In 2010, I participated in panel discussion of a just-released U.N. report on human rights abuses in the High. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published a 550-page report that mapped 617 alleged human rights violations that occurred in Congo from 1993 to 2003. Commonly known as “the mapping report,” this document confirmed in meticulous detail what citizens and observers of the region had long known: A range of violent individuals and groups were responsible for horrific human rights abuses against other combatants and innocent civilians.
Perhaps the most contested finding in the mapping report concerned Rwanda’s role in the Congo conflicts. The report documented the role that Rwanda’s military and other forces under its influence played in the violence during that decade, including the alleged massacre of an unknown, but large number of Hutu refugees who had fled the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Most controversially, the mapping report suggested that these crimes could constitute attempted genocide.
My fellow panelists and I all said the same things about that 2010 report: Yes, these allegations were almost certainly true and had long been known by researchers, journalists, aid workers and, of course, the region’s citizens. Yes, Rwanda is responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Congo. And yes — though it’s not clear the documented actions constituted genocide in the legal sense — more investigations would allow for a determination on that point, and a path to hold accountable those responsible for the atrocities.
Throughout the Q&A session, three members of the audience aggressively questioned and contested the report’s claims about Rwanda’s role in the conflict. All three were from the Rwandan embassy, including Rwanda’s ambassador to the United States at the time. After the panel, these officials continued to berate some of the panelists, including me. I left the panel intimidated and frightened.
How Rwanda cracks down on dissent
I couldn’t help but think of that incident when reading Michela Wrong’s new book, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad. Meticulously researched, Wrong’s book tells the story of the Rwandan government’s murder of its former head of external intelligence, Patrick Karegeya, in South Africa in 2013. Her investigation also reveals how the regime in Kigali, despite being hailed internationally as a progressive, forward-thinking, well-functioning African government concerned with development and security, is actually an authoritarian dictatorship concerned first and foremost with its own survival, and willing to go after its enemies — real or perceived — at any cost.
Wrong begins the book with a discussion of a social norm in Rwanda: a canniness and tendency toward deception, especially with outsiders. People use this norm to manipulate naivete, to say one thing and mean another, and to ensure that no one can ever be completely certain of much of anything, or of the person saying it.
As Wrong notes, this fact made researching her book particularly difficult. But she managed regardless, and the result is utterly and completely damning. The range of subjects who agreed to talk to Wrong, often at great risk to themselves and their families, is astonishing. The details Wrong reveals are at times jaw-dropping, even for seasoned researchers of the country and those familiar with the region.
The book exposes a ruthless campaign against dissidents and those who had been pushed into exile, directed from the highest levels of the government. Karegeya is not the only exile who was hunted down on the behest of orders from the top. In a chapter on the attempted assassination of another exile, General Kayumba Nyamwasa, Wrong points out that cellphone records in the case included the number of Rwanda’s national intelligence chief at the time.
Interviews reveal shocking details about long-known facts
The book is packed with particulars such as these, showing the close connections between high-level government officials and the murders or attempted murders of Rwandans who dare to question the regime. At times, leaders, including President Paul Kagame, can barely contain their glee in public statements about the deaths. After Karegeya’s death, for example, Kagame, while denying that his regime had committed the crime, said, “I actually wish Rwanda did it.”
While the details are unique and well-researched, perhaps the most infuriating thing about Wrong’s book is that none of the broad facts presented there are new information. Wrong’s brilliant, engaging writing will draw in readers, but those who follow Rwanda, Congo and regional politics have known this story for a long time. One reason I could easily confirm the mapping report’s findings is that we have extensive firsthand reports of Rwanda’s war crimes in Congo. Journalists followed fleeing Hutu refugees as they tried and failed to outrun their hunters. Aid workers witnessed the aftermath of the massacres. Mass graves are still easy to locate throughout the territory in question. All of this is known.
And, yet, despite its leaders’ responsibility for such horrific crimes, Rwanda has remained a darling of the international community, especially within the development sector. Governments acknowledge that Rwanda is far from a democracy, but are nonetheless willing to finance an almost infinite number of projects there. Researchers flock to a country in which the government is happy to let them run randomized control trials on populations that have no real choice to participate or not.
Wrong wrestles with this question. She concludes what many before her have also concluded: that the rest of the world’s guilt over its failure to intervene in the 1994 genocide gives Rwanda a pass. This allows the government to maintain authoritarian rule and suppress free speech — or murder its dissidents in countries around the world — all without facing meaningful sanction.
But is this pattern of repression, silence and victimization sustainable? As Wrong points out in the conclusion, it may not last long. As Kagame approaches retirement age with no clear line of succession, “Do Not Disturb” makes it clear that Rwanda’s leadership — and the shape of Rwandan society — are likely to be contested for many years to come.