Future Tense

Blood Papa: Rwanda's New Generation BY Jean Hatzfeld. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 240 pages. $26

In the period since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which killed eight hundred thousand people, mostly members of the Tutsi minority, a certain narrative about the country has become inescapable in international news reports. Puny, landlocked Rwanda, it is marveled, has managed to sustain unusually fast economic growth for well over a decade. The journalists often deploy the same tired motif: They are amazed at how the streets of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, are so clean and orderly.

The question of how this was achieved is answered just as formulaically. A stern but enlightened authoritarian named Paul Kagame turned the country into an African Singapore. This man, long the toast of places like Davos and Aspen—and of many Western capitals—is often portrayed as a visionary. We are told that in order to create stability, Kagame is wisely phasing out almost all reference to ethnicity. Throughout Rwanda, young people are discouraged from speaking of themselves as Hutu or Tutsi, and these categories are disappearing from public life. This is the hope-giving recipe for avoiding the cycle of mass killings that has plagued this land and its region for generations.

As a journalist who has spent much of his career writing about Africa, I’ve noticed that this remarkably sturdy story line rarely features the voices of ordinary people. Indeed, in these reports the candid thoughts of citizens with no connection to the government are scarce, if they appear at all. I have always suspected this is due to an ambient fear of a paranoid and all-controlling state—one that presides over a peace more fragile than most outsiders realize. When I last traveled to Rwanda, in 2016, I found people were still reluctant to talk about the genocide and its aftermath. This was true of citizens in the countryside. It was true among residents in provincial cities, such as Gisenyi. And it was even true among Kigali-based professional journalists and editors, who must surely have expected questions like mine, but nevertheless squirmed and deflected them with Cheshire grins, as they repeated formulaic generalities that had the certain ring of authorized speech.

Musanze, Rwanda, 2016.

All this makes the work of Jean Hatzfeld, a career correspondent for the French newspaper Libération who has been covering Rwanda since 1994, especially remarkable. There are more-famous writers on Rwanda, but I can’t think of an author who has delved more deeply into Rwandan society in the quarter century since the devastating and widely misunderstood genocide. Hatzfeld draws close to his subjects and patiently absorbs their stories in depth. His immersive approach stands in stark contrast to the traditional foreign correspondent’s method, with its necessary compression of detail driven by quick deadlines and an urgent demand for the big picture. Hatzfeld’s project is unusual in other ways, too: He’s returned to this little country over and over, and he continues to visit many of the same small towns and rural communities that were hit hardest by the genocide.

His first volume on the killings, Dans le nu de la vie (Life Laid Bare, 2000), roughly focused on victims (mostly Tutsi), while the second, Une saison de machettes (Machete Season, 2003), looked at the perpetrators (mostly Hutu). In his new book, Blood Papa, Hatzfeld treats both communities at once. He examines the generation that has come of age since 1994, considering how young people have coped with the genocide’s legacy. Each of the book’s three sections—“Memory,” “The Parents,” “The Future”—features short chapters in which Hatzfeld allows his subjects to unspool their own stories. Often it is clear that they are responding to the author’s regular and recurrent questions, though the queries never appear in the text. For example, Immaculée Feza, the daughter of a Tutsi survivor of the genocide, tells Hatzfeld:

Yes, there are brawls occasionally. When students hurl insults, sometimes fists fly. . . . I keep from discussing the genocide with my Hutu classmates. Not one of them has ever come up to me and suggested talking about it. I think they are too uncomfortable. With my good Tutsi girlfriends, we can discuss our parents’ troubles—their quirks, so to speak. . . . Hutu children don’t talk about these things as much. They talk very little. To hear them tell it, there’s nothing out of the ordinary at home. They reject the chance to be consoled.

At first, I worried about the risk of repetitiveness as Hatzfeld’s young Rwandan subjects answer the same basic questions: What do you know about your parents’ experience of the genocide? What are your plans and dreams for the future? How do you feel about God? What kind of person do you hope to marry? And then, inevitably: Could you envision marrying someone from the other ethnic group? To this, many on both sides answer “Never.” For her part, Feza says, “No, I wouldn’t accept a very handsome Hutu, wealthy, polished, a dandy, even, because his presence might upset my parents.”

But over the course of the book, this bland-seeming formula began to reveal unexpected insights—ones that complicate the standard picture of Kagame’s Rwanda. For one thing, we learn that the country, for all its vaunted economic growth, remains a very poor place. One subject, the son of an imprisoned Hutu, says, “I’ve never stepped foot in a movie theater.” Others pine for the chance to receive a sewing machine from a charity or to somehow acquire a field animal to help with the crops. Even for more fortunate Rwandans, the contemporary world seems just out of reach: “I only surf the internet when I have the money,” says Ange Uwase, a nineteen-year-old daughter of a Tutsi survivor. “It really adds up. I can go nearly a week without touching the keyboard.” The offspring of culpable Hutu, meanwhile, make five-hour treks by bicycle, riding over rutted mountain roads—sometimes two to a bike—in order to see their imprisoned fathers for the five minutes they are allowed to visit. Fabiola Mukayishimire, a nineteen-year-old daughter of an imprisoned Hutu, says of her father: “He always has a smile for me. He never mentions the genocide. . . . No, he has never picked up his pen to write me the truth: ‘Listen, Fabiola, you are grown up enough to understand, this is why I have been punished . . .’ No. I think it’s too beneath him. He and his conscience fight over his past.”

Though there is still palpable resentment toward the ethnic “other,” there are few hints of hatred in Hatzfeld’s account. This is not to say the younger generation feels secure about the future or has forgotten about the past. “You endlessly examine people’s faces,” says Fabrice Tuyishimire, the twenty-two-year-old son of a Hutu prisoner. “Deep down, you distrust everyone. You are wary of leaving the family circle.” Still, by and large, they seem to accept their condition. “Would I move far away to forget everything? Has it crossed my mind?” asks Idelphonse Habinshuti, nineteen, whose father is an incarcerated Hutu. “No, if you are born in a country, you have to accept its past.”

There are reasons beyond mere matters of deadline why traditional foreign correspondents have so rarely penetrated Rwandan society, especially outside of the capital. The Rwandan state carefully follows people and it is said to have informants everywhere. Some rural inhabitants speak little French or English. Many others may simply be afraid to talk. Some reporters who ask skeptical questions about the state are harassed, while others have been expelled. And numerous Rwandan journalists have been jailed or simply disappeared. (The best account of this other, lesser-known dark side of the country remains Anjan Sundaram’s chilling 2016 book, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship.) Such realities highlight Hatzfeld’s extraordinary accomplishment. He’s managed to linger in small towns and villages and record intimate conversations, not just about the genocide, but also about the nominally forbidden topic of ethnicity—Hutu and Tutsi.

But there’s something missing from the moving stories that Hatzfeld has gathered, though only readers who are specialists on the region are likely to notice. For whatever reasons, even this groundbreaking author has silently observed a major Rwandan taboo. Blood Papa includes the stories of Hutu who as children fled with their parents into neighboring Zaire after a Tutsi insurgency defeated the collapsing Hutu government (and the allied militias that carried out the 1994 genocide). These Hutu speak of their experiences in refugee camps and of their eventual return to Rwanda, where many of their parents faced punishment. But strangely, nowhere in these accounts is there mention of the campaign of extermination carried out in Zaire (later renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo) by Kagame’s Tutsi government. Years later, an exhaustive United Nations investigation found that tens of thousands of mostly unarmed Hutu—including many women and children—were killed in the Congo by Kagame’s forces. Was this a matter of Hatzfeld preserving his access to the country, or staying in the good graces of a narrative-controlling government, or something else altogether? It is impossible for the reader to know.

It is this feature of Rwandan society, the fact that each side has periodically committed atrocities—even if asymmetrically—that makes reconciliation so difficult and renders the stability of the country so precarious, despite cheerful news reports to the contrary. These stark facts make the wisdom of many of Blood Papa’s subjects even more poignant: “We young people are going to have to choose how to live as neighbors—in other words, to choose between bitter words and mutual support,” Mukayishimire tells the author. “Our future? I don’t know. The threat of massacres hangs over the hills. But I still don’t believe in any curse.”


Howard W. French, an author and photographer, is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.