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Scandal at a Scandal Sheet; Remembering Rwanda

Aired April 14, 2006 - 19:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
I have on the program, "Hunting My Husband's Killers," the heartfelt story of one woman's journey back to Rwanda. We look at how film has been used to tell the horror of the genocide.

But, first, though, we go to New York, a big city, a tough city, and one in which the media is intensely competitive. Journalists battle to get a scoop and that's just on the news pages.

The gossip section is even more fierce. CNN's Sibila Vargas looks at a scandal hitting one of the world's most prominent tabloid newspapers.


SIBILA VARGAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When it comes to celebrity gossip, the "New York Post" page six is maybe the juiciest go-to column in print. It's read religiously by millions each day and just being mentioned here can make or break a career.

Some people will do anything to get on to page six, others to stay off it.

MICHAEL MUSTO, "THE VILLAGE VOICE": It's tremendously powerful. The "New York Post" is a gossip bible for tons of people like myself and page six is the first page that everyone turns to.

VARGAS: But with its developing scandal, page six is now page one news. One of its writers, Jared Paul Stern, is the target of a federal investigation into whether he tried to extort $220,000 from California billionaire Ron Burkle.

In exchange, Stern allegedly would guarantee favorable stories about Burkle. The "Post" suspended Stern pending the outcome of the probe. A "Post" spokesman today told CNN, quote, "So far only one person is involved in this. The 'Post' maintains a high ethical standard and he slipped very dramatically from that."

In a world where favors and freebies from glamorous trips to designer handbags are routine, the scandal shocks even gossip veterans.

DEBORAH SCHONEMAN, "NEW YORK MAGAZINE": To compete in the gossip world, you have to play by a different set of rules and that often means by not playing by the rules. However, there's all different levels and gradations of that, but I think what Jared Paul Stern did was that he crossed the line, which was already murky.

VARGAS: In his defense, Stern claims he was set up by Burkle, who recorded their meetings. He says that Burkle initiated discussions about investing in Stern's clothing company.

And Stern told CNN, quote, "He definitely had this paranoid notion that page six was out to get him. He was out to destroy us. He'll find out it backfired on him."

Burkle's spokesperson said the billionaire had no interest in putting money into Stern's clothing company.

Though scandal comes in an aggressive new era of gossip, but even celebrity sightings are posted on the web within minutes. Now, in an ironic role reversal, it's the gossipers themselves who are having to deal with some very unfavorable publicity.

Sibila Vargas, CNN.


SWEENEY: And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a rise in films about Rwanda. But is it too late to focus on the genocide of 12 years ago?

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Genocide, the systematic slaughter of the innocent. This sums up Rwanda in 1994, when more than a million people, mostly the minority Tutsis, were massacred by Hutu extremists.

It may have been 12 years ago, but the memories are still raw and painful. Some lost their entire family.

At the time, the world, including the media, was accused of ignoring the horror. Now, though, there's an array of films about the killings.

CNN's Justin O'Kelly looks at one movie, just released, that was shot in the locations of real life events.


JUSTIN O'KELLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Recreating the events surrounding the Rwandan genocide, Michael Caton-Jones was able to draw not just on real life accounts, but the actual locations where many people died.

"Shooting Dogs" returns to the events of the 1994 massacre to tell one story, when militia attacked refugees, fighting at the Ecole Technique Officielle, after the U.N. abandoned the school.

In the audience were some students of the ETO who survived the genocide. Some of them had even acted as extras. Memories returned of the 100 days during which extremist Hutu officials and militias killed at least 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This should never occur. The history should never come back again and it's sad and this is (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to everybody else.

O'KELLY: British actor John Hurt plays a priest who runs the school, an intense experience for the veteran performer.

JOHN HURT, BRITISH ACTOR: One thing that this did teach me, if anything, was that there's no such thing as good people and bad people. There's 360 degrees in every single one of us and we're all capable of this.

O'KELLY: Appearing with Hurt as a young, idealistic teacher is Hugh Dancy. The two are forced to make a choice whether to remain with their people or escape and save their own lives.

The director hopes viewers can relate the movie to their own experience.

MICHAEL CATON-JONES, DIRECTOR, "SHOOTING DOGS": The story of what happened at the ETO is, in some respects, a microcosm of what happened in all of Rwanda, how the place was abandoned and left to its own fate and in that sense, you know, it's almost symbolic.

O'KELLY: That symbolism not lost on those huddled in the Amahoro or "P" stadium, where hundreds of Rwandans were slaughtered just over a decade ago.


SWEENEY: And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, "Hunting My Husband's Killers," one woman's painful journey back to Rwanda.

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

There's been a rise in films about the genocide in Rwanda. One just released gives a very personal account.

In "Hunting My Husband's Killers," a Scottish widow returns to Africa to do just that. Her Rwandan partner, Charles, was abducted during the genocide and never seen again.

Accompanied by a film crew, Lesley Bilinda uncovers some unexpected and unpalatable truths about her husband's secret life.

Here's a clip from her journey.



SWEENEY: Well, Lesley joins me now, along with one of the documentary's producers, Jay Knox.

Lesley, first of all, what prompted you to return to Rwanda?

LESLEY BILINDA: I had had to live since 1994 with coming to terms with the fact that I would probably never know exactly what had happened to my husband. I knew very scant information of what had happened to him and he had been taken by a soldier, driven away and never seen again.

In 2004, I had the opportunity to find out, perhaps, once and for all, exactly what had happened and, if possible, to meet the people who had killed him, taken him and killed him, and it was an opportunity that I'd never had before and might never had again and I had to take it.

SWEENEY: You met your husband, obviously, while you were working in Rwanda. How long did you live there?

BILINDA: I went to Rwanda, first of all, in 1989 with Tearfund, the Christian Relief and Development Agency, and Charles came to work in our village, I think it was about late 1990, early 1991. He was one of the few English-speaking Rwandans in the area. We were quite a rural, remote kind of village we were living in.

And he was very much involved in the local church, the local scene. He was teaching in the local school. And so we got to know each other through that, really.

SWEENEY: Jay, this is where you come in. What was your involvement with the project? How did you and Lesley get in touch at around the same time Lesley was thinking about going back?

JAY KNOX, DIRECTOR, "HUNTING MY HUSBAND'S KILLERS": Well, we had been working in Rwanda on another project and met up with other people in a similar position to Lesley and came away thinking, "How on earth do you put your life back together after experiencing this kind of thing."

And so when we returned back to the U.K., the production companies, "Purple Flame" and "GRACE Productions," did a lot of research and learned about Lesley's story then.

So we contacted her and went up to talk through her story to find out where she was at in the process of coming to terms with this and put it to her, you know, "Would you go back to see if you can find out what actually happened."

And when she agreed, you know, the film, "Hunting My Husband's Killers" was born.

SWEENEY: And at the time, you were on the brink yourself of wanting to do something, do you think, and it just is a happy coincidence in terms of planning?

BILINDA: No, I wasn't planning to. I had no expectations at all of being able to find out. I mean, Charles is one of up to a million people who were killed. He was far from our home area when he was taken.

I had just assumed that I would always live without knowing, but I realized, actually, in talking to Jay and Ray and the rest of the film crew that things were changing in Rwanda, with the development of the new gacaca community court system, that things were coming to light, information coming to light about what had happened to people's loved ones, where they had been killed, what had happened to them.

And I thought, you know, with this gacaca system, with Charles' name being put on the list of cases to be investigated, with the support of the team, that this might be the opportunity. But before that, I hadn't even thought about it.

SWEENEY: And had you a sense that you hadn't been able to move on with your life or were you moving on with your life quite adequately for you?

BILINDA: I was moving on with my life as much as I had been able to. I had to. Ten years was a long time. It had been a long, slow process and very complicated grieving and I lost, obviously, not just my husband, but many friends and my job and my home and everything.

And so I've come back to the U.K. and I've picked up the pieces and gone on as far as I could. And so, actually, making the decision to go out this time was a big step for me, because it meant that I would be putting myself back into the distress and the desolation and the pain that I felt 10 years before and I really thought did I really want to do that.

But the alternative of not going and, therefore, passing up an opportunity of finding out was not really an alternative. I knew I had to go.

SWEENEY: Jay, let me bring you in here, because this is where the cold, hard, brutal eye of the director or producer comes into play, because in many ways, Lesley is just made for a documentary like this, for wont of a better term, because she's a very natural person in front of the camera.

Talk me through the logistics of trying to film a documentary like this, particularly something with such a sensitive subject matter.

KNOX: We wanted to make a film which reflected how people are coping 10 years on and Lesley's story was just an example, one example of many, many people who are trying to cope with that bereavement.

And we wanted to make the film accessible to people who weren't African. You know, the criticism at the time was, you know, that the rest of the world didn't really do anything. And so we wanted to make decisions based on her story, her feelings.

So we did a certain amount of research so that we had an idea about what she would find, but then really we did leave it to Lesley to do the investigating and actually took some control in actually standing back from it a bit with the cameras and letting Lesley make her own decisions about who she went to interview and who she picked up the phone to and how that investigation went.

So we did have a lot of information, but we were really watching Lesley's own journey. So we had to stand back and let her make her own journey.

SWEENEY: And in terms of the logistics of wanting to speak, for example, to prisoners, how did you find the authorities in terms of giving you access to those people?

BILINDA: Generally, extremely helpful. There were, obviously, times of waiting around and being passed from one to another, but we were able to gain access to the prison not just once, but twice, and found them very obliging and helpful for us.

SWEENEY: And how were the prisoners talking to you in front of a camera, Jay? How did that evolve as a process of setting up the camera, letting them know there was a camera in the room, particularly the subject matter? Did they know why they were being interviewed?

KNOX: They did know, yes. We had spoken to the prison authorities, who were very helpful, and we basically were able to set up the cameras in a room and they said, "Well," you know, "which prisoners do you want" and they would go off and get them.

And we actually spoke to several prisoners that didn't actually appear in the film, but it was interesting to see that they have very different responses as to whether they wanted to confess to what they had done or not.

There was one man that we spoke of that had actually taken part in the tribunals and was very open to confess and said that, yes, he was involved in killing.

Cabarrera (ph), who is one of the main characters that Lesley discovers, may well have had a big hand in Charles' death. He was very difficult to gauge as to whether he was telling the truth or not. He certainly didn't seem to have any empathy or sympathy for Lesley's story.

SWEENEY: For those who haven't seen the documentary, I mean, it was quite an emotional journey for you. Did you find, for wont of a better word, the closure that you were looking for?

I mean, you certainly found something. It may not have been what you had expected when you set out.

BILINDA: I didn't find exactly what I was expecting. So I couldn't say that that was the end of my journey, in any sense. And I don't know that even if I had found the actual people that killed Charles, I don't know that I would have said that that was closure, because there's a sense in which the experience and the pain live on.

It hasn't stopped me from moving on with the rest of my life, but it never comes to an end, as such.

One particular man that we met, who had been in a gang, part of a group that had been involved in killing one of my closest friends and colleagues, and he had come to his senses and had realized the stupidity and the waste of life that had happened throughout the genocide and his part of it and had confessed and was remorseful.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): It becomes clear as they talk that Gasto (ph) was one of the gang members who killed her.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (voice-over): She said I don't know and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the neck.

BILINDA: It was a very profound meeting, actually, spending time talking with him. He really had explained what had happened and why it had happened and just knowing that I was getting an honest answer from him, which was helpful for me.


SWEENEY: Do you have any explanation for what happened during that time in 1994?

BILINDA: I think it almost defies explanation, except that I think there really were many different factors involved in it and a climate of real fear, very, very tangible fear that people would lose power and that they would again be subjugated and be discriminated against and an absolute determination not to let that happen again, with the support from authorities, the support from international media, from the crowd fever being whipped up.

I mean, it's very difficult to explain the extent of the atrocities that were committed, but there were various factors involved.

SWEENEY: And just finally, Jay, expecting the unexpected, I suppose you thought that was going to be the case on this trip. But were there any particular memories that you came away with either in terms of the story itself or, you know, experiences in shooting or filming episodes like that?

KNOX: I think one of the things that struck me was that 10 years on, the pain of losing your family is now embedded really in the culture. There is still a culture of fear, which really surprised me. Some people fear for their lives, that there might be reprisals, and that their families are still at threat.

Some people are still living in fear because they fear that if they tell what they know, what they witnessed 10 years ago, that their lives are now at threat.

And time is a healer and I think there is hope for Rwanda to be healed and get over this.

SWEENEY: Briefly, a very final word to you, Lesley, if I may. This is not a big budget movie like some of the movies we've seen on this subject matter recently.

Is that of importance to you? What is the most significant thing for you putting this on visual record, as it were?

BILINDA: I hope that through this film and, also, through the book that I wrote of my experiences following my visit to Rwanda, two things. One is to bring to the Western audience the reality of the situation in Rwanda through my eyes. I know it has to be through my eyes, but just to give people a little taste of what ordinary Rwandans are living through on a day-to-day basis and a greater understanding in the West of the situation in Rwanda as it is now.

But, also, I think, for me, it's about being able to move on. It's about facing the truth squarely in the eye, as far as I'm able to, however awful, however unpalatable it may be, and then to pick up the pieces and to move on.

And the book that I wrote following after this documentary is called "With What Remains," because to me, it speaks about picking up what's left and moving on with what's left in my life and making something good out of it. And that's what I hope will come out of both the DVD and the book.

SWEENEY: Essentially, one of the topics we haven't discussed or looked at is, you know, this is a marriage between a white Western woman and a black African man, in, I think, from what you've told us, a fairly remote part of Rwanda.

How was that culturally there or did it have any significance or impact and did it have any resulting impact on your marriage?

BILINDA: It was sort of unusual, I have to say, especially out in the countryside. There were a number of mixed marriages in the city, but not in the countryside. So we were, at times, a bit of an object of curiosity and it did put extra pressures on us, which was already a quite difficult situation in a majorally cross-cultural marriage like that.

And Charles, I have to say, was certainly, initially, very supportive and very keen that I should understand the cultural differences and we worked through as much as we could together. But, yes, there were issues for both of us which threw up challenges for us as worked through our marriage together.

SWEENEY: Thank you very much, indeed, Lesley Bilinda, Jay Knox, for joining us.

And that's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in against next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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