From Hope to Horror

Diplomacy and the Making of the Rwanda Genocide.

From Hope To Horror Joyce Leader

Most accounts of the Rwanda genocide begin by recounting the events of April 6, 1994, when a Falcon 50 carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira was downed by a surface-to-air missile as it approached Kigali International Airport. Joyce E. Leader, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda from 1991-94, heard the aircraft hit the ground while sitting at her dinner table, and remained in the capital as the random and targeted killing of ethnic Tutsi (and select Hutu) got underway. Over the course of the next hundred days, the perpetrators murdered upwards of one million men, women and children.

But as Leader makes clear in “From Hope to Horror” (University of Nebraska/Potomac Books) —her personal, insider account of the years leading up to the genocide—what unfolded was at least several years in the making, a product of ongoing power struggles and failed efforts to transition Rwanda to democracy and peace. In fact, according to Human Rights Watch, there were 17 massacres in the country between 1990 and 1993, including the Bugesera Massacre in March 1992, a weeklong spasm of violence that left three hundred Tutsi dead.

Leader’s thesis is that the events that triggered the genocide were rooted in the jockeying for power among three groups: President Habyarimana and his party; the opposition Hutu within Rwanda; and Tutsi who were fighting their way in from outside the country.

As it turns out, a power-sharing agreement that was intended to promote peace and democracy became a catalyst for the genocide. The Arusha Accords, signed on August 4, 1993, aimed to institutionalize greater equity between the ruling Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority, yet Hutu extremists vigorously opposed the arrangement, believing that it would lead to Tutsi domination. This helps explain why there was a rise in human rights abuses and violence each time there were advances in the movement toward democracy.

In the following Failure Interview, Leader elaborates on themes explored in “From Hope to Horror,” including why diplomacy failed and ways future diplomatic efforts can more effectively prevent the escalation of violence in analogous situations.

What makes ‘From Hope to Horror’ unique among analyses of the Rwanda genocide?

The thing that’s different is that it’s the first book written by someone who was there at the time and involved from a diplomatic point of view. Of course, there have been many books by survivors, and there are others who have done great research. The thing that is important, though, is that [the story] be told by all different sides. I’m telling my truth but there are many truths about how things unfolded and it’s important to put them together, like pieces of a puzzle. I don’t have a lock on the wisdom. Whenever I cross paths with people who were involved we inevitably start comparing stories and I always learn something that amplifies or informs my view.

Reading ‘From Hope to Horror’ it is clear there were warning signs of genocide long before April 1994. Can you address those?

One caveat: I was not thinking in terms of genocide. That was not on my radar screen for a long, long time, probably not until we got into it. We were focusing on supporting the transition to democracy and peace. It was all looking at the positive, not at the negative. The violence prompted us to urge government and political leaders to work harder on implementing the plans for democracy and peace. But there were a lot of problems along the way, a lot of things where you wonder: Should we have known at that time?

A turning point, though we didn’t realize it, occurred during the peace talks in Arusha, Tanzania, when the two sides came up with an arrangement for sharing power. Back in Kigali, there were very strong statements—by political leaders close to the president—that the arrangement was totally unacceptable, because it would make the Hutu a permanent minority party. Basically, the peace talks in Arusha got out ahead of the Hutu rulers and Hutu opposition in Kigali. Diplomats were not prepared to take a hard stance, even though we knew this arrangement had led to a lot of violence inside the country. We let it stand because there was more interest in getting to the end of the peace talks and an actual agreement—and not wanting to risk a return to war.

A month after concluding this power-sharing agreement, one of the parties to it, the armed group of Tutsi refugees [the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF] broke the ceasefire and resumed the war. Once they came back to the negotiating table, we focused on the positives again, not the negatives. We kept pushing ahead, thinking there would be a solution, not really understanding that each of the three groups vying for power was on its own track. We found out much later that this ceasefire rupture might have been an RPF ploy to divide the country—to sow discord within the political parties so that any peace agreement would be very hard to implement.

The fact that Rwandans did not have much experience with democracy or democratic institutions seems to have been a big factor as well.

That’s a very important point. None of the groups that were vying for power were used to sharing; each was used to being in charge.

Initially the minority Tutsi had a monarchy and they ruled the Hutu peasants for hundreds of years. The Tutsi were also favored during the colonial period. But at independence [in 1962] the Belgians turned the government over to the Hutus, who had no experience governing. Even among the majority Hutu there was division between the north and the south.

Basically, each time one group was in power they discriminated against the other, so it was not a history where they would compromise and look for common ground or common values. The pendulum of power always swung from one extreme to the other.

And the politics wasn’t limited to Rwanda, right? At one point the assassination of the Hutu president in Burundi—and other political assassinations—figured into what unfolded.

That’s exactly right, and this is something that we need to improve in our diplomacy—taking regional issues into account when making policy. I don’t think we understood clearly enough all of the implications of what was going on in the region. The Tutsi military’s assassination of the first Hutu president in Burundi—which had a very similar ethnic makeup to Rwanda, about 80 percent Hutu and 20 percent Tutsi—set off ripples of fear thru Rwanda, especially in the Hutu community.

That caused many of the Hutu—who had been working toward sharing power with the Tutsis—to back away. That became the great divide, whether to share power or not share power. It also united the Hutu who supported Hutu solidarity, whether they were for the government in power or opposed to it. This isolated Hutu moderates, making them into pariahs who were considered enemies, [on par] with the Tutsis themselves. Moderates were labeled as traitors and became vulnerable to the machinations of those who did not want to see the peace process or democratization move forward.

What role did radio—and radio broadcasts—play in the genocide?

Radio was the major tool for disseminating information throughout the country, because there was no television and there were no newspapers outside the capital.

Early on, when the RPF invaded from the north, radio was used to demonize all Tutsi, the invaders and those living in Rwanda. Radio propaganda stirred up hatred and fear that returning Tutsi would not only try to take back property [that refugees] had left behind thirty years earlier, but that they would kill the Hutu who were now living in those areas. There was a very concerted effort to stir up anti-Tutsi feeling among ordinary people.

In keeping with the democratization process, an appointed coalition government took power, and as part of that process half of the ministers came from the opposition party. One of the ministries that an opposition party took over was the ministry of information. As a result, the hard-liners who had been behind the campaign to demonize the Tutsis were removed from their roles and there was a lot less propaganda on government radio.

But this didn’t stop the hard-liners, because they created a new, privately-financed radio station called RTLM, or Free Radio [and Television] of the Thousand Hills. It came online in August 1993, after the peace accord was signed and about six months before the genocide. It used music to gain an audience, and then it started the hate propaganda they had been so successful with earlier.

There’s also another radio station to take into consideration, the station of the RPF. It had a big following among the Tutsi inside the country, even though it was officially unacceptable to listen to it and if people were caught it meant problems for them and their families.

There was a four day period in February of 1994 that you describe in the book as “a trial run for the mass killings.”

That was a very scary period because for the very first time the killing came to Kigali. Violence wasn’t unusual in the countryside. The first Hutu government had periodically used pogroms against Tutsi to more or less impose their authority over their former Tutsi rulers. And in the process the diaspora of Tutsi refugees began.

Then after the invasion of the Tutsi from Uganda, the Hutu government reverted to historical type and started pogroms against the Tutsi in various parts of the country. So there were numerous regional massacres during the three years that led up to the genocide and they were always able to start them with threats [saying]: ‘If you don’t kill your Tutsi neighbors, they are going to kill you.’ The military and militias would begin [the massacres] but then they would get people to join in and kill their Tutsi neighbors.

After the peace accord was signed some of this violence ticked up, and in February 1994, on the heels of assassinations of two political leaders, neighborhoods in Kigali were shut off [by Hutu militia] while killers went in and did their dastardly deeds. It should have been very clear at that point that something new had happened. But we outsiders didn’t realize that it was a dress rehearsal for what was to come six weeks later.

Where were you when President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down? What do you remember about that day?

That day holds some very strong memories. I had a visitor from our embassy in Nairobi who was working on refugee affairs, and that evening I hosted a dinner at my house—to give my visitor time to speak with representatives from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

The four of us were at the dinner table when we heard a loud bang—really, more of a loud thud, like something had exploded. Sounds like this weren’t necessarily uncommon in Kigali, so we didn’t think too much about it until half an hour later when the ambassador called and told me the president’s plane had been shot down while returning from a meeting in Tanzania.

It was a rough night for all of us, but it got rougher the next day when we woke to gunfire all around my house.

And then things became active inside your house?

That was very hard to write about and it brings up a lot of painful memories. My next door neighbor was Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyiman, and she wanted to come over my wall to seek safety in my home. I was naive and ignorant, and wanting to be helpful said yes initially. But I had to reverse that decision when I heard gunfire just outside my gate.

Then the Presidential Guard came into my house looking for the Prime Minister and one of the worst parts of the experience was that they thought my visitor—a tall, African-American woman—was a Tutsi. We had a lot of trouble convincing them otherwise, but after she produced her American passport, they left her alone. They continued to search the house until satisfied the prime minister was not there. We stayed in the house for a couple days before I felt comfortable that I could get to the embassy three blocks away.

What was it like trying to get out of the country?

Getting out of the country was harrowing. We were ordered to evacuate by Washington; they decided that our situation was not secure enough for us to stay. We decided to go by land to Burundi. Normally it’s about a five-hour trip from Kigali to Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, but it took our last of five convoys ten hours. At the border, all passports had to be shown on the Rwandan side and then again on the Burundi side. An American plane filled with U.S. Marines had come to Burundi from an aircraft carrier off the coast of Somalia; they were standing by in case there were problems, but we made it out without their help.

What did you find when you returned to Kigali in the aftermath of the genocide?

What I found was a Kigali that was nearly empty. Many of the Hutu residents fled, of course, when the Hutu government and army left. A couple of million people fled across the border, half of them to Zaire and half to Tanzania. Everybody that I knew wanted me to tell me their story and it was so painful to hear how they had to hide and flee into Tutsi-controlled areas to be safe from the marauding army. This included some Hutu targeted for death as human rights activists or opposition journalists who had been critical of the former government.

It was very hard to hear all of the stories of those who had been killed in the genocide, as well as the miraculous stories of survival. Returning to Rwanda after the genocide, even for only two weeks, was one of the most difficult assignments of my diplomatic career.

Let’s talk a little more about why diplomacy failed.

As I see it, we failed because we had no plans or policies to address unintended consequences of our support for democracy and peace, namely the violence perpetrated by folks who didn’t want to see democracy or peace succeed because they would lose power and privileges. Profound change is very destabilizing.

We needed to have policies to prevent or help mitigate the backlash of violence against democratization and peace. The possibility of violence is great in these kinds of transitional situations. Conflict is not inevitable, but in Rwanda—where there was no firm foundation of competing groups being able to work together to come to compromise solutions— the path would likely be toward conflict. The spoilers were those who didn’t see a way to maintain their control except through ridding themselves of their Tutsi enemy and the Hutu who were ready to share power with them.

Even with a greater sense of awareness, if you will, could diplomats have done something to prevent the genocide?

That’s the $64,000 question. My sense is that it would have been difficult. The point at which it was clear that some of the country was categorically opposed to the arrangement for power sharing might have been a turning point.

But once we were that far in, there was determination on the part of those who saw their grip on power slipping away, to implement their plan. The genocide was in planning for at least a year and probably two or three years. People who were thinking in terms of exterminating their enemy were beginning to make lists of who those people would be. And they were converting [political] youth groups into militia—training them to kill, ostensibly for self-defense.

Could we have made a difference? I think the only way would have been to have a concerted policy of conflict prevention, of using peace-building strategies, and back then that was not very common language in diplomacy. But to do interventions that might work toward reconciliation of the groups—to bring them together to think about what their commonalities were—as opposed to dwelling on their antagonisms and differences … if that kind of thinking could have been incorporated into our diplomacy early on, there might have been a possibility to work with some of the people.

Yet each group wanted to control the transition to democracy and peace, but not for the benefit of all, for the benefit of their group. We were not as aware of this as we needed to be. In our diplomatic culture when two parties agree to negotiate, that also means they agree to compromise and live by their decisions. Those things were absent from the thinking of the people we were dealing with.

Has the international community become better at conflict prevention in the quarter-century since the genocide?

I think they have become more aware of the need for conflict prevention and there are lots of groups working on strategies for doing that. I was recently in touch with the United States Holocaust Museum and they are working hard on training diplomats in prevention. And the United Nations has taken steps towards developing ways to address conflict prone situations that are not yet to the point where a military response is needed. Non-governmental organizations have also taken steps toward making their programming more inclusive, not just aiming it at people who are visibly suffering, but at the whole community, so underlying jealousies and conflicts don’t get exacerbated.

What I believe hasn’t happened and still needs to happen is that we have to get to a point where we agree—not just the diplomats, but the whole of government, including the people on Capitol Hill who provide the funding—that prevention is a priority in our interventions abroad. But it’s very hard to convince people that it’s less expensive to invest in prevention than it is to try to rebuild after society has been destroyed.

Also, many of the activities that have long been thought of as post-conflict reconstruction—such as helping to stand up judiciary systems that are attuned to the rule of law—should become conflict prevention activities. In Rwanda the U.S. spent millions of dollars on post-conflict reconstruction, but we didn’t work on judicial issues before the breakdown, even though there was evidence that it was a non-functioning system. People who were threatened because they were democracy advocates—whether politicians or journalists or human rights activists—couldn’t turn to the law and expect to have redress.

How has that part of Africa been changed by the genocide?

The legacy of the genocide is still apparent in the eastern part of the Congo, in the provinces that are close to the border of Rwanda and Uganda. Twice the post-genocide, Tutsi-led government of Rwanda sent its army into this area to end security threats from Hutu who had sought refuge there after the genocide. Both the Hutu presence and the Tutsi-led invasions have had a lasting, destabilizing impact in the region. That region is also rich in gold and diamonds and minerals that are coveted by the western world. There is still conflict over control of those resources.

Have you been back to Rwanda recently?

The last time was at the end of 2008. After I retired from the State Department I was invited back as a civil servant to help with peace-building activities involving the governments of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Burundi—trying to get them to focus on their common security problems and work out common solutions, so that there can be more lasting peace among them.

It was very traumatic when I first went back. I warned the State Department team that I might burst out crying at any time. Luckily that didn’t happen during State Department meetings. But afterwards, when I was having lunch with Rwandan friends, the tears began flowing when they recounted a story I had been part of but had forgotten.

There are a lot of troubling situations in that part of the world but we don’t hear much about them. Even though the government in Rwanda has done a good job of restarting the economy, Rwanda still has some problems under the surface. The government still struggles to find a balance between the security it believes is needed for stability and the freedoms so critical for democracy.