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James North on Philip Gourevitch’s Rwandan blind spots

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James North writes:
The New Yorker’s legendary fact-checkers must have taken time off recently, when Philip Gourevitch’s long look at Rwanda 15 years after the genocide (May 4) passed through their department. Not only is the article so one-sided that it could have been written by the present Rwandan government’s publicists, it also includes glaring factual errors.
Gourevitch already has a lot to answer for. Over the years, he has turned Rwanda into what one critic has called a "black Israel." In his widely-circulated book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, he interpreted the 1994 genocide, during which the Hutu majority slaughtered 850,000 of the Tutsi minority, as if it were an exact repeat of the Nazi Holocaust. In the middle 1990s this view was understandable, if already somewhat misleading. But then he portrayed Paul Kagame and his Tutsi-dominated government which came to power after the genocide as the heroic African equivalents of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan – and he continues to excuse their every action.
His latest article is quite astonishing. He mentions without comment that Kagame won the 2003 presidential "election" with 95 per cent of the vote. But nowhere in this article, which is long by contemporary New Yorker standards, does he find room to note that Kagame had his immediate predecessor as president, Pasteur Bizimungu, arrested on questionable charges and jailed for 3 years.
Critics, including the able former New York Times journalist Howard French, have also accused Gourevitch of ignoring Rwanda’s responsibility in the terrible war just to the west, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in which up to 4 million people have died from 1996 onward. French pointed out, in his important book, A Continent for the Taking (2004), that Gourevitch’s views influenced the Clinton administration, which probably even encouraged Kagame to launch military attacks into the Congo.
Gourevitch has apparently learned nothing over the past decade and a half from French and his other critics about the violent complexities in east-central Africa, and he must assume that none of The New Yorker’s readers have been paying attention either.

Let’s start with facts. Coltan is a mineral mined in the region that is indispensable to manufacturing cellphones. Gourevitch, as part of his argument that Rwanda today is booming economically, says, "There are now also mining operations in Rwanda, producing respectable amounts of cassiterite, coltan, wolframite, and gold." In his only other reference to mining, he admits that his hero, Kagame, "had been accused of running a colonial war of pillage…during Rwanda’s extended occupation of the mineral-rich eastern Congo." Note the passive voice; you do not know who is doing this accusing.
In fact, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed a Panel of Experts, who reported in 2001 that the Rwandan military was draining eastern Congo of several hundred million dollars’ worth of coltan and other minerals, and passing them off as its own products. (More details of Rwanda’s role in east-central Africa are in Gerard Prunier’s just-published, thorough Africa’s World War.) All experts on the region recognize that the plundering of minerals, by Rwanda and other countries, is a central factor in keeping the awful war going. Gourevitch tries to provide Kagame with an alibi by hinting that the coltan was Rwanda’s all along.
There is more. Gourevitch whitewashes Rwanda’s Tutsi-dominated army, claiming that its campaigns in eastern Congo were aimed exclusively at "fugitive Hutu genocidaires," the soldiers who had carried out the mass murder in Rwanda in 1994 and then lurked in refugee camps just over the Rwanda-Congo border, waiting for a chance to finish the job. This view was perhaps tenable 10 or more years ago, during the early fog of war in the Congo. Since then, human rights groups and other observers have verified the Rwandan army’s complicity in massacres and war crimes.
In his book, Howard French quotes a Congolese human rights leader, Guillaume Ngefa, who calls the Rwandan-led invasion of the Congo in part "a campaign to exterminate the Hutu refugees." Ngefa states: "[T]hose who suffered a genocide are committing one in their turn."
After a while, Gourevitch’s tone and approach start to become familiar. He sounds like an unreconstructed Communist or Zionist who cannot recognize that his one-time heroes are flawed. One of the most unfortunate elements of the New Yorker piece is the four-column photo of Paul Kagame, in a pose so heroic that the Rwandan government could comfortably use it to decorate its offices.
I have some personal understanding that it is not always easy to recognize that you as a writer were wrong, or that the people you once admired have gone bad. I covered Zimbabwe’s first free elections in 1980, and I respected and wrote favorably about Robert Mugabe as he was then. I’ve also worked in Haiti, where I was sympathetic to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the charismatic priest cum president who later turned sour and dictatorial.
But clinging to Mugabe, Aristide or Kagame is dishonest, and gets us nowhere. People who want to do something about the continuing war in east-central Africa have started to call for action around coltan, the cellphone mineral. Maybe Philip Gourevitch might want to look into their efforts?

James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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