By Michelle Madden
National University of Ireland, Galway
“Those who do not live in Rwanda need to understand where this tragedy came from in order to prevent it from happening in their own country. Others need to understand so that they can help the Rwandan people end the violence.” - Fr. Modeste Mungwarareba
In the early summer of 1994, the world watched in horror as the small East-African country of Rwanda was ravaged by one of the most severe cases of genocide ever recorded. A civil war spanning half a century between the Hutu and the Tutsi people culminated in a mass killing spree; an attempt to exterminate the Tutsi race. The bloodshed lasted only 100 days, but still managed to wreak unspeakable havoc that has left a permanent scar on the country. There is a significant disparity in the death toll figures; the United Nations estimate is 800,0001, but according to Rwandan government statistics, more than 1 million lives were lost.2 One may question how such atrocities could have occurred, and to determine this, the history of Rwanda needs to be understood.
Firstly, we must dispel the common assumption that Hutus and Tutsis are distinct ethnic groups that have been warring for centuries. The two groups are largely similar; they speak the same language, share the same territory, and it almost impossible to tell which group an individual belongs to on the basis of physical appearance.3
Furthermore, the Hutu and Tutsi people had lived together harmoniously for years under a Tutsi-led monarchy for years, with intermarriage as a common practice. It was not until Belgian colonial influence gained momentum in the 1950s that the bitter division began. As the post-war policy of decolonisation spread, the Belgian government began to fear a Rwandan bid for national independence and so, prompted the formation of the Parmehutu (Hutu) party that was willing to forego independence in favour of abolishing the aristocracy of the ruling classes.4 This sparked the revolution of 1959 that led to the Parmehutu party overthrowing the Tutsi leadership and initiating independence for the Republic of Rwanda in 1962.
This new nation however, was built on a turbulent foundation; the Parmehutu party was notoriously sectarian and an atmosphere of hatred and discrimination developed, resulting in a series of refugee massacres throughout the 1960s. This continued for another two decades, before the Rwandese government officially denied the right of diaspora refugees to return to the country, fanning the flames of stereotypical conflict.5 These negative attitudes were supported by the media, as well as the Belgian government, adding to the genocidal mentality that was quickly accepted by society.
A civil war erupted on 1 October 1990 when the Tutsi rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) launched an attack on Rwanda. Massacres ensued and sua tu lanh the country was thrown into a bloody state of disarray, hovering between full-blown warfare and short-lived ceasefires. During the period of 1990-93, a total of 2,000 Tutsi were killed in local massacres.6
Attempts to establish a coalition government between the extremist Hutu Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) and the RPF were hampered, partly due to the resistance of the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana. In August 1993 UN peacekeeping troops were deployed to sua may giat Rwanda to ease tensions, headed by Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, who initially believed he was embarking on a straightforward peacekeeping mission.7 Upon realising the much more sinister intentions of the Hutu people, he called for extra troops and permission to seize the weapons they had imported, but his requests were denied by the UN.
Meanwhile, a Hutu power ideology was rapidly gaining popularity as the majority of the public succumbed to notions of superiority and hatred towards the Tutsi race. Similarly to the obligatory Star of David to be worn by Jews during the Holocaust, people were required to carry ID cards which determined their ethnicity. Media outlets such as newspapers and radio became the platform for hate speech and gender-based propaganda, depicting Tutsi women as sex objects.8 A Hutu militia known as the Interahamwe was formed.
On 6 April 1994, a plane crashed, killing all passengers including President Habyarimana; leading to rumours of a murder plot and the accusation of the Tutsi people. It has also been suggested that the Hutu people organised the killing to create an excuse to attack the Tutsi population; this is supported by the fact that the Interahamwe and Hutu followers had been rigorously preparing for onslaught for months. Regardless of who is to blame for Habyarimana’s death, it nevertheless became the catalyst for genocide.
“Rule number one was to kill. There was no rule number two.” 9
Almost immediately, the Interahamwe, alongside the Rwandan military, began the slaughter of Tutsi people in a blind frenzy that knew no barriers. Machete was the weapon of choice and victims were hacked to death or left to die from their brutal injuries; for example, many victims had both their Achilles tendons cut as they attempted to run away.10 No Tutsi was safe and no Hutu was expected to show mercy; neighbours killed neighbours, husbands killed wives, children killed their mothers. The following quote is from a Tutsi male who was forced to kill his own brother;
“The whole family was threatened with death if we did not kill him. [The Interahamwe] stood over me saying ‘Kill him.’ He said ‘I fear being killed by a machete…kill me but do it with a small hoe.” He himself brought the hoe and handed it to me. I hit him on the head. I kept hitting him on the head but he would not die. It was agonising. Finally, I took the machete he dreaded in order to finish him off quickly.”
One might wonder how it was so easy for the Hutu murderers to recognise who to kill, with little distinctive differences between them and their Tutsi neighbours, but journalist Jean Hatzfeld reminds us that they knew the victims personally and that “everyone knows everything in a village.”11
Children, even infants, were killed. Any moderate Hutu that refused to participate was killed. Women and young girls were systematically raped and tortured by militia men. Many community leaders such as mayors and police members supported the genocide, as well as actively participating in the bloodshed. The case of Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana garnered worldwide revulsion, when it was announced that the clergyman advised Tutsis seeking refuge to gather at a church complex, and then transported Hutu militia men to the site to carry out a mass murder.12 He became the first clergyman to be convicted of complicity in the genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.13
Humanity seemed forgotten as blood continued to spill. Many were fuelled by hatred, brainwashed by the media, while others killed out of fear; “either you took part on the massacre or else you were massacred yourself.”14 Faint whispers of hope were found in the bravery of some who refused to succumb to the madness; Paul Rusesabagina is a shining example. In a Schindleresque fashion, he managed to save the lives of over 1,200 Tutsi and Hutus by sheltering them within the confines of his own hotel, risking his own life to stay and ensure they were protected.15 His inspiring story was retold in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda.
The horror finally came to an end on 17 July, after the RPF captured Kigali, led by future president Paul Kagame. This forced over two million Hutu people to flee the country, leading to a belated and bittersweet victory for the Tutsi followers.16
“In their greatest hour of need, the world failed the people of Rwanda.” - Kofi Annan
The international community has faced harsh criticism for their utter failure to intervene in Rwanda, standing by as innocent people were slaughtered. The United Nations were fully aware of a prepared attack, but refused to allow peacekeeping troops to become involved, as Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire’s consistent pleas for assistance fell on deaf ears. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) was signed in August 1994 but came far too late as the irreparable damage had already been done.
France initiated a similar mission known as Operation Turquoise, which was also viewed as a late failure and potentially destructive as its history in the country led the RPF to believe that they were supportive of the Hutu regime.17
Still reeling from their disastrous intervention in Somalia the previous year,18 the United States attempted to turn a blind eye to Rwanda’s struggle. They denounced it as a tribal conflict, refusing to label it as genocide, knowing that to do so would force them to actively participate. 19 The Clinton government claimed not to be fully aware of the severity of the situation, but many believe this to be a blatant lie as the knowledge of an impending “Final Solution” was entirely at their disposal. Bill Clinton was later quoted as saying that the biggest regret of his presidency was failing to act in Rwanda when it was needed.20
The UN set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in November 1994 to prosecute those culpable in the genocide. Trials are ongoing but to date, the court has convicted 29 persons for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.21 The ICTR also made the landmark decision to classify rape as a crime of genocide; attempting to gain justice for the countless numbers of Tutsi women that have suffered at the hands of the Interahamwe. It has been labelled, however, as a slow and ineffective process, which has seen thousands die awaiting trial, as a result of poor prison conditions.
There have been many long-term implications of the genocide and Rwanda continues to bear the heavy burden of its horrific past. The mass upheaval of Hutu refugees into nearby Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) resulted in alarmingly high death rates, mostly owing to widespread disease and starvation.22 According to the International Rescue Committee, an estimated 5.4 million people have died as a result of conflict in the Congo since 1998, thousands of whom were Rwandan refugees.23 Today, in some parts of Rwanda, adult males constitute a mere 20% of the population; which has prompted women to engage in a form of husband-sharing, a practice fast becoming the biggest obstacle to stemming the spread of HIV and AIDS.24
Nearly 100,000 children were left orphaned immediately after the chaos but this figure is likely to have trebled in recent years.25 Many have assumed the role of parent to their younger siblings, some becoming head of a household at age nine. Few attend school due to poor facilities and a lack of pressure to do so. The persistent recruitment of child soldiers has robbed many of their childhood.
Those who have not been physically disabled have endured mental conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing such brutal attacks on fellow human beings. Many have lost most, if not all family members, whose bodies lie in mass graves. The return of Hutu refugees to a Tutsi-led government created much tension and the warring groups continue to view each other as the enemy. Many live in fear of another resurgence of violence, elevated by the fact that killers and genocide victims are living side-by-side.26
To conclude, we have seen how easily hatred can be ignited between two sides and how naturally this can escalate into a full-blown disaster situation. Despite the obvious implications of colonial rule and media propaganda, the Hutu and Tutsi people continue to live in a state of animosity, ever conscious of the bitter lines of division. The scar of genocide has tainted any possible plans for reconciliation and this is an indication of the awful power of such a monumental abhorrence. If we are to learn anything from the Rwandan genocide, it is that nothing can be gained from this bloodthirsty dog-eat-dog attitude perpetuated by certain members of society. Violence should be avoided at all costs in the greater aim of peaceful co-existence. To quote a genocide survivor, Leo Kabalisa;
“We didn’t learn anything from the Holocaust and it happened (again) in Rwanda. We didn’t learn anything from Rwanda because it’s happening in Darfur. The world is watching, but they don’t get it.”
We live in hope that one day we can learn from our mistakes so that the crime of genocide can become a thing of the past, and no longer a perilous threat to our future.
1. Rudasingwa, Dr. Theogene. “Rwandese Patriotic Front. Rwanda: Background to Genocide.” Dar es Salaam: Thacker Publishers Ltd., 1994.
2. Ndahiro, Tom. “Rwanda: Where Extermination Equals Expansionism.” Citizenship and Conflicts in the Great Lakes Region. PADEAP Conference Report, November 2001.
3. Verwimp, Philip. “Death and Survival during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda.” Population Studies Vol. 58, No. 2, Catholic University of Leuven, 1994. 233.
4. Physicians for Human Rights. Rwanda 1994: A Report of the Genocide. United Kingdom, 1994.
5. Hatzfeld, Jean. A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide - The Killers Speak. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2008.
6. Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998.
7. Prunier, Gerard. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. London: Hurst, 1995.