Rwanda's ex-U.N. ambassador, who vanished after genocide, resurfaces in Alabama

By David L. Bosco
Sunday, April 4, 2010

In the spring of 1994, when the assassination of Rwanda's president unleashed a horrific three-month genocide that would ultimately kill 800,000 people, Rwanda's man at the United Nations assured the world's diplomats that his government was not to blame.

By a coincidence of history, Rwanda held one of 10 rotating seats on the U.N. Security Council at the time, giving Jean Damascene Bizimana, the country's 36-year-old ambassador, a place at the table for the council's private deliberations. Bizimana, a rising star in Rwanda's diplomatic corps, initially told his fellow ambassadors that the violence was due to spontaneous public outrage over the president's death on April 6 and that the interim government he now represented would quickly reestablish order.

As violence escalated, he blamed rebel forces from the country's Tutsi ethnic minority for all the trouble, insisting to the council on April 21 that the rebellion "must be made responsible for its attitude in wishing to continue hostilities, to perpetuate the current violence and to continue to perpetrate massacres." In May, he voted against an arms embargo on Rwanda that every other member of the council supported.

However, in the weeks that followed, as the government's direct responsibility for the mounting deaths became increasingly clear, Bizimana spoke out less and less. He became a "sullen and mostly silent" figure at Security Council meetings, and he "never showed the slightest sign of remorse about what was going on in his country," former British ambassador David Hannay told me.

Shortly after the rebels captured the Rwandan capital in July and overthrew the extremist interim regime, the young ambassador disappeared. Diplomats from the incoming government who took over Rwanda's U.N. mission on East 39th Street in Manhattan found the bank accounts empty and the offices stripped bare. Even the refrigerator and the stereo were gone.

Sixteen years later, the Rwandan government is still investigating whether Bizimana supported the genocide in his capacity at the United Nations, according to Andrew Tusabe, a counselor at the Rwandan Embassy in Washington. "Bizimana has not been forgotten," he told me. But he said they had not been able to determine his whereabouts.

It seemed that the ambassador, along with his wife and two small children, had simply vanished -- until he turned up living quietly in the small town of Opelika, Ala., a few miles up the road from Auburn University. He's an American citizen now. He works for a plastics company. And he doesn't want to talk about genocide.

As I researched a book on the Security Council over the past few years, Bizimana's story stuck with me. His role in supporting the genocide is unclear; after all, he was not in the country when the killings occurred. But he chose to remain in his post when the interim government began its butchery, and he repeated the regime's talking points. The new government threatened to arrest him on war crimes charges after he disappeared, and his immediate superior, former foreign minister Jerome Bicamumpaka, has been tried by a U.N. tribunal for conspiracy to commit genocide and is awaiting a verdict.

Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who was dispatched to Rwanda in 1993 as commander of a small U.N. peacekeeping force charged with safeguarding a cease-fire between the government and the rebels, is convinced that Bizimana was tied to the extremist circles that planned the mass killings. Dallaire pleaded fruitlessly with the Security Council for more authority and resources to intervene both before and during the genocide, and he blames Bizimana for misleading council members about conditions on the ground and for keeping the regime's leaders informed of the council's discussions.

Though Hannay, the British ambassador, doubts that Bizimana remained in close contact with his capital city once the killings began, Dallaire told me that Bizimana and top officials in Rwanda used satellite phones to stay in touch even as the carnage was raging. Regime officials, Dallaire wrote in his memoir, "were always ahead of me in the field and could adjust to any initiative I tried. Through [Bizimana] they knew exactly what the council was going to do."

He is particularly bitter that Bizimana knew more about the Security Council's decisions than he did. "There I was with my small team of intelligence officers who were risking their lives for crumbs of information," Dallaire wrote, "while the extremists had a direct pipeline to the kind of strategic intelligence that allowed them to shadow my every move."

After Bizimana left the United Nations, his own moves were not easy to trace. It seemed unlikely that he would have returned willingly to Rwanda. I found no evidence that he had been arrested or put on trial by the new government there. His name appeared a few times in the case files of the U.N. tribunal that has been investigating the genocide, but the documents offered no information on where he lived. France was a possibility, given the Hutu regime's strong ties to that country, but the trail there ran dry.

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