FEBRUARY 19, 2016
SIX YEARS AGO, Anjan Sundaram was convinced he wasn’t going to write a book about Rwanda.
He was already writing a book about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, after all, and it was all-consuming. Since leaving the turbulent Central African nation in 2006, he’d completed two distinct drafts of what would become his 2014 debut, Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo, about his time as a freelance reporter there. But something about the drafts wasn’t quite right; he knew he needed to re-write the book from scratch once again. He told himself that he’d do just that in Rwanda, where, after two years working as a consultant for McKinsey, he’d been offered a job with a United Kingdom and European Union-funded training program for the country’s journalists. Between the job and the manuscript, he wouldn’t have time for much else.
Besides, Sundaram wasn’t especially interested in Rwanda. Not that the country wasn’t interesting. Less than two decades after a 1994 genocide unprecedented in its swiftness and brutality — 800,000 people were killed in 100 days, mostly by machete — Rwanda was now earning international praise, and billions in aid dollars, for its progressive advances. Under the rule of President Paul Kagame, whose rise to power brought about the end of the violence, Rwanda had seen its economy improve and its ethnic rivalries recede in recent years. It was a good story, Sundaram figured, but one widely told in international media. He didn’t need to join the chorus. So when he arrived in the nation’s capital Kigali in 2009, he got right back to work on Stringer.
But the longer he stayed in Rwanda, the less the predominant narrative of the country made sense. With time and study, Sundaram realized he was living in a “magical nation,” a phony democracy that expertly masked its falsehoods. When UN researchers found hunger and poverty had actually risen in the country, Sundaram learned, they were blacklisted, and their findings discredited. Other researchers looking into police corruption were expelled. Most troubling of all, he found, was that these discrepancies — and the lived experiences of those who suffered in the country — could not be reported. Indeed, in the country’s newspapers, everything in Rwanda still appeared to be going fine.
That’s because the press was shackled, and, increasingly, vanishing altogether. During Sundaram’s time in Rwanda, almost every major journalist he trained was either arrested or forced to flee the country. One writer who hadn’t yet joined the program was killed. Everyone else was so intimidated as to have been effectively silenced. The country was full of media dutifully spreading Kagame’s propaganda, but as far as Sundaram was concerned, real reporters were an endangered species.
“You cannot pay attention to what they show you, but need to listen to those who are kept quiet. You need to look differently in a dictatorship, you need to think about how to listen to people who live in fear,” said Gibson, Sundaram’s star pupil, who escaped Rwanda the very next day with his teacher’s help.
As he started writing a magazine story about Gibson’s travails — which, fearing for his own safety, he planned to publish anonymously — Sundaram found his notes ballooning into a 30-page document describing unsettling phenomena about which he had rare insight. The story of Rwanda’s repression, he knew, wasn’t just an article. It was a book.
“I felt I had gained unique access to another world that they lived in, a world in which what looked like a paved road with plenty of street lights could be a place of fear, what looked like a commemoration of genocide was transmitting trauma, what looked like a perpetrator of genocide was perhaps a person who was among the most insightful about what led to the genocide and made them act that way. I had been introduced to that world and taken into it. I felt I’d seen something I thought was remarkable. I was privileged to be in that world so I had to write about it,” Sundaram told me at a cafe in New York City’s Financial District, where he was staying briefly while promoting Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship (Doubleday, January).
Writing a book is always a big task. But writing a book about the repression of free speech while still living in that country, Sundaram knew, would be a monumental one. He’d have to write the book in secret; getting caught could mean inciting the ire of a government known for making unsavory voices disappear. It wouldn’t be easy. But then again, it wouldn’t be entirely out of character for Sundaram, who has something of a penchant for tough undertakings.
Fresh out of Yale with an undergraduate degree in mathematics, he turned down a high-paying job at Goldman Sachs and boarded a plane in 2005 for one of the most dangerous countries on Earth to try his hand at reporting. He was 22 years old, had no prior experience or training in journalism, and no job prospects — only the desire to escape the “acute despair” he felt while absorbed in the safe but ultimately unsatisfying bubble of mathematical abstractions. He was determined to engage with the real world, particularly those aspects of it that most of its inhabitants had chosen to ignore. The Congo, where civil war has claimed millions of lives but attracted little international attention, seemed a good place to start.
The next year and a half was a self-guided crash course in journalism. Lodging with a family in a poor section of the nation’s capital, Sundaram often lacked water and electricity, and his brushes with locals included being robbed at gunpoint in a taxi. But his proximity to the news and persistence ultimately landed him a freelance gig with the Associated Press. Soon, he became a rare authority on the country’s current events, and his writings found a home in The New York Times. After the 2006 presidential election, Sundaram was witness to violent outbreaks, and filed some of his last stories holed up in a Kinshasa factory.
“I had finally lived the story — lived some part of the sentiment of experiencing the war, and some part of the terror. The Congolese had become less foreign. From a life so far away from the Congolese, I had, in my way, come close to their experience. I felt I had approached them, and possessed some part of their distress. I felt exhausted. It was getting time to go home,” he concluded in the final pages of Stringer.
Writing from a war zone, though ultimately life-changing, was often terrifying. Writing Bad News in the nefarious calm of a repressive regime was another sort of terror entirely. The Congo, for all its turbulence, was at least open to enterprising journalists brave enough to navigate it. The threat in Rwanda was quiet, but perhaps even more treacherous.
In Rwanda, propaganda was so ubiquitous it was almost imperceptible. As a result, when Sundaram spoke about imprisonments, killings, and threats with diplomats and foreign aid workers he met, he faced resistance rather than outrage. Their challenges proved toxic to Sundaram’s writing process. When he sat down to chronicle the repression — always in code and in notebooks, which he stashed away in hopes they’d never be discovered by authorities — he found himself asking the same questions they’d asked him: How could he prove what he’d seen? How did he know for sure that it was true? His own senses and observations seemed suspect. He feared for the health of his own rational consciousness.
He also feared for his life. As Sundaram got deeper into his project, and more brazen in his investigations, he found himself in uncharted territory. He held off on filing any stories on Rwanda for his first three years, but by 2012, once he knew he had enough material for his book, he broke his silence in international press. It was a risk. Although other foreigners — most notably, American lawyer Peter Erlinder — had been imprisoned by the government, arrest was not Sundaram’s primary concern.
“What I was worried about was a road accident. I used to walk on the opposite side of the street to watch. That sort of thing no one could prove. Things could have happened. Certainly, I was pushing the envelope. There was no one in Rwanda writing the way I was writing,” he said.
In 2013, Sundaram finally left Rwanda. The training program had been dissolved, the press was utterly broken and his hope for a free society there was lost. This January, after a constitutional referendum opened the possibility, Kagame announced he would seek a third term and possibly maintain control of the country until 2034. Sundaram knows, for him, there’s no going back to Rwanda — but he still feels a close attachment to the people he left behind and a longing for the life he lived there, even in all its peril.
“During my time in Rwanda, I’d often wake up and I’d think, ‘There’s no other way in which I’d have wanted to spend the previous day. I was reading, I was writing, I was thinking, I was engaging with people around me, the society around me. It’s a beautiful way to live,” he said.
For now, Sundaram is living in Dubai, but after the flurry of publicity around his new book subsides, he’s looking forward to relocating somewhere where he can get back to writing. He’s working on another non-fiction book about Africa, and has ideas for fiction he’d like to explore as well. The tricky thing, he said, is finding a place that’s quiet enough to be conducive for thought but busy enough to engage his mind.
“It might be Africa. But the places I tend to gravitate to naturally in Africa are places with a lot of turmoil and that’s not necessarily great for writing. So I’m negotiating that,” he said.
“Think you might make it a little easier for yourself this time?” I asked.
“I think so. I hope so,” he said.