Dutch University Slanders Genocide Hero

Photo Credit :  Elley Ho

Wolfgang Blam saved lives during the genocide in Rwanda, while the rest of the world looked the other way. This hero is now depicted as a charlatan by students of VU University in Amsterdam.

Twenty-five years ago, the ‘Innocence’-project was launched in New York, set up to help the victims of miscarriages of justice in America. Since then, hundreds of wrongly convicted people have been released. This success led to similar initiatives in other countries. An example from the Netherlands is the student project ‘Reasonable Doubt’ at the Vrije Universiteit (VU University) in Amsterdam.

The most recent project of ‘Reasonable Doubt’ is the case of Joseph Mpambara. Mpambara is serving a life sentence in the Netherlands for his part in the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda by Hutu-extremists, and for terrorising a German-Rwandan family during the same period. The results of the research were published in the book A Rwandese House of Cards (in Dutch: Een Rwandees Kaartenhuis).


Unlike the ‘Innocence’-Project, ‘Reasonable Doubt’ does not search for new evidence to prove the innocence of the convicted person. In this case the students are mainly limited to analyzing the judicial files, as provided by the former defence lawyer of Mpambara. The students received additional information from a handful of other lawyers of genocide suspects, and from Mpambara himself. The postscript of the book was written by one of the advisers: Mpambara’s current lawyer.

This guidance from interested parties reveals a major weakness of the book. The VU-students criticize the manner in which the criminal investigations were carried out by the Dutch authorities, but they forget to contact those responsible. The only government official who is listed as a source tells me by phone that the information he provided is largely ignored in the book.

No independent genocide experts or victim associations were contacted either. The logical consequence is that many questions remain unanswered, forcing the students to speculate. A risky approach. “It’s a useful book with a lot to learn from, but hardly scientific,” says Martin Witteveen, an examining judge who has interrogated dozens of witnesses in Rwanda. “Much of its content is open to question. It’s more like a plea that was never made.”

Whether this plea is sincere remains to be seen, however, as several of the advisers of the project are controversial. One of the lawyers has infuriated Africa-experts by referring to Tutsi- witnesses as “vampires” and to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) as “the International Hutu Meat Mill.”

A few years ago another one disturbed an international art project about the genocide. And a third source was heavily criticized by Genocide Watch last summer for denying the genocide.

So, in addition to the vested interests of the consulted lawyers, these sources display some dubious sentiments that will not have contributed to the objectivity of their information either. No compassion

It is unclear why the VU-students accepted the Mpambara case. The book states that Mpambara has always denied his role in the genocide against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda, but he also claims that he had not been aware of ethnically motivated killings, only of skirmishes with rebels in his area. The District Court in The Hague regarded this “cynical denial” of the genocide as a blatant lie and contempt for reality.

There is a lot to be said for this harsh judgment, because the genocide couldn’t have been clearer in Mpambara’s home region. His village is situated on the border of two Communes (local councils), Gishyita and Rwamatamu, where 26 percent and 20 percent of the total population, respectively, were killed. The war with the rebels, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), never reached this part of the country and cannot possibly serve as an explanation for the violence.

According to witness statements at the ICTR, Mpambara’s family provided shelter to soldiers and militia members during the genocide. Mpambara himself has been identified in several ICTR cases as one of the perpetrators, and as one of the leaders of a meeting where attacks on Tutsis were planned. Although the book suggests otherwise, those statements date back to years before the Netherlands had started their criminal investigation against him.

A Rwandan House of Cards ignores all these aspects. The apologetic attitude towards Mpambara is even more remarkable if we consider that the students have read the verdict of 2009, which states “[…] that the defendant had remarked in the courtroom that the court should not only ask whether Hutus killed the Tutsis but also ‘what the Tutsi had done to deserve death’.” The judges concluded that Mpambara’s statements can only be understood as a continued adherence to the anti-Tutsi ideology. Two years later, the Court of Appeal confirmed this by noting that Mpambara had not withdrawn his extremist remarks and still did not show any compassion towards the victims.

Slandered heroes

The witnesses who have testified against Mpambara cannot count on the same leniency in the book The VU-students target the witnesses from Rwanda, but also a German doctor who is given the pseudonym “Bauer”. In reality, this witness is Dr Wolfgang Blam, who was working for the German Development Organisation (DED) in Rwanda when the genocide began. According to the Court of Appeal in The Hague, it has been legally proven that Dr Blam and his Rwandan wife Jacqueline Mukandanga were held captive by Mpambara – and terrorised by him – on 27 April 1994. But the VU-students do not trust the story. They even suspect the German doctor of having falsified a letter used as documentary evidence. A handwriting analysis has refuted this suggestion, but the motive Blam might have had for framing Mpambara, the book does not tell.

The remarkable story of doctor Blam is well known from publications by historians and human rights organisations. He was employed at the hospital of Kibuye, a town in western Rwanda, when the genocide started in early April 1994. A few days later, when all the foreigners were

evacuated, Blam stayed behind together with his wife and child, because he was already hiding ten people by then.

Together with his colleague Dr. Leonard Hitimana, Blam defied the extremist militias for weeks. The doctors collected injured victims in the streets, concealed entire families and supplied threatened refugees with the most basic necessities. After a massacre in a school, Blam managed to save a couple of children who had been left for dead in a huge pile of dismembered corpses.

But despite their brave resistance, the doctors were powerless when they were forced to stand by when the militias finally captured and slaughtered people they had saved before. Three weeks later virtually all Tutsis in Kibuye were dead. When the personal threat to the family became untenable, they tried to flee. Guarded by a gendarme, they set out in the hospital ambulance towards the border with Congo.

They did not get very far. The ambulance was stopped at a roadblock in Mugonero, the village of Mpambara, who, according to Blam, acted as the leader of the local militia. Blam suspected it was a trap, set for them by the prefect of Kibuye. Although the latter had issued a travel permission to get to the border, they recognized a militiaman from Kibuye at the roadblock. The man disappeared shortly after their arrest.

The couple and their two months old baby were taken to the store of Mpambara’s father, where Jacqueline was subjected to death threats and insults for several hours. The brave gendarme prevented worse. Hours of negotiations followed, until Mpambara sent the driver of the ambulance with a letter to Charles Sikubwabo, the Mayor of Gishyita, asking him to come and decide on the fate of Jacqueline.

Unexpectedly, the reply of Sikubwabo saved her life. “Send them back to Kibuye because we do not know if they are officially married,” the Mayor wrote on the back of the letter. “We shall carefully examine the matter of this woman. We can check the records. Be careful not to damage the relationship with Germany.”

The “wrong” Mayor

The VU-students are very sceptical about this story. They are especially puzzled by the correspondence between Mpambara and Sikubwabo, the Mayor of Gishyita. Mpambara’s store was not located in Gishyita, but just across the Communal border in Rwamatamu. In the minds of the students, this meant that the letter had been addressed the wrong mayor, a mistake that Mpambara – or any other Rwandan citizen – would not have made.

The mystery of the “wrong” Mayor is nevertheless easily solved. Jacqueline was registered in Gishyita, not in Rwamatamu. The outcome of the negotiations with Mpambara depended on whether Jacqueline and her child should be considered as ordinary Tutsis, or as members of a German family. Only the Mayor of her native Commune was in a position to decide on this matter.

Shortly after the incident in Mugonero, Dr Hitimana – Blam’s colleague – paid Sikubwabo a visit to arrange a marriage certificate for the couple, which supports this interpretation. Incidentally, Sikubwabo, a former soldier and a powerful militia leader, did not restrict his activities during the genocide to the boundaries of his Commune.

The misunderstandings about the Mugonero-incident are not yet finished. The students conclude the story with this critical remark: “An interview with Léonard [Hitimana] might have produced clues about the identity of Pierre [the driver] and the gendarme and their place of residence. It is unknown why Léonard was never questioned.”

There is an obvious answer to this problem as well. Doctor Hitimana has been missing since 2003. The circumstances of his disappearance have never been cleared up, but may very well have a political background as he was a member of parliament at the time. The Dutch police investigators did not arrive in Rwanda until 2006. This, of course, ruled out the possibility of questioning Hitimana.

False statements

The misunderstandings about Dr Blam are typical for the gaps in the students’ research, although the information is not that difficult to fin