Continuing the story: How the dominant story of the Rwanda genocide Is unraveling


Who is the real pariah: The Professor or the President of Rwanda?

Peter Erlinder, the William Mitchell Law School Professor and noted human rights attorney addressed a small but attentive group at the law school Thursday afternoon. While attempting to update people about his recent arrest and imprisonment in Rwanda late this spring, he also used the opportunity to describe his role in how the story history will record is changing dramatically in the past year.

He began with a startling announcement: two days before the top prosecutor of Rwanda said he will file charges against Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda. (In the movie Don Cheadle played the role). Erlinder said that the Kagame regime is now lashing out in all directions as a sign of desperation. It also arrested Victoire Ingabire, the Hutu opposition candidate who tried to run against Kagame for President, this month on similar charges of supporting a “terrorist group”. Certainly their relationships with Professor Erlinder didn’t help them, especially since he is the one who has “documented” that the well-known story of the Rwandan genocide is at best a half-truth if not an outright fabrication to hide the real perpetrators.

Of the four year civil war in Rwanda from 1990-1994 most of us, if we know anything at all, know only what the victors claim happened: the Hutus carefully planned to slaughter the Tutsis and only the intervention of Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels ended it. Erlinder reminded us of Robert McNamara’s stark admission at the beginning of the documentary The Fog of War where he confesses in one of his last interviews before his death that if the US hadn’t won the war against Japan in 1945, “we would have been prosecuted for war crimes” [for the fire-bombing of Tokyo where 250,000 civilians were killed].

Up until now, there has been very little questioning of the predominate story of the Rwandan genocide. In the past 15 years, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has prosecuted only those who lost the war. “Either this was the only war in history where the crimes occurred on only one side or this Tribunal is like Nuremberg where there was only ‘victor’s justice'”, Erlinder stated. It was either a strange war or a strange tribunal, he quipped.

Fortunately, Erlinder continued, Carla Del Ponte, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICTR, wrote her memoirs that were published in early 2009. In it, she describes her work for both the Yugoslavia and Rwanda Tribunals and claims that she had enough evidence to prosecute Paul Kagame, the leader of the RPF and now the President of Rwanda, for his central role in the assassination of the Presidents of both Burundi and Rwanda on April 6, 1994, the event everyone considers to be the triggering factor in the ensuing genocide/mass slaughter. (Erlinder is very careful, as a lawyer, to remind his audience that it is not technically genocide if there is no planning or conspiracy. No one doubts there were mass killings throughout the countryside but Erlinder points out it was predominately in the areas where all semblance of law and order had broken down due to the civil war initiated by the RPF. More recent evidence shows that much of the killing occurred in the areas controlled by the RPF.)

Del Ponte also claimed that she had evidence of RPF troops killing “tens of thousands” of civilians during this period but she was ordered not to prosecute those cases by US War Crimes Ambassador Pierre Prosper. When she told him, “I work for the UN, not the US”, Prosper replied according to the memoir, “That’s what you think”. She was replaced within 6 weeks at the insistence of the US by the UN Security Council. “If you want to keep a UN career, you learn from what happened to Carla Del Ponte,” Erlinder continued.

Del Ponte’s firing caused very little media attention even though Kagame called for her resignation because of the timing: all the world was focusing on the search for WMDs in Iraq in 2003. But despite all the attention paid to Iraq, US Secretary of State Colin Powell went out of his way in a press conference to agree that she should be removed. All the outcomes have been manipulated in these cases when only one side is prosecuted. (Does this remind anybody of the aftermath of the Republican National Convention in 2008 when only the demonstrators and not the police were prosecuted?)

Erlinder described how he first got involved in the Rwanda case: while in Kenya in 2003, he was approached and asked to serve as defense counsel for General Bagosora, one of four Hutu military leaders charged with the most serious crimes of conspiring to commit genocide. Seven years later, the three Judges hearing the case against these “leaders of the genocide” rendered their judgment: a unanimous verdict of not guilty of conspiracy to commit genocide. [They were convicted of significantly lesser charges for actions of soldiers under their command for which they might not have even known about.]

With this verdict on February 8, 2009, for the first time in the public record was a significant chink in that wall erected of the dominant story of the genocide. If these 4 military leaders had not planned and conspired to commit the genocide, maybe there were other parts of the Kagame-is-a-hero story that were not true either. The second shoe to drop was the leaking of the draft of the United Nation’s Report from the High Commissioner for Human Rights (otherwise known as the Mapping Report), a 600-page report that had been held in secret for almost a year while Kagame was given a copy allowing him to comment on it before it was officially released. This act of civil disobedience by UN staffers in leaking it is reflective of the disgust and frustration that is growing for allowing Kagame to continue to act with impunity.

Part of that growing awareness of something seriously wrong with the glowing praise of Kagame’s “economic miracle” and his hero-status was his administration’s thuggish arrests of his political opponents – anyone who dared to challenge him. It was one thing to arrest Victoire Ingabire; after all, she is Rwandan. But when Kagame’s government overreached to arrest Peter Erlinder, a westerner with a strong network of legal and activist colleagues, much more attention came to bear on what was going on in Kigali.

The leak of the draft of the Mapping Report forced the hand of the UN officials and the final report was issued this month. Although the focus of the report was on what happened in Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from 1993-2003, it showed a clear pattern that completely negated the narrative that Kagame has spun: the killings of civilians in the Congo (and the genocide in Rwanda) were the work of the Hutu. The UN Report states that the RPF, Kagame’s military force, is responsible for many of the 6 million killed to date in the Congo. The primary victims? : Hutu civilians from Rwanda, Burundi, and the Congo.

As Erlinder was preparing his defense in front of the ICTR, he noticed that virtually all the “evidence” against his defendants was “apocryphal”. There didn’t seem to be any documentation, just statements or stories by others claiming, “I saw this” or “I heard that”. When questioning UN peacekeeping force leader, General Dallaire, a Canadian, the ICTR prosecutor asked about his telegram to NY on January 11, 1994, four months before the mass killings. Dallaire said “folks in New York didn’t respond to my warnings.” On cross-examination by Erlinder, he was asked if he had “any documents” and he mentioned statements by informers in his “personal files”.

So Erlinder asked for any documents the UN had relevant to the case. Told he was allowed to “inspect” UN files at the UN headquarters, he was escorted to a room that had a wall of documents arranged like a library. He was told he couldn’t take in his computer, camera, or even a notepad and pen or pencil. But he was instructed that if he put a “Post-It” note on any pages he needed a copy of, it would be given to him and the UN legal department staff would review it to see if it could be released to him. The professor told us he went downstairs “and bought a whole gross of Post-It Note packets” and literally spent a week putting a sticky note on every page. He said the UN staff are good bureaucrats and just followed orders. He received copies of thousands of documents by the end of 2004.

He also stumbled on “the archives”, a warehouse in NJ that also had relevant documents that he could use. Included in them were declassified documents from the Pentagon, US State Department, and the CIA. After arranging all the documents into chronological order, he converted them into PDF format and placed them on a website he created so they would be available to other researchers and the public. At the site,, Erlinder has assembled UN documents, US documents, evidence used in the Tribunal trial of his defendants, the Defense brief, articles about Rwanda, documents about Erlinder’s arrest, and a copy of the UN Mapping Report. The documents allowed him to assemble close to a minute-by-minute account of what happened during the 100-days of the genocide. It created a completely different narrative of what happened in Rwanda in 1994. Erlinder claims what he has put together is what historians will ultimately report once the dominant narrative is exposed as fraudulent. The documents are now in the public record -exposure will come.

Erlinder then proceeded to give us a brief outline of the events as they unfolded. Explaining that Rwanda was about the size of the State of Maryland and that historically the richer, minority Tutsi raised cattle and the majority, poorer Hutus grew crops. The Tutsis had the spears, they were the warriors in that society.

Between 1980-1990, Paul Kagame was the Ugandan rebel leader Museveni’s Military Intelligence Chief and then part of the Ugandan Army when Museveni became head of state with US assistance. Kagame himself received training at Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas. In 1990 he took about 25% of the Ugandan Army, renamed them The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and led a guerilla-style terrorism campaign to destabilize Rwanda.

His forces grew tenfold from 2,500 to 25,000 fully armed troops in those three years, obviously with outside help at a time when the Soviet empire was collapsing and the US was “concerned” about the socialist leanings of the Hutu President in Rwanda. In February 1993 the RFP attacked and advanced close to Kigali, the capital city. One-sixth of the population (1.2 million people) was displaced during this attack. A power-sharing agreement was reached in July that included the RPF because of their military superiority even though the Tutsi were only about 15% of the population. Pressure in the UN led to the removal of French and Belgian UN Peacekeepers who had helped keep the RFP out of Kigali and less-trained UN forces replaced them. An election for President was scheduled for the following August. Meanwhile neighboring Burundi elected a Hutu president by a landslide.

That Burundi president was assassinated by his own army consisting primarily of Tutsis in league with the RPF. The Burundi Army proceeded to kill between 100,000-250,000 predominately Hutus and another 300,000-500,000 refugees fled north to Rwanda. In November of 1993, US Ambassador Bob Flaten (now a resident of Northfield, MN) warned Kagame and the Rwandan president that if either side renewed the civil war there would be massive bloodshed. On April 6, 1994, RPF forces shot down the airplane carrying the Rwandan President and the new Burundi President and within two hours the RPF made a blitzkrieg assault to control much of the country. By July 19 they declared victory.

By September and October some reports of RPF crimes began to surface. Robert Gersony spent six weeks investigating the massive killings and his oral report to the UN claimed “systematic and sustained killing and persecution of the Hutu civilian population by the [RPF]” between April and August. His report was treated as “confidential” and suppressed. To this day (but hopefully not too much longer) the dominant narrative claims virtually all the victims were Tutsi and “moderate Hutu” although none of the statues or memorials today in Rwanda depict Hutu victims. And the “crime of genocide denial” was put into law by the victorious Kagame regime to prevent any other account from being raised.

From Erlinder’s account, it appears to me that most of the Tutsi-on-Hutu killing was done by the RPF military forces in the areas they controlled while the Hutu-on-Tutsi killing happened in the ensuing chaos of a complete breakdown of the society rather than as a military-led strategy. The killings on both sides must be condemned and be a part of the history. There are crimes on both sides in any war. But, in all likelihood, only one of those sides received US military aid and it was not the Hutu government which was overthrown.

For the US government to continue to allow Kagame’s false narrative to be dominant dishonors all the victims of the war. US foreign policy has aligned us with some really reprehensible leaders for political and economic reasons. Our support for Mobutu in Zaire was shameful and embarrassing. A few years from now the world will have a similar perspective about Paul Kagame. Hopefully our foreign policy will prioritize human rights over the resources we covet in the eastern Congo which Kagame has profited from. Time will tell. Meanwhile, the Professor, while a pariah to some in power in Kigali, is a prophetic voice calling us to do the right thing.

For a video of Peter Erlinder’s talk soon after being released from prison:

To view actual documents from the UN files on Rwanda: