In her book “In Praise of Blood,” Canadian author Judi Rever controversially claims that not one, but two genocides were committed in Rwanda in 1994. The first genocide nearly wiped out the Tutsi minority. A second one, secretly committed by the Tutsi dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), allegedly targeted the Hutu majority. It’s a sensational story, but how well does it fit with reality? How well researched is it?
Although Rever’s book is promoted as a ground-breaking piece of investigative journalism, the double genocide theory is not new. It was used by genocidaires in their trials, and is an idea promoted by their acolytes and supporters. Hutu hardliners have accused the RPF of genocide throughout the Rwandan civil war of the early 1990s. Then in May 1994, with half a million Tutsi killed, the extremist regime accused the RPF of having slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Hutu. Human Rights Watch and other observers commented at the time that such counter accusations were part of a smokescreen, designed to distract foreign attention from the ongoing genocide against the Tutsi and to instill fear in the Hutu-population. The regime, supported by extremist radio station RTLM, consistently blamed the RPF for crimes they were themselves committing.
Judi Rever claims the allegations must not be dismissed as propaganda. Her argument is that the RPF got away with massive crimes because they committed their genocide in total secrecy, under the cover of night, and cleaned up after themselves. “It was mass murder leaving barely a trace”, she writes. One further claim is that the Western allies even lent a hand in covering up the atrocities. Rever’s revelations are riddled with errors, omission and unsound theories that warrant scrutiny before her book can be regarded as a valid contribution to our knowledge.
NAZI-LIKE DEATH CAMPS
The first element of Rever’s theory raising eyebrows is a comparison she makes with Nazi-Germany. The methods used to accomplish the Hutu-genocide, she writes, resembled those of the Third Reich. The RPF supposedly operated Nazi-style death camps, deployed Einsatzgruppen and mobile gas chambers, and used cremation pits, “… where up to hundreds of thousands of Hutus from different areas of the country were killed during and after the genocide”. Nazi death camps, mass transports, open air cremations, organized by an outnumbered rebel army in the midst of war, all going unnoticed in a tiny country like Rwanda seems far-fetched, to say the least. Without any physical evidence or consistent witness accounts, this story might just as well be a hoax. So where did Rever’s death camp theory originate?
In 1996, Canadian filmmakers Daniéle Lacourse and Yvan Patry released ‘Chronicle of a Genocide Foretold’, an influential documentary which also devotes a great deal of attention to war crimes ascribed to the RPF. One of the witnesses in the film tells a story about a military camp near Gabiro, in the northeast of Rwanda, where he claims to have worked as a nurse as of August 1994. “That’s where I started to worry about the RPF,” the man explains on camera..! A soldier stationed at Gabiro told him that more than a thousand Hutu were murdered every night. In the space of five days the soldier had counted 6.000 victims, according to the nurse. Their remains were allegedly burned, their ashes dispersed in the surrounding area!
Judi Rever uses a different version of this story, based on a letter she found in a binder of old documents. In this version, the nurse works at a military hospital. The story of the soldier and the exterminations now takes place a month earlier, not in Gabiro but in a Kigali suburb. Later, after being transferred to Gabiro, the nurse saw smoke rising from an adjacent camp, prompting him to assume that what he had been told in Kigali was also true for Gabiro. More versions were published in French and English newspapers. The details keep changing but one thing all the different versions have in common is that this witness, who turned out to be a Hutu named Pierre N., never saw any crimes for himself during the eight months he says he had spent in Gabiro. Journalist Nick Gordon ended up driving to the camp in early 1996 to take a look. But although one of Judi Rever’s key witnesses – a former RPF soldier – claims that the killing and burning of Hutu was still continuing at that time, all Gordon found were three primitive army barracks, nothing remotely resembling a death camp. “It’s hard to believe that this dot on the map is an extermination camp,” Gordon wrote. He nevertheless compared the camp to Auschwitz, based on Pierre N.’s story.
American TV Show
In the years that followed, more Nazi-elements were added to the story by other authors. In Rever’s book, Gabiro has completed the transformation from the few ramshackle army barracks seen by Gordon, into a fully functional Treblinka-style extermination camp. The hundreds of thousands who, according to Rever, had vanished in Gabiro were either burned or dissolved in acid, their ashes dispersed in the area with bulldozers. If true, this theory would certainly make a sensational story. But how do specialized scientists look at it?
Reza Gerretsen M.D., the senior forensic anthropologist of the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) and Dr. Sophie Churchill OBE, who has headed the Corpse Project, a body farm in England, were kind enough to comment on the methods described by Rever. “Cremating human remains is a relatively quick process that requires little fuel,” says Gerretsen. “This is a consequence of body fat being released when heated, which sustains the combustion. However, bone is a different story, you don’t get rid of it very easily. “If you burnt bodies then you would be left with skull fragments and large bones such as femurs”, both experts explain. “Is it being suggested that the remains reduced to an even dust that could be spread?” Churchill asks. “This seems unlikely. What we call ashes here are ground bones.”
Churchill is also sceptical about the detail of the bulldozer. “If there were many fires night after night the bulldozer would be moving over a very big area ultimately. It isn’t a good machine for incorporating ashes into the soil.” And the alternative, the acid method? “Getting rid of human remains in acids is impractical and hazardous”, according to Gerretsen, who has investigated acid murder cases with his NFI-colleagues. “It takes a very long time and you are still left with some remains”. According to the scientific publication about the investigated cases, the perpetrators had been messing around with containers filled with acids for weeks in their attempts to disappear a couple of victims. “You mustn’t believe that a body completely vanishes in acid,” Gerretsen adds. “That’s what they show on American TV shows. But reality is different. The logistics are also problematic.”!
Efforts to find solid evidence for a genocide against the Hutu were never successful. “For roughly a month after the Tutsi victory,” Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Fritz explains in an email, “I spent most of my time hunting down reprisals in southern Rwanda. I never found a smoking gun that showed systematic reprisals against the Hutu. One of the sources of these allegations was a Belgian priest who had rumors but not much else.” A Belgian journalist who witnessed a quarter of a million Hutu refugees arriving in Tanzania, allegedly escaping the RPF onslaught, was not convinced either: “These people had all their possessions with them, mattresses, goats, cornsacks, cooking utensils. They were not traumatized either, had no blood on their clothes, had all their children with them. Something was not right.” Other journalists and human rights researchers had similar problems finding proof for genocidal massacres targeting Hutus, “… although the UNHCR, relying on second hand reports from Hutu-refugees, has said this is the case,” Mark Huband noted in The Observer. One UNHCR report has gained an almost mythical status among genocide revisionists. Consultant Robert Gersony and his team spent five weeks interviewing people in refugee camps outside Rwanda, and in villages inside Rwanda, in the aftermath of the genocide. “What they discovered was disturbing”, Judi Rever writes. “RPF soldiers appeared to have carried out genocide against Hutu civilians.” What she doesn’t tell is that Gersony did not confirm the allegations in the field when he had the chance. However, according to Shaharyar Khan, the UN special representative in Rwanda, several investigations were carried out afterwards, also by himself. In one instance, Gersony’s information turned out to be correct, except the identities of killers and victims had been reversed.
Many details concerning the double genocide theory appear to be deliberately misleading. After Rever tries to discredit the late Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch as anti-Hutu, she writes: “Academics at the University of Rwanda estimated that some forty thousand civilians had been killed by the RPF in Byumba and Ruhengeri prefectures by early 1993.” The likely reason for discrediting Des Forges is that Human Rights Watch dismissed that huge estimate in June 1993 as not credible, and has repeated this conclusion in at least two other reports. According to Des Forges, the report of the intellectuals included “spurious detail” that would have been impossible to obtain given the lack of access to the region at the time.
In another example Rever suggests that the many corpses floating in the Akagera River from late April 1994 onward were Hutu-victims of the RPF, without mentioning that in late April and May 1994 NGOs were still reporting that upstream, in government territory, up to 5.000 Tutsi a day ended up dead in the river. Even the ‘top secret’ report of the Special Investigations team of the ICTR, which summarizes accusations collected from political dissidents and army deserters in the Diaspora, several of whom later retracted their statements, did not reach conclusions or casualty figures anywhere near those put forward by Rever.
Most alarming about this book is that nobody appears to have bothered with fact checking to establish the veracity of the information. Judi Rever didn’t, but neither did Random House Canada, a renowned publishing house. This is very confusing to readers, not to say insulting to genocide survivors. And as the book is being translated into other languages, even listed for literary awards, again no one involved seems to bother with what might be real and what not.
If revelations sound too good to be true, when counter-evidence is omitted, and dubious sources are mentioned as credible informants as is the case in Judi Rever’s book, the reader would be wise to seek out more reliable information, available in the huge amount of thoroughly researched scholarly studies published over the years, before taking ‘In Praise of Blood’ at face value.
By Jos van Oijen – is an independent author and researcher from the Netherlands. He publishes news and research articles about genocide-related issues in print and in online magazines.
The Express News