All eyes on “one of the safest countries in the world”

While President Paul Kagame of Rwanda was welcoming 53 visiting heads of government to his capital, perhaps the thought went through his mind that this was a moment for self-congratulation. Once, he was an exile from a country too dangerous for people of his ethnicity. Now he stands on the world stage.

Under Kagame’s iron rule, little landlocked Rwanda, a country not much bigger than Wales and horribly scarred by civil war and genocide, was honoured to be chosen to host the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the first since the pandemic.

There have been 24 such summits, colloquially known as Chogm, which bring together components of the old British Empire, but never before has one been held in a country that had not previously experienced British rule.  Until a generation ago, the boundary between anglophone and francophone Africa was where Rwanda abutted Uganda, but Kagame has shifted that boundary westward, and become a new addition to the Commonwealth family.

That is a part of the reason that his government was able to secure the deal to receive the UK’s unwanted asylum seekers, which was a coup for Kagame, despite the subsequent legal obstacles. In announcing it, Boris Johnson has lauded Rwanda as “one of the safest countries in the world”.

That remark invokes a scathing riposte from Carine Kanimba, whose father, Paul Rusesabagina, is Rwanda’s best known political prisoner. “Within Rwanda, people are not safe,” she said. “Rwandans in the Congo, where Kagame has troops, are not safe; Rwandans in other African countries are not safe. Even outside of Africa, Rwandans are not safe, and having Boris Johnson say ‘hey, I don’t care’ sets a rally bad precedent.”

There is a dark underside to Rwanda’s post-genocide history, which has been obscured by the horror of what happened over ten weeks in 1994, when Hutu extremists massacred hundreds of thousands of the Tutsi minority. Relieved that the violence has subsided, the developed world has poured aid into the country, and was willing to accept the image Kagame projects as the firm ruler who brought peace to a troubled land. In Rwanda, there are no independent media to tell a different story. President Kagame tolerates no criticism at home, and his opponents abroad have to be constantly aware that his agents might hunt them down.

Rusesabagina is the only Rwandan whose fame matches Kagame’s. He is a Hutu, who ran a hotel in Kigali in 1994, where he provided sanctuary for hundreds of Tutsi, whose lives he saved. They included two tiny children, Anaȉse and Carine Kanimba, whose Tutsi parents had been slaughtered, and whom he adopted as his daughters. His story was told in the 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda.

Rusesabagina went into exile early in Kagame’s presidency – he obtained Belgian citizenship – and became a critic of the regime. In August 2020, he was persuaded by a man he trusted, a pastor named Constantin Niyomwungere, to board a private plane bound – he thought – for Burundi. He had been tricked. The plane landed in Kigali, where Rusesabagina was seized and sentenced to 25 years in prison. A prison term that long, imposed on a man who turned 68 in June, has been aptly described by the Belgian MEP, Kathleen van Brempt, as a “de facto death sentence”.

“Constantin Niyomwungere is an agent of the Rwandan government,” Carine Kanimba claims. “He spent two years getting our father’s trust. He was told ‘you have to find a way of getting him to Rwanda’. Our father believed he was going to an exchange between bishops in Burundi.”

“The flight from Dubai to Rwanda cost 120,000 US dollars,” Anaȉse Kanimba added. “Dad was the only one in the plane, apart from the crew, and Niyomwungere.”

Rwanda is one of the poorest countries in Africa, heavily reliant on foreign aid.

No member of Rusesabagina’s family can risk being in Rwanda while Kagame is in power, so their only contact with him is a five-minute phone call, once a week, on a Friday. He tries to sound upbeat, but they know that he is struggling with health problems. He used to listen to Radio America, but now he is allowed to hear only the strictly controlled Rwandan media.

And yet, considering what they have been through, the sisters come over as remarkably cheerful. They exude confidence that their family will be reunited, citing the precedent of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release from an Iranian jail, and international opinion is increasingly on their side. “One of the things we have learnt from [Nazanin’s husband] Richard Ratcliffe is to push any button, then follow on, and follow on,” Anaȉse said. “We are certain that Dad will come home.”

Their father’s arrest has been condemned by the European Parliament, and by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. On 19 May, the US State Department declared that Rusesabagina had been “wrongfully detained” – ironically, on the day after the Home Secretary Priti Patel had met Rwanda’s foreign minister in Geneva to finalise arrangements for deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda. On Tuesday, 21 June, the US House of Representatives debated a motion calling for Rusesabagina’s release. But so far, Kagame’s credibility in the eyes of the UK government is apparently intact.

“The US has taken the courageous road,” Carine remarked. “But what we are seeing from the UK is the opposite – the road of cowardice. Boris Johnson has put Kagame on a pedestal.”

“I don’t have any faith in Boris Johnson,” Anaȉse said. “But maybe Prince Charles will have the humanity and leadership to speak to Kagame.”

What they hope is that Kagame will need to make a gesture to protect his reputation, and releasing the elderly Rusesabagina would be the obvious attention grabber – but if that happens, it still leaves others in his grip, including some exceptionally courageous journalists.

In April 2020, a young journalist named Cyuma Hassan Dieudonne, also known as Dieudonne Niyonsenga, who ran a YouTube channel called Ishema TV, went out to report on conditions in the Rwandan countryside. He was arrested, held in pre-trial detention for 11 months, released, rearrested, and sentenced to seven years in prison, an outcome that Reporters Without Borders has described as “absurd and arbitrary”.

“This guy was so brave,” Carine said. “He is 29 years old, the same age as me, he went out into parts of the country and reported on Covid restrictions, police brutality and all the news the government did not want reported, that is, not about Kigali and its clean streets. His sister has visited him in prison. She says he has been treated so badly that he will probably never have children. This is the consequence of speaking out in Rwanda.”

Even those who flee abroad cannot be sure of escaping the regime’s long arm. Patrick Karegeya was one of Kagame’s comrades in the ex-pat Tutsi army who helped to overthrow Milton Obote in Uganda in 1986, and install the current long-serving president, Yoweri Museveni. With Museveni’s blessing, they invaded Rwanda. Karegeya was head of intelligence in the new regime until he clashed with Kagame, and fled, only to be murdered in a Johannesburg hotel.

The Kanimba sisters have also been harassed and spied on – particularly Carine, who lives in Belgium, while Anaȉse is further out of reach, in Texas. A senior figure in the Rwandan government used Twitter to suggest that Carine merited the ‘Golden Machete’, a sobriquet that pro-Kagame internet trolls use to denounce those they accuse of being pro-genocidaire. It is a category that seems to include anyone and everyone who has criticised the President. Michela Wrong, the British journalist whose meticulously researched book Do Not Disturb demolished the myth of Kagame, was named winner of the 2021 Golden Machete. But machetes were the weapons used to butcher the sisters’ biological parents, so suggesting that Carine deserves a Golden Machete is, at best, a sick joke.

Most frighteningly Carine has been followed in the streets of Brussels by people she believes to be Kagame’s agents, and her phone was infected last summer with the Pegasus software, enabling hackers to trace her movements and overhear her conversations.

She says: “My phone was infected 23 times. There is a person on the other side who is obsessed with knowing what I am doing.”

“It’s all Kagame. I’m a 29-year-old woman. I’m just speaking out. It’s pathetic. Kagame wants to be recognised as a hero. We are targets.

Bad history and bad politics

Kessab is one of the few Armenian towns remaining in the region since the 1915 genocide. Located in Syria, on the Turkish border, Kessab was attacked by Islamic rebels. Armenia has accused Turkey of providing support to the extremists. (Photo: Benjamin Larderet, Demotix)

Armenian protesters in Lyons accused Turkey of supporting Islamic rebels in an attack on Kessab, an Armenian majority town located in Syria, on the Turkish border. (Image: Benjamin Larderet/Demotix)

It is, as Zhou Enlai might have said, probably too early to tell how significant Tayyip Erdogan’s comments alluding to the Armenian genocide will be.

The Turkish prime minister seems to have broken one of his country’s great taboos. In a statement translated into nine languages, the AK leader said: “It is with this hope and belief that we wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early 20th century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.”

“Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences — such as relocation — during the First World War, should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes among towards [sic] one another.”

According to Anadolu, Turkey’s state news agency, Erdogan also commented: “In Turkey, expressing different opinions and thoughts freely on the events of 1915 is the requirement of a pluralistic society as well as of a culture of democracy and modernity.”

This is not, you will have noticed, an apology. Offering condolence is not at all the same as expressing remorse. Though some would say it is not Erdogan’s duty to express remorse; he is the prime minister of the modern republic of Turkey, not the Ottoman Empire under which the alleged slaughter of over 1.5 million Armenian Christians in 1915  took place.

And some are utterly contemptuous of Erdogan’s statement: Reuters quotes the Armenian National Committee of America describing the statement as an “escalation” of Turkey’s “denial of truth and obstruction of justice”.

But let us assume that a) Erdogan is in a position to speak for Turkey past as well as present, and b) there is, at the kernel of this, an attempt at reconciliation with Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.

The  very mention of the events are significant against the backdrop of the Turkish Penal Code’s controversial Article 301, which forbids insulting “the Turkish nation”. That law has in the past, effectively barred discussion of the genocide, and created a environment where simply identifying as Armenian within Turkey was seen as a provocative act.

The most famous victim of this culture was Hrant Dink, the editor of Agos who was assassinated in January 2007.

Dink saw himself as Turkish-Armenian, and his newspaper was bilingual. He was a firm believer in the potential for dialogue in bringing some reconciliation between Turks and Armenians. He also believed such dialogue could only take place in an atmosphere free of censorship, to the extent that he vowed that he would be the first person to break a proposed French law making denial of the Armenian genocide a crime (a cheap political trick aimed at both currying favour with the Armenian community in France and creating a barrier for Turkey’s proposed entry into the EU).

Ultimately, Dink believed that progress could only be made if we were able to talk freely and access historical debate without impediment or fear.

History, like science, is a process rather than a dogma. And like science, one’s interpretations of history can vary based on both the evidence available and the prevailing mood.

For a long time after the creation of the Irish state, for example, the teaching of history in schools was simple. I recall one primary school history text which seemed to consist entirely of tales of the terrible things foreigners had done to the Irish: first the Vikings, then the Normans, and finally the English. The book finished pretty much where the 1919 War of Independence began. The last page featured the words of the national anthem and a picture of the national flag.

Sympathetic portrayals of English people, and British soldiers in particular, were thin on the ground — Frank O’Connor’s tragic short story Guests of the Nation being one of the very few.

Since the late 1990s peace process, both fictional and historical perspectives on Ireland’s relationship with Britain have changed. Some of the novels of Sebastian Barry, for example, attempt to tell stories of people who were neglected and even vilified in nationalist, Catholic, post-independence Ireland. Part of the plot of Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies has a Catholic school history teacher attempting to get his pupils interested in Irish soldiers who fought for Britain in World War I. Meanwhile, a recent book by nationalist historian Tim Pat Coogan, attempting to paint the Irish potato famine as deliberate genocide rather than cruel neglect, was given short shrift, in spite of the fact that this would have been a mainstream view until relatively recently — one must only listen to the sickly sentimental lyrics of rugby anthem The Fields of Athenry, penned in the 1970s, to understand the appeal of that victim status to the Irish imagination. Wrongs were certainly done in Ireland, but the relationship between the two nations was a hell of a lot more complex than the oppressor/oppressed line that was spun for so many years.

There was no official sanction on differing views of Anglo-Irish relations, but politics permeated the debate. Likewise with the recent intervention of British education secretary Michael Gove on the issue of how World War I is taught in schools. Gove claimed that the idea of a pointless war in which a moribund (figuratively) ruling class led moribund (literally) working class boys to their graves was a modern lefty invention. He was wrong, in that that view had been common even in the 1920s, but his opponents were equally adamant in their insistence that there could only be one view of World War I. None of this discussion was accompanied by new evidence on either side.

At the extreme end of this hyper-politicisation of history are the Holocaust denial laws of many European countries, and laws on glorification of the Soviet era in former Eastern bloc.

In his cult memoir Fuhrer-Ex, East German former neo-nazi Ingo Hasslebach described how, growing up in the DDR, with its overwhelming anti-fascist narrative, nazi posturing was the ultimate rebellion. In the modern era, France’s prohibition on nazi revisionism has led some young north African immigrants, alienated from the French nation state, to see anti-semitism and the quasi-nazi quenelle gesture as the ultimate “fuck you” to the authorities.

Taboos about discussing events of the past breed bad history and bad politics. For the sake of Turkey, and the rest of us, Erdogan should be held to his words on the necessity of free speaking and free thinking.

This article was originally posted on 24 April 2014 at

Survivor speaks out against impunity in Guatemala civil war trial

Oscar Ramirez wants to open his own business. He wants to learn air conditioning and plumbing. He is dreaming big. “I don’t want to work for someone else all my life,” he told me last week.

His dreams are basic. Just a few weeks ago, Oscar and his wife Nidia were undocumented immigrants living in the shadows in Framingham, Massachusetts, with their four US-born children. It all changed last week, when the United States government granted him political asylum.

Last year, Oscar’s future and his past were colliding. He was afraid of being detained by US immigration authorities, and he could not go back to Guatemala after he learned he was a child survivor of a 1982 military massacre in the Guatemalan village of Dos Erres. Now Oscar has a chance to help end a culture of impunity in Guatemala, where 400,000 people were killed in a civil war, and where freedom of expression continues to be under threat.

In May 2011, Guatemalan prosecutors told Oscar they believed he was not the man he thought he was. He learned his late father was not his real father. He had another biological father. He also learned that the man he thought was his father, Lt. Oscar Ovidio Ramirez, a former Guatemalan military commando officer, had abducted Oscar as a three-year old. He did that after participating in a three-day raid on the village of Dos Erres that left more than 200 men, women and children dead. Oscar’s biological mother, who was pregnant, and his eight brothers and sisters were killed in the raid. He also learned that Guatemalan authorities considered him living evidence that could help advance the investigation against surviving members of the military commando who raided the Dos Erres village and killed innocent people they suspected of being leftist guerrillas.

The case of Dos Erres is one of Guatemala’s first trials against military abuses in the 1980s, where military commandos and top officials have been sentenced to jail terms. Four commandos and one officer who participated in the murder and cover up were convicted to unprecedented long prison terms in the last two years, and charges of genocide are pending against former President Efrain Rios Montt.

The case has also involved US immigration authorities, who have extended a wide net and caught several fugitive former commandos who had moved to the United States. Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, a former Army lieutenant was extradited from Canada a few weeks ago and will stand trial in California for lying on his immigration application. Several members of the former commando unit that killed the villagers of Dos Erres are still at large.

Scott Greathead, Oscar’s lawyer, said Oscar can now focus on raising his children and participate in getting justice for his family. His biological father, Tranquilino Castañeda, who survived the massacre because he was away at the time of the military raid, met Oscar for the first time in May this year, when he traveled to the United States for a family reunion.

Also read Guatemala: What Happened at Dos Erres?

And listen to What Happened  at Dos Erres? on This American Life

Rwanda: Opposition leader charged with terrorism offence

Opposition leader Victoire Ingabire has been accused of working with a terrorist group. Following her arrest last month, prosecutors now say they have evidence that she colluded with a former officer of a Hutu militia in a manner that threatened national security. If she is found guilty on all charges, including spreading “genocide ideology”, she could receive a life sentence. Upon her return to Rwanda in February, she called for Hutus victims of the genocide to be remembered in the same way as Tutsis. Appealing to ethnic identity in such a manner is illegal.