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Leopold’s Ghost

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Rwandan government officials make preparations to give victims of the genocide a proper burial, in April 1995.  

Against the advice of some colleagues, I ultimately agreed to be interviewed, too. After all, as a journalist who sometimes felt oddly cast in my role as a college president, how could I get away with stonewalling the media? I earnestly explained that our intentions were pure and our decision to take in Leopold was based on the best of motives. I did not acknowledge the red flags we might have overlooked in our own eagerness to bring Leopold to campus, or how automatically we accepted the most generous interpretation of why this scholar might have been at special risk. But still, I promised, we would do everything in our power to get to the bottom of it all.

But the community response came more quickly than that. A young alumnus wrote to complain that we had allowed the college to be held up to “national ridicule,” while an indignant elderly alumna suggested we become “significantly more diligent in [our] faculty screening process,” though NBC had yet to air anything and the ridicule was coming mostly from within the small family of the college itself. One parent wrote to me of the “tragic paradox” that Goucher, in trying to do some good in the world, had stumbled into such a mess. That phrase still sticks with me today.

None of us wanted to seem to be judging Leopold guilty prematurely, or to require him to prove his innocence. But after hurried consultations, the provost and I told the chair of the French department we could take no chances, and she agreed to remove Leopold from the classroom immediately. Barring some exonerating evidence, he would not be assigned to teach in the spring semester and would be banned from campus.

But that wasn’t the end of it for me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that in our embrace of Leopold and in our eagerness to act on our principles, we had ourselves been somewhat naïve—so sure of our own grand purpose that we neglected to investigate the hazardous moral environment we were parachuting into. I very much wanted to believe that I could sort out the story myself, after the fact, almost as an act of absolution. Doing so would restore my own confidence as well as Goucher’s dignity; it would also show that the tools of free inquiry we believed in were still themselves sharp, and of use. I hoped.

I tried to reach a respected Cameroonian lawyer I’d heard about who was serving as chief prosecutor at the Rwandan war-crimes tribunal in Tanzania. No luck. I rang the attorney general of Rwanda in Kigali. No reply. The State Department? No comment. The Office of Special Investigations in the Criminal Division of the Justice Department—the unit assigned to pursue accused war criminals in the United States—would not speak on the record.

I wondered about the young prosecutor who had accompanied the television producers to my office. But I could not find any American government official aware of the presence of any Rwandan prosecutor in the United States. If he was not an impostor, then he must have been brought here by NBC—and it was hard to know what to make of an extradition process being conducted by a television network.

Only Alison Des Forges seemed able to help me. An activist and historian from Human Rights Watch, she was perhaps the leading American expert on Rwanda, and especially on the Rwandan genocide, having even testified before the tribunal in Tanzania. I called her and, at her request, sent her a copy of my growing file of documents on the case.

The allegations were muddled, she told me, and they misconstrued who in Rwanda had actually been allied with whom in 1994. They were almost identical to the charges being pressed against another Rwandan émigré living in Buffalo, her hometown. He too was being pursued by NBC. “I don’t think you have a problem here,” she reassured me.

But then she paused, and almost seemed to reverse herself: “We may never really know for sure about guilt or innocence,” she told me. “During the Rwandan genocide, there were people who went without sleep for so many days in a row that they became psychotic. They killed some of their neighbors on one day, and saved others on the next.” Many Rwandans, she said, might never be sure themselves of exactly what they had done during that time of madness. “They did whatever they had to do to survive.” The next day, returning to Buffalo from meetings in New York, Des Forges died in a plane crash.

For a time, I kept my distance from Leopold, as if waiting for information that would help me know truly what to make of him. Eventually, I invited him to lunch at my house on campus. He arrived wearing a well-tailored dark suit and looking like a diplomat on a delicate mission. In conversation—then and during a later encounter—he was courtly and unfailingly polite, never straying from his basic focus. “I need to clear my name,” he said.


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