As a scholar and later a Human Rights Watch researcher during the 1990s, Timothy Longman found himself deeply involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. While the United Nations and the world looked on but did nothing, more than half a million Rwandan Tutsi were slaughtered by Hutu driven to murder by a small, power-thirsty elite.
Longman, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of political science and director of BU’s African Studies Center, has testified against notorious Rwandan war criminal François Bazaramba in Porvoo, Finland, and at the recent Manchester, N.H., federal trial that resulted in the conviction of Rwandan Beatrice Munyenyezi for masking her role in the genocide to gain refugee status and U.S. citizenship. This month Longman travels to Stockholm to testify in the case of Stanislas Mbanenande, accused of leading killings in Kibuye, Rwanda.
Bostonia talked with Longman recently about the legacy and continued fallout of the Rwandan genocide, his deep connection to that nation, and why media coverage of Africa often gets it wrong.
Longman: I spent a year as the head of the field office in Rwanda for Human Rights Watch, from 1995 to 1996. Our main project was the research that became the book Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda, which is definitive of capital genocide. It’s a 900-page book that Alison Des Forges wrote that looks at the genocide—how it happened at the national level and the international level, but also, a lot of the research that we were doing was at the local level. We did three case studies of local communities, so I spent a year basically interviewing those people. I’ve gotten drawn into some of these legal cases because a few of the people that we named in Leave None to Tell the Story ended up getting asylum and citizenship elsewhere.
Yes. I had initially testified in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) back in 1997. The tribunal has always been a small thing; at most they’ll have done 80 cases by the end. These other trials of Rwandans are in other countries. In the United States, where they can’t be tried for war crimes committed in Rwanda, cases are about whether they have a right to come here as refugees, claiming they’ll be killed if they return to Rwanda. If you’re a criminal fleeing the law, you don’t have a right to come to the United States. What’s happened is that most of the people who were perpetrators in the genocide fled Rwanda and settled around the world, and they’ve basically mixed with legitimate refugees. They are plenty of people who left Rwanda fearing for their lives, have gotten asylum in the United States, and are perfectly legitimate. But, there are also a number of people who have committed atrocities during the genocide and have gotten asylum and citizenship in various countries.
Some Hutu and Tutsi who didn’t participate in the genocide can be friends and allies. So, you’ve got several groups of people here—there are genocide survivors and there are genocide perpetrators in the United States, and then there are also just a lot of Hutu who weren’t personally involved in the genocide. The perpetrators are often living in proximity to other Hutu who are here legitimately.
As the ICTR has wrapped up in Arusha, Tanzania, and as Rwanda’s own courts are finishing their work on genocide, a number of cases have percolated around the world involving people who are living under cover or under false pretenses in various places. One in particular was this case in Finland of a man I had named in the chapters I wrote for Leave None to Tell the Story, François Bazaramba. When we did research in this community in southern Rwanda, he was somebody who was named by everybody as a main organizer of the genocide. He was a Baptist youth pastor. A lot of the genocide was carried out by young men, and he was someone who could organize them very effectively. He was a Burundian refugee who had come to Rwanda, so he had a lot of resentment associated with that.
No. I sat in court across from him and he looked like a nice, grandfatherly fellow. He’s probably in his 60s now. Because I had written the chapters that named him, I got called by the Finnish prosecutors to be the expert witness.
No. One of the purposes of writing the book was actually to show that you could research this, that you could find the evidence to urge the prosecution. We didn’t actually write the book for that reason, but we wanted a model showing that you could gather this information and find excellent proof to hold people accountable. Four years ago, my mentor Alison Des Forges was killed in a plane crash in Buffalo. And so I’ve stepped into her shoes and taken on a number of these cases. I’m the only other person who authored some of the book, did some of the research, and also knows Rwanda.
I have a real sense of commitment. As an academic, if I just studied genocide, it would be overwhelming, emotionally. I’ve done research and Human Rights Watch missions in Rwanda, in Burundi during the civil war, and in Congo during its civil war. But it’s important to me to be able to do advocacy in some way. I’ve done a lot of work lately for USAID and the State Department, lobbying people in Washington to raise the profile of these issues.
It’s extremely expensive to conduct this kind of research, and the majority of the people we’re talking about are not the major perpetrators. The Bazaramba case is an exception, because he’s somebody we really did identify as a major organizer. But our book looked at only 3 communities out of 160, and so there are people like him from each community. So there are people that are out there, but who is going to be able to name them and find them?
What’s troubling about these cases is that the political situation in Rwanda in some way taints the ability to have fair trials even outside of Rwanda. The defense in all of these cases claims that the witnesses are all pressured by the Rwandan government to testify against them and that the cases are all trumped up by the Rwandan government. There are some cases in which it does seem like the Rwandan government has brought charges or made accusations against people in order to silence them politically. So some other scholars who work on Rwanda and are friends of mine whom I respect greatly will not testify for any of these cases.
One of the things that I think is important for people to realize is that Rwandans aren’t very different from us. It’s not that they’re an evil people or an evil culture, but rather, for a variety of circumstances, they were driven to carry out terrible acts. Most of the time the ethnic groups in Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi, live together peacefully. But during the genocide you had a situation where there was a war going on and an abusive government that was driving people to act. People were afraid to not participate. One of the truths in the Rwandan genocide was that most people didn’t kill out of hate—they killed out of fear. That was an essential message in Hannah Arendt’s account of Nazi SS chief Adolf Eichmann in Eichmann in Jerusalem. The term that came out of that is the “banality of evil,” which I think really applies in Rwanda.
If people killed, it was wrong. There’s no question. But I think there are degrees of guilt, and if I were organizing the accountability within Rwanda, I would focus on people who organized the genocide. The irony is, as I’ve been working on these genocide cases, I’m also on the enemy list of the current Rwandan government, because I’ve been very critical of their human rights situation. They’ve actually used the trials as a bludgeon to collectively punish the Hutu population, which I think is wrong as well. On the one hand, I do think there needed to be accountability, but you do have to take circumstances into account on some level—for example, if someone is threatened with imminent death if they don’t participate, which was the case sometimes. I know of a friend who had protected a number of Tutsi and was basically told at a certain point, either you kill these Tutsi and prove to us you’re loyal, or we’ll kill you. And he did. Is he legally culpable in that case? I would say no. But the people who were organizing that community, who were bringing the militias together and putting the pressures on people like that, that’s who I think should be really punished and held accountable.
As academics, we can learn a lot from comparing the different cases, but each has unique features. I was involved with a project at the University of California, Berkeley, comparing how Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia were rebuilding. There are some very sharp differences. In the Balkans the focus was more on ethnic cleansing—driving people out of communities rather than killing them. In Rwanda, the attempt was really to kill everyone you could get ahold of, and I think that makes a big difference. But there were similar social tendencies that pushed things forward. The problem was the outside world’s approach to it. The violence was going on in both places at the same time and the New York Times and other newspapers wrote about ethnic violence in Yugoslavia, but tribal hatred in Rwanda. I think it was in the Times, there were front-page stories about each and one talked about tribal violence and the other about ethnic conflict. Our approach to Africa is still shaped by racist ideas. There’s a tendency for Americans—but I think it’s true for Europeans as well—to view Africa as inherently savage, to still believe that Africans are just prone to violence and that’s why violence happens. In dealing with Africa, when ethnic conflict happens, we assume that it is primal and a reflection of backward cultures, rather than something that is, in fact, modern and well organized. The genocide in Rwanda was only possible because of a modern bureaucracy, because of the type of organization that a modern state made possible. It was well organized and well planned.
I think most Rwandans, like most Burundians and Congolese, are really tired of war and they’ll do what they can to try and stop it. I think one of the realities is there’s usually a middle ground that dominates.
I have not tried for a few years. I imagine that I would not be allowed in the country. In the last six months of her life, Des Forges was not allowed back. One of the other Human Rights Watch workers was expelled. Particularly after I had an op-ed in the New York Times this summer that was very critical of President Paul Kagame, I would be very surprised if they let me into the country.
There’s no statute of limitations on war crimes. But the further away you get from the events, the harder it is to actually get a conviction. Even so, there are major perpetrators out there who are living incognito. I can think of friends of mine who survived in one of the communities that I studied extensively. There’s a man who was the main organizer of the genocide and who raped one of my friends. He also killed the family of another of my friends, who watched his wife and seven children murdered. After the genocide, the killer fled with the community into Congo, and I know people who saw him in Congo. We don’t know what’s happened to him since, but it’s presumed he’s still alive somewhere.
I don’t like watching violent movies, I can say that. I don’t watch police shows, because it’s what I do for a living. And after what I’ve gone through, after what I’ve seen, I can’t just write books. I have to do something more.