In June, Commonwealth heads of government will meet in the Rwandan capital Kigali, a city advertised by their Tutsi host, the 63-year-old Paul Kagame, as ‘the Davos of Africa’. Kagame, Rwanda’s de facto leader since 1994 — and boasting more honorary degrees than Barack Obama, although he never finished high school — has become the ‘donor darling’ of the international community. He is why the World Bank has donated in excess of $4 billion, and why, until recently, the biggest bilateral donor has been the UK. ‘As far as I’m concerned,’ says the Tory MP Andrew Mitchell, ‘he is a hero for ending the violence.’
Michela Wrong is a British authority on Africa who begs to differ. Her brave and tremendous book, the product of 30 years’ reporting, demands that we revise the entire history of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, in which upwards of one million Tutsis and Hutus were slaughtered during a three-month frenzy. She places the blame, devastatingly, at the feet of the tall, thin, reedy-voiced Kagame, suggesting that ‘the leader routinely labelled in the West as “the Man Who Ended the Genocide” might actually also have started it’. Kagame’s ex-chief of staff, Theogene Rudasingwa, is one of many former colleagues of Kagame’s interviewed who regret passionately their part in his rise, and now perceive him in Conradian hues as a black Kurtz: ‘We had a hand in the making of a monster.’
When I hear ‘Rwanda’, I think of a diabolical humanitarian crisis that seems to have raged on for years: the worst-case scenario of what happens when colonisers leave and ethnic enmities flare. Wrong untangles the background like this. For roughly 800 years, a minority of cattle-owning Tutsis, comprising 14 per cent of Rwanda’s population, lorded it over the Hutu majority. Then, in 1959, the soon-to-be-departing Belgians switched allegiance. Once in government, Hutus savagely revenged themselves on Tutsis, many of whom fled, like Kagame’s family, to Uganda. In 1990, Kagame was a rearguard member of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) that invaded Rwanda and ignited a civil war, resulting, four years later, in the RPF seizing back power for the Tutsis.
If Kagame has since scaled the moral high ground in the eyes of credulous blow-ins, then, as Wrong reveals, it is a mound erected on the bones of whole clans who were wiped out, with no one left to claim the dead, during a repeated cycle of persecution and exodus; that, plus a series of horrific subsequent incursions into neighbouring DRC — not to mention a dedicated and on-going ‘extraterritorial and assassination programme’ borrowed from Mossad, and directed against anyone daring to question a president known as ‘the Mean One’. Less ‘the Switzerland of Africa’, Kagame’s Rwanda, when seen through Wrong’s retributive lens, more closely resembles the blood-soaked Scotland of Macbeth, and Kigali the Moscow of Beria — ‘a Potemkin village, a sophisticated con trick, with the donors cast in the role of useful idiots’.
Wrong knows the risks. She has been there — for the BBC, Reuters and the Financial Times. In 1994, she registered ‘the bloody handprints left on the walls of classrooms and church buildings by Tutsi men, women and children scrabbling to escape their executioners’. Months later, outside a hilltop church in Kibuye, she spotted, poking from a bank of earth, a naked foot — one of 11,000 slaughtered with a hoe or machete by neighbours from the same God-fearing community, perhaps even from the same pew. ‘No one will ever be able adequately to explain... the intimacy of that slaughter.’
All too mortifyingly, Wrong knows how easy it is to be duped about what happened, as it is to be eliminated for challenging Kagame’s seductive official version. She is ‘grimly aware’ that the charge of ‘revisionism’ — carrying a ten-year prison sentence — might be raised against her. ‘To prevent cyber-snooping, I kept the laptop on which I wrote this manuscript permanently offline, hiding it at the end of each working day under the dirty clothes in a laundry basket.’ In her obsessive project to expose Rwanda’s filthy linen, she has befriended the key players, visited their farms, dined with them in exile — including the charming and ebullient figure who for many years was Kagame’s immediate confidante: his former classmate and intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya (called ‘Patrick’ throughout the book — as he was generally known in Rwanda).
Few possessed Patrick’s intimate knowledge of where the bodies were buried and who had ordered the digging — not least because he was a joint architect of Kagame’s murderous government policy. Sickened eventually by the slaughter, he escaped to South Africa, only for the vindictive Kagame to despatch a team of assassins. On 1 January 2014, Patrick’s body was discovered strangled in a hotel room in Johannesburg. Wrong takes her title from the sign that his killers hung outside the door. Patrick had known them well.
Do Not Disturb reads as if written to avenge and broadcast the murders not only of Patrick but of Rwanda’s progressive Hutu interior minister Seth Sendashonga, machine-gunned to death in 1998, as well as other high-profile assassinations, including that of the DRC leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 2001 (‘We did it!’ Patrick admitted). It is also a personal act of atonement — for Wrong to expiate ‘a job badly done’ in having allowed herself to regurgitate, despite her own ‘queasy suspicions’, an utterly false narrative about contemporary Rwanda that professionally she never should have swallowed in the first place.
Rwanda is one of Africa’s most beautiful countries — ‘so beautiful, they say, it is where God retires to sleep at night’. Yet when it dawned on Patrick how monstrously Kagame had befouled their nation, he quipped: ‘If God exists, he can’t locate Rwanda on a map.’ As for Kagame, the Mean One never spoke truer than when he told an obsequious interviewer: ‘God created me in a very strange way.’
For Wrong, two deadly questions squat ‘like poisonous toads’ at the base of Rwanda’s modern history. Who triggered the 1994 genocide by firing a Soviet missile into the jet bringing back from promising peace talks Rwanda’s Hutu president and his Burundi counterpart? Once again, Patrick was unequivocal in implicating Kagame: ‘I was part of the team that brought down the plane.’ Second, how did the charismatic commander of the RPF, Fred Rwigyema, meet his end in 1990 — a stray bullet from a French commando or a targeted attack by a jealous internal faction? Wrong speculates that had the humane and inclusive Fred survived, millions might still be alive. Instead, into his luminous place stepped Fred’s grey, unprepossessing, twitchy and insecure shadow, Paul Kagame.
Wrong quotes Primo Levi to illuminate the horror that ensued: ‘Perhaps one cannot — what is more, one must not — understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify.’ No longer deflected by charm or laughter, she picks her way through the ‘deafening clashes of storylines’ and a history ‘drenched in pain’. She knows how ‘hair-tearingly difficult’ it is to interest even her own newspaper in Rwanda: ‘There’s no space for Africa in tomorrow’s edition,’ says her editor.
Yet in the teeth of complete indifference, she has produced a classic, her own journalistic complicity in the hollowness at the heart of power to rival Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart and Gitta Sereny’s Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth. Meanwhile, even as Commonwealth leaders prepare to meet ‘Africa’s Lee Kuan Yew’, another of Kagame’s former pillars — his hugely popular ex-army chief General Kayumba — is massing rebel forces on a high plateau near Uvira in the eastern DRC.