PEN Atlas Q&A: Anjan Sundaram

Journalist Anjan Sundaram talks to English PEN's Robert Sharp about his latest book, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, which describes the erosion of press freedoms in Rwanda, and how the absence of free speech leads to oppression and the 'transmission of trauma'.

You can listen to this exclusive English PEN podcast via the embedded audio player below. An edited transcript of part of the discussion is presented here.


The Rwanda you describe in your book is very Orwellian: the government seems able to do things that no-one believes have actually happened.

This book was in many ways an education for myself. To understand what becomes possible in a country when people and society are silenced.  It is terrifying, the extent to which people will go, out of fear of disobeying the government.

A Rwandan journalist told me that the government was conducting some sort of programme that was doing harm to people, and it wasn’t being reported. We went together to the countryside, far away from urban centres, and it was like walking through a war zone.

We walked through villages where the thatched roofs were down on the ground. The circular mud huts were open to the sky. It was the rainy season, so the mud walls were disintegrating. The people outside were sick with malaria and pneumonia; some of them were dying. In the few concrete houses people were crammed into rooms with goats and pigs. The surreal thing was that the grass roofs could have been put back up on the houses! I was shocked to see hundreds of people in this situation.

I asked them, ‘Who did this to you? Was it the army? Was it the police? Who tore down your roofs?’ And they said, ‘We did.’

What had happened was that the President [Paul Kagame] had said called these grass roofs ‘primitive’. And the local representatives in government were so terrified of the President that they went out to the villages and told the people, ‘The President has said these roofs are primitive, they need to come down.’

The people were so afraid – who were they going to speak up to? There were no journalists, there was no way to get the word out. So they had no choice but to comply. They went up onto their houses and they tore down their roofs. When they came down, the officials said: ‘We will let you know when the replacement houses are built.’ And so until then these people had to live in the open.

Here was a case of people doing harm to themselves on government orders, because there was no voice in society saying, ‘This is wrong, don’t tear down your own roofs until the government has built a replacement house, it’s common sense.’ There was a pastor in the East who did speak up, and he was promptly arrested for ‘threatening national security’.

This was when I realised the extent to which the government could control society. The echoes, the parallels with the genocide in Rwanda were impossible to ignore. In 1994, Rwandan society went out en masse to kill Tutsis and about 800,000 people were killed in three months. Society was doing itself harm on government instructions, because any voices that spoke up against the genocide, or spoke up against the tearing down of grass roofs, were silenced. People felt the only option for them was to comply.

Speaking of the genocide, there is another passage in the book where you meet some genocidaires. They come across as the most content people in the book!

These are people described in Rwanda as the incarnation of evil. During the genocide they killed many people in extremely gruesome ways. They had been in prison and now they were performing community service as punishment for what they had done.

When you actually go and speak to them, they come across as really having thought through what they have done. I think they are among the few people in Rwandan society who have had a chance to reflect and understand what made them kill.

I asked them what should have been done in Rwanda to prevent the genocide and they said, ‘We should have been taught human rights.’

And I thought that this was too practised an answer, so I ignored it. Then later one of the genocidaires came back to me and said, ‘You did not understand what I meant by “human rights”. What I mean is that we don’t understand where we begin as people and where the state ends.’ He put his hand over his head to show how the state came over them and consumed them. ‘If I don’t understand where I begin, if I don’t understand that I have rights, how am I supposed to understand that someone else has rights? If the state orders me to kill them I will kill them, because I don’t see them as whole people, and I don’t see myself as a person.’

Then you begin to realise the power of the state. You don’t find many people in Rwanda who have had a chance to think through their actions in this way, and to understand that they are people, and they have rights! You really have to begin with people understanding that they too have rights, and then they will naturally protect the rights of others. It is this dynamic that we have in free countries, where people understand that defending other people’s rights is part of defending their own rights.

And these genocidaires had come to this conclusion on their own, in prison. It was remarkable to talk to them!

You describe in the book how the President uses the genocide for political ends. How does he do that?

The genocide was an incredibly traumatic event that is still alive in Rwanda today.

To people in power that trauma can be useful. It becomes an easy way to control people. At some of the genocide memorial events, I would find children present, who hadn’t been born during the genocide.  They were crying, wailing, bawling, as though they felt the pain of the genocide. I met school teachers who complained that during the week of the genocide memorial the children become uncontrollable, because the government shows so many images of killing. Why would they do that?

At the national stadium, once a year, the President shows images of the genocide, and works people up into an emotionally vulnerable state. Then he walks into the stadium and he reminds everyone that he is their saviour, and that they are safe because of him. It is a very emotional and powerful way of controlling people.

Nothing is sacred when you are trying to hold onto and consolidate power. If an opportunity presents itself where people are vulnerable, power will use it. The Rwandan government does it with the genocide. They use that trauma to control people. The genocide memorials become centres where trauma can be transmitted.

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About the Author

anjan-sundaram-48427Anjan Sundaram is an award-winning journalist who has reported from Africa for the New York Times and the Associated Press. His writing on various countries in the continent has also appeared in Granta, the Observer, Foreign Policy, Politico, Fortune and the Washington Post. He graduated from Yale and received a Reuters journalism award in 2006 for his reporting on Pygmy tribes in Congo’s rain forest. His first book, Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo, was published to great critical acclaim in 2014. In 2015 he won a Frontline Club Award for print journalism for his piece ‘A Place on Earth: Scenes from a War’.

anjansundaram.com | @anjansun

Additional Information

Robert Sharp is English PEN’s Communications Manager.

robertsharp.co.uk | @robertsharp59

Banner photo by Graham Holliday.

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