Conversations with a Genocidaire
By Sarah Reichenbach
The National Security Archive recently released Ambassador Prudence Bushnell’s never-before-seen personal notebooks from her critical work on the 1994 Rwandan genocide. After the genocide started, Bushnell was charged with pursuing a ceasefire through “diplomatic means” and her notebooks contain detailed notes from key phone conversations with leaders from both the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and Rwandan Government Forces (RGF). Bushnell’s personal records both help fill the void left by agencies –especially the Clinton Library and the Department of Defense– which have yet to release hundreds of important documents on the genocide, and help illustrate the complexities of the decision-making processes, the relationships between international parties, and Bushnell’s own interactions with on-the-ground actors in the conflict.
At the time of Bushnell’s notebooks, US strategy was to demand that both the RGF and RPF agree to a ceasefire in order to stop the killings. Bushnell urged both sides to agree to a ceasefire through numerous telephone conversations with RPF leader, Paul Kagame, and Rwandan government officials, General Augustin Bizumungu and Col. Theoneste Bagosora, the leader of the RGF who helped create the Interhamwe, a strongly anti-Tutsi minority militia and was indicted for playing a key role in the planning and execution of the slaughter of approximately 800,000 of Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Some of the most fascinating and chilling portions of Bushnell’s notebooks include notes taken during her phone conversations with genocidaire Col. Bagosora.
In one conversation with Bagosora at the end of April 1994, several weeks after the genocide began, Bushnell demands an immediate halt to the massacres. Bagosora, however, tells Bushnell that he does not have the power to stop the killings and, as her notes read, that a “ceasefire does not work.” Bagosora argues that Rwanda is in the midst of a civil war over which he has no control. An Unclassified April 29th, 1994, Department of State cable describes Bagosora as saying the killings are “a spontaneous reaction by the population to the RPF offensive,” attempting to frame the genocide as an uncontrollable effect of RPF attacks instead of the carefully planned and orchestrated massacres of civilians by government forces they were.
In a 2013 interview, Bushnell, aware of the intent behind the perpetrators’ actions, further recounts her conversations with Bagosora:
“This is to Bagosora in the middle of the night. Stop the killing. And oh, Madame, you don’t understand, there is a civil war going on here, and we do not have the forces to stop the spontaneous uprising of the people, was how we called it. Well, at least stop the hate radio. Ah, mais Madame, we are a democracy. We believe in freedom of the press. That is how ridiculous or bizarre our conversation was.”
The April 29th cable further recounts the conversation and Bushnell’s response to Bagosora in which she told him the world does not accept the RGF’s claims, and that “in the eyes of the world, the Rwandan military engaged in criminal acts, aiding and abetting civilian massacres.” Bushnell reminds Bagosora of the Rwandan government’s prior commitments to implementing the Arusha Accords, the 1993 Rwandan peace agreement that aimed to end the civil war between the RGF and RPF, and Bagosora’s apparent unwillingness to end the massacres was in violation of those commitments. Bushnell’s comments are described in the cable as seeming to “take Bagosora by surprise and sobered him.”
In a 2013 interview with the National Security Archive, however, Bushnell recalls Bagosora’s reaction to her demands quite differently:
“In that conversation, I advised Bagosora that we would hold him personally accountable for what was happening and that the President knew about it…He said, ‘How nice of the President to be thinking of me.’”
Despite his confidence, Bushnell’s warnings proved correct and in 2008 Bagosora was convicted of conspiracy to commit genocide, genocide, complicity in genocide, and crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), receiving a life sentence for his crimes.
Bushnell’s contribution to the National Security Archive has greatly enhanced our understanding of the complex inner workings of the US government during the Rwandan genocide. Her willingness to share her personal accounts will help policy analysis and our understanding of genocide going forward. Hopefully Ambassador Bushnell’s valuable contribution to the historical record will also motivate federal agencies to act in accordance with open government principles and continue to add to the official record on this historically significant event.
Bushnell, Prudence. Oral History Interview, November 22, 2013, Washington, D.C., The National Security Archive.