Ambassador Prudence Bushnell was deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs at the US State Department during the Rwandan genocide and was responsible for the day-to-day handling of the crisis. She has also served as the ambassador to the Republic of Kenya (1996–99) and Guatemala (1999–2002).
In this video, she reflects on her experiences when she was tasked with calling Colonel Theoneste Bagosora, one of the lead genocidaires, to tell him to stop the killing of civilians in Rwanda.
Michael Dobbs: Okay, well tell us about some of those telephone calls. I mean you called Bagosora, you called the chief of staff of the Rwandan army, you called Kagame, the head of the RPF. I mean describe the telephone call to Bagosora for example. This is on April the 29th: “DAS Bushnell tells Colonel Bagosora to stop the killing.”
Bushnell: I know, that’s the thing. I mean “Hi, hallo, bonjour, comment ça va?...”
Dobbs: How did you get his number, by the way? How did you call him, typically, what were the logistics of it?
Bushnell: The...I would call him from the kitchen, I had a wall phone in the kitchen of our home in Reston, Virginia. I got the number from either David Rawson or Bob Flaten, but the embassy people had his number. [Makes clicking noises as if using a telephone.] I would punch it in. And it got to the point after a few calls that his secretary recognized my voice.
Dobbs: This is in the middle of the night?
Bushnell: Washington time. So I would get up at two in the morning because it was eight o’clock, right. I did it because I wanted to get him “before his day got on,” as awful as that sounded. And his ADC would get on the phone, “Ah, bonjour madame! Comment ça va?” I mean, oh God, “Fine! ça va. Now, may I please speak to your Colonel." And they probably...
Dobbs: Had you met him before?
Bushnell: No. I still have not met him.
Dobbs: But did he know who you were?
Bushnell: No, some crazy lady. I know that’s pretty much what General Dallaire thought. “Who is this crazy woman who keeps calling?” Um, can I take a step back and explain why I was calling?
Bushnell: Alright, this goes back to when I was in Kigali in March of ‘94, two weeks before the plane went down. I went from Rwanda to Burundi. In Burundi, the violence had started up again and people in Bujumbura were being killed. The strategy that the embassy came up with was to have me go on TV and radio and tell the Burundian military and government to stop killing people, because they don’t kill when foreigners are in town. It worked.
I have to tell you it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, to go on radio and say “Stop killing” and the next day have people come up to me and say, “Oh my God, were you the woman who said stop killing? Because it worked!” So the strategy that I was using was: Shine the spotlight. Maybe if we shine the spotlight, since we can't do anything else, it will cause people to take pause before they go off and slaughter another human being. It then moved from not just the spotlight but “naming and shaming.” And it was in the context of calling somebody directly to say, “I know what you’re doing. Don’t think we don’t know and don’t think we don’t know what your name is and we want you to stop,” as a political strategy. And that is what I would do. And on one conversation we had, the most ridiculous, was when I said, “Stop the killing…”
Dobbs: And who are you talking to…?
Bushnell: This is to Bagosora, in the middle of the night. “Stop the killing.” [Bagosora responded,] “Oh oui madame, you don’t understand, there is a civil war going on here, and we do not have the forces to stop the spontaneous uprising of the people,” was how he called it. “Well, at least stop the hate radio.” [Bagosora responded,] “Oh oui madame, we are a democracy, we believe in freedom of the press.” That is how ridiculous, or bizarre, our conversations were. I will say, I also, just let me finish, in that conversation, I advised Bagosora that we would hold him personally accountable for what was happening, and that the president knew about it. A couple years after the genocide…
Dobbs: How did he react to that?
Bushnell: He said, “How nice of the president to be thinking of me,” was his…