(Originally published 4 April, 2014)
“Although I had seen war before, had seen the face of cruelty, Rwanda belonged in the nightmare zone where my capacity to understand, much less rationalise, was overwhelmed. This was a country of corpses and orphans…this was where my spirit withered”
This weekend will herald twenty years since the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana which initiated the beginning of one of the world’s most devastating genocides in world history and modern Africa, exceeding the mass slaughter perpetrated in Burundi and rivaling that of Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia and the Nazi Holocaust. The Rwandan genocide was ruthless and methodical, the most productive genocide in history and created by the Hutu extremists that dominated the heart of Habyarinama’s government also known as the akuzu or the ‘Zero Network’. The name paralleled their objective; a Rwanda with zero Tutsis.
The genocide was as Romeo Dallaire suggests ‘the failure of humanity’ in every sense of the word. What separates Rwanda from the Third Reich and Cambodia is that it happened so quickly, the Nazi regime took years to implement its murderous policies. No one emerged with a sense of righteousness from the Rwandan Civil War. Mass-murder, devastation, and racism are the usual terms associated with genocide. With Rwanda however the terms injustice, cowardice and inaction, indifference and a marked culture of impunity also come into the equation on the part of the West’s response to genocide.
It has become customary for those with less understanding of African history to think of the genocide in Rwanda as a sudden catastrophe, a simple product of ‘ancient tribal hatreds’, triggered by the plane-crash in which Rwanda’s president was killed. Far from that, the genocide was the climax of years of subjugation, isolation and violence towards the Tutsi minority decades before 6th April 1994. What I seek to explain predominantly is how the genocide occurred, how it was organised.
Rwanda formerly belonged to Belgium and operated as a colony in which the colonial masters exploited the local populace, carving society as they saw fit, re-moulding the delicate webs that was traditional African culture alongside the larger territory of Zaire (Now the Democratic Republic of Congo).
The terms ‘Hutu and Tutsi’ were manipulated by the Belgian colonists. Originally socio-economic titles; for example a person with a lot of cattle would be called ‘Tutsi’ and when he became poor, he was called ‘Hutu’ so a person could be both ‘Tutsi’ and ‘Hutu’ in one lifetime. The story is well-known; the Tutsi’s were seen by the Belgians as the superior governing elite. The Tutsi’s were classified as the superior ethnic group and as a result were the only ethnic group that could participate in the colonial government. Such discriminatory policies created resentment as the classification/ identity cards that specified which ethnicity you belonged to. This form of identification which could not be changed split Rwandan society between Tutsi’s and Hutu’s, the latter in particular developing a pathological hated for the Tutsis. A culture of rapacious, barbaric rule by a Belgian elite which had absolutely no interest in developing the country or population was created. The resultant product was an unstable mainframe for Rwandan politics.
The Rwandan ‘revolution’ (1959-1962) prompted the beginning of recurrent genocidal violence which reached its zenith in 1994 under the extremist Hutu regime, the MRND and volatile ‘Hutu Power’.. The revolution witnessed the overhauling of the two-tier educational system that favoured Tutsi hegemony by Hutu nationalists who in the years proceeding the revolution had published the Bahutu Manifesto which proclaimed the need for liberation from both white colonialism and the Tutsi minority. The Bahutu Manifesto established two enemies (the Belgians and Tutsis) and distinguished the Tutsi as a separate race who had, with the assistance of Belgian power, established a political, social and economic monopoly at the expense of the majority.
The revolution that struck the shackles from the Hutu population was near sacrosanct and the extent to which some Hutu politicians would try to gain, consolidate and maintain the power seized by the social revolution were shocking before the eventual genocide. The machete, clubs (often embedded with sharps nails) or blocks of wood were cheap and preferred alternatives to dispose of and maintain control of the Tutsi minority by the newly installed government. Effectively one repressive regime replaced another and massacres occurred frequently. Between 1957 and Rwandan eventual independence in 1962, thousands of Tutsi’s were slaughtered and over 100,000 were forced to flee the country most of whom became refugees in southern Uganda and would remain so largely until 1994. The RPF was formed by the refugees who had fled to southern Uganda by Paul Kagame. They vowed to return to their homeland.
Terms of distinguishing ‘genocide’ or simply put for now ‘genocidal violence’ was complicated in the Western world. After all when the term genocide is contemplated the first thought is of concentration camps, gas, an almost industrial style conduct in the extermination of an ethnic group. No one even decided to admit that walking across your neighbour’s lawn and bludgeoning them to death with a club or hacking at them with a machete could be determined as genocide.
Rwanda was seen as the atypical failed African state in the Western media, the reality however was that Rwanda was one of the most codified, authoritarian and methodically ruled police states on the planet in the early 1990s under an organized regime which was prepared to make the transition to a genocidal one to remain in power after the RPF (Tutsis refugees who had been in exile since the rise of the Hutus) invaded Rwanda in the early 1990s. All levels of Rwanda’s society, the political hierarchy and the tools it used (the army, church, police etc.) combined to provide Hutu Power the springboard under which it could attempt to wipe out the Tutsi minority. Their were even ‘practice’ runs of slaughter done in 1993, kidnappings, the reduction of Tutsis economic rights and access to government and more. These were all springboards to eventual genocide.
Gasoline was thrown on the fire by the persistent political instability in Rwanda’s southern neighbour Burundi, which, like its northern brothers has experienced persistent socio-economic problems and conflict between Tutsis and Hutus but in reverese with the Tutsi government keen to supress the Hutu majority. Over 100,000 were massacred in a ‘selective genocide’ by the Tutsi army in 1972 who liquidated all educated Hutus. Hutu Power, the CDR and the MRND were given further ‘evidence’ by the murder of the newly elected Burundian president (A Hutu), the death of some 150,000 and the creation of 300,000 Hutu refugees at the hands of Tutsi hardliners that the Tutsi inyenzi (cockroach) in Rwanda could not be trusted. ‘Know that the person whose throat you do not cut now will be the one that will cut yours.’ was a statement issued by Mugesera, a MRND militant in 1992. The outbreak of violence again in Burundi (1993) was a short-term external factor that contributed to genocide in 1994, whereby many conservative Hutu factions united behind Hutu Power and the akuzu.
The setting for mass-violence was long term and building to a climax, the economic and social instability in both the 1980s and early 1990s severe. The final catalyst needed to start the descent into bloody violence, as with any major genocide in the 20th century, was war. In 1993 Rwanda was effectively bankrupt, awash with refugees and dependent on emergency food supplies.
The economic and social issues originally a problem to the sagging government of Habyarimana, were eased by the government party’s construction of a radical ideology which distracted the Hutu population from the politicians with whom they had recently been disenchanted. The creation of the unholy ‘Hutu Ten Commandments’ has been seen as the worst excesses of ‘Hutu Power’ ideology and ‘draw direct parallels to extremist ideologies in other genocidal and racist regimes such as the Nuremberg Laws and the Bosnian Serbs’ 1992 edicts, which hoped to impose specific rules on the minority.
The international commission and a UN rapporteur who soon followed warned explicitly of a possible genocide in 1993. Added to this ominous prediction was the fact that Rwanda, though supposedly wanting a ‘peaceful’, multi-party government was quite literally overflowing with weapon imports be it grenades and Kalashnikovs to machetes. The government’s military expenditure alone was hardly a sign that the country was paving the way for a transition towards peace.
As early as 1993 lists were being drawn up, stockpiles of weaponry were overflowing with the influx of machetes, grenades and rifles from abroad, and RTLM (Rwanda’s national radio) and the Kangura paper was spouting out racist, anti-Tutsi propaganda encouraging the destruction of all ‘cockroaches’ and the need to maintain ‘Hutu Power’ by whatever means necessary.
The emergence of the Interhamwe and the Impuzamugambi militia/paramilitary trained by the army and to be used in ‘emergency’ situations would prove to be a harrowing reminder of the genocide. Dallaire described them as ‘clowns’, a group of men who looked to be dressed for a carnival or celebration, the reality however was far different.
Armed with axes, machetes, clubs and a crude array of weaponry with potent banana beer in hand or a hate radio encouraging violence and trained by the elite members of the RGF; these men were the main tools under which the regime would conduct the slaughter of the Tutsi’s. It was not hard to encourage many of the young men who composed the Interhamwe and Impuzamugambi to join; idleness, unemployment, lack of opportunities or education and the continuum of poverty ensured that many were willing to find a new purpose in life. This would constitute violence through which wealth and land was obtained by plunder, wrested from the corpses of Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus.
The Presidential Guard were armed and trained by the French military and theakazu or the ‘Zero Network’ the real power behind Habyarimana’s throne, composed of Madame Agathe and a tight circle of family members and the military command including Bagasora (pictured above) ensured that the Western powers and particularly the United Nations mission in Rwanda under Dallaire remained on the periphery. They were also the key perpetrators and force behind the genocide. Dallaire was undermanned, poorly equipped, possessing an archaic Cold War peacekeeping policy, and fighting with the UN bureaucracy. Dallaire spent a good seventy per cent of his time fighting the organization he represented which was reeling in the wake of the disastrous U.N mission in Somalia (October 1993).
The timing of ‘Black Hawk Down’ could not have been more poorly timed for Rwanda in terms of U.N and U.S conduct in humanitarian affairs. The deaths of eighteen U.S servicemen and more U.N peacekeepers in Somalia meant that commitment to humanitarian missions was received coldly by U.S foreign policy makers. Effectively the U.N were made scapegoats by U.S policy failures. The shadow of Somalia severely strained relations between the U.N and the U.S and the latter decided that through the newly introduced ‘PPD-5’ document that humanitarian missions should involve zero risk and should only be of interest if the particularly country in question concerned U.S interests.
Effectively Dallaire had his hands tied on the ground and the very extremists he was fighting knew this. They knew that the death of U.N peacekeepers would force a withdrawal and that the likelihood of intervention in a country on the periphery of U.S interests was unlikely. Their targets were the missions’ best soldiers, the Belgians.
The introduction of a multi-party system, the assimilation of the RPF on the borders of Uganda into the political scene meant that men who were currently in power faced punishment and questions for their past crimes in the regime including Habyarimana. The latter’s signing of the Arusha Peace Accords were to be his death warrant as the men who had grown rich were not about to let go of their privileges gained under an abusive system of patronage and clientism.
The scene was set, the regime was armed, the U.N was hamstrung, and the economic and social conditions primed for mass-violence. Rwanda and the surrounding region was locked and loaded for self-destruction, all was needed was an incident to trigger a chain reaction. The assassination of Habyarimana, his aircraft shot down out of the sky by a rocket killing all on board, proved to be the catalyst for bloodshed.
With astonishing speed, Bagasora and the Presidential Guard seized control and roadblocks were set up by the militia. Tutsi politicians and Hutu moderates were executed by death squads in the early hours of the 7th April and the extremist government seized power.
In the chaos of night, the presidential guard captured fifteen Blue Helmet troops from UNAMIR, who had been protecting Hutu moderate and Prime Minister, Madame Uwilingiyimana (later executed). The ten Belgians were held hostage before being tortured, mutilated and hacked to death with machetes (the Ghanaians were released). Their gruesome deaths were the designed to cripple Western will for intervention and precipitate a U.N withdrawal and fatally weaken UNAMIR (the Belgians being the backbone of the armed forces of UNAMIR). France and Belgium proceeded to evacuate their civilians and eventually the U.N forces were reduced to a poultry token force of two-hundred and fifty men under the indignant Dallaire.
These evacuations were the cause of two very large controversies. The first is over whether the genocide could have been stopped at the outset by nearby Western troops. They abandoned the Rwandans begging for help on the roadsides and drove through the checkpoints at which Tutsi’s were being slaughtered. A soldier follows orders but common sense that dictates military thinking should have halted the atrocities. Belgium and France disregarded a inherent value in war; saving lives and protecting civilians. It was unforgivable conduct, unprofessional, and something you can still fail to comprehend to this day.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front under the command of Kagame warned that if the killings did not stop that war would resume, and on 8th April civil war restarted. With 20,000 Tutsis already dead the violence escalated and engulfed the rest of Rwanda as the agricultural genocide began. Those who were shot were the lucky ones and few and far between. The majority or deaths were down to the use of rudimentary crude methods such as machetes, axes, clubs, strangling, being buried alive and drownings. Neighbour murdered neighbour, wife murdered husband, husband murdered wife, child murdered parent, friends murdered each other, doctors killed patients and teachers killed students as the Hutu’s went to ‘work’ (their description for killing Tutsi’s). Many moderate Hutus were murdered as well even though the identity cards specified between who was Tutsi and Hutu. After years and years of intermarriage, differentiation was vague at best. A paradise, supposedly where God went to sleep at night, had become the scene for genocidal carnage.
Opportunism to seize loot, land and belongings played in big role in the massacres in many parts of Rwanda. Nowhere was safe; schools and churches, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQtMlxUqy4g) particularly the latter were the main places were massacres occurred and so often it was the priests, whom the victims had placed their trust, that helped the Interahamwe conduct their bloody work under the eyes of God, bludgeoning and hacking their victims to death over several hours. It was a sickening, unimaginable betrayal of trust for those desperate for help.
Hunts over several weeks were conducted in the hills and swamps to find Tutsi’s in hiding and Hutu Power made good their promise that they send the Tutsi’s back to Ethiopia (their apparent ‘homeland’ before they inhabited Rwanda) as countless bodies clogged the rivers, the stench of rotting flesh all-around as corpses, if not thrown into the mass-graves, baked in the tropical sunshine. Mass-rape and sexual violence occurred, victims either being murdered, gang-raped by Hutu militia, kept as ‘comfort’ women, left with horrific injuries, pregnant, with psychological trauma or HIV and STIs. STIs and rape were used as a weapon of war to create divisions within the Tutsi community. Hundreds of thousands of children were slaughtered or maimed. They were seen as a key target by the militia to wipe our the future generation of Tutsi and as such were not exempt from the violent butchery.
All this occurred as the RPF slowly forced its way towards Kigali, the RGF spending too much time implementing the extermination of the Tutsi’s and eventually the RPF seized Kigali declaring the civil war at an end with hundreds of thousands of Hutu civilians, government officials, militia and the army fleeing across the border to Zaire (The Democratic Republic of Congo) where they would continue their genocidal violence against Tutsi’s across the border.
By June, in just about one-hundred days 800,000 – 1,000,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus were dead, millions more were refugees scattered across central Africa, Rwanda was the poorest country in the world, all infrastructure had been stripped, destroyed or pillaged, and Kigali and surrounding towns and countryside reeked of death. The world was finally stunned by the sheer barbarity that had consumed Rwanda. The descriptions by witnesses on all sides, journalists, U.N officials, politicians, soldiers, civilians, and the silence of the victims and the killers portray violence and brutality of a stomach turning level. These are two of hundreds of examples.
“A group of soldiers and Interahamwe attacked the church. They made holes in the back walls and threw grenades through the holes…..the Interahamwe then came in with their machetes and began massacring. At least one uniformed soldier continued to shoot into the church to protect the Interahamwe until they were right inside the church and had begun their ‘work’. The Interahamwe included women and young boys, about eleven to fourteen, carrying spears and sharpened sticks. They used these to beat a lot of children to death. When researchers from African Rights arrived at Ntarama two months later, the church was still full of decomposing corpses…every inch of the inside of the church was taken up by corpses…it was impossible to enter the church.” (Martin Meredith, State of Africa, p.514)
“When we arrived, I looked at the school across the street, and there were children, I don’t know how many, forty, sixty, eighty children stacked up outside who had all been chopped up by machetes….their mothers had heard them screaming and had come running, and the militia had killed them, too. We entered the church. There we found 150 people, dead mostly. The Polish priests told us they had been incredibly well-organized. The Rwandan Army had cleared out the area, the gendarmerie had rounded up all the Tutsi, and the militia had hacked them to death.” Beardsley
What of the international community? Why did the world become bystanders and watch millions of people die in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo? Why did they blunder so badly when they did act upon the regional crisis produced by the Rwandan genocide? Why was the U.N mission a disaster, to the point that it left the commander Dallaire and many others suicidal, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and unable to comprehend the shocking behaviour of the international community? It was a combination of a basic lack of understanding of Africa, the bureaucracy within the United Nations, media focus upon the civil war in Bosnia, racism, the sheer lack of will across the Western spectrum and the usual assumption that the horrors that were unfolding in Rwanda were another African ‘mess’.
Strategically Rwanda held no particular significance economically or politically for the Western powers. France’s involvement with the genocidal regime was controversial as seen by their role in ‘Operation Turquoise’. They have been accused of directly standing-up the genocidal regime before and after the genocide. They trained the Rwandan forces under Bagasora, the Presidential Guard, and directly assisted them in their fight against the RPF between 1990-1993, whether it be supplying weapons, training or direct combat. In the early days of the genocide they also provided transport for certain perpetrators of genocide to escape, for example the malevolent Madame Agathe. Washington fared no better in the debacle, refusing to use the term genocide under any circumstances as to avoid the need, under the U.N protocol, to intervene to halt the massacre. Belgium’s indifference to and eventual withdrawal from the mess it had created, courtesy of its legacy as colonial masters, was equally controversial. The Western world has to come under severe scrutiny, their inaction enough to suggest that morally they are certainly culpable as they so frequently claim to champion the halting of genocide, humanitarianism and moral righteousness.
Rwanda must be remembered, a warning for the ages that despite the horrors of the Holocaust, Cambodia, and more that man is still capable, even in the 1990s and 21st century, of astonishing cruelty and violence. Nearly one million Rwandans are testimony to this reality.
- 8,000 people were murdered on average a day
- Around 333 people were murdered an hour.
- 6 men, women and children were murdered every minute.
- Between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped (67% of women who were raped during the genocide were infected with HIV and AIDS.)
- Phillip Gourevitch: ‘In 100 days, 800,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus were exterminated by Hutu Power extremists, this equates to 8,000 people on average a day and 333 every hour. The Rwandan genocide (1994) was the most efficient mass killing since the use of the atomic bombs in 1945 and three times the rate of Jewish dead in the Holocaust.'
- 8,00,000-1,000,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus were murdered in total in 100 days (April 7 – July 15 1994. (20% of the country’s total population and 70% of the Tutsi then living in Rwanda.)