan genocide occurred just as apartheid was ending in South Africa, and Western-backed cold war dictators from Malawi to Liberia to Zaire were also on their way out. It’s not hard to imagine that some observers, wondering what forces would be unleashed as repression was lifted, saw the Rwandan genocide—supposedly motivated by tribal paranoia alone—as the grim answer.
The solution, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared, was “strong leaders,” as she put it in a speech on Africa in 1998. The leaders to whom she was referring—Kagame, Uganda’s Museveni, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, and Eritrea’s Isias Afeworki, all heavily backed by the US at one time or another—went on to spread tyranny across East and Central Africa and to launch wars that have claimed millions of lives.
Michela Wrong opens Do Not Disturb with a disclaimer. Rwandans, she writes, are inveterate liars. They even brag about it. Nineteenth-century explorers also made this observation, she informs us. “Of all the liars in Africa, I believe the people of Ruanda are by far the most thorough,” wrote one.
There is a bit of the pith helmet in Wrong herself, who when she takes note of non-elite Africans at all tends to condescend to or even disparage them. African soldiers, she writes, will kill people belonging to other ethnicities simply because they are “other” and “killing them—after playing various cruelly amusing games—[comes] easily.” Rwandan peasants “kill when they are asked and stop as soon as they are told,” she uncritically records an ex-RPF leader telling her. “The value of obedience has been impressed on [them] since birth.”
Such generalizations dishonor the countless Hutus who were appalled by the genocide and did what they could to save people. Claude fled Kigali with his family while the genocide was underway and ended up as a refugee in neighboring Zaire/Congo. He saw Hutu génocidaires roaming his Kigali neighborhood, choosing whom to slaughter next, and witnessed the hacking to death of a man he greatly admired. But Claude also remembers the terrifying RPF bombing campaigns that killed Hutus and Tutsis alike and ultimately drove his family across the border. Claude’s father, then studying in the US, is Hutu, making Claude officially Hutu under Rwandan law at the time, but his mother is Tutsi, and the génocidaires identified him as such.
At first, the family hid out with Hutu friends in another part of Kigali. Then they were driven to safety by another Hutu, who rescued countless people of all ethnicities fleeing the killing orgies in Kigali. On the way, their vehicle was stopped at a roadblock by a gang of Interahamwe, the notorious genocidal Hutu group. Claude and his mother were ordered to get out, handed shovels, and told to dig their own graves by the roadside. A crowd of Hutu onlookers gathered and began protesting. Then, in an act of extraordinary bravery—because the Interahamwe also killed Hutus who sympathized with Tutsis—two people in the crowd approached the gang and pleaded for the lives of Claude and his mother. After much haggling and the payment of a bribe, they were freed.
Why should false narratives about a decades-old African genocide matter to Americans and Europeans who now feel themselves drowning in a flood of fake news? Because those old lies, and the policies that followed, also undermine the foundation of our own crumbling world. In 1950 the Afro-Caribbean poet and politician Aimé Césaire, quoting the French historian Edgar Quinet, warned Europe that this is how imperial Rome gave way to barbarism: after destroying, through brutality, lies, and corruption, the supporting structures of the nations it had conquered, the empire then caved in on itself.
“Crimes Committed by Kagame and the RPF: Testimony of Major Alphonse Furuma (Part 1),” The Rwandan, April 13, 2016. ↩
Commission de recherche sur les archives françaises relative au Rwanda et au génocide des Tutsi, La France, le Rwanda et la génocide des Tutsi (1990–1994), March 26, 2021. ↩
“Exile from Rwanda: Background to an Invasion,” February 1991. The report also contains other misleading information. It states, for example, that the Red Cross estimated that between 1981 and 1985 60,000 Rwandans were killed in an area of Uganda known as the Luwero Triangle. But this is not what the Red Cross claimed, according to Robert Kaplan’s The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the US Government’s Greatest Humanitarian (Random House, 2021); see p. 102. See also Daniel K. Kalinaki, Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution (DominantSeven, 2014), p. 59. ↩
Yuko Otake, “Suffering of Silenced People in Northern Rwanda,” Social Science and Medicine, Vol. 222 (February 2019). ↩
For an excellent survey of this, see Milton Allimadi, Manufacturing Hate: How Africa Was Demonized in Western Media (to be published by Kendall Hunt in 2021); see also Laura Seay and Kim Yi Dionne, “The Long and Ugly Tradition of Treating Africa as a Dirty, Diseased Place,” The Washington Post, August 25, 2014. ↩