Haunting images provide impetus for professor’s recent book

A 1996 visit to the Mugunga refugee camp in eastern Zaire brought Allan Thompson face to face with one of the painful legacies of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. “I came upon a massacre site. The 20 men, women and children who had been killed looked very much like those who been slaughtered two years earlier,” he recalls.

At the time, Thompson, who is now the supervisor of graduate studies at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, was working as a Toronto Star reporter. He was covering the exodus from Zaire of Hutu refugees who had fled Rwanda at the end of the 1994 genocide.

The haunting images of those bodies, he says, made him realize that he and much of the rest of the international media had not only missed the story of the Rwandan genocide, but in fact had contributed to events in Rwanda because the lack of media coverage effectively granted impunity to the killers. “Why didn’t I understand what was going on and write about it?”

Just over a decade after that first encounter, Thompson has published The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, an edited collection of essays that was sparked by an international conference on the media and the genocide, held at Carleton in 2004. The book is the first to analyze the roles played by the local and international media during the genocide and Thompson is now on an international book tour that included the official Canadian launch held at Carleton on February 7.

Senator Romeo Dallaire, the former commander of UN peacekeepers in Rwanda and one of the books contributors, has been a vocal critic of the international community’s failure to act in 1994. He says that Thompson’s book is one instrument that can help people understand the magnitude of the media’s impact in an era of global communications and intra-state conflicts.

“I want Rwanda to be a calling card of how we permitted humanity to abandon humanity, and how a sense of responsibility should be far more in evidence, particularly by the developed world,” he states.
The book is just one positive outcome the Rwanda Initiative, a program that Thompson has been spearheading since 2004. The initiative is a journalism partnership between Carleton and the National University of Rwanda, and during the first phase, Thompson and nearly a dozen other veteran journalists and journalism educators traveled to Rwanda to take up positions as visiting lecturers in 2006.

On February 1, just days before the launch of Thompson’s book, Carleton announced that Canwest Global Communications Corp. would be supporting the second phase of the initiative. Canwest Global’s participation has already enabled the project to send four more journalism teachers to the central African country since February, with more to come. In addition, for the first time the Rwanda Initiative has hired a journalist in Africa to work as a visiting lecturer in Rwanda and will be placing some teachers in Rwanda on extended, six-month assignments.
Thompson is pleased with what the initiative has been able to accomplish so far. “Rwanda is still haunted by the genocide,” Thompson says. “But there’s a real effort to get beyond that and rebuild the country.”

Readers interested in finding out more about the Rwanda Initiative can visit the website at www.RwandaInitiative.ca. Thompson has also been posting a book tour blog to his personal website at www.allanthompson.ca.

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