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Leopold’s Ghost


One afternoon in February 2009, federal immigration agents arrived at the Goucher house where Leopold’s family was living, put him in handcuffs, and took him into custody in Baltimore. He was released a few hours later, but with two conditions: He would have to wear an electronic ankle bracelet, and he was placed under a strict curfew. Under pressure from the college, he moved his family out of Goucher’s house and into an inexpensive apartment nearby, so his younger children could continue to attend local public schools. He filed for unemployment compensation, and the State of Maryland charged the claims to Goucher—suggesting that we were somehow responsible for what had happened to him.

Leopold’s asylum hearing was held more than a year later. The government’s star witness was Jason Hyman, an immigration agent who had traveled to Rwanda for three weeks and relayed testimony, given to him in interviews, by witnesses who claimed Leopold had supervised “night patrols to locate and execute” Tutsi in hiding. It was Hyman’s first-ever ­human-rights investigation; according to Leopold’s lawyer, his only other experience as an interviewer had been as a polygraph examiner for the Pentagon.

In a 63-page opinion issued on November 16, 2010, immigration judge Elizabeth A. Kessler found the evidence against Leopold more compelling than the testimony of his own witnesses, and noted disturbing, if minor, discrepancies between Leopold’s account and that of his wife. Kessler said she was not convinced that Leopold might be tortured if he were returned to Rwanda—and this, rather than his guilt or innocence, had become the defining issue of the case. Although his wife and children had already, in a separate proceeding, been granted permission to stay in the United States, the judge ordered that Leopold be deported.

That decision remains under appeal. Leopold, meanwhile, sits in his cramped and disorderly ground-floor apartment barely a mile from Goucher and waits for news. A steady stream of relatives and friends come to visit, and an extra mattress to accommodate them stands against the wall. He is surrounded by piles of books—in English, French, and Kinyarwanda—some of which he hopes to translate from one language into another. He has not been to Rwanda since 2004, but he blogs daily with many other exiles, including a former Rwandan king now based in northern Virginia. They traffic in rumors and allegations: that Kagame has assassinated Rwandan journalists in refugee camps in Uganda; that his government paid all expenses for the NBC crew to travel to Rwanda eight times. Leopold demands loyalty, and unquestioning acceptance of his version of events; if friends appear to entertain a different interpretation of 1994, he is offended.

Leopold also applies for jobs. One stint behind the deli counter at a local supermarket did not last long. “Whenever they enter my name into the computer, they find all this stuff,” he says of prospective employers, even for minor tutoring assignments. “In this country, when your name is tarnished, that’s it. It’s very, very hard.” From time to time he reaches down to feel his tether—the big, clumsy ankle bracelet he has now been wearing for more than three years, which will presumably sound an alarm somewhere should he dare to leave Maryland. While waiting to hear whether he can stay, Leopold acts as if he’s bought into the American Dream. He has recently been accepted into an aflac training program, where he’ll learn to sell insurance—and has called to ask whether he might solicit customers on the Goucher campus. His son Patrick will attend Notre Dame University on a substantial scholarship. His wife works as an aide in a nursing home and is studying to obtain credentials that will qualify her for better jobs. Between her salary and the kindness of strangers, the family somehow gets by.

NBC never aired its anticipated exposé of Leopold. The first two episodes of The Wanted, about terrorists hiding in plain sight in Germany and Norway, were panned by critics, and the show was canceled before it got to Goucher. The college was never called out in a media firestorm, and I was never really required, publicly or privately, to defend the decision to hire a refugee from a war-torn country. Yet the more I find myself thinking about the case, the more I wish I could get to the bottom of it. The mystery is too interesting, too perplexing, to let go. But every time I sit quietly and try to work my way through the story, I think of the scenes of horror I thankfully know only secondhand, remember the words of Alison Des Forges, and resign myself to the fact that I will probably never know the truth.

During my last visit to Rwanda, in June 2001, I was taken to see macabre exhibitions: rooms full of the skulls and bones of those who had been killed in 1994. I was probably as convinced as anyone at that point of the rectitude of Kagame. But his subsequent reelection to two more terms as president, with suspicious vote tallies of over 90 percent, has raised serious doubts, as has his intolerance of dissent.

And I have come to live with serious doubts of my own—about Leopold, about my own part in his ordeal, and about the high-minded idealism that brought him to Goucher. Is his case a simple matter of good intentions gone awry, or a profoundly discouraging allegory about how difficult it can be to identify injustice in the world and repair it? I’m no longer sure the two are very different, or that the sincerity of our humanitarian impulses can ever be reliable proof of the worthiness of our actions. But I find it difficult to accept that we must all simply suspend judgment and take the world as we find it. Ignorance is its own kind of exile.

This story appeared in the July, 30, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.


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