The Rwandan Genocide

Rwandan National Genocide Memorial (Photo by author)

After Germany’s loss in World War I, the mostly ethnically homogeneous colony of Rwanda (now a very small nation in east central Africa bordering Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Congo) was given to the Belgians for administration. The native people of the area had two social classes: the minority Tutsi and the majority Hutu. The only distinctions between them were the number of cows a person owned. When a Hutu man obtained ten cows, he and his family became Tutsi with certain social privileges. If they dropped below ten cows, they became Hutu. Over the next 50 years, the Belgians favored the Tutsi minority and used them to rule over the colony more effectively.

Eventually, the race obsessed Belgians (and Europeans and Americans of the 19th and 20th centuries in general, and even today) assigned the Tutsis and Hutus tribal/racial status and forbade any social movement, ending centuries of social mobility between them. Identity politics (exasperated by “tribal” ID cards) eventually led to resentment of the ruling Tutsi from Hutus. When democratic reforms were introduced in the 1950s and 60s, the Hutu majority made sweeping gains. The Hutu used their new found political advantage to secure state structures and resources, legislative and executive powers, and seek revenge on the “oppressive” Tutsis. For the next 30 years, the history of Rwanda is scarred by reoccurring cycles of violence as Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda fought each other in a series of civil wars, wars with Tutsi dominated Burundi, and tense cease fires between the tribes and countries of the region, as they all prepared for the next cycle to begin again.

On 6 April 1994, the tentative peace of the early 90s was destroyed when the moderate presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were assassinated. On 7 April, Hutu extremists in the Rwandan government and military rounded up all prominent Tutsis and murdered them. Once all Tutsis in any Rwandan official capacity were dead, the Hutu unleashed their gangs and militias to exterminate all Tutsis and Twa (pygmies) in the country and extolled all loyal Hutus to murder their Tutsi neighbors. The militias and Hutu gangs widely distributed machetes to Hutus so they could kill any Tutsi they found: man, woman or child. Any who did not do so were killed with the Tutsis as well. Over the next 100 days 1.1 million Tutsis, Twa, and moderate Hutus were massacred, the majority by machete.

That’s 11,000 people a day for the next three months, or one person murdered every eight seconds.

The international response was tepid at best and complicit at worst. The United Nations Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR), led by Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, was established to oversee the most recent cease fire and transitional government, but was powerless to stop the genocide. Some of the first murders of the Rwandan Genocide were ten Belgian peacekeepers guarding the Tutsi interim prime minister after they were ordered to surrender when there was confusion whether they were allowed to use force to defend their charge. Most of the Rwandan staff were specifically targeted early in the genocide which paralyzed UNAMIR. Several impromptu safe havens for Tutsi and moderate Hutus were established, most notably Kigali’s football (read: soccer) stadium where Dallaire had his headquarters. However, most were abandoned by UNAMIR troops when the UN Security Council ordered Dallaire to concentrate on evacuating foreign nationals. Tens of thousands were left to their fate.

After decolonization in the 1960s, the Hutus fell under France’s “Françafrique” special relationship with its and Belgium’s former African colonies. Despite reports of mass rape and genocide, this special relationship bled over into the United Nations’ and the world’s response to what was happening in Rwanda. France sent troops to assist UNAMIR in evacuating citizens, but refused to evacuate Rwandan nationals with Tutsi identification cards, even if they were married to a French citizen. Hundreds of Tutsis were detained by French troops and turned over to Hutus to be killed. Furthermore, France and the United States blocked all efforts to assist Dallaire. Two weeks after the start, they pushed through UN Security Resolution 912 which reduced UNAMIR from 2500 troops to 270, barely enough to protect the stadium. The United States had lost soldiers during a UN mission in Somalia the previous October (“Blackhawk Down”) and President Bill Clinton refused to become involved militarily in Africa again. Clinton was quoted as saying “Leave it (Rwanda) to its fate”, and didn’t permit his staff to speak the word “genocide”.

The Tutsi had to save themselves.

Paul Kagame, the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi organization based in Burindi resumed the Rwandan Civil War after it was obvious that the UN would not stop the killing. The RPF invaded Rwanda on 8 April and made steady progress toward Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, while chasing the newly formed Hutu government across the country. Kagame’s forces received a steady influx of new recruits and captured the city in June. Later that month France launched Operation Turquoise, ostensibly to stop the genocide, but actually to prevent Kagame from seizing the southwestern fifth of the country and protect Hutu genocidaires and Hutu refugee camps in Zaire.

30% of the Twa (pygmy) population and 75% of the Tutsi population in Rwanda was murdered between April and June 1994.

The Rwandan Genocide was the opening act of the Great African War, which killed an additional 5.4 million people in the Congo and the African Great Lakes region over the next 14 years.

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