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Leopold’s Ghost

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I asked, for his sake and my own, what he thought he’d done to bring this all about. The clue to his troubles, he answered, can be found in Count 7 of the indictment, where he is charged with “Negation of Genocide.”

The precise nature of the 1994 violence is not just a matter of historical debate in Rwanda but a live political issue, since the current president, Paul Kagame, has built his reputation on the claim that through his leadership a nation of irreconcilable ethnic groups has been, miraculously, reconciled. Deviation from that line is dangerous. “They just want to muzzle me,” Leopold told me, calling the attempted prosecution a witch hunt.

The indictment quotes Leopold addressing a University of Delaware faculty forum in late 2006:

“There is a kind of international conspiracy to hide the truth about what happened … I refer to it as civil war, not genocide; it was about political power … In Rwanda there are no tribes; there are social groups … It [is] quite wrong to say that genocide was committed by Hutus.”

The view has a lot going for it. During my own first visit to Rwanda, in the seventies, I was presented with the stereotype of the country’s population: The minority Tutsi were the tall, slim, better-educated ones, while the majority Hutu were short, stout, more likely to be laborers, and, by dint of numbers, tended to monopolize political power. But it was actually imperial German colonial bureaucrats in the late nineteenth century, not the Belgian colonists who followed them or the Rwandans themselves, who had codified those social distinctions as racial identities, and even today, after generations of “intermarriage,” a Rwandan’s ethnic identity is often primarily a matter of politics and social standing. After Habyarimana’s assassination, his Tutsi opponents were immediately blamed and then targeted. Neighbors turned on each other, and innocent people were frantically herded into community halls or churches and gunned down or set on fire. At the end of three months, it was estimated that at least 800,000 Rwandans, including the majority of the Tutsi population, had been killed.

Leopold gave that problematic 2006 talk, and many others like it, while teaching French at Montclair State University in New Jersey, where he had been hired with the support of a previous SRF grant. “Our people were crazy about him,” recalled Susan Cole, Montclair State’s president, when I spoke to her about the case. “Where things went wrong is when we asked him to give a lecture on campus about the political situation in Rwanda … That’s when they came after him.”

“At no point … have I ever denied the genocide of 1994,” Leopold wrote in one of the documents he would present to NBC and to Goucher. “My only argument is that the official narrative is too simple and does not show the complexity of the catastrophe.” But the quotations that had showed up in press reports, beginning in 2006, were much more stark. It was almost as if he were daring the new Rwandan authorities to take him on. At a number of his well-­publicized appearances, representatives of the Rwandan Embassy in Washington obliged. People in the audience recall shouting, and after the Delaware talk, Leopold says, the Rwandan ambassador demanded that Montclair State fire him. The indictment soon followed from Kigali.

When his work permit came up for renewal, Leopold’s documents were, mysteriously, misplaced; as a result, the renewal was delayed, and he lost his promised second year at Montclair State. After a year in limbo, including some time working as a security guard, he got the work permit back, and he saw his new perch at Goucher as a fresh start. Not knowing much about what had happened at Montclair State, we saw it as an opportunity.

Here is how Leopold tells me his personal story: He was born in approximately 1960 to illiterate parents in a rural village. (He does not know the exact date, because births among the peasantry were often not registered in those colonial times.) His only brother, who gave him a first name to commemorate an earlier visit to Rwanda by King Leopold III of Belgium, a brutal colonialist, saw to it that Leopold attended elementary school, walking six miles each way every day.

After high school, Leopold enrolled in a seminary, but he left after two years to attend the National University instead. Upon receiving a master’s degree in linguistics, he became a high-school teacher, then went on to earn a doctorate in France in sociolinguistics, as well as another master’s degree in the teaching of French as a second language. Later, he became the leader of the national teachers union, and eventually secretary-general of the country’s trade-union federation. This is a remarkable résumé, especially for someone we’d asked only to teach intermediate French.


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