· Photograph © Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum Photos
On a quiet Sunday in the early summer of 1999, I was recruited into the tiny but growing army of enigmatic characters who devote their lives to studying genocide. It was a phone call that did it. Stephen Lewis, my lifelong comrade-in-arms and now UN Envoy for hiv/aids in Africa, was offering a chance for us to work together again, but on a subject of unprecedented gravity: unraveling the truth about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Rwanda became my obsession from that moment to this.
Stephen was a member of a special seven-member International Panel of Eminent Personalities (ipep), which had been appointed by the Organization of African Unity (oau) to investigate the genocide. Despite their genuine eminence – two were former African presidents, one a potential future president, another the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India – the panel members just didn’t know what to do with the information they had been accumulating. After traveling to half a dozen nations interviewing people with links to the genocide, they didn’t know what they wanted to say. They decided they needed a writer post-haste.
Appropriately enough, they sought an African writer, but for various reasons none of their choices was available. Stephen mentioned me. Though I knew little of Rwanda, I had a doctorate in African history; I’d lived in several African countries; I’d co-chaired two public policy commissions in Canada; I was a writer; and I’d been involved in the struggle against white rule in Southern Africa. I suppose a combination of sheer desperation plus these credentials led to a near total stranger being brought on to take over the panel’s task.
As it happens, Stephen and I had already discussed the panel at length. He was thrilled and honoured to have been appointed to it and I was wildly envious. I had gone to live in Africa for the first time as a doctoral student way back in 1964 and had kept renewing my connections over the years. So when the call came, I was willing and able, yet seriously anxious. Carol, my wife, very wise about many things (not least the secrets of my soul), proved so once again. We could cope as a family, she was confident, even if it meant I’d be absent a fair bit. But she wasn’t as sanguine about me. Could I deal with the subject emotionally? Could my already dark, lugubrious, pessimistic, Hobbesian view of the world handle such intimacy with one of the most hellish events of our time? After a lifetime dedicated to various crusades for social justice, I’d become the stereotypical glass-is-half-empty guy, always able to find an ominous cloud in a deep blue sky. My gag: being a pessimist may not be fun but at least I’m rarely disappointed. Now, this new assignment raised real fears of me being traumatized into utter depression and immobilizing hopelessness.
These were serious questions, but both Carol and I knew immediately they could only be answered after the event. There was no way I could resist this offer. This was history in the making. This was Africa, my life’s preoccupation. This was another Holocaust, a subject that had tormented me forever. This was about the very nature of our species. I began getting my shots the next day and reported to the panel’s head-quarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the home of the oau, nine days later.
I signed up on the assumption that the panel members would tell me what they wanted to say, and that I’d be their pen. This was hardly my usual or favourite role but, under the circumstances, I was prepared to play it. I needed their guidance about how forthright they were prepared to be. Although no expert on Rwanda, I did know how controversial and sensitive the issues were. Since this was an oau mission, presumably dedicated to offering an African perspective on the genocide, was the panel ready to say that there would have been no genocide at all if some Africans hadn’t chosen to exterminate other Africans? How far were they prepared to go in describing the oau’s own failure to intervene effectively?
Beyond Africa, were they willing to tell the truth and accuse the French government of virtual complicity in the genocide? Would they agree to condemn Rwanda’s churches, above all the Roman Catholic Church, for their shameful betrayal of their flock before, during, and since the genocide? Were they prepared to say that American politicians (both Democrats and Republicans), fearful of losing votes if U.S. soldiers were killed for such a remote cause, had knowingly allowed hundreds of thousands of Rwandans to die terrible deaths? Were they going to tell the truth about the serious human rights abuses that had been committed by the largely Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front – the “good guys” in the genocide and now the government of the country?
To my astonishment, when the panel flew in to meet me in Addis Ababa, they offered no guidance at all. To this day I’m still not sure I understand it. Maybe they were paralyzed by the enormity of the topic and their responsibility. All I know is that after my very first meeting with the members, I was left to produce the report on my own, sending them drafts for approval. I was distraught. How was I to deal with all the vexing issues I had fruitlessly raised?
Waiting for the flight back to Toronto, where I would do all my reading and writing, I went for a long and dusty walk with Dr. Berharnou Abebe, the panel’s research officer, a remarkable Ethiopian intellectual with whom I had immediately bonded. Berharnou grasped the situation completely. Like other non-Rwandan Africans I was to meet, he felt personally ashamed of the genocide and approached his role on the tiny panel professional staff with the utmost gravity. We walked and walked, going over the problem again and again, getting grimier and more hoarse with each polluted block. Finally, he stopped, looked at me, and said: “It is simple, Gerry. You must write not for the seven, but for the 700,000. It is their story that you must tell.”
Ignoring the murky politics of both the oau and some of the seven panelists, I accepted Berharnou’s advice with a vengeance. I would give them a draft based on wherever the evidence led me.