The BBC Documentary, Rwanda: The Untold Story, does not deny the Rwandan genocide against Tutsis. It is a documentary primarily about Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current ruler, who came out of the Rwandan civil war and genocide of 1994 into a position of absolute power in Rwanda, from which he launched multiple invasions into the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, invasions which resulted in well-documented mass atrocities. I wrote about the documentary after I watched it (“The BBC and the Rwandan Genocide”: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/The-BBC-and-the-Rwandan-Genocide-20141011-0029.html), saying that I hoped that it would create an opening to talk about the current government in Rwanda and about Western support for Kagame. So did many others, including Jonathan Cook, who has done excellent work on Israel-Palestine and has a sharp critique of propaganda in that conflict (See his Oct 4 blog, “Why is the truth about Rwanda so elusive?”: http://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/2014-10-04/why-is-the-truth-about-rwanda-so-elusive/).
On October 12, a group of academics and writers wrote to the BBC to express their “grave concern” about the documentary. Their letter, which has been posted on media lens (http://members5.boardhost.com/medialens/msg/1413251703.html) is supposedly about ‘genocide denial’, but since no one involved in the BBC documentary denied the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis, the letter is really about Kagame, and continuing to protect him from criticism using the slur of genocide denial. The letter seems designed to ensure that no discussion about Kagame or Western support for his regime occurs. It repeats the term “genocide denial” 10 times, but it centers on a number of factual claims which can be evaluated. In the spirit of the “utmost intellectual honesty and rigor” that they claim to seek in their letter, let us evaluate these claims.
1. The documentary features a woman, Marie, whose childhood involved living through an incredible number of horrors: first she lived through the Rwandan genocide, then she lived through being hunted as a refugee through the forests of the Congo as a refugee. The writers write that “the programme allows a witness to claim that ‘only ten percent of the Interahamwe (militia) were killers”. The letter counters with “eyewitness testimony by several militia leaders who cooperated with the ICTR”, who argue that “the majority of the Hutu Power militia forces – estimated to have been 30,000 strong – were trained specifically to kill Tutsi at speed, and were indoctrinated in a racist ideology.”
The witness is a survivor of the genocide, and a survivor of the RPF massacres in the DR Congo. Her estimate is obviously not the outcome of a detailed sociological study or survey, and viewers should exercise skepticism in interpreting it, but it is very, very far from “genocide denial”. The context was one in which mass numbers of Hutus were being punished collectively for the genocide – and the witness was trying to say that not all of those punished were guilty. That is not so far from what was written in the suppressed Gersony report, about the thousands of people massacred by the RPF during their advance: “It appeared that the vast majority of men, women, and children killed in these actions were targeted through the pure chance of being caught by the RPA. No vetting process or attempt to establish the complicity of the victims in the April 1994 massacres of the Tutsis was reported.” As Theogene Rudasingwa, a former member of the RPF who is now in exile, wrote in his reply to the letter (posted on medialens: http://members5.boardhost.com/medialens/msg/1413315890.html):
“The BBC documentary, in its opening moments captures the agony of the victims, as they are hacked to death by this militia. So what if they were 5,000, 10, 1000, 30,000? For the American Professors (note: Rudasingwa is referring here to Davenport and Stam, academics at the University of Michigan, to whom I will return), and the authors of the letter trading polemics on this matter, I would say this is not time well spent. The militia had to be defeated militarily. I am glad they did. Unfortunately, the military victors of 1994 went on a killing spree in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo that is yet to be accounted for. That should be a subject of urgent interest rather than counting the number of militia that were involved in the genocidal madness.”
2. The second claim is that “the programme attempts to minimize the number of Tutsi murdered”. The programme presents figures by Davenport and Stam. Davenport discusses their study at length in this lecture: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THyzuIPD1qc&list=PL4D0960C09545A4FD&index=2). To me, the value of their study was in this discussion of their sources, the ranges of figures, and how they understood the violence in Rwanda in space and time. You can look at their data here (http://genodynamics.weebly.com/data-on-violence.html). Their figures should definitely be viewed with caution, but their analysis has several points of interest. They concluded that more Hutus died in the genocide than Tutsis, arguing that a specific dynamic occurred: once the killings started, people began to flee, and the killers, unable to distinguish between Tutsi and Hutu, killed indiscriminately; because there were many more Hutus than Tutsis, more Hutus ended up dying. Like Marie, the witness’s testimony, this analysis, and this conclusion, does not amount to ‘genocide denial’. Davenport and Stam set out to study the Rwandan genocide, and have never denied that there was an anti-Tutsi genocide that was carried out by the Rwandan government at the time. You can disagree with their analysis, or with their conclusions (I do disagree with the figure they gave in the BBC documentary, of 800,000 Hutus and 200,000 Tutsis killed, and I think Fillip Reyntjens’s estimates are the most accurate, of 600,000 Tutsis and 500,000 Hutus killed, and he has repeated his figures in a post about the documentary in facebook) but it is simply false to call them ‘genocide deniers’. They presented an analysis of data, not “a tactic of genocide deniers”, in the letter’s ugly language.
3. “The film argues that the shooting down of the plane on April 6, 1994 was perpetrated by the RPF.” The film presents RPF insiders claiming to have heard the planning of the assassination of the Rwandan and Burundian presidents. The letter writers cite French magistrate judge Marc Trevidic, whose investigations suggest that the missiles could not have been fired by the RPF. Two other judges concluded otherwise: Fernando Merelles from Spain in 2008 and Jean-Louis Brugiere from France in 2006. Reyntjens and Rudasingwa, in their replies, have both pointed out that Marc Trevidic’s investigation is not over – like many others, they have concluded that the RPF shot down the plane.
I have reviewed the material that is available and I am not confident about who shot down the plane. But as a matter of logic, whether the RPF shot down the leader of their enemy government, or whether the government shot down their own president, culpability for the genocide does not change, does it? If – as the letter-writers, the BBC reporters, and all the people the BBC reporters interviewed agree – the Rwandan government and its militias organized and carried out the mass murder of Tutsis immediately after the plane was shot down, surely they are culpable for the genocide regardless of who shot the plane down? If the RPF shot the plane down, they would be guilty of assassination, but it would still be the Rwandan government that would be guilty of genocide. Regardless, the film presents some claims, the letter-writers present some claims, about an assassination that occurred at the beginning of the genocide. Whether the RPF shot the plane down or not, the genocide occurred. So, presenting a claim that the RPF shot the plane down cannot be ‘genocide denial’.
4. “The film-maker, Jane Corbin… even tries to raise doubts about whether or not the RPF stopped the genocide.” The letter writers cite Romeo Dallaire (one of the signers of the letter) as “The authority on this subject”. But is Dallaire a greater authority than Kagame himself? At 20:38, there is an interview with Kagame, who was at the battlefront. Kagame is asked: “Are the massacres still continuing?” He replies: “Yes, the massacres are continuing, though on a lower scale, and this is not because the killers have stopped killing but because, I think, they have killed quite a big number of those they are supposed to kill.”
Now to the departures from the “utmost intellectual honesty and rigor” engaged in by the letter writers. There are many, including the systematic slinging of mud and the constant argumentation from authority, but let us take two.
1. Do the letter-writers really believe that the civil war between the RPF and the Rwandan government at the time, led by Habyarimana, which killed tens of thousands of people, is a mere “smoke screen”? Do they really believe that the term ‘civil war’ belongs in scare quotes? Do they really not believe that the civil war created the context for the genocide?
2. Are the letter-writers really blowing off the invasion of the DRC, the millions killed there, the stealing of elections, the testimonies of the former RPF who are on the run and in exile and admit to committing crimes at Kagame’s side? Do the Hutu deaths, even though they occurred on a smaller scale, really mean nothing to them?
The writers write that “Denial… ensures the crime continues. It incites new killing. It denies the dignity of the deceased and mocks those who survived.” And yet, the letter writers do all of those things. If the victims of the RPF don’t count, as they do not seem to to these writers, then what is this except denial? All of the victims in Central Africa – of the defeated Rwandan government, of the RPF, of the RPF’s proxies and of their opponents – all deserve to be acknowledged, not denied. The BBC documentary deserved better than shoddy arguments and mudslinging. Kagame is still in power, and the only function of this letter is to provide him with cover. Rather than a letter about ‘genocide denial’, the authors would have been more honest to write a manifesto of unconditional support for Rwanda’s dictator.