The Gentle King in our Midst By T. R. Heinan


 On April 6, 1984, hell supplanted purgatory in the African nation of Rwanda. That day, news of the president’s assassination became the catalyst for one of the most horrific, shameful, and grotesque crimes of the 20th century.  In less than 100 days, nearly a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu men, women and children in Rwanda were hacked to death with machetes or riddled with bullets, while U.N. “peacekeepers” stood ideally by and world leaders refused to intervene.

What made this massacre – this genocide – so difficult to understand was that this was not a religious war.  Both sides claimed to be Christians.  Indeed, it required identity cards to distinguish one group from the other.  Anthropologists and historians still can’t agree on whether the Tutsi and the Hutu peoples originated as different tribes or as different social castes within one populace.  For years, it was even possible for some Hutu to become Tutsi.  All that changed after Belgium seized control of Rwanda during World War I. In 1935, the Belgians introduced identity cards, labeling each resident as members of this or that group.  It was a classic divide and conquer strategy that segregated and prevented further movement between classes.

Like many of its European neighbors, Belgium colonized distant lands in order collect taxes and to exploit the rich local resources.  In Rwanda, that meant coffee, the second most profitable legal commodity on the world market, exceeded in dollar value only by oil. The Belgian government also seemed obsessed with racial and ethnic classifications.  They began to treat Tutsis as superior to Hutus, claiming that Tutsis had more “European features”.  This was a policy that would clash with the dream of Rwanda’s future King Kigeli V.  He was a man who viewed his role to serve as “father to both the Tutsi and the Hutu”, a king who would encourage intermarriage among the groups in his homeland so that they “can become one people again”.

One cannot help but wonder if the bloodshed of 1984 might have been prevented. Instead of clinging to the last vestiges of colonial power and continuing to thwart independence, what if Belgium had released Rwanda from its grasp?  How would history have played out if the Europeans had not engineered the expulsion of Rwanda’s last legitimate and lawful king? Rwanda’s gentle king was forced from power, but the people of Rwanda did not choose to end their monarchy, that decision was imposed on them by a foreign power.

King Kigeli V came to the Rwandan throne in 1959 when his (quite healthy) brother suddenly dropped dead after being given an injection by a mysterious substitute for his regular physician. The former king had been preparing to go to New York to demand independence for his country at the United Nations.  Whether his death was a murder or a “medical accident” may never be known.  There was no autopsy. What is known is that the royal family immediately recognized that Belgium could use this vacancy on the throne to impose a regent of their own choice, thereby seizing total control.  To prevent that from happening, King Kigeli V was crowned on the same day as his brother’s funeral, keeping alive the Rwandan tradition that “not a day should pass with a vacant throne”.  Perhaps no one was as surprised by this coronation as the new 23 year old king, who had to be summoned from his family farm for the event.

In November, 1959, young King Kigeli traveled to the Congo to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold.  While he was out of his country, a coup d’état supported by the Belgian military took place, and King Kigeli was forcibly and illegally prevented from returning home.  Having never been legitimately removed by his own people, and lacking any honest, independently monitored vote, Kigeli V remains in exile to this day as the legitimate King of Rwanda.  While the U.N. General Assembly stipulated that the Belgian government should allow his return, Belgium ignored the U.N. action and posted guards on the border of Rwanda to arrest him.  Indeed, he was arrested when he attempted to return to Rwanda to oversee free elections.

Most Americans are unaware that this king has been living in Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., since the United States granted him political asylum in 1992.  A friend of the late Nelson Mandela, His Majesty is a giant of a man both physically (he stands over 7 feet tall) and morally.  He tried, unsuccessfully, to warn the United Nations in advance about the impending slaughter in 1994 and since then he has established and now heads the King Kigeli Foundation in order to foster humanitarian initiatives on behalf of Rwandese refugees. While he lives quite modestly, he continues to travel and speak on behalf of Rwandan refugees, in support of various humanitarian efforts, and for reconciliation between all ethnic groups.

This writer has enjoyed meeting, speaking and traveling with King Kigeli.  We have a common religious devotion to Saint Nuno, the Portuguese patron of orphaned children, and we share  investiture in three of the same royal orders of knighthood.  In 2009, His Majesty honored me with a medal and I had the privilege of receiving him into the Royal and Venerable Confraternity of St. Nuno, of which I am Comrade Major.  King Kigeli is a prayerful, devout Catholic, a kind, modest, humble gentlemen, and a tireless spokesman for the cause of peace. It is inspiring to be with him.

In America, we chose our own independence from monarchy, but even more, we continue to celebrate our freedom from colonialism. That said, one has to think that the people of Rwanda could have fared much better under a constitutional monarchy headed by their beloved king than under the harsh regimes forced upon them by power brokers and colonialists in Europe and America.


H.R.H. King Kigeli V with the author


T.R. Heinan is the author of L’immortalité: Madam Lalaurie and the Voodoo Queen, a reflection on justice and compassion set in the historical context of a popular 19th century New Orleans legend.

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10 thoughts on “The Gentle King in our Midst By T. R. Heinan

  1. Trish Jackson

    What a great posting. Thank you so much for enlightening us. The true horrors and the magnitude of the genocide that has taken place in African nations has not been widely reported due to restrictions preventing foreign reporters from entering those countries. A war correspondent friend of mine visited Uganda after Idi Amin was ousted, and filmed a documentary about Amin’s reign of terror. The pictures of acres and acres of skeletons, their hands till tied with electric cable, spread as far as the eye can see, still haunt me. Not to mention the old bloodstains and instruments of torture in the prisons. The genocide Robert Mugabe committed when he took power in Zimbabwe was supposedly a tribal conflict, but it was actually perpetrated to remove any and all who could threaten Mugabe’s safety and position. I suppose historians will continue to attribute the Rwandan conflict to tribal differences even through we now know it wasn’t.

  2. fran

    An amazing story that I would love to publish in the next edition of MJ four in May. The issue is being dedicate to the memory of Nelson Mandela. Fran Lewis

  3. John B. Rosenman

    TR, thanks for this invaluable look at African history, which is steeped in bloodshed and injustice. That the rightful king of Rwanda is living in Virginia, thanks to Belgium imperialism! One is inclined to see parallels between this situation and Crimea/Ukraine and Russia today. In both cases the United Nations stood by and did essentially nothing. Nearly a million Africans killed! Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart, and that title perfectly describes so many of the effects of European imperialism where Africa is concerned. And yet, if King Kigell had remained in-country, could he have remained the king, and an effective one? Sadly, we will never know.

  4. Micki Peluso

    I enjoyed this educational and informative essay. I remember that horrific war and the slaughter of so many lives. I wondered then and still do if either side understood what they were fighting for or about and it just turned into mass killing and rioting. It’s fascinating that the King lives in America today and that you are a friend. What a fascinating life you lead.

  5. Marta Merajver-Kurlat

    T.R., if it weren’t for people like you, these horror stories would remain a headline lost among others in papers and news programs. We need to know and reproduce them to shake ourselves and others out of our petty comfort zones. Thank you!

  6. Martha Love

    Thank you , T.R., for this clear account of an important piece of African history. Not sure what it would take to reverse some of the harm already done by this colonization but getting the truth out there as you are doing is a good step.

  7. Bryan Murphy

    You have given us a clear and concise analysis of the conflict in Rwanda and indeed elsewhere. Every empire-builder seems to find “divide and rule” a policy that helps ruin other people and benefit himself. In the case of colonialism, the rulers have now departed but the divisions they left behind continue to fester. Thank you for reminding us of this brutal chapter in human history.

  8. Linda Hales

    T.R. you are a very special and commendable man. After reading this piece, I can honestly say that my knowledge of this tragedy in Rwanda has tripled. I delayed responding because I felt so under qualified to make any meaningful contribution to this commentary. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for enlightening us on what was yet another unnecessary political invasion into what had been previously been a peaceful society. We all know many countries that suffered such interventions are still struggling to this day because of the divide and conquer tactics of such colonizers.
    You live your life with noble purpose T.R. The world is a far better place with you in it.


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