Linda Melvern, an investigative journalist, has devoted her life since 1994 to chronicling the events leading up to and during the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi. She was the first journalist to write about the abandonment of Rwanda by exposing the secret decision-making by the UN Security Council. The publication in 2000 of her first book on the genocide, ‘A People Betrayed’, was received to critical acclaim.Lt.Gen Romeo Dallaire wrote, ‘she has discovered so much that we did not know and her book is one of the best resources available’. She has continued to write, explain and uncover the events in Rwanda and in 2004 released ‘A Conspiracy to Murder’ as well as a revised edition of her first publication with more exclusive information. Philip Rushworth interviews Linda in a London café, a distance away from the horrors of 1994 Rwanda but not so distant from the centres of power whose complicity in the circumstances of the genocide we are yet to fully understand. In this interview , Linda reconstructed the events of 1994 through her insights especially within the corridors of the UN security Council at the time.
How and when were you determined to find the truth on the Rwandan genocide?
I had written a history of the UN and the book was being filmed for a documentary for Channel 4 (a British channel) which took me to New York in April 1994. As I heard the events unfold in Rwanda, I realised this was a milestone event. It was massive and it concerned all of us.
Given that delegates at the UN claimed ignorance over what was happening in Rwanda. When, exactly, did you know that genocide was taking place?
I knew when I was interviewing the non-permanent members of the Security Council especially the New Zealand envoy to the UN, Colin Keating.
From the beginning we knew tens of thousands of people were being killed. It was shocking as everyone - including many Rwandan victims - had been lulled into a false sense of security, “There are peacekeepers now in Rwanda”, Rwanda wasn’t on the top of anyone’s agenda, not even Human Rights Watch.
I interviewed Alison des Forges, only a day before she died; she told me she had been distracted by events in Burundi. There was also a diplomatic campaign to persuade everyone that people were dying in a civil war.
What was your motivation when you first started your work on the genocide?
It was to explain the extent of the failure. This is still hardly understood otherwise there would have been immediate inquiries into the decision making, especially in the US and the UK. There are officials and politicians who took the decisions over Rwanda and who continue to escape scrutiny.
I assume therefore it is the institutional flaws of the UN that you are trying to uncover?
This is not about institutions! It is about individuals who took decisions. Britain is a permanent member of the Security Council and this brings special responsibilities. During the genocide the UK only offered Rwanda fifty flat-bed trucks – with no drivers, no spare parts and no means to transport them. Why was the UK ambassador the first to call for the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers when the genocide began? What signal did this send to the Hutu Power extremists? And yet all those concerned have managed to airbrush the event from their political legacies.
By uncovering the failure to respond, are you hoping this will help to reform the system?
I am only trying to produce the facts. This is hard enough.
In a review of ‘People Betrayed’, Gerard Caplan, a Canadian scholar, said your ‘book shows impatience with well-known scholars who don’t deny the genocide but give ammunition to those who do’. Can you explain this?
It has been acknowledged by genocide scholars that denial inevitably follows genocide. The denial over the genocide in Rwanda has been joined by some scholars in the US and the UK who have tried to minimise what happened.
Their work results from the failure to understand that when it comes to genocide it is racist ideology that legitimizes any act, no matter how horrendous.
Some academics have even written that they are certain the RPF was responsible for the shooting down of the President’s plane, and yet not one shred of evidence exists that this was the case.
I am suspicious of such scholar. I am also suspicious of western academics that have based research on interviews with perpetrators. I don’t believe that perpetrators are willing to tell the truth and admit how many, how and why they killed.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am researching a third book on the deafening silence and the denial which followed the genocide. I used to work for the Sunday Times and we were taught that institutions of power have to be held accountable.
There is much work still to be done and not only on the British failures. I remain concerned about the extraordinary role of President Francois Mitterrand.
Is this a part of a broader campaign against those responsible?
I am not a campaign journalist. I gather the facts.
What resources remain unavailable?
There are documents concerning Rwanda in the archives of governments concerned – the US, UK, France, and Belgium – which should be released.
Moving onto the situation in Rwanda at the moment. You have been going to Rwanda since 1995 up to the present, what has changed over the years?
When I go to Rwanda I am still concerned very much with the genocide. However should anyone doubt Rwanda’s achievements they should read the report from UNICEF called ‘Starting from Zero’ I reproduced in ‘A People Betrayed’. They inherited a scorched earth – everything was looted and ruined.
The work to rebuild the country has been phenomenal. I have never seen people work so hard. One official I spoke to said he hasn’t had a day off since October 1990.
I would also like to pay tribute to the unprecedented access which the Rwandan government gave me to the documentary evidence which was abandoned when the Hutu Power so-called ‘Interim Government’ fled the country. It has been exceptional.
The work of the ICTR finishes in 2012. It has received a lot of criticism within Rwanda, has it been the correct process to go through?
The ICTR is the first time in Africa that anyone has ever been held accountable for gross human rights abuses. However I do understand the frustrations.
The ICTR suffers the weaknesses of any UN organisation, many different languages and different ways of working. It has however provided a paper-trail, and for years people will study its archives.
It may have been better to have established the ICTR in Kigali, because in Arusha its accessibility to survivors is limited. I also believe the court should stay open; there many planners and perpetrators of genocide still at large.
Philip Gourevitch praised the Mutsinzi report in the New Yorker, but he warned ‘this is hardly the last word on the assassination’. What are your views on the report and will the issue ever be resolved?
We still don’t know who fired at the Falcon jet and certainly questions remain. Why for example were all the gendarmes confined to barracks on the night of April 6? Who decided that this should be so? This is a complicated conspiracy to unravel. Mutsinzi has produced a useful report but I consider it to be only the beginning.
I believe there is a lot of information in France and Belgium. There were Senior French military officers embedded in the Rwandan army units that began the genocide.
What did they know? Why are there claims that white men took part in the attack? Why has the French mercenary Paul Barril not been called to account for his role in what happened in Rwanda? The answer will only come from an inquiry in France.
This case does need to be placed in its context. Even without evidence over shooting down the plane, this wasn’t a cause of genocide.
Yes, but it remains a cornerstone of the defence case at the ICTR. The genocidiaires deny responsibility and maintain that the killing resulted from ‘an outburst of anger’ at the death of the president. This is a way of avoiding the fact that - as my book ‘Conspiracy to Murder’ proves - the genocide was planned.
Gerard Caplan has written that ‘the vast majority of books written on the Rwandan genocide continue to be written by non-Rwandans’. Why?
The country was completely devastated after the genocide but increasingly there is important work being undertaken by Rwandans, such as Gacaca and an understanding of Rwanda’s politics at the ‘colline’ level that can only properly be explained by Rwandans. Charles Mironko, a Rwandan, has interviewed perpetrators and his work provided invaluable insights.
You currently support and watch the progress of RYICO, an organisation working in Kigali. What do you think of their project?
Their ‘Centre Marembo’ is amazing. It is an inspiration. It shows that you can do so much with so little.
Other reporters have suffered emotionally from their work on the Rwandan genocide. What has been the effect on you?
Rwanda changed me forever. It broke my heart. There has not been a day gone by since 1994 when I haven’t thought about what happened. I will never stop; there is no way, not with all we still need to know. We need new work.
I am shamed by the failure of my country. We failed to do the right thing and since then there has been nothing but cover-up and denial. We did not defend the most basic human values – we should acknowledge that fact.