On Dec. 10, a NBC news camera crew barged into Dr. Leopold Munyakazi’s French classroom at Goucher College accompanied by a Rwandan prosecutor.
“They just rushed into my classroom with cameras everywhere,” says Munyakazi, 49.
The reporters asked the French professor how he responded to being charged with genocide in Rwanda.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Munyakazi replied.
Munyakazi says he refused to talk to the camera crew. The next morning news crews knocked on the door of his college-owned two-story brick house across the street from the campus in Towson, Md. He didn’t answer.
Then a reporter and prosecutor visited school authorities with two international arrest warrants and a 21-page indictment.
That’s when Goucher suspended the visiting professor with pay.
On Tuesday, Feb. 3, Munyakazi was arrested for overstaying his visa. He was released with a monitoring device and is now awaiting a hearing to see if he will be allowed to stay in this country, or forced to leave.
While he waits, he was asked not to step foot campus.
“The college placing Dr. Munyakazi on suspension is in no way condemning him, or justifying these allegations,” says Kristen Keener, director of media relations for Goucher College. The school has been swamped with reporters and camera crews the week after the news broke, she says. But, they are serious allegations, and if someone is accused of killing people, they can’t be on campus with students.
“The tricky thing is, the documentation is coming from a country that’s in upheaval,” Keener adds. “Anybody who’s been outspoken or critical of the government in power could be charged with things that have no basis in truth. That’s where things get really complicated.”
Scholar Rescue Fund
Nearly a million people were killed in the widely reported genocide in Rwanda. Munyakazi says he participated in no way and calls himself a moderate Hutu that wanted peace. “I protected people,” he says, adding that he would never harm a Tutsi. “My wife is Tutsi,” he says.
Because he opposed the government, Munyakazi says he was hunted himself. His family spent months in hiding, until he was arrested and incarcerated for five years. He applied for a passport and a visitor’s visa and came to the United States, where he immediately applied for asylum.
If sent back to his native Rwanda, Munyakazi believes he will be killed.
“I fled the country, but they are coming to harass me, to hunt me in exile,” Munyakazi says. “They want to muzzle me.”
Once in the United States, Munyakazi applied for work with the Scholar Rescue Fund. Part of the Institute for International Education, the fund provides fellowships to threatened academics around the world.
There are currently 26 scholars representing 13 countries living in the United States. In addition to Rwanda, those participating in the program come from China, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Nepal, Zimbabwe, Syria, Sri Lanka, as well as other countries where these academics say they faced persecution and lacked intellectual freedom.
A variety of U.S. public ands private universities and colleges are hosting these senior academics. Since 2002, 267 scholars from 40 countries have received fellowships similar to Munyakazi.
The professor’s problems started after he gave talks in October 2006. A linguist, he proposed that “genocide” was the wrong word to describe the violence in Rwanda. He suggested that “fratricide” was a better word, because Rwandans are all one people; they weren’t trying to stamp out an entire ethnic group. “It was brothers killing brothers for political power,” he says. “We have the same culture, the same religion, they share everything. They constitute one people.”
The Rwandan government now accuses Munyakazi of trying to negate the genocide, and also says he allegedly participated in it killing many, many people.
Allegations he vehemently denies.
“I protected people,” he says.
But giving talks in the United States, he feels, made him a target.
“As soon as that happened, it seemed like the Rwandan government went after him,” says Dr. Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education in a phone interview from Cairo. The organization runs the Scholar Rescue Fund, which placed Munyakazi at Goucher College.
“At the end of the day what we do in the Scholar Rescue Fund is try to preserve academic freedom so that scholars can think and speak freely. Not all scholars are popular or hold popular views,” he says. And Munyakazi is definitely unpopular with the Rwandan government.
As soon as the news broke about the charges against Munyakazi, “we immediately began investigating,” Goodman says. “We have been unable to find any evidence to confirm a single thing in the Rwandan prosecutor’s document. I hope we’ll be able to put somebody into the field fairly soon so they might interview people. But, so far, we have found nothing to back up what the Rwandan document is claiming.”
Munyakazi keeps the Rwandan documents in a binder on his coffee table. They’re shocking to read. The first arrest warrant, dated Nov. 10, 2006 charges Munyakazi with genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide and also negation of genocide— the latter because of a talk he gave on Oct. 25, 2006 at the University of Delaware where Munyakazi “rudely minimized” genocide in Rwanda, according to the documents.
The warrant says: “Dr. Munyakazi is responsible for a number of massacres and serious bodily and mental harm caused to members of the Tutsi.”
The second warrant, dated Sept. 18, 2008, goes into more detail. The indictment, dated Oct. 20, 2009, lists seven charges including: genocide; complicity in genocide; conspiracy to commit genocide; murder; extermination; formation; membership and leadership of people who participated in genocide; and negation of genocide.
“They are forging and fabricating false crimes,” Munyakazi tells Diverse. “They just want to mess with me.”
‘We just ran away’
At his home, Munyakazi seems like a gentleman. He shuffles around his house wearing socks with flip flops, makes hot tea with milk and extra sugar for guests, and dotes on his children. “Come in my friend,” he says when his son arrives home from school. Later he helps his daughter remove a Fruit Loop necklace and open a puzzle box.
Munyakazi says he earned his doctorate from the University of Nice in southern France, then returned to his native country to teach at the University of Rwanda. He later became secretary general of the Federation for Rwandan Unions. He wanted peace, which unleashed a governmental war against him, he says.
“I was considered an opponent,” he says. “The government did everything to force me to resign … Since it was wartime, I considered it wiser to just go away; there was serious risk of being killed.”
Munyakazi says that after the militia burned his house, his family went into hiding — criss-crossing the country and the Congo, hiding with friends and family.
“I was hunted,” he says. “We ran. We just ran away.”
Munyakazi says that after Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was executed in 1994, he attended a reconstruction of Rwanda conference. He says intelligence agents asked him to testify about his experiences, then arrested him. No one would tell him why he was arrested, or what he was charged with. But he was incarcerated for five years.
“I was not even told the crime I was accused of,” he says.
He has a copy of the charges from when he was released. They are the same crimes he’s being charged with now: Genocide.
“This has already happened,” he says. “They pretend it is a new case.”
After his first arrest, Munyakazi claims the prosecutor could not find any evidence that he killed anyone. He was released in August 1999. He has pieces of paper that he says are petitions signed by neighbors (but most of the paperwork he has isn’t written in English, but in Kinyarwanda, a Bantu language spoken primarily in Rwanda).
Munyakazi stayed in Rwanda five years after he was released from prison. He came to the United States in 2004 and applied for asylum. It wasn’t granted.
Munyakazi applied for an appeal. He says the United States hasn’t responded.
“The reasons why he applied for asylum are real. They are not fabricated,” says Anastace Gasana, the former minister of foreign of affairs for Rwanda, and ambassador to the United Nations. He says he’s known Munyakazi almost 30 years, since they worked together at the University of Rwanda. “They will kill him. That’s it … ,” says Gasana who is now a refugee living in North Carolina. “When they get him. They will kill him. That’s for sure. He needs help.”
Life in limbo
Right now, Munyakazi sits in his house and waits.
“What can I do? I’m stuck here,” he says. “I can’t work. I came here for working. I can’t go to campus. I am a teacher. How can I get a position in education now in the middle of the year?”
He stays in the house. He reads. He talks on his cell phone to friends. He hopes.
The next step for him is a hearing before an immigration court judge.
If the judge doesn’t grant Munyakazi’s asylum, he doesn’t necessarily have to go back to Rwanda. He could request that the United States send him to a different country, immigration officials say.
The thought of returning to his home country is unacceptable.
“I can’t go back to Rwanda,” he says.
He pulls up the blue, Izod button down shirt he is wearing to show his stomach. “I have scars on my belly. Look,” he says. “This is from hot nails. Hot nails.”
“I can’t go back there,” he says. “I can’t. No.”
So what will he do now?
“I wait,” he says.
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