Leopold’s Ghost

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum/New York Magazine

It was a dark December afternoon in 2008 when a young man called at my office. He was gracious, polite, and fashionably dressed, a representative of NBC News.

“This seems like a nice college,” he said, a bit condescendingly, of the bucolic Goucher campus, just north of Baltimore. “But you have someone working for you who has done terrible things.” I gulped, and my imagination ran wild—fraud, drugs, cheating, sexual misconduct? But he said he could not tell me more without consulting his senior colleague, a former CIA lawyer turned investigative reporter. They would be back in the morning, together with their crew, to tell me why our college would have the honor of being featured on The Wanted, a new series they were producing for NBC.

Goucher is a small, residential, coeducational liberal-arts college with all the values and sense of mission you’d associate with such a place. I had been president for seven years, since just a few months before 9/11, a career journalist who came from two years directing Voice of America and thought one of the most important things a small college could do in this era would be to introduce its students to the broader, changing world. We promised our students they’d become “global citizens,” and it wasn’t just rhetoric: Within a few years we had established the country’s only study-abroad requirement, and my colleagues and I began looking for ways to bring the world to us.

A young member of the philosophy department told me about the “scholar-at-risk” network—an appealing, increasingly fashionable way for colleges and universities to give shelter to intellectuals from around the globe threatened by government repression, civil strife, war, or the pinch of intellectual and political cultures less accommodating than our own. At its best, this could be a way for even the smallest schools to assert their role as progressive safe havens devoted to free discourse in a world disappointingly inhospitable to those values—and certainly it would make a nice contrast to the way some universities cozy up to foreign tyrants for financial purposes.

We didn’t have to work that hard to find our first guest scholar, as there were organizations devoted to the task of identifying and placing them. The Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF), one of the most reputable, sent us information about a Palestinian chemist and a number of people from Iraq, Iran, and other places in turmoil. But the person we settled on was Leopold Munyakazi, a French professor from Rwanda whose application for political asylum in the United States had already been pending for four years. We needed an extra French teacher more than we did another chemist. And I was particularly drawn to the idea of bringing an African scholar to Goucher—especially from a place like tiny, tumultuous, and overpopulated Rwanda, where factions have often struggled over scant resources.

I had been to Rwanda several times, as a journalist and as a lecturer, and I felt a personal connection to the country—even a kind of obligation. On my first visit to Kigali, the capital, in the late seventies, I met Juvenal Habyarimana, the Hutu military ruler whose assassination would unleash the notorious slaughter of the Tutsi by the Hutu in 1994. He had given me a personal gift, a spear, which I never knew quite what to do with and eventually left to rust in my garage. In the eighties, I conducted a radio-journalism workshop for Rwandan broadcasters, and years later, when I heard that charismatic personalities on Radio Milles Collines had exhorted people to kill their neighbors, I privately worried whether I might have taught them a bit too effectively. I was personally acquainted with a few people among the hundreds of thousands of victims, and like many Americans who had watched the violence from a distance, I felt sorry that we had done so little to try to stop it.

A pointed, if mysterious, warning from the SRF staff that Munyakazi held “controversial views” only stoked our enthusiasm—we didn’t even stop to ask what was meant by it. If a liberal-arts college could not handle controversy, we thought, then who could? Perhaps he’d even attract attention and make a few positive headlines for the college.

That fall semester, Leopold—despite his rather formal manner, that’s what everyone called him—taught a small section of intermediate French. He lived near campus, in a Goucher-owned house, and his family became a part of our little community.

One former student remembers that Leopold talked a great deal in class about his own personal history, but no one else on campus really paid much attention. Dignified yet humble, shy, and sincere, one of the few faculty members who routinely dressed in suit and tie, Leopold became a familiar figure in the library and on the campus paths, almost disappointingly low-key and dull. But we flattered ourselves that we had done that rare thing, a purely good deed, striking a blow for the cause of intellectual freedom while bringing an honorable man to campus.

Goucher College campus. Photo: Alayna Giovannitti

“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.

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

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.

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.

Just months after the violence had slowed, while attending a conference on “reconstruction and reconciliation,” Leopold was arrested in Kigali and held in prison for nearly five years. No formal charges were ever filed, but Leopold says he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. As he tells it, the case was purely political, intended to punish him for rejecting political overtures from the Kagame government. But when, in 1999, the local prosecutor let him go, the very regime now accusing him hired him as a teacher at the Kigali Institute of Education, then promoted him—first to be chair of the department of African languages and later dean of the faculty of arts and social science. Twice, he insists, that same government gave him a passport, so he could travel abroad for international conferences, despite his growing status as a dissident. It was after one of those conferences, a meeting in Atlanta in 2004 for teachers of French, that Leopold heard he was being vilified at home and decided not to return. Advancing his alternative theory of the events in 1994, says Leopold, has put him on a list of 106 people, mostly Hutu intellectuals, singled out for persecution by the government.

“Nonsense,” says James Kimonyo, the Rwandan ambassador to the United States, who represents his government from a sleepy and somewhat shabby townhouse not far from Dupont Circle in Washington, where I visited him one winter day. There is no such list, he insists.

A tall, suave 47-year-old engineer, Kimonyo is an occasional guest at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where he participates in discussions of the Rwandan genocide and how to help its survivors heal. One step, he says, is to bring perpetrators like Leopold Munyakazi to justice. Kimonyo describes in detail an incident on April 19, 1994, in which he says Leopold “was instrumental” in gathering 40 Tutsi along the banks of the Nyabarongo River, near Kigali. (Leopold insists he is being confused with another man who has a similar name.) The assembly, the ambassador says, turned into “a killing session,” and the bodies were thrown into the river, “so they could flow back where they came from—Ethiopia.” (Many Hutu believe the Tutsi are actually Ethiopian and therefore do not belong in Rwanda.) Now Munyakazi “feels guilty,” Kimonyo tells me. “He is accused of a crime, so he just says the crime did not happen.”

The ambassador complains about “impostors” like Munyakazi who take advantage of broad access to the media in the United States. “The First Amendment is okay,” he says, raising his voice, “but is it okay to allow people who committed serious crimes in their country to spread hatred and possibly end up causing another genocide?”

Sensing my skepticism that Leopold might be plotting another genocide, he shows me records of money transfers used by high-profile supporters of Leopold—such as Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda—to send funds raised by “fake charitable organizations” in the United States to individuals in anti-Kagame militias based in Congo. The money was meant to buy weapons and ammunition, Kimonyo tells me, and the transfers were for amounts small enough, he notes, “to circumvent American money-laundering laws.”

Henry Jarecki has more than a passing interest in Leopold Munyakazi’s case. A psychiatrist, film producer, and philanthropist who made his fortune primarily as a precious-metals dealer, he is the founding chair of the Scholar Rescue Fund. In his office near Gramercy Park in Manhattan, he has two thick black legal binders of documents about Leopold, including details of the “robust security checks” that were conducted before he was placed at Montclair State and at Goucher, and all of the evidence he and his staff could assemble for or against the professor. As he leafs through it, he discovers something else and looks up at me with a smile: “Here’s the report I had done about you.”

Jarecki says he wants to believe that Leopold is innocent of the charges against him, but, as a child Holocaust survivor who returned to Germany for medical school in the fifties, he is acutely sensitive to the possibility that a scholar he’s helped shelter may be guilty of “war crimes”—the moral equivalent, for him, of “rescuing Göring in Argentina.”

“We often rescue people without really knowing who they are,” he says, citing the minimal standard that one of his board members has developed: “Is he a scholar, and is he in danger?” But that question can obscure as much as it illuminates, he admits, and Jarecki, now 79, remembers with horror a particular cautionary tale: One of his most cherished medical professors in Heidelberg, “an amusing and cheerful fellow, a good companion,” was revealed, long after he had died, to have been a wartime assistant to Josef Mengele.

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.

Leopold’s Ghost