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Is Black Earth Rising a True Story?

In April 1994, 100 days of slaughter rocked Rwanda. Extremist members of the Hutu ethnic group targeted the Tutsi minority and anyone who might support them. Netflix series Black Earth Rising is set years after the genocide but reckons with the complex aftermath through the eyes of survivor Kate Ashby (played by Michaela Cole). Is the political thriller based on a true story? What’s real and what’s fictional?

Black Earth Rising: the story

As a child, Kate left Rwanda during the genocide with Eve, a human rights lawyer. Raised in London, Kate grows up to be a legal investigator and works for Michael (John Goodman), a lawyer. Together, they work to bring justice to those responsible for the horror in Rwanda and surrounding Central African countries. Eve, however, has just agreed to prosecute Simon Nyamoya. While Nayoma stands accused of war crimes, he played an instrumental role in ending the Rwandan genocide. Feeling betrayed by her adopted mother, Kate must reckon with her feelings and the complexity of another case involving a Rwandan government minister. After a major event that changes everything, Kate and Michael must discover the truth wherever it takes them.

Released in 2018, Black Earth Rising earned critical acclaim. It tackles hard questions about the international community’s role in the genocide, the limits of the justice system, and the inner lives of those affected in the aftermath.

What’s true (and what’s not)

Black Earth Rising is a fictional story, though it addresses real-world issues. Kate Ashby, Eve, and Michael are not based on real people. The character of Simon Nyamoya (Danny Sapani) appears to be based on Bosco “Terminator” Ntaganda, a hero of the RPF who was convicted of war crimes in 2019. He recruited child soldiers and killed civilians in the DRC. The context of the Rwandan genocide gives the series its framework and to get the most from the show, it’s worth knowing the background beforehand:

The Rwandan genocide (April – July 1994)

In 1959, the Hutus overthrew the Tutsi monarchy. While the majority of the Rwandan population was Hutu, the Tutsi minority had ruled for years. With their monarchy dismantled, tens of thousands of Tutsis fled the country. In Uganda, a rebel group formed: the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). In 1990, they invaded Rwanda. For three years, the rebels fought with the Hutus until President Habyarimana signed an agreement to form a transition government that gave Tutsis a seat at the table. This angered extremist Hutus.

On April 6th, 1994, President Habyarimana was killed (alongside the Burundi president) in a plane crash. No one knows who was responsible, but extremist Hutus immediately blamed the RPF. Only an hour after news of the crash, the Presidential Guard, Hutu militia groups, and the military began the systematic murder of the Tutsi minority. The slaughter was not difficult because civilians already had their ethnicity on their ID cards and extremist groups had lists of political opponents. Peoples’ names were read on two major radio stations, which played a big role in turning citizens against each other. Hutu husbands killed their Tutsi wives while many priests and nuns killed Tutsis seeking sanctuary. Violence raged for the next 100 days, only stopping when the RPF took Rwanda’s capital and seized power from the Hutu government. Estimates say about 800,000 – or 1/10 of the Rwandan population – were killed during those 3 months.

Where was the international community?

The role of the international community is one of Black Earth Rising’s main themes. While the Tutsi population and their allies died, the international community did not intervene. There were UN peacekeeping forces stationed in the country, but the UN Security Council did not allow their troops to become involved, even though the Tutsi sought help. On the first day of the genocide, around 3,000 Tutsis went to the Belgian base in Kigali. Ten Belgian commandos were killed and Belgium pulled out its troops. With no protection, thousands of Tutsis were killed on April 11th.

It’s not as if there weren’t warnings. Two months before the genocide, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) contacted the UN headquarters. He warned about ethnic killings, assassination attempts, and other violence. No aid came. Even after the genocide ramped up, the international community continued to downplay what was happening even as the people on the ground (such as the force commander of UNAMIR) begged for permission to intervene.

The aftermath

In 1999, the UN launched an independent report of its involvement. They concluded that the lack of resources and a lack of will caused their failure. In 1994, the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. It wasn’t officially closed until 2015 after indicting 93 people and convicting 61. One landmark case was the 1998 conviction of Jean-Paul Akayesu, a mayor, for the crime of genocide. It was the first time an international court defined rape as a crime and as a means of committing genocide. Convicted individuals included military and government officials, militia leaders, members of the media, and clergy members.

Was justice served?

“What is justice?” is one of the biggest questions in Black Earth Rising. Did the Tribunal succeed? It led to convictions, but both the Hutus and RPF have been accused of human rights abuses. Considering the scope of the genocide and its aftermath, many believe 61 convictions are a failure. For many survivors and others affected by the genocide, closure still feels a long way away. Black Earth Rising captures just a bit of that tension.