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John Honderich


John Honderich's Notes From the Field

May 31, 2007 — Family, friends et al,

The end nears.

I leave tomorrow and can't believe the month has whipped by in a flash.

In about an hour and a half, I will be delivering the first lecture of The New Times lecture series - a new tradition that is to bring in speakers every three months.

My topic: Newspapers: are they relevant?

You might guess my answer.

The last week has certainly been a swirl. Putting the final touches on the strategic plan, working on the design for the new website, and launching the first broader Division Heads group that met yesterday for five hours and discussed HR policy. Fidel Castro would have been proud of the staying power of the group.

I will do one more wrap but I thought I would send another writing on my experience here that I gather will be published this weekend in the Star.


Searching for acts of remembrance
By John Honderich

KIBUYE — What is the appropriate way to remember a genocide?

It is a question that continues to haunt and perplex Rwanda.

As it probably should us all.

For decades, the Western world has quite properly pondered how best to remember the Holocaust.

But what about a genocide that took place in the heart of Africa a half century later? Have we not learned?

It has now been 13 years since this troubled country underwent a frenzied apocolypse of murder and rape that claimed close to one million lives within the span of 100 days.

Mass graves are still being found. Last week the official count of those implicated in the Genocide rose to a staggering 818,000.

Newspapers are constantly filled with genocide-related stories. (The style here, by the way, is to capitalize the "g" when referring to the Genocide, just as it is for the Holocaust.)

Yet Rwanda's President Paul Kagame seems determined no path shall go untramelled in his quest to make sure the horror of 1994 is not forgotten.

Internationally, he made the point dramatically this year over the looming genocide in Darfur.

Kagame has long criticized the West for not intervening to stop the Rwandan Genocide. So when the call came from the Organization of African Unity for troops to go to Darfur, Rwanda was the very first to offer up three crack battalions.

The message of his immediate response was not lost on anyone. But it is domestically where most attention has been paid. For example, everyone in Rwanda today is a Rwandan. The words "Tutsi" and "Hutu" are used sparingly and only in historic context. Indeed, it is now an offence to ask someone his or her tribe.

Genocide sites, with the ever present "Never Again", are everywhere - towns, villages, the university, even the compound of the Canadian Embassy where four children were killed.

And Kagame has declared one week of country-wide mourning and remembrance be held every year starting April 7 - the exact day 13 years ago the murderous rampage began.

Radio stations play only sombre music and virtually all businesses are shut down. Individual towns and communities are also encouraged to hold their own commemorative services in the 100-day period following April 7.

Thus it was no surprise that in the relatively short drive to this lakeside resort, two such ceremonies were encountered.

The first was in the village of Nyange, scene of one of the more notorious acts of horror. There the local Catholic priest was the one to call on thugs to use a bulldozer to crush the walls of the church where 2,500 mostly Tutsis were huddled in fear. There were no known survivors.

And to listen to a very bright 14-year-old, bouncing his homemade paper soccer ball on his foot, chronicle in great detail the story was to appreciate nothing had been forgotten.

Down the road to this lakeside resort, the remembrance ceremony lasted for four hours. Testimony from survivors, speeches, hymns and incantations rolled over the sports stadium, the exact spot where the killing took place.

The mass grave is tucked beside the stadium with a small corn patch on the other side. The inscription on the gate reads simply : "More than 10,000 people were inhumated (sic) here.".

Yet up the road, at the same time, a joyous wedding was being performed at the local church, perched atop a verdant hill that plunges sharply into a finger fjord of Lake Kivu.

There was no remembrance here but rather a festive procession, with chanting young singers and much joy. Yet the celebrants had to pass right beside the mass grave where more than 4,000 are buried.

Here is how one witness described what occured 13 years ago: "The church stands among trees on a promontory above the calm blue of Lake Kivu. The Tutsis were sheltering inside when a mob, drunk on banana beer, threw grenades through the doors and windows, and then ran to club and stab to death the people who remained alive. It took about three hours."

The juxtaposition of that horror and the wedding procession was too much for our guide, himself a genocide survivor, who blurted out, "this is not right. I don't like it."

Yet the local priest staunchly defended the renewal of his church as have many others across Rwanda.

To this observer that scene continues to jar. Yet clearly it is for Rwandans to decide.

How to remember the Genocide. Tis indeed perplexing...

One imagines it is a debate that will never end.


May 27, 2007 — Family, friends et al,

I write from the Akagera Game Reserve in eastern Rwanda — my second visit on this trip —- compliments of the Managing Director (African title for publisher) of The New Times (my new adopted paper) and a senior Board member Joe Bideri, former head of the state broadcasting agency and a former resident of Toronto.

This is all so say thanks — and a very gracious gesture it has been.

Along with the giraffes, zebras, wort hogs, antelope, fish eagle, water bucks, buffalo, hippos galore, baboons, velvet monkeys, and the "mad" elephant I did not see on my first visit.

Seems this elephant was a "domestic" living at the former President's summer home here. Went "wild" during the Genocide for lack of food but was beaten out of the herd by the more seasoned males. So he returned "home" only to be shot at by soldiers. That was it. So enraged, he butted the cottage - quite a sight - and has been bashing ever since. Needless to say, we kept quite a distance.

Seems hard to believe but I'm off in a week.

And the whirl just intensifies.

I will be the first speaker at The New Times new lecture series on Thursday. My topic: Are newspapers still relevant?

I'm helping the managing director at his first "investor presentation" Tuesday.

And later today, I'm the guest on the country's regular two-hour radio media show called — what else? — Crossfire.

To say the work experience has been intensive would be an understatement.

In the first three week, I've worked on a new 5-year strategic plan, a reorg of the marketing department, a revamp of the website, a new IT plan, multiple discussions on the new press to be installed and best of all, some real changes and improvements in Editorial.

So to say they've drawn on all my experience would be quite fair. And the people on the paper are a delight. There is some real talent. For example, the Sunday editor, Gaaki Kigambo, has the potential to be truly great.

So you can probably sense, it has been an exceptionally rewarding experience.

And in the off hours, I've had a chance to boost the Rwanda Initiative, for which Allan Thompson deserves kudos forever, with the new Canadian Ambassador and Louise Arbour, who just happened to be passing through.


  • the pressure in the shower is finally working and the water is hot;
  • my dexterity with a cell phone continues to amaze;
  • living communally with two students and the fixer has been surprisingly delightful;
  • a reacquaintance with peanut butter on morning toast is a new joy; and
  • I can't wait to eat a salad!

So I close with a great week ahead and thought I'd include a piece that has appeared in The New Times on going to a closed circuit soccer match this past Wednesday.


Reflections on football night in Rwanda
By John Honderich

From the Air Canada Centre in Toronto to Amohoro Stadium in Kigali.

Each is primarily used for basketball games — with apologies to loyal hockey fans in my home town.

Each is the venue for closed-circuit broadcasts of major sporting events. And while they may be almost 8,000 kilometers apart, the atmosphere in each is amazingly the same.

Oh yes, there are differences worth pointing out.

But it's what they say about sports. It is the world's great equalizer. Which is exactly what I found out last night when I went with a buddy to watch the Liverpool-A C Milan UEFA Cup final match.

Twas indeed a night to remember.

Race, colour, creed or religion didn't matter a whit as several thousand ponied up the 500 francs ($1 Cdn) to watch the match on the big screen.

Now admittedly, the screen wasn't big by North American standards. Perhaps half the size. And it did collapse at one moment only mysteriously to rise again like a phoenix.

But the surround sound in Kigali was far superior to the sound in Toronto. That may have a lot to do with the sense of intimacy one felt in Amohoro.

It was a surprise to see the initial TV feed was from ESPN — the U.S. sports network. But local demand quickly insured the swtich was made to a French network. Another snapshot of global connectivity today — even where you might not expect it.

And the entry price to sit on the floor was a bargain by anyone's standards. What's more, the seats provided — white lawn chairs — were a whole bunch more comfortable that the stiff folding chairs you get on the floor in Toronto.

And the beer? Sports fans in Toronto would salivate to know you can buy a bottle of cold beer here for 1,000 francs ($2 Can) and take it to your seats.

Bottles have long been banned in North American stadiums for fear they would be thrown and injure someone. And you'd pay at least five times the price for that same beer.

The crowd last night sure knew its football, just like the hockey crowds in Toronto. They particularly cheered the one graceful attacker from Africa on the Liverpool side. Italian teams, we were told, do not take African players while the English and French do. News to us.

And particularly distinctive were the Rwandan cheers — a yodle-like trill that rolled through the hall.

At the end of the game —- AC Milan the victor — those supporting the winner all stood up and there high fives with everyone.

Just as it should be — anywhere.


May 18, 2007 — GOMA, Congo

This is about the closest I've ever come to the wild, wild West. With an African twist, of course.

It's a place, says one local, where patriotism and hope died a long time ago.

Located right on the Rwandan border in the easternmost corner of Congo, this throbbing city - full of genocidaires, gun-toting punks, spent streams of lava and swaggering soldiers - simply takes your breath and nerve away.

And compared to the calm, bucolic atmosphere of the Rwandan resort town of Gisenyi just a stone's throw away, it makes you wonder if you're really on the same continent.'

So what is Africa really like?

The answer, it seems, depends hugely on where you are.

Start first with the neatness and orderliness of all Rwanda. Tagged often the "Singapore of Africa", it makes compulsory both the wearing of seatbelts and the donning of helmets on motorbikes.

Plastic bags of all sorts have been banned and it is illegal to use your cellphone while driving.

Walk on a grass strip and you could end up paying a fine of $10. Of course, a licence is required to drive a vehicle, and the police are everywhere to ensure these rules are strictly obeyed.

Goma, the Congo?

Unorganized mayhem comes quickly to mind. There wasn't a helmet or seatbelt to be seen, let alone an organized patch of grass.

Garbage was strewn everywhere and I swear I saw a kid no older than 12 barreling down this rutted excuse of a road in a huge truck. Ability to pay, I was told, is the sole criterion for securing a driver's permit.

Speaking of cops, you see a lot in Goma, although it isn't clear to which level they belong. Problem is they don't get paid, as happens to most workers in Congo.

So they have to live off the citizenry they're there to protect. The most recent tragedy occured a few days before when a 24-year-old student ventured out one night. Stopped by police, he was asked if he had a cell phone. When he replied in the negative, he was frisked, a cell found and then he was summarily shot dead for "lying."

No white person would ever wander about at night in Goma. Yet across the border in Gisenyi, a pleasant night stroll along the beach was encouraged. The sense of being safe and secure was real, as it is throughout Rwanda.

Police are everywhere, but they're both obliging, proud - and paid.

Crossing the border also revealed the differences. The young Rwandan officer, in shirt and tie, was the epitome of efficiency. In a ramshackle shed 50 meters away, three Congan officials required $30 U.S. for a visa, but receipts were never issued. And for speedier service, one was in no doubt as to what would be required.

Perhaps most discouraging is the gap in medical facilities and treatment.

A local Goma surgeon, who preferred his name not be used, simply dispaired at the primitive situation facing his native city.

The hospital has one ambulance for 700,000 people. There is no oxygen in the one main hospital and it costs you $10-$20 U.S, paid to the donor, to get a blood transfusion.

It's a free-wheeling pay-as-you-go system with American cash on the barrel required in advance for any surgical procedure. The local currency simply isn't used.

A surgeon requires $70-$100 and a regular birth costs $50-$70. And prescription drugs are available to anyone able to cough up the money.

Nowhere is the contrast sharper than in Rwanda where a partially-paid state health plan makes medical care more accessible. The hospitals are surprisingly well-stocked and each has its own ambulance.

By the way, that Goma surgeon hasn't worked in his home town for years.

The only place he can get a job? Rwanda.

Electricity, roads and water provide the final bckdrop.

In Goma, those few lucky enough to get power normally get 4-6 hours service a night, often from 10 pm to 4 am. In Rwanda, there is regular power with the occasional interruption. My stay in Gisenyi was power constant.

Congo is a huge country, accessible only by air. Goma has no road link to the capital and its one road to another provincial capital 700 km away is so "catastrophic," our driver estimates it would take more than a week to travel.

In Goma itself, only a 4 by 4 can make it though the entire city.

Meanwhile, across the border, a mostly-paved network of highways connects all of Rwanda. While Rwanda is admittedly much smaller, the difference in driving conditions is simply immense.

Securing water is the most basic and often most demanding task for the poor in both countries. Any new visitor to Africa can't help but be struck by the hordes of mostly women, struggling along any road, with heavy yellow plastic containers full of water usually strapped to their heads.

It's the same in both countries. Only in Goma, the people have to walk often a staggering six kilometers each way over ragged, dusty lava rock to fill up. And it usually takes two trips to get enough water for one family. Simply gut-wrenching to watch.

So, when all is said and done, is there anything about the same in both countries? Actually yes - the beer. Both Mutzig in Rwanda and Primus in Congo put out a great brew.

Go figure.


May 11, 2007 — Family, friends et al,

I write from my spacious office with a view out the balcony of the hills of Kigali in the foreground, the bullet-pocked Parliament building right beside, and a gentle breeze wafting through from the balcony.

Welcome to my new office digs in Rwanda.

They're almost as fine as the home digs, an imposing five-bedroom home perched on the side of a hill with a to-die-for view of the city. While hot water has been an issue for showers and the dirt road down the hill has furrows a foot deep, the scene is notheless mighty fine.

As is life so far. Indeed, I'd say my expectations have been exceeded more than I ever could have imagined. The senior folks at the New Times have taken me in completely. And the kind of work and advice I've been able to do quite frankly takes my breath away. Prudence and a respect for my fellow colleagues limits what I can reveal. Suffice to say, there is virtually nothing I have not been involved with, including the delicate issue of editorial coverage of the President.

I was asked to join the presentation of a new IT plan for the paper. I've had lunch with the most influential director of the company, a Queen's University graduate who spent 25 years in Toronto and now works for President Kagame, I've gone to see the paper's presses and meet the plant manager, who got his printing degree from George Brown College and spent 15 years in Hamilton. He's about to get a new Goss offset press but desperately needs some training. The calls are already in. And so it goes.

Not surprisingly, most of my time has been spent on Editorial issues. As a result of some gentle nudges, regular morning meetings now take place. We've adjusted the format of the cover page to give more display to the main story. I've interviewed all the major editors with a view to presenting a plan to the Editor. I've managed to copy edit a few of the big stories and worked with some of the reporters on their stories. And we now have a few clocks and maps on the wall of the newsroom.

When I look back at the first week, it somehow takes my breath away as to the variety of issues I have touched or been involved with. Ignace, the managing director, is a total professional with whom I work very closely. My office is right beside his. On the other side is the Advertising Manager, Daniel, who is a complete delight. Next week, I promised I will go out on a few calls. I told Daniel of the university sponsorship program in Canada where we deliver papers free to the University. He loves it and thinks either the U.S. or British embassy may be a sponsor. And Charley (that's Gordon in Ottawa) you'd love it. There are two keys to the washroom - one for the door and one for the particular stall I'm to use. It's the one on the right!

I start at 8 am and don't usually leave til 7 or later. Robin and Emily, you won't believe it - the technological klutz you know I am - but I totally live off my cell phone. I send text messages, arrange for taxi pick-up from Zacki (my favorite driver) and keep in touch with a host of others. I've got to keep buying cards for the phone, not to mention keeping it charged. It all seems to work.

And I'm about to go out for a Friday beer with Gaaki, the most engaging Sunday editor, whose intelligence and wry sense of humour are a total delight.

As I am sure you can tell, I've been on a high ever since I left. Ethiopian Airlines turned out to be first rate, Addis Ababa, including its most gothic of hotels the Sheraton, was intriguing to say the least and my first weekend trip to the Agakera Game Park was a total smash. With trusty guide Richard at the helm and a breathtakingly knowlegable guide James, we went out on three safaris.

Saw in no particular order; giraffes, zebras, elephants, velvet monkeys, blue monkeys, baboons (one who ventured into the dining room of the surprisingly fine Akagera Lodge) hippos (lots of them) a crocodile, some water buck, a snake eagle, a crested eagle, plenty of antelope and impala, wort hogs, orebi, buffalo and a host of exotic birds.

During my stay at the Lodge, met a delightful couple from Ann Arbor who are both here giving leadership training to the federal cabinet, two Dutch woodworkers who are here to promote woodworking as a trade and a Spanish woman doing work on economic development and her French partner, who is intent on unearthing France's evil role during the genocide. Such are the folk you meet in Rwanda.

And this weekend I'm off to visit the Congo and Lake Kivu.

How's that for an ender?



May 2, 2007 – Heading back to Rwanda

The Rwandan adventure has begun. And to say I am "pumped" about the upcoming adventure would be indeed an understatement.

Quite frankly, I can't remember a project that has so engrossed me in advance.

A 45-minute chat with Senator Romeo Dallaire in his Parliament Hill office before my departure for Rwanda lived up to every expectation. His vigorous defence of the military tactics of the current President of Rwanda in the years following the genocide were particularly significant.

And a two-day acculturalization seminar at Carleton University also turned out to be surprisingly useful.

As a result both my expectations and my compulsion to pre-planning have been limited.

That said, I have been in e-mail communication with both the editor and managing director of the New Times, both of whom have been exceedingly generous in their expressed anticipation of the upcoming time together.

Parenthetically, they allowed as to how the Canadian-based Rwanda Initiative has led them to develop a fondness for maple syrup.

Thus two bottles of Quebec's finest were added to the bag at the 11th hour. They join several Canadian Press Style Guides, editorial skeds, advertising presentations for small retail, promotional ads, The Star Policy Manual, newspaper financial statements and anything else I felt might be useful.

And that is what makes this initiative so exciting. The possibilities are many.

My route to Afrca this evening takes me to several exotic spots. Toronto to Washington D.C. and then Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa via Rome. A stay overnight in an Ethiopian hotel and then on to Kigali the next morning.

There both Solange, our Rwandan fixer and Richard, the driver whom I met with during my visit in February, should be waiting.

So I confess my propensity to pre-planning wasn't completely squashed.

As much as this is all new and exciting, it is also a return journey to Rwanda, where I visited for the first time in February.  

I knew about Rwanda and the genocide of course, or at least I thought I did. It is now a matter of historical record that close to 1 million Rwandans – including three-quarters of the entire Tutsi population – were systematically murdered within the span of 100 days.

This was no civil war, no mistake. Rather it was a deliberate and methodical ethnic cleansing executed at a rate almost impossible to fathom.

And in the first month, the world's media missed the real story. Upon my return from Rwanda some weeks back, I searched the clipping files.  I found that most newspapers, including the Star, were replete with stories of the horror that was unfolding. Indeed, we ran 152 stories in the 100 days.

And a month into the killings, a few journalists, including the Star's Pulitzer-winning journalist Paul Watson, began to stitch together pieces of the real story behind the slaughter.

But for a month, though, this tragedy was portrayed as yet another bloody civil war between two traditional tribal enemies – not a deliberate genocide.

How could this happen? How could the world's media miss a genocide?

And even more troubling, could it happen again?

As editor of the Star in 1994, I had ultimate responsibility for the paper's editorial coverage. And the notion that we weren't aware of one of the century's worst episodes doesn't sit well, as it wouldn't with any experienced editor.

After all, at the very same time, the world's media were documenting in detail the ethnic cleansing being perpetrated in Bosnia. Those collective stories brought about a multinational response, just as they had in Somalia.

Yet in Rwanda, the United Nations actually voted to decrease its peacekeeping forces from 2,500 to a few hundred.

To the chagrin of Romeo Dallaire and others, the world was simply turning a blind eye to Rwanda – in large part because the real story had yet to be told.

In short, we failed Rwanda, for which I will be forever remorseful. We also failed to notice the degree to which local media in Rwanda had been distorted and abused by those who planned and perpetrated the genocide.

Any visitor to Rwanda is struck by the number of memorials to the genocide that carry the ever-present message "Never Again."

And that, in essence, is why I am going back to Rwanda for my second visit this year, to see what kind of contribution I can make to building the capacity of the media in that enchanting, stunning country.



May 31, 2007 —Family, friends, et al,

May 27, 2007 —Family, friends, et al,

May 18, 2007 — GOMA, Congo

May 11, 2007 — Family, friends, et al,

May 2, 2007 — Heading back
to Rwanda




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