Rwanda’s ex-UN ambassador lives in Alabama and works for a plastics company

Posted in Uncategorized by Ryan Locke on April 13, 2010

A fascinating article in the Washington Post:

In the spring of 1994, when the assassination of Rwanda’s president unleashed a horrific three-month genocide that would ultimately kill 800,000 people, Rwanda’s man at the United Nations assured the world’s diplomats that his government was not to blame.

By a coincidence of history, Rwanda held one of 10 rotating seats on the U.N. Security Council at the time, giving Jean Damascene Bizimana, the country’s 36-year-old ambassador, a place at the table for the council’s private deliberations. Bizimana, a rising star in Rwanda’s diplomatic corps, initially told his fellow ambassadors that the violence was due to spontaneous public outrage over the president’s death on April 6 and that the interim government he now represented would quickly reestablish order.

As violence escalated, he blamed rebel forces from the country’s Tutsi ethnic minority for all the trouble, insisting to the council on April 21 that the rebellion “must be made responsible for its attitude in wishing to continue hostilities, to perpetuate the current violence and to continue to perpetrate massacres.” In May, he voted against an arms embargo on Rwanda that every other member of the council supported.

However, in the weeks that followed, as the government’s direct responsibility for the mounting deaths became increasingly clear, Bizimana spoke out less and less. He became a “sullen and mostly silent” figure at Security Council meetings, and he “never showed the slightest sign of remorse about what was going on in his country,” former British ambassador David Hannay told me.

Shortly after the rebels captured the Rwandan capital in July and overthrew the extremist interim regime, the young ambassador disappeared. Diplomats from the incoming government who took over Rwanda’s U.N. mission on East 39th Street in Manhattan found the bank accounts empty and the offices stripped bare. Even the refrigerator and the stereo were gone.

He ends up moving to Opelika, Alabama–near Auburn University–becoming a US citizen, and now works as a quality control officer in a plant that makes plastic containers for food and pharmaceuticals.  The author tries to talk to him:

After about 10 minutes, Bizimana appeared in the lobby wearing a white lab coat and a hair net. We shook hands, and I explained that I was researching his role on the Security Council during the killings in Rwanda. He stared at my business card for a long while. Speaking quietly, he said that it was late on a Friday afternoon and that he had a meeting to attend. I offered to meet him outside of work hours, but he demurred. I explained what Gen. Dallaire had said about his role in assisting the regime, and invited him to respond. He shook his head.

Finally, Bizimana looked at me and said simply, “This has nothing to do with my current job.”

A few moments later, he turned and walked back through the double doors. He and his company have declined my interview requests since.

The interesting legal angle is in how Bizimana obtained his US citizenship.  He likely applied for asylum from the same genocide that he helped to hide from the international community.

Perversely, his most likely path to citizenship was through political asylum. U.S. law protects individuals with a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries by allowing them to become permanent residents, thus opening a path to citizenship. (Rwanda’s ambassador in Washington during the genocide, Aloys Uwimana, took that route.) Asylum proceedings are not public, so it is difficult to know whether Bizimana applied. Still, with the new government threatening to arrest him back in 1994, he would have had little difficulty showing that his life would be in danger in Rwanda.

However, asylum officers normally investigate applicants’ stories to find out whether they were involved in the persecution of others, which is grounds for denial of an application. So if he did seek asylum, Bizimana must have artfully minimized his official role in representing genocidal authorities.


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