Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, survivor and activist Claude Gatebuke and filmmaker Andre Vltchek discuss what was really behind America’s decision not to intervene and its ongoing support for Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
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This week marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, where more than 800,000 people were killed in just 100 days. It is remembered by many as the time when the U.S. did not immediately recognize the massacre as a genocide, leading then-president Clinton to not intervene in order to stop the mass killings.
Now joining us to discuss the present state of Rwanda and the role of foreign governments are our two guests. Andre Vltchek is an opposition intellectual, novelist, filmmaker, and investigative journalist. He’s also the writer and director of the new documentary film Rwanda Gambit.
Also joining us is Claude Gatebuke. Claude is a Rwandan genocide and civil war survivor. He’s also the executive director of the African Great Lakes Action Network, an organization dedicated to bringing peace, justice, and prosperity in the Great Lakes Region of Africa.
Thank you both for joining us.
ANDRE VLTCHEK, WRITER & DIRECTOR, RWANDA GAMBIT: Thank you so much.
CLAUDE GATEBUKE, RWANDAN SURVIVOR, EXEC. DIR. OF AFRICAN GREAT LAKES ACTION NETWORK: Thank you. Thank you for having us.
DESVARIEUX: So, Claude, I’m going to start off with you, Claude. You were just 14 years old living in Rwanda during the genocide. The closest most people came to understanding what was even happening in Rwanda was probably Hotel Rwanda. But you actually lived through this. Can you just describe for us your experience? And was there a specific moment that still stays with you?
GATEBUKE: There are a lot of moments that still stay with me. But first I would like to just share how Rwanda was a very peaceful country when I was growing up and never thought that there would be that much violence or chaos in the same country that I knew growing up, up until I was about ten years old: Rwanda was invaded. And the invaders were a group of Tutsis who had been exiled 30 years earlier. And they invaded Rwanda from the northern part of the country bordering the country of Uganda. And they had the support of Ugandan troops and matériel. And they came down, and for years, for four years they fought a war where whenever they came down, they would burn down villages, they would massacre people, call people to meetings and bomb them, and those who survived were killed with hand weapons.
And with that, I started to understand that this war was actually very dangerous at a young age. And this is prior to ’94.
And so now fast forward to right before 1994. There were a lot of political movements that were born, and some aligned with the government, and others aligned with the rebels, and others in opposition or others in the middle. Every day there were riots in the streets. Whenever we went to school, we weren’t sure that we would come back safely, because these youth groups were in the streets fighting a lot of times. And prior to April 6, 1994, there were a lot of politicians that were assassinated. And every time there was an assassination, there were massacres.
So fast forward now to April 6, 1994, which is one of the biggest major events of the genocide, when the president’s plane was shot in Rwanda and he died along with everyone else on that plane, including the Burundian president, who had only been president for six months, or maybe less than six months, since the last president had been assassinated in Burundi.
And Rwanda, the city of Kigali, where I grew up, was full of people coming from the northern part of the country. A million people had fled the rebels. And 300,000 people ran into Rwanda from Burundi. And so this country is totally full of people, and people were very hungry. And on April 6, when the plane was shot, Rwanda exploded into total chaos and total terror. The same night, I started hearing shelling, explosions from one side of the city whistling over our heads and then going silent and dropping on the other end of the city. And it was like a big tropical storm of bombs and bullets. And then, in the morning, my neighbors, the extremist Hutu neighbors started butchering our Tutsi neighbors, and a lot of people were chopped to death and bodies thrown to the side of the road. We finally, as we were escaping the city, got—kept getting stopped at checkpoints, and at one of the checkpoints I was pulled out with my mother and we were made, we were ordered to dig our own graves so that they can bury us after we were killed.
What ended up happening is neighbors rushed in and pleaded for us to be saved, and we were finally able to leave this place. And once we left, months later, we fled into the Congo with just about everybody in Rwanda that was still surviving and that was able to cross the border and flee the bombing campaign that was approaching us.
And so that was, in short, my experience during the genocide. I witnessed one of my friends that I played soccer with getting killed with a machete, where he was chopped down to death. I saw a lot of people get killed with hand weapons. And I also saw a lot of people get shot. The place stunk. It smelled like human flesh mixed with gunpowder, and the air was all smoky with all the bombings that were taking place. And at night we could actually see the flashes of the bombs and the bullets.
So that was my experience during the genocide in a nutshell.
DESVARIEUX: Claude, I mean, your story is so powerful, and we do often hear about these horrific events, but what we don’t really hear about is the U.S.’s role in all of this.
And, Andre, I want to turn to you and ask what actually has been the role of the United States before and after the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
VLTCHEK: Well, Jessica, as Claude already suggested, the 1994 genocide did not come from the blue. Of course there were raids of Tutsi group RPF, which was based in Uganda. It was led by General Kagame, who is presently president of Rwanda. The group was—RPF was supplied by both Ugandan forces, but also by the United States. There was a very close link between them and the United States. It grew from very insignificant group to a force of thousands of well-armed men.
General Kagame at the time was—he was intelligence chief of Ugandan military, of Ugandan army. Can you imagine a foreigner actually being intelligence chief in the foreign country?
And then what was happening is that, as was told to me by a former ambassador of the United States to Rwanda, Mr. Flaten, the relationship was very close and very—and there was a direct—there was direct supply, direct training, direct support of the United States for RPF. After the genocide, after 1994, when many Hutus actually fled to neighboring Congo, Rwanda became a place which was used, together with Uganda, to fulfill geopolitical and economic ambitions of the United States and European Union in that area, meaning Congo, which is one of the richest places on earth in terms of natural resources—it has coltan, which we use for our mobile phones [incompr.] uranium, diamond, gold, and so on. Congo was actually plundered by RPF, by Rwandan forces, but also by Ugandan army, on behalf of the U.S. and European multinational companies, and some would say on behalf of the governments.
Now, just to show you how close the relationships were and are, some people, like Tony Blair, the prime minister of U.K., after retiring, he became, actually, a direct adviser to Paul Kagame. Bill Clinton was very close to the government. And also, as we probably all know, Kagame before and after was several times visiting United States. He received military training at the U.S. bases. And his son is also receiving military training—received military training in the U.S. So this is just a short overview.
DESVARIEUX: Claude, the Rwandan people elected Kagame. So I want to get your take on how is he perceived in Rwanda. Do people see him as sort of being this sort of puppet president of the United States and multinational corporations?
GATEBUKE: I think saying that he was actually elected by Rwandan people is an overstatement at best. He was elected by himself, because, for one, he runs the Election Commission. No one—it is totally unheard of, other than, you know, those who assign themselves an amount of votes. No one wins an election by 93 percent. That is the vote that he, quote-unquote, received from an election.
Rwandan people have rejected Kagame in multiple elections, except that he knows how to rig these elections, and in some cases there are soldiers standing at polling stations. Actually, in many cases, soldiers are standing at polling places where they’ve already voted for a person before the person even goes out to the poll. So I wouldn’t say that he was elected by Rwandan people.
He came to power through the barrel of the gun in 1994, when he won the war against the former government. Do people see him as a puppet of the United States and Western governments, the U.K. and other governments? Yes, they do. And a prime example, actually, going back to what Andre was saying, is in spite of—in addition to plundering the Congo, he’s committed massive atrocities in the Congo. A UN report in 2010, the UN Mapping Report, say that if taken to court, Rwandan troops—and this is—I want to make it clear it’s not representative of all Rwandans. This is the clique that’s leading the Rwandan government are responsible for this. But if taken to court, that they could be found guilty of genocide.
And in spite of all of that, the United States continue to provide nearly $200 million in aid to Rwanda. A prime example why people see him as a puppet of the United States and the U.K.—who provide 40 percent of the aid received in Rwanda, by the way—when they withheld their aid recently because of Rwanda’s involvement in the Congo in recruiting child soldiers with the help of the M23, which is basically a proxy Rwandan army or a proxy Rwandan rebel group. Because of the M23, the United States withheld aid, military aid, the U.K. withheld aid, and some of the other donors also withheld aid from Rwanda. And it almost instantly ended that rebellion. There were additional actions that were taken to end that rebellion. But there’s proof that without this, the help, the support, political backing, diplomatic backing, and financial backing of the United States and United Kingdom, Kagame is powerless.
And in Rwanda he’s known as a dictator. It’s—basically, living in Rwanda is like being in a big prison, where people are afraid to speak out. Those who have spoken out, like the—Victoire Ingabere is, the lady who returned to Rwanda to run for president, Bernard Ntaganda, and others are today in jail, and many unknown people. Many civilians, including press, including just regular civilians who have dared to express an opinion that disagrees with Kagame and the RPF’s policies, are today in jail, exiled, or have been killed. So he’s known, definitely, as a puppet, but also as a dictator and a tyrant that is causing total chaos in the region, especially in the Congo.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let’s turn back to the genocide of 1994. And, Andre, I want to get your take on this. What should humanity learn from this genocide?
VLTCHEK: Well, first of all, humanity should learn that the fate of the nation should be left in their own hands. There was too much mingling in the affairs of the Great Lakes region before 1994 and after—during 1994 and after 1994.
What happened after—other very important lesson is that truth always has to be learned, because we are always talking about the genocide of 1994 in Rwanda, and of course it was horrible and people died, and 800,000 people died. But as I was told by Congolese presidential candidate at the time, /bɛnkəˈlɑːlɑː/, he said, well, we are talking about 800,000 people, and I’m very sorry for them, but look what happened in Congo. Between six and, by now, between six and ten million people died. Ten million. That’s the worst genocide, actually, that happened after the Second World War. It was probably worse than partition between Pakistan and India. And nobody’s talking about it. It’s a total taboo subject.
So we also have to—one thing we can learn is that if one thing is left unchecked, if the history is not being addressed, like the history of 1994, a horrible bloodletting or genocide, then the conflict can spread all over the region, as it can destroy many more lives. So in this case, in the case of Congo, it was perhaps ten times more people who vanished than those who died during the [incompr.] genocide itself.
Also what we have to learn is that geopolitical interests of the West should by no means be allowed to destroy entire nations. I mean, we have what happened in Rwanda in 1994 again is somehow very similar or it is resembling the events in Indonesia in 1965 or in Chile in 1973.
So there are many lessons that we can learn. But definitely some very powerful ones about neocolonialism, and also about the truth, about the truth not being told.
DESVARIEUX: Claude, I’m going to ask you the same question just really quickly. What do you think we should learn, as human beings, from this genocide?
GATEBUKE: I think we should make never again a reality. And what I mean by that is when it comes to atrocities and genocide and just the killing raping and destroying human life, it should be taken seriously and all perpetrators should be held accountable. There should be a justice process, a truth process, to address these things and set an example. Impunity is one of the worst enemies of humanity. And when criminals continue to hunt down people, then kill them because of their opinions or because they are inconveniently telling a truth about massive atrocities that are being told, that continues to perpetrate the cycle of violence.
So, for example, I think that anyone that was responsible for genocide in Rwanda should be held accountable. Equally, the RPF, who are today in power, should be held accountable for the crimes they committed, for the number of people they killed in Rwanda and Congo. And that will set an example and a precedent to anyone who thinks that they can get away with committing crimes.
Today, genocide survivors like Déo Mushyayidi are in prison in Rwanda for exactly saying what I’m saying here, for telling the truth about the atrocities that were committed in Rwanda. That shouldn’t be the case. What should be the case is that all criminals should be brought to court and dealt with and not supported and celebrated across the world.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Claude Gatebuke and Andre Vltchek, thank you both for joining us.
VLTCHEK: Thank you.
GATEBUKE: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.