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‘We choose good guys and bad guys’: beneath the myth of ‘model’ Rwanda | Human rights

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A devastating new book will accuse Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame – long feted by his prominent international supporters as the model of visionary new African leadership – of being a serial human rights abuser, including for his role in a sustained campaign of assassinating his rivals in exile.

Written by Michela Wrong, the author who covered the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when more than 800,000 people – largely ethnic Tutsis as well as moderate Hutus – were killed by Hutu militias over 100 days, Do Not Disturb represents one of the most far-reaching historical revisions of Kagame and his regime.

Meticulously researched, with substantial new material and interviews, Wrong is careful to set competing claims next to each other where there are unresolved questions, including the suspicions – thus far uncorroborated – of Rwandan involvement in the 2001 assassination of Congolese president Laurent Kabila.

Michela Wrong
Michela Wrong, at home in London. Her new book shines a spotlight on the dubious rights record of president Paul Kagame. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

While Kagame has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, not least over the high-profile murder of his former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya in South Africa in 2014 by Rwandan agents, Do Not Disturb alleges Kagame’s involvement in multiple rights abuses from his earliest days in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

Beginning with his role as a dour rebel intelligence officer behind the grisly executions of suspected infiltrators, Do Not Disturb chronicles Kagame’s rise as well as his part in the overthrow of two Congolese presidents and the looting of that country’s mineral resources, relying on numerous interviews with former members of his inner circle.

With Rwanda heavily reliant on international aid for almost two-thirds of its budget, Wrong’s examination of Kagame and Rwanda’s role in destabilising its neighbours in the Great Lakes raises embarrassing questions for his prominent supporters – who have included Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bill Gates and Clare Short – and for international aid donors including the UK accused of long turning a blind eye.

The book is being published just months before the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is due to be held in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, this summer, an event that will once again put Kagame at the centre of an international stage.

Far from the charismatic, driven and progressive leader he is perceived as by his international supporters, Kagame emerges from Wrong’s account as a murderously authoritarian figure; a cold, petty and vindictive individual. She compares him to Stalin’s notorious secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, always able “to find the crime to fit the man”.

In an interview with the Guardian, Wrong described how her view of Kagame had changed radically over the years since she first encountered his RPF forces as a young reporter covering the genocide, when – like so many others – she embraced the RPF’s narrative.

Wrong has already been accused on social media of becoming a “genocide denier”, the standard accusation levelled at critics of Kagame. She has no doubt that genocide occurred, only that it hid a far more complex picture, including the subsequent murders of Hutus by Tutsi forces after the RPF took power.

“Going from village to village with the French troops you were confronted by mass graves where people had been hurriedly buried, seeing women scrubbing the floors of the church naves trying to get the blood stains out.

plane crash which killed Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana in this May 23, 1994
A Rwanda Patriotic Front rebel at the site of the plane crash that killed Rwanda’s president Juvénal Habyarimana in April 1994. Photograph: Jean Marc Boujou/AP

“Then you’d meet members of the RPF who were reserved and disciplined and spoke excellent English, who didn’t seem to speak in forked tongues like the departing government of Juvénal Habyarimana [the Hutu president who was killed when his plane was shot down, sparking the genocide].

“I was completely won over by them and completely willing to accept that their takeover was a very good thing because it spelled the end of the horror. That’s how I viewed the RPF for many years and that’s how the world saw it.”

Wrong talks of an encounter with a French diplomat who described the later pursuit and murder of Hutus fleeing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by RPF’s forces and remembers thinking: “This is nonsense! It was so at odds with what I believed the RPF stood for. Now I look back, that was a briefing we should have paid more attention to.”

Patrick Karegeya
Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former intelligence chief who was found dead in 2014 in a hotel in South Africa. Photograph: AP

At the centre of Wrong’s revisiting is her detailed depiction of the circumstances of the gruesome strangling of Patrick Karegeya in a South African hotel room in 2014. Kagame’s charming if deeply implicated former intelligence chief was murdered in Johannesburg by, she says, Rwandan agents after he, having fallen out of favour, had fled Rwanda, setting up an opposition organisation in exile. A “do not disturb” sign was hung outside the room by his killer as they left.

It was a murder that Kagame’s ministers publicly celebrated. Defence minister James Kabarebe told journalists at the time: “When you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog, and the cleaners will wipe away the trash so that it does not stink for them.”

Kagame denied involvement. “Rwanda did not kill this person – and it’s a big ‘no’,” he answered when asked by a western reporter. Yet he could not resist: “But I add that, I actually wish Rwanda did it. I really wish it.”

Kagame’s message to Rwanda’s domestic audience was different. He delivered it at a prayer breakfast in Kigali: “Whoever betrays the country will pay the price, I assure you,” he told a small crowd of dignitaries.

“Any person still alive who may be plotting against Rwanda, whoever they are, will pay the price,” Kagame said. “Whoever it is, it is a matter of time.”

Wrong claims it has not been an isolated incident, with opposition figures and critics – including in the UK – receiving warnings that their lives may be in danger, raising a question over why the UK is so supportive of a regime that Scotland Yard has had to provide protection against.

But even long before Karegeya’s murder, Wrong admits she was harbouring doubts about Kagame.

Members of the Rwanda National Congress opposition party
Members of the Rwanda National Congress hold pictures of slain party founder Patrick Karegeya, and posters of Paul Kagame bearing the words ‘wanted, war criminal’. Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty

It was the assassination in Kenya of Seth Sendashonga, a Hutu former interior minister in the government of national unity in Rwanda who had fallen out with the regime in Kigali, that was the first crack in her perception.

She recalls it as the day “when with a near-audible mental ping, I realised I no longer believed most of the key ‘truths’ upon which [Kagame’s RPF] built its account.”

“That was 1998. Early on. There were two attempts on his life and that made it impossible to pretend it was just random crime.

“It’s not what I expected the RPF to be doing. I remember the behind the scenes RPF counter-narrative to journalists and diplomats with friends in the movement was: ‘No! You have to understand, he’d gone abroad and he was mustering these former genocidaires. They were going to attack Rwanda. He’d gone over to the dark side.’”

But as Wrong points out, many, such as Karegeya and Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa, the exiled former Rwandan chief of staff (who also survived an attempt on his life in South Africa), were far from former genocidaires camped out in the forests of the neighbouring DRC, but among those once in Kagame’s most trusted inner circle.

“The people that Kagame really fears, the people he is reaching out across the globe to silence, intimidate, harass and kill are more often than not members of his own Tutsi elite.”

A Rwandan soldier
A Rwandan soldier stands by a poster of president Paul Kagame during a campaign rally. Photograph: Karel Prinsloo/AP

After four years researching and writing Do Not Disturb, what shocks Wrong is how, in the light of the public outcry over the attempted and successful assassinations carried out abroad by Russia and Saudi Arabia, criticism of Kagame has been at best tepid.

“It feels like it has been consequence-free. There’s been a very tactful diplomatic cover-up by Rwanda’s allies abroad.

“At the most there have been a very few court cases, with Patrick Karegeya’s inquest being the most prominent, with testimony showing the South Africans wanted to bury the story completely because it was the Rwandan government behind it.

“There have been massive consequences for the Russian targeting of [Sergei] Skripal and [Alexander] Litvenenko abroad yet Rwanda is just given a little scolding. There’s a double standard because Rwanda is seen as the good guys. Our friends. And they’re people we give an awful lot of aid to.”

All of which raises the question: why?

Wrong sees a mixture of vanity and lazy thinking, compounded by the west’s post-colonial habit of seeking to anoint favoured African leaders.

“It’s an old story. We always pick sides. Leaders are embraced and a blind eye turned to the atrocities. There’s a temptation to personalise and simplify, to choose good guys and bad guys.

“The other argument of Rwanda’s international supporters is that it’s a stabilising force, but the destabilising force in the Great Lakes for decades has been Rwanda, including the systematic pillaging of Congo’s minerals.”

Prince William meets Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame
Prince William and Paul Kagame meet at Buckingham Palace in January 2020 after the UK-Africa investment summit. Photograph: Victoria Jones/AFP via Getty

Wrong is highly critical of the role played by the aid and development sector, including that of the UK.

“There’s a development paradigm playing out in Rwanda which goes quite deep and it’s sinister. It’s this idea that the west can deliver development irrespective of what the local government is like and that you can strip the politics out of the development agenda by focusing on education, health, mosquito nets, vaccination rates.

“But the local politics are the only thing that matters. There’s something profoundly uncomfortable about insisting that a government which has a deteriorating human rights record and has committed egregious war crimes is a worthy recipient of aid because it performs well on aid metrics yet is busy killing journalists and rounding up and disappearing critics.”



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Climate crisis leaving ‘millions at risk of trafficking and slavery’ | Global development

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Millions of people forced to leave their homes because of severe drought and powerful cyclones are at risk of modern slavery and human trafficking over the coming decades, a new report warns.

The climate crisis and the increasing frequency of extreme weather disasters including floods, droughts and megafires are having a devastating effect on the livelihoods of people already living in poverty and making them more vulnerable to slavery, according to the report, published today.

Researchers from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and Anti-Slavery International found that drought in northern Ghana had led young men and women to migrate to major cities. Many women begin working as porters and are at risk of trafficking, sexual exploitation and debt bondage – a form of modern slavery in which workers are trapped in work and exploited to pay off a huge debt.

Boys at lathes turning aluminium pots
Children working in an aluminium pot factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Up to 85 million children work in hazardous jobs around the world. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty

One woman, who migrated to Accra from northern Ghana, used to farm until the land was ruined by flooding and she was forced to move. For seven years she has worked as a porter (kayayie), carrying items on her head.

She said: “Working as a kayayie has not been easy for me. When I came here, I did not know anything about the work. I was told that the woman providing our pans will also feed us and give us accommodation. However, all my earnings go to her and only sometimes will she give me a small part of the money I’ve earned.”

She dropped a customer’s items once and had to pay for the damage, which she could not afford. The woman in charge paid up on condition that she repay her. She added: “I have been working endlessly and have not been able to repay.”

A woman from Bangladesh
A woman from the Sundarbans in Bangladesh, who moved to Kolkata after a cyclone to support her family. Now she cannot return to home without her employer’s permission. Photograph: Somnath Hazra

In the Sundarbans, on the border between India and Bangladesh, severe cyclones have caused flooding in the delta, reducing the land available for farming. With countries in the region tightening immigration restrictions, researchers found that smugglers and traffickers operating in the disaster-prone region were targeting widows and men desperate to cross the border to India to find employment and income. Trafficking victims were often forced into hard labour and prostitution, with some working in sweatshops along the border.

Fran Witt, a climate change and modern slavery adviser at Anti-Slavery International, said: “Our research shows the domino effect of climate change on millions of people’s lives. Extreme weather events contribute to environmental destruction, forcing people to leave their homes and leaving them vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation and slavery.”

The World Bank estimates that, by 2050, the impact of the climate crisis, such as poor crop yields, a lack of water and rising sea levels, will force more than 216 million people across six regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and Latin America, from their homes.

The report is a stark warning to world leaders in advance of the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November and calls on them to make sure efforts to address the climate emergency also tackle modern slavery. The report says labour and migrant rights abuses are disregardedin the interests of rapid economic growth and development.

Ritu Bharadwaj, a researcher for the IIED, said: “The world cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking that’s being fuelled by climate change. Addressing these issues needs to be part and parcel of global plans to tackle climate change.”

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Putin faces test of popularity in Russian election

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Russians head to the polls on Friday for parliamentary elections in a test of authority for president Vladimir Putin, whose United Russia party is polling at a near-historic low of just 30 percent. There are few legitimate international observers, after the ODIHR, a Warsaw-based European monitoring body, declined to go because authorities refused to give them proper access. But some pro-Russian MEPs, such as France’s Thierry Mariani, are going anyway.

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‘It helped me get away from crime’: Cape Town’s College of Magic – a photo essay | Global development

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To fans of JK Rowling’s books, the story may sound somewhat familiar: a young boy living in difficult circumstances is enrolled in a mysterious school far from home, where his life is changed for ever by the transformative power of magic.

Anele Dyasi’s story is no fairytale, though, and the school in question is not Hogwarts, but the College of Magic in Cape Town, a unique institution that has been training some of the continent’s most skilled illusionists since the 1980s.

Confetti falls on performers from College of Magic at the end of a show at the Artscape theatre centre, Cape Town.
Jugglers from the College of Magic.
Emilie van den Hooyen, a performer and student at the College of Magic, has her face painted before a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.
Ayabonga Tshofui, a College of Magic student, has his face painted before a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.

Dyasi, who grew up in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha, where violent crime is rife and opportunities are few and far between, was 10 when the college began to train him in the ways of magic and sleight of hand. Within four years he was representing South Africa at magic competitions as far afield as Las Vegas and Beijing and had become a role model for a new generation of budding magicians.

Anele Dyasi.

“I think of it more as a college of life,” says Dyasi, now 23, and a teacher at the college. “It helped me get away from the crime and gangsterism.”

Dyasi says the most important things he learned in his six years as a student at the college had less to do with magic and more to do with self-confidence and effective communication: skills that he feels have left him in a good position to face life’s challenges.

Deyna Viret, a College of Magic student, practises a juggling routine in her dressing room ahead of a show at the Artscape theatre centre.
Illusionist Khanya Rubushe, a College of Magic student, before a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.

On this particular Saturday, clad in a flamboyant polka-dot blazer over a plain white T-shirt, he is teaching closeup card magic to a class of fifth-year students who scrutinise every move of his fingers as they try to figure out the trick. Outside the window, younger students are juggling with batons and doing circuits around the car park on unicycles.

Students practise outside the college

Less research has been done on the educational benefits of learning magic than other performing arts such as music, dance or circus. But the studies that do exist have linked it to physical and psychological benefits such as improved focus, a greater ability to solve problems and think laterally, better interpersonal skills, increased self-worth and an enhanced aptitude for teamwork.

David Gore, founder and director of the College of Magic.

“When we started out we never thought of all the spin-off benefits,” says David Gore, founder and director of the college. “We didn’t realise just how powerful magic was as a tool.”

The college’s students frequently give public performances at local venues, and Gore says he has observed how, within a matter of months, first-year students who arrived at the college shy and recalcitrant routinely end up being confident enough to perform on stage in front of hundreds of strangers.

Anele Dyasi enters the college dove coop

  • Above: Anele Dyasi enters the college’s dove coop. Right: students help each other prepare for a performance
    Below: a box of diabolos, batons and other juggling props, and face paints

College of Magic students Emilie van den Hooyen and Maelle Oudejans help each other get ready for a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.
Equipment used in magical and circus tricks lies in a box at the College of Magic.
Face paints on a table backstage during a performance.

Gore was just 19 when he and a colleague marched into the offices of a local newspaper wearing top hats and tailcoats and announced that they were starting a school for magicians. The newspaper published a story and before long 34 children had signed up. In the 40 years since, several thousand more students have come and gone through the hallways of the ramshackle Victorian mansion that houses the college.

A student juggles outside the college.
Students leave a classroom with walls covered with posters of illusionists.
Magic students walk downstairs after class.
Puppets, photographs and posters on the walls of the college

Built in the late 1800s, the building has a distinctively Hogwarts-esque feel, replete with crooked staircases, secret doorways hidden behind bookshelves, and a special enclosure for the rabbits and doves occasionally used in performances.

“It’s a lot more fun than my other school,” says Duma Mgqoki, a fourth-year student and aspiring magician, who says he enjoys wowing the other children in his neighbourhood with the tricks he learns at the college.

Duma Mgqoki practices a card trick.

While many of the college’s alumni have careers in magic and its associated arts, performing at children’s parties or corporate functions, or becoming TV entertainers, others say the college helped prepare them for a range of non-magical careers.

“Growing up, I went through a lot of trauma and depression. But here I felt free,” says Anela Gazi, a recent graduate of the college from Mfuleni township, who is starting her own shoe-cleaning company.

“This place prepared me for everything. It made me grow. It made me strong. I didn’t even know I could become the person I am now,” she says.

Anela Gazi.

  • ‘This place prepared me for everything. It made me grow. It made me strong,’ says Anela Gazi, a recent graduate

At the college, students from some of the city’s most underprivileged townships are learning alongside others from the wealthiest suburbs.

Twenty-seven years after the end of apartheid, Cape Town remains one of the world’s most divided cities, and many schools, indeed whole neighbourhoods, offer little in the way of ethnic diversity.

Students attend class.

“We believed what we were offering should be available to everyone, and we did that from day one,” says Gore, who flouted the laws of the apartheid regime in the 1980s by insisting on teaching multiracial classes.

The college operates as a nonprofit organisation, and helps to find sponsors to cover the fees of those who could not otherwise afford the courses. It also arranges transport to enable those from more distant areas to attend.

Performers from the College of Magic at the Artscape theatre centre, Cape Town.

“This is the rainbow nation,” says Dyasi after his class, pointing up at the building behind him. “We don’t judge each other here. Everyone is here to achieve the same thing: to become better magicians. It brings out the best in everyone.”

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