When the Victors Tell the Story: The UN’s Victims in Rwanda, By: Captain Amadou Deme

A book review

By: Jennifer Fierberg

“History isn’t all fact–it’s just the story the victors tell to keep themselves in power. And it’s been a slow revision. The more time passes, the easier it becomes to reinvent the past.”

There is no lack of books written about Rwanda and specifically about the war that was started in 1990 by the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by now President Paul Kagame. Many books claim to hold the truth of this war, other seek to disprove truths that others find.  Unfortunately, none of these books will ever find their way onto the top of the New York Times bestseller list there remains a devoted  and strong, but small, audience who typically purchases every book in order to seek out the truth of what happened in Rwanda in 1994. However, few books have been written by those brave and dedicated souls who were on the ground in Rwanda during this perilous time.  The books written by survivors, victims of rape, the Australian Red Cross workers in Kibeho are some of the most powerful and life changing books written  about this time period. Firsthand accounting provides clear and contextual information of the nightmares experienced in broad daylight.  This growing genre of literature has a new addition as told by a UN Peacekeeper from Senegal who now resides in Canada, Captain Amadou Deme.

In his latest book, When the Victors tell the Story: The UN’s Victims in Rwanda, Captain Amadou Deme tells of his harrowing journey on the front lines of the most brutal and bloody war of the 20th century.  His 483-page book is broken up into eight chapters and is edited by Professor Peter Erlinder who was the lead defense counsel at the UN ICTR. The introduction in the book includes the confession of Dr. Theogene Rudasingwa, former Secretary General to President Paul Kagame, in which he writes about how President Kagame told Dr. Rudasingwa that he ordered the shooting down of the presidential plane, which sparked the start of 100 days of brutal war.  Dr. Rudasingwa is now the leader of the most powerful opposition group in the diaspora to Rwanda.

Captain Deme provides historical context of the situation and the struggles on the ground leading up to April 6. He annotates of his daily activities under the direction of Lt. General Romeo Dallaire and the duties he had to perform under the worst of circumstances.  This book is no easy read and it took much longer to finish it than planned. I found myself so angry at times and having to walk away from reading further for many weeks at a time. It was a struggle to finish. The struggle was not due to Deme and his writing but due to the truths he was exposing and the nightmares, he describes in details. He writes about how much he did not know until much later and the mistakes he made in regards to under estimating the RPF led by Paul Kagame.

Deme writes about the sights, the smells, the horrors and the personal toll that this position took on him. He accounts of the day President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, the reaction and confusion on the ground and how he was prevented from getting to the accident scene right away. Deme makes it clear in his book that only the RPF would benefit from shooting down the Presidential plane and to him it is clear the RPF is behind this act of international terrorism. Captain Deme clearly places the Rwandan Patriotic Front in the foreground of perpetrators of the worst crimes during those 100 days in 1994. He provides insights that only a first responder on the ground would have knowledge of.

 I found myself disagreeing with so many of his accountings but caught between the facts that Deme was on the ground and was writing what he saw. Furthermore, anger would surface when I would read accounts about U.S. Marine helicopters being on the ground in Burundi from April 8, 1994. Deme writes that, “Their arrival date in the Burundian capital is unknown but what is sure is that they had been there a few days before April 8.” He further asks, “Where were they stationed before Bujumbura? What was the nearest point in Africa the helicopters could have come from and how long had they been there?”  Most importantly he writes, “…why did the U.S. choose not to send Marines to Kigali, when their very presence would have been likely to stop much of the killing?” (pg. 279). He points out that the US had knowledge of what was going to happen in Rwanda before April 6th and that the U.S. supported the efforts of the RPF throughout the entire war. His realization of this fact obviously troubles him to this day.

 The book includes his personal pictures taken at the scene of the airplane crash as well as numerous declassified documents between the UN forces on the ground and New York, Washington and other agencies involved.  This book is a thorough accounting of before, during and after the war. IT is a comprehensive read from the point of view of a UN Peacekeeper. Many will disagree with his accountings but this book is written from his own perspective and realizations.

The sign of a good book is one that you struggle with, one that you fight against and one that forces you to look beyond yourself and your current beliefs into truths that become lies. This is that book.

In the conclusion of this book, Deme writes what I believe to be the purpose of the book entirely; he states that, “In retrospect, preventing arms and ammunition from reaching the RGF, while permitting unlimited arms and material to flow to the RPF though Uganda, was the ultimate lethal measure imposed by UNAMIR.” His conclusion goes on to state that, “…an existing conspiracy and plan to achieve the goal of putting the RPF in power. None of the witnesses in the whole process would fail to recognize that this was something done intentionally, which began long before April 6, 1994.” (pg. 445)

In wars like these, there is not a good side and a bad side. All players in this war made tragic mistakes and the actual outcome as to death totals and casualties remains an elusive number. No one specific organization will stand behind the number of lives lost during the early years of the war in 1990 when the RPF made their first unsuccessful invasion attempt from Uganda.  Heroes do emerge throughout the book including the late Captain Mbaye Diagne who died at the hands of the RPF. Captain Deme also conducted heroic acts in getting potential victims out of harm’s way by doing whatever he had to do to get them to the planes or convoys to get them out of Rwanda. He discusses countless others with great humility. One international hero that the world has come to know though his book, and later an award winning film, is Paul Rusesabagina of Hotel Rwanda; Captain Deme is clear that he does not believe Rusesabagina is a hero and that his book and movie do not portray the truth.

This book is essential reading to anyone who is interested in the events of Rwanda during this tumultuous time. Captain Deme writes from the heart and provides insight that no one but first responders on the ground can provide. This book is a difficult read but it is well worth the challenge. 

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