Covering the Rwanda Genocide

Journalist Catherine Bond looks back on media coverage of the 1994 killings in Rwanda — including her own reporting — with a critical eye

Published: April 18, 2019

Author: Catherine Tsalikis

Twenty-five years ago this April, British journalist Catherine Bond was based in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi when the news broke that the plane carrying Rwanda’s president appeared to have been shot down — the event that would trigger the genocide in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus died.

Bond and a number of colleagues quickly chartered a small aircraft to the Ugandan town of Mbarara, catching a United Nations aid flight to Kigali a few days later. Over the next three months, she reported on the genocide, leaving Rwanda several times to enter different areas of the country.

Two-and-a-half decades later, it’s an established fact that the outside world failed to step in to stop the killings in Rwanda. But, Bond would argue, it wasn’t for a lack of media coverage. Many journalists from international and national outlets, she writes in her chapter of Media and Mass Atrocity: The Rwanda Genocide and Beyond, published this month by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, “reported on the unfolding of the genocide right from the very start, often in minute detail.”

Why, then, were there no major military interventions, no shoring up of the United Nations force already present on the ground? Looking back at her own coverage and the work of colleagues covering the atrocities, Bond asks: “[Did] we fail to convey the enormity of what was happening? Or did what we report — the fragments of genocide as they passed before our eyes — go largely unnoticed or, worse, ignored by those with the will to listen and the power to act or the empathy to care?”

To answer these questions, Bond revisited much of the early media coverage around the genocide. In this interview, she shares some of her findings, what she would have done differently, and her advice for journalists covering conflict today. 

Can you share with us a bit about your experience covering the genocide?

At first, it was chaotic and intense: there was fighting in Kigali when we arrived on about April 10, curtailing everyone’s movements, as well as killings the militias were carrying out. When we flew into Kigali on a UN aid flight, from the air we could see homes on fire everywhere in the countryside. We slept at the airport terminal for the first two nights, taking convoys escorted by French, Belgian and UN troops into the centre of town and back when they went in to rescue foreigners (Kigali was then a small city with a very small commercial core of just a few streets). The militiamen at roadblocks were agitated and intimidating, checking our passports to see if any among us were Belgian (they considered Belgium to be an ally of their enemy, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF). And there were people standing outside their homes looking puzzled and terrified along the roadsides. These women and men were alive when we passed them going into town, and dead by the time we came back, just a few hours later. Once, militiamen had barely finished killing them; our convoy was brought to a halt and we were made to wait until the militiamen turned around and left on foot, filing past us with their homemade weapons, most of them fashioned from everyday agricultural tools. 

The convoys took back roads through low- to middle-income and high-income suburbs. As we drove across a causeway through a swamp dividing the two, a hungry and desperate teenager appeared from the papyrus reeds and ran alongside the convoy, begging the French soldiers driving us to take his terrified younger brother with them. The French soldiers did nothing, and we felt confused. The area had a dairy farm in it. A gang armed with staffs stood nearby, waiting for us to pass. We tried to work out who was who: were they Tutsi defending themselves at their dairy farm, or Hutu chasing down Tutsi, like the young boys who had fled into the swamp? 

Individual, middle-class Tutsi (some of them foreigners’ spouses) who were sheltering at the Milles Collines hotel begged the UN to be allowed to leave with the mostly European expatriates being escorted to the airport and flown out. Rwandan families asked us for money to help them buy fuel, so they could fill up and make a dash to safety over the Burundi border. Fighting would break out suddenly near the Milles Collines in town, catching by surprise journalists following UN troops on their runs to rescue foreigners. Using vehicles abandoned by their expatriate owners, we’d get together to cautiously drive one way, to a church where Tutsi sheltered, for example, and the street would be empty, or the militias waved us on. By the time we came back, the bodies of more Rwandans killed by militia would be piled beside the road. I used to welcome the start of the rebels’ shelling over the Milles Collines toward a Rwandan army base, at about three most afternoons, because the killings would ease up then, when the militiamen at roadblocks went home.

Your chapter in Media and Mass Atrocity seeks to critically examine the way international and national media covered the genocide (your coverage included). Can you share some of your findings?

My main findings were that, in the early days of the genocide, national and international coverage of the killings was detailed, accurate and swift. All the material was there to convey the enormity of what was happening on the ground if you pieced it all together as a reader or listener outside. The news of what was happening — particularly the news about the plane crash that killed Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira — reverberated around the world via news agencies, international radio stations (then transmitting on shortwave) and daily newspapers. But the media coverage reflected the fragmentation of movement inside Rwanda, with parts of the city cut off from each other, and again from the countryside around them, so what was missing was a snapshot or portrait of what was happening nationwide.

There were exceptions to the absence of early coverage from the rural areas, such as a couple of detailed news pieces in Spanish newspapers describing massacres in at least two Roman Catholic missions on opposite sides of the country, based on phone interviews with missionaries on-site. About 10 days into the genocide, Spanish journalists persuaded Spanish troops who were rescuing Spanish missionaries from a mission station outside Kigali to take them with them. These journalists were some of the first to capture the aftermath of the massacres of Tutsi villagers that were taking place in churches.

Media coverage reflected the fragmentation of movement inside what was missing was a snapshot or portrait of what was happening nationwide.

I found it interesting that coverage by Rwandan media was incomplete but not inaccurate: what didn’t suit its narrative, it left out. State-run Radio Rwanda reported on the deaths of senior government officials and on events during the war and even interviewed Rwandan army soldiers, but it did not cover the killings of Tutsi. It fulfilled the function of a state-run service by allowing relatives to send messages to their loved ones in the army, and vice versa — soldiers sent messages back. Rabidly partisan, the populist mouthpiece of Hutu extremists, Radio Milles Collines, egged the militias on. But it didn’t, of course, cover the devastating consequences of their actions. Its vocabulary was rich and menacing and its storytelling detailed and discursive. Radio Milles Collines never reported on the victims of the massacres, but transcripts of its fevered coverage nonetheless convey the atmosphere of terror that engulfed Rwanda in the first few weeks of the genocide, when the majority of the killings took place. From April 17 onwards, spokesmen for the RPF repeatedly called attention to the genocide taking place while broadcasting on Radio Muhabura, the rebels’ radio station. Years later, one spokesman told me what impact he thought it had. “We learned that in a crisis you are always alone,” he said.

Can you share any specific examples of how language was misused by those covering the genocide?

Histrionic words such as “anarchy” were unhelpful, since the genocide was nothing if not organized (although at first it looked and felt like anarchy), as was the normalization of ethnic killings or genocidal massacres within a historical context through the use of words such as “centuries-old hatred.” This was particularly true of Rwanda and Burundi, then portrayed as countries where Hutu had been slaying Tutsi, and Tutsi, Hutu, on and off for several decades since independence from Belgium in the 1960s, and just before it, too. I would say that international coverage has largely moved away from that type of characterization. 

How did this kind of language, and the coverage in general, affect the international response to what was happening in Rwanda?

It polarized its response into two camps, which needed to decide who to back: the Hutu extremist rump government or the Tutsi-led rebels? There was also relatively little known by diplomats in the region about the inner workings of the Hutu extremist or Tutsi-led rebel groups — their motives and organizational capacity. Accurate analysis was lacking. And where it wasn’t lacking, the political will to act upon it was. Diplomats knew the bodies were piling up and sent accurate information back to Washington and other world capitals about it, but nothing was done except by the French, who initially backed the side committing genocide. 

What else do you think was behind the failure of the world to intervene?

A lack of understanding, as above. Domestic imperatives: in the United States, President Bill Clinton didn’t want to get involved in another foreign crisis after his intervention in Somalia had ended badly. Like the British and other Europeans, he was focused on Bosnia, leaving Belgium, part of the UN force in Rwanda, its troops deliberately targeted by Hutu extremists, otherwise small, helpless and alone. And France was, at least at first, biased in favour of the rump government led by Hutu extremists because of President François Mitterand’s friendship with Habyarimana, and in military terms, backing the wrong horse. 

In your view, what could have been done differently by those reporting on the genocide? What would you have done differently?

Just more reporting. I would’ve been better organized; brought some tinned food and dry biscuits in with me (we were often hungry, sometimes to the point of feeling weak). A lot of journalism is logistics. I would’ve kept reporting. Never taken no for an answer from the desks in London, not that they often said it — it was rather the other way around. I often felt overwhelmed, unable to adequately describe what was happening, or frustrated that other people (some of my colleagues among them) weren’t “getting it” — that they didn’t understand what was going on. On an operational level, I might’ve made more alliances with individual UN troops and with General Roméo Dallaire, who had to decide who among us to accommodate in the UN building when we had to move there and who to let stay. 

And I’d have always written something, every day, even if it wasn’t what I might have considered good. Been unafraid to go out on a limb and use my judgment — I knew this was the worst thing I had ever covered (and I had covered a lot of wars by then) and I wish I had said so, or said so more emphatically. I also knew the RPF very well; I had covered them since the start of the civil war in 1990 and before, when they were in Uganda. 

Maybe I did use my judgment; I put together a documentary that was widely viewed in the United Kingdom on Channel Four television in May/June 1994. I did, in fact, do a lot to report the genocide as it unfolded and to bring it to the attention of the outside world. Because the genocide succeeded, at least some of us reporting it have been left with the lasting feeling that we failed professionally, a feeling that had we done a better job it might have been halted. But, in truth, that lay way beyond any impact we had.

Twenty-five years after the Rwanda genocide, what takeaways or lessons should journalists reporting on international conflicts keep front of mind?

Don’t compare one crisis to another; judge each upon its own circumstances. Do as much clear, straightforward reporting as you can. Find good interpreters. Take lots of pictures; get photographers and videographers to come with you (it’s hard to talk to people and take photos at the same time, quickly, in an unfolding crisis). Describe what you see; get lots of quotes. Don’t dismiss detail (so much truth lies in it). Talk to anyone you can, without endangering them. Be discreet about your sources amid the tension. Get lots of witness testimony. Don’t make assumptions. If officials are unhelpful and you can’t operate independently of them, be persistent but patient. They’ll probably let you do what you want as soon as they can. Stand back from the story; what’s the bigger picture? What does it all mean?

And on lessons learned: Does reporting change things on the ground? Not necessarily, no. But we’d be failing as journalists if we didn’t do our best to report atrocities.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

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