O would some Power the gift give us/To see ourselves as others see us!” exclaimed Oak Park author Stephen Kinzer, quoting the Scottish poet Robert Burns.
Kinzer, a former international correspondent for the New York Times who moved to Oak Park in 2000, was speaking at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Forest Park, June 17. Often boyishly exuberant when talking about his new book on Rwanda, A Thousand Hills, he gestured with his hands above his head and feigned pulling at his hair.
Kinzer said he loves two things about international reporting-being in new places around lives different from his, and having his ideas proven wrong by facts. After quoting Burns, he exclaimed: “How wonderful it is to have stereotypes subverted by real life!”
The experience of writing this book, Kinzer said, had changed his view of the United Nations and international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). For a long time, he thought these groups were angels. “My work in Rwanda has definitely soured me on that entire constellation,” he said in an interview last week. “I see how cynical the UN is; I see what negative effects NGOs can have in foreign countries. It’s been a real eye-opener for me.”
In the new book, Kinzer has attempted to correct readers’ misconceptions about Rwanda, known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” hence the title. When many Americans think of the tiny African country, they immediately recall the Don Cheadle film, Hotel Rwanda, and the horrific 1994 genocide.
“My view is that Rwanda is not a genocide; it’s a country,” Kinzer said. “This may be one of the first books not focused on the genocide. The [genocide] story is in there but not at the center of the book.”
Kinzer became interested in doing a book about Rwanda after hearing how excited people in Africa and in the international development community were about the country’s prospects for economic growth and poverty reduction, and about its president, Paul Kagame. President Bush came to Rwanda in April and heaped praise on its leader. The Bill Clinton and Bill Gates foundations have both started projects in Rwanda and are enthusiastic about its potential. In addition, Kinzer said that Paul Farmer, the Harvard doctor profiled in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, has shifted some of his attention from Haiti to Rwanda because Kagame’s government is easier to work with. A Harvard Business School report last year said that Rwanda may be on its way to becoming the “Switzerland of Africa.”
Kagame forcefully pushes his economic development program and fights corruption and crime, with Asian tiger economies like South Korea as his model. “What Kagame is trying, above all, is to pull Rwanda out of poverty. This is his obession,” writes Kinzer in A Thousand Hills. To do that, Kagame makes vigorous use of his power, all the while rejecting most foreign assistance.
One of the author’s favorite stories about Kagame is the president’s crackdown on the plush cars of Rwanda’s government officials. He sent police to the main intersections of Kigali and ordered them to follow government ministers to their offices, where the ministers’ cars were confiscated.
“This electrified people in Africa,” Kinzer said, “because taking away the cars of the government officials has huge symbolic importance. What it means is, ‘We’re not dominating you; we’re not a new class of people oppressing you.’ That has really opened the eyes of many people in Africa, and has led them to say, ‘We need a Kagame here.'”
Besides trying to eliminate corruption and poverty, Kagame aggressively fights crime believing, “If you don’t have security, you have nothing,” Kinzer said.
The president’s efforts have paid off. According to Kinzer, Kigali is the only place in Africa where a woman can walk at night with a laptop computer over her shoulder and feel safe.
‘We are all Rwandans’
Despite his successes, Western human rights experts from organizations like Human Rights Watch believe that Kagame unnecessarily curbs individual rights. Rwanda is “the sharpest case on earth where the development community and the human rights community are completely at odds,” Kinzer said.
Kagame has taken away civil liberties in the name of stability and poverty reduction, especially regarding the 1994 genocide. For example, Rwandans are not allowed to use the words Hutu and Tutsi, the names of the country’s major ethnic groups. “We are all Rwandans now” is the government’s motto.
But some critics say Rwandans do not all have equal membership in the country. Paul Rusesabagina, the inspiration for Don Cheadle’s character in Hotel Rwanda, told Kinzer that Kagame’s government is a “pure and simple dictatorship.” He added that “any Hutu who can be an opposition leader, any Hutu who can plan, any Hutu who can implement a plan, any Hutu who is an intellectual or a businessman-always this is seen as a threat.”
Many human rights workers have similar criticisms. “The justice system is completely skewed,” said Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch, who is quoted in Kinzer’s book. “You have 818,000 Hutu accused of genocide and no one accused of war crimes. When you ask the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front, the army Kagame founded] about that, they say, ‘We’ve taken care of all the war crimes charges; it’s all done.’ It leads to the idea of a ‘double genocide,’ the feeling that what the Tutsi did was worse than what the Hutu did.”
Kagame does not take these criticisms lightly. Kinzer wrote in a recent edition of the Los Angeles Times that after Human Rights Watch alleged 20 Rwandans had died in police custody, Kagame retorted that the authors of the report had “probably consumed drugs.”
Kinzer treats the trade-off between freedoms and stability as an open-ended question. He doesn’t like to reach final conclusions in his books, he said, preferring to let each reader come up with his own answer.
“What’s more important?” he asks. “To have the sense your country is progressing, your children might be able to live in a home with electricity and running water … or to live in a society where you can say whatever you want and vote the leaders out whenever you want?”
Many of the Rwandans and foreigners living in Rwanda that Kinzer interviewed think highly of Kagame.
“You don’t find many Rwandans who believe that the press should be freer in Rwanda or that there should be a more open political system in Rwanda,” he said. “What you find is that people want work, food, security and hope for a better life. There’s a great sense of enthusiasm and limitless possibility in Rwanda, and you find that in very few other developing countries.”
The former journalist is clearly concerned with balance in his book, devoting ample space to criticisms of Kagame from people like Des Forges. But he has formed an opinion about how best to govern Rwanda.
“I do think that opening up the political system completely there might well lead to another genocide,” he said. “It’s a very volatile situation. A single misstep could produce a tragedy of biblical proportions.”
So Kagame’s government makes sense in the context of the 1994 genocide, which resulted in the deaths of around a million people. In addition to writing about the promise of today’s Rwanda in A Thousand Hills, Kinzer tells the stories of the genocide and Kagame’s long rise to power.
“My books are all stories; you can follow them; they have a narrative line,” Kinzer said. “I don’t write theoretical overviews. They’re always page-turners-you want to know what happens next-and I’m very conscious of keeping my books that way.”
Another theme that unites many of Kinzer’s books is foreign intervention. Rwanda under Kagame is self-reliant and nationalist. But, Kinzer notes, it could have been different. Rwanda’s neighbor, Somalia, where the United States intervened in the early 1990s, is still struggling. Foreign powers, on the other hand, did not intervene in Rwanda on a large scale even during its genocide.
Kinzer believes if Western nations had intervened, “What would have happened afterward is a cobbling together of some very bogus or weak government, placed under neocolonial rule of international institutions, like in Bosnia or Kosovo.” Kagame and economic progress would likely never have happened. “It’s only because the world did not intervene that Rwanda is now able to say we’re running this country ourselves, and we don’t care what the outside world says,” Kinzer said.
But even with Rwanda’s unexpected prosperity, Kinzer believes the United States and allies should have intervened to stop the massive genocide.
“Rwanda would have gone on being poor forever, but you would have saved a million lives, which is more important,” he said. “With 5,000 troops, we could’ve stopped the whole thing. We didn’t really understand that at the time. We kept hearing these phrases like ‘tribal violence’ or ‘ancient hatreds,’ and that seems to fit into our stereotypes of what’s always happening in Africa. The genocide could definitely have been stopped with a relatively small application of force, and I wish it had been.”
Chronicling the world
Kinzer is not accustomed to advocating an American intervention. He has made his career telling the stories of catastrophic CIA coups in books like Bitter Fruit about Guatemala; All the Shah’s Men about Iran; and Overthrow, on the past century of American adventures in regime change. Above his desk are 1950s Time magazine covers featuring the deposed leaders of Guatemala and Iran, Jacobo Arbenz and Mohammed Mosaddeq.
There are artifacts from Kinzer’s travels around the world in every room of his house-Costa Rican chairs; paintings from Bulgaria, India, and Rwanda; calligraphy from Turkey; pre-Colombian artifacts over a thousand years old; rugs from Bosnia, Georgia, Turkey and Armenia; a shard of an American cruise missile that blew up the Iraqi labor ministry in 1998.
During over two decades at the New York Times, Kinzer covered over 50 countries. From Germany, where he met his wife, Marianne, he reported on the emergence of post-Communist Europe and the wars in Yugoslavia, and from Turkey, he covered new nations in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Several years ago, Kinzer tired of being “the slave of events” and broke out of “the prison of objectivity.”
“I have not regretted leaving the New York Times for one day,” he said. “The newspaper business is going to hell anyway. I probably couldn’t do today all those things that I used to do. When I was living in Istabul, I would send a note to the foreign desk, saying, ‘I’m going to Uzbekistan for 15 days, there’s nothing particular happening there, but I’m going to write you some great stories about what life is like in Uzbekistan.’ You couldn’t do that now.”
As American newspapers are cutting foreign correspondents, the World Wide Web is becoming more important. “The Internet democratizes news coverage,” Kinzer said. “That broadens the opportunity for readers to learn more about the world, and for people who want to go out and report on the world. The downside is that you really don’t know whose stuff you’re reading.”
He hopes that, someday, companies like Yahoo and Google might employ foreign correspondents because “it would be a way for them to use their distribution resources to provide a service that, because of the decline in the economic model of newspapers, newspapers are less and less able to provide.”
In the meantime, Kinzer said, the decline in international news coverage is “distressing,” and Americans continue to couple “ignorance with an intense drive to intervene everywhere.”
Fairness over objectivity
Kinzer left the New York Times in part because of its coverage of America’s most recent intervention. “I was disturbed at the role of the press and my own newspaper in promoting the Iraq War project,” he said. “It wasn’t just my discomfort with what the newspaper was doing, but as a reporter who needed to maintain what was called ‘objectivity,’ I was not able to complain. I found that very disturbing, and I didn’t want to be in that position again. I thought to myself, ‘If there’s ever a time when the U.S. is involved in a huge crisis with a country I happened to know something about, I want to be able to speak about it, to share the benefits of the experiences I’ve had.'”
Sooner than he expected, relations with Iran worsened. Kinzer spent time in Washington meeting with members of Congress as “a lobbyist for myself” and toured the country giving talks in February and March. He has also met with local politicians like Congressman Danny Davis (D-7th), and is involved with anti-war groups in the Chicago area.
In addition to activism, Kinzer began writing more books, and now teaches courses at Northwestern on journalism and the history of American interventionism. In the fall, he’ll teach a course on interventions and give a series of speeches at Dominican University in River Forest.
Even with his new activities, Kinzer remains an active foreign correspondent, though he is more selective. He covers the countries he cares most about, such as Nicaragua and Turkey. In the fall, an updated version of Crescent and Star, his book on Turkey, will be published. He also writes a world affairs column twice a month for the British newspaper The Guardian, where he can “spout off opinions.” And in the coming months, he plans to continue writing newspaper and magazine articles about the conflict between human rights and international development in Rwanda.
Instead of objectivity, Kinzer now strives for “fairness.” He takes his motto from the Declaration of Independence: “let Facts be submitted to a candid world.” American foreign policy, he said, is split between realists and fantasists. He says he’s neither a polemicist nor an ideologue: “I’m trying to bring American foreign policy back to this anchor in reality,” he said.
Kinzer is not afraid to be pessimistic. If we don’t close the gap between rich countries like the United States and poor countries like Rwanda, he said, “there will be turmoil.” Africa is in vogue today in the United States, he said, “maybe because it’s one of the last places in the world where people don’t hate us, where there’s actually a chance for America to work with countries.”
Americans don’t always realize their responsibility as citizens of a superpower, Kinzer said. But he gives Oak Parkers high marks for their international acumen.
“I think Oak Park is quite cosmopolitan,” he said. “When I give talks about the world in and around Oak Park, people turn out, and they seem very interested.”
When he became the Times’ national culture correspondent in 2000, he was stationed in the Chicago area. He grew up on Cape Cod, he says, and “hardly knew Chicago was there.” After doing some research, he narrowed the search down to Evanston and Oak Park.
He flew in from Istanbul on a Saturday, looked at houses, made an offer and closed on Sunday night-then flew back to Istanbul.
His small red brick house with white trim looks like a transplanted piece of New England. It was featured as a “house of the month” in a magazine in the 1940s.
“Oak Park is a lovely town,” he says, “with a family-friendly environment. We’ve been very happy.”
The Oak Park Public Library staff has helped Kinzer with international research. Kinzer, who read every book on Rwanda in English while researching A Thousand Hills, estimates he’s gotten over 100 books through the library, some from other states.
The author has spoken with people from around the world who are envious of American power. “A single member of Congress can sometimes have more influence over the fate of another country than the president of that country,” he said. “I’ve had people tell me in other countries that they wish they could vote in presidential elections in the United States because that election has more influence on their lives than voting in their own country.”
Kinzer believes his fellow Oak Parkers take this power seriously. “Any place where people are aware of this opportunity we have as Americans and want to take advantage of it,” he said, “is a place where I feel comfortable.”