Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Leopold’s Ghost


Goucher College campus.   

“He’s a war criminal,” Said the producers when they came to my office the next morning, “and we can prove it.” They introduced me to a prosecutor from Kigali they had brought along, a jet-lagged man who looked to be in his thirties and was now sitting on the couch just outside my door. He had with him an indictment and request for extradition, and his escorts also mentioned a long-standing “red notice” from Interpol, not exactly a warrant but a suggestion that Leopold be arrested on sight.

The prosecutor’s document bore official stamps from the Rwandan Ministry of Justice on every page. It claimed that Leopold was a genocidaire who had participated in the massacre in 1994, and also that he had later become a denier of the genocide the Rwandan government was accusing him of helping to carry out.

The details of the accusations were horrifying, and I sat reading the documents while my visitors watched. Between April and July 1994, Leopold had been part of a “joint criminal enterprise,” the indictment alleged, and had “trained, indoctrinated, encouraged, provided criminal intelligence to, transported and distributed arms to members” of the armed forces and civilian militias, who in turn “murdered, caused seriously [sic] bodily and mental harm, raped and pillaged Tutsi group members.” It said he had attended meetings of Hutu in the Kayenzi commune, where he and others allegedly complained that the killing was “lagging behind.” Possibly he had planned or even chaired those meetings. At one such gathering at the Kirwa primary school, Munyakazi “took the floor to address more than 2,000 residents,” it claimed, “and publicly incited the masses to commit genocide.” He had, according to the indictment, personally turned over to the militia a woman who had taken refuge at his home, so that she could be killed.

I was incredulous, filled with a mixture of anger and self-doubt. As their Rwandan companion nodded quietly in agreement, the producers from NBC demanded to know how Goucher could have sheltered such an evil man. They wanted to film me reacting to the indictment, but I refused. I hid behind the Scholar Rescue Fund, protesting that Leopold had been screened and certified, and that was all we knew. Later, in a New Republic story that was part of the flurry of early, short-lived interest in Leopold’s case, the producers were even quoted as describing my attitude as “flippant.”

It was exam time, never the ideal moment for rational and clear thinking, but we had to act quickly. Two faculty members who had befriended Leopold helped us try to figure out how to respond. They huddled with him that morning and brought him to a hurried afternoon meeting in the conference room next to my ­office. Leopold seemed both frightened and defiant, but assured us that he had not lied about his background and his experiences.

Amazingly, though, he did seem to have anticipated the problem and had a neat rebuttal handy. He produced five sworn affidavits, some signed by illiterate peasants with only their fingerprints, attesting to his “kindness” during the genocide—including his obtaining Hutu identification cards for people who had been officially classified as Tutsi. “I am grateful to him because I am now alive due to his efforts,” read one declaration, translated from Kinyarwanda, by Astelia Nyirarukundo from Kirwa, where Leopold was alleged to have incited people to kill.

I wanted to believe Leopold—a man who seemed utterly decent and warm—but I felt confused and troubled by allegations so detailed. In the tense days that followed, Leopold produced two rather polished statements, no doubt with the help of his friends on our faculty—addressing not only his NBC accusers, it seemed to me, but also those of us at Goucher who seemed suddenly to be playing the role of impromptu judges. “It is important for you to know that while I am Hutu, my wife is Tutsi,” he wrote. “We have been happily married since 1980 and have five children … During the killings of 1994 my family fled Kigali for our native area, Kirwa. While in hiding there we took in a number of people in our neighborhood who were fleeing for their lives.”

Leopold insisted upon defending himself on-camera—the large, rowdy television crew had pursued him to and from his house, filmed him through the windows of his classroom, and confronted him directly. Some of his answers seemed bumbling and evasive and stubbornly off-track; he called the allegations outrageous and politically motivated, but kept returning to his argument that few people really understood the nuances of what had happened in Rwanda in 1994—a compelling point, perhaps, but not quite the comforting defense you’d like to hear from someone accused of war crimes.


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift