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The Tragedy of Rwanda

1.

Heavy spring rains have started to fall on central Africa, bringing the promise of another year of life to peasant farmers in the region. However, for the masses of Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire already ravaged by civil war, genocide, and cholera, the onset of the monsoons is a new nightmare come true.

As storms that will last on and off through next May gather, refugee families huddle inside the tiny grass, bamboo, and mud shelters that clog the landscape around the border town of Goma. The hovels that lack plastic sheeting—a valuable and thus highly stealable commodity—are frequently damaged by the wind and rain. This is the least of the refugees’ worries. Human waste does not get absorbed into the black volcanic bedrock of Goma and the rains turn the camps into stinking swamps. The stench is unbearable and aid workers fear new epidemics of dysentery as well as pneumonia and malaria.

Meanwhile, several kilometers and a few rolling hills away in Rwanda, the rains, which would normally mark the new planting season, go unheeded. Fields full of sorghum, maize, cassava, and sweet potatoes rot in wet soil. For weeks the crops waved in the breeze waiting to be picked or cut down, but there was no one to harvest them. It is already too late even to prepare for next year.

In a country the size of Wales where a shortage of land has been at the core of the Hutu-Tutsi struggle, parts of the Rwandan countryside are entirely empty. It is possible to drive through vast stretches of Rwanda without seeing a single soul. In the less than three months between April and July, much of Africa’s most densely populated country has become a hollow, windswept land of rolling hills and smoking volcanoes.

Where there are people, they live in ghost towns or in displaced persons camps where they are looked after and fed by foreigners. In rural areas controlled by the victorious Tutsis of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which has formed the country’s new government, there are farmers and soldiers and hardly anyone else: few if any shopkeepers, no barbers, no street vendors, no officials. There are no police, no courts, no judges, no law. The capital of Kigali still has less than half its 350,000 pre-war population.

What is remarkable about this emptiness is that for Rwandans land is everything. In an overpopulated country with a subsistence economy, fear of losing your shamba—your small parcel of land—is like fear of death. Nevertheless, at least two million Rwandans have chosen exile and death over land. Ignoring calls to return by the new, mainly Tutsi, government, the refugees, almost exclusively Hutus, remain in the camps which were until recently stacked with the bloated dead bodies of cholera victims.

According to the best estimates of the overwhelmed relief agencies in Goma, at least 50,000 people have died from disease since they first crossed into Zaire at the head of an RPF advance in mid-July. Those who survive fight one another with rocks and machetes for food and clean drinking water; scores of people have been killed or maimed. Zairean troops and demobilized Rwandan Hutu soldiers shake down the wretched for what little they have.

To understand what it is that keeps them living and dying in these conditions while their land sits idle, it is necessary to understand what led them to leave Rwanda in the first place. In many talks with the refugees in Zaire, it gradually became clear that most of the Hutu refugees, largely uneducated peasant farmers, got up and left their country for the same reason they killed their Tutsi neighbors—they were told to.

Leaders of the defeated Hutu government played their final hand in the last days of Rwanda’s civil war and whipped up hysteria among an already panicked population. Their message, broadcast on several local radio stations and delivered in person by armed soldiers, was clear: follow your leaders into exile or face certain death at the hands of the Tutsi rebels of the RPF. Convinced by years of anti-RPF broadcasts portraying the RPF as a bestial Tutsi army bent on nothing less than the complete subjugation of Hutus, the people were too terrified to test the RPF’s promises of reconciliation.

And then there is the guilt of those in the Hutu militia who killed at least half a million innocent men, women, and children—and the guilt of those who sat back and watched. “After what happened to the Tutsis, we ran because we did not think the RPF would ever be able to forgive us,” a refugee whispered to me.

Many outside observers, especially in the early days of the slaughter, have tended to dismiss what has happened in Rwanda as African mayhem-as-usual. They saw the Hutu-Tutsi conflict as little more than a savage tribal freak show. While the violence was certainly savage, it was not normal and it was not exclusively tribal. The killings were neither random nor spontaneous. Nor were most of the victims killed as a result of the country’s civil war. The slaughter of civilians took place simultaneously with the war—sometimes in the same regions as the combat between the government and the RPF armies—but it was completely separate from the war.

The truth is that between 500,000 and one million people, mostly Tutsis, were hacked to death, burned alive, or shot by their friends and neighbors throughout the country as part of a sinister political operation that had been intricately planned for years. Interviews with members of the Hutu militias responsible for most of the slaughter, and investigations by African Rights, a London-based human rights group, show that the preparations for the annihilation of the Tutsis as well as politically moderate Hutus go back to early 1991. At the time, the country’s late president, Major-General Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was faced both by growing demands for multiparty rule and by a rebellion by the RPF, which had invaded with a small refugee army of Tutsis from neighboring Uganda a few months before.

While Habyarimana and his cronies found demands for political change obnoxious, the RPF threat was deadly serious. Most of the rebels were the children of Tutsis who had fled the country during the Hutu uprising, which started in 1959 and had by 1963 overthrown the Tutsi aristocracy and replaced it with a succession of Hutu regimes. The declared aim of the RPF was to bring down the Habyarimana government and repatriate all the tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees, people who had been dispossessed of their land and wanted it back.

It was during the 1991 rebellion by the RPF that plans were first made to form pro-government militias of young Hutu men. After the rebels had launched an attack on the northern Rwandan town of Byumba, Augustin Bizimana, the governor of the region (who would later serve as the defense minister during the April 1994 slaughter of the Tutsis), proposed that a “home guard” be formed in border areas. Since it was necessary to weed out infiltrators, he proposed that at least one person from every ten households be mobilized, so that strangers as well as collaborators could be identified at once. The plan was never put into action, but it was not discarded either. It was merely transformed.

A year earlier, in January 1990, President Habyarimana had formed a youth-wing of his own party, the Mouvement Républicain National pour le Développement (MRND). The idea was to create a base of support among the young at a time when the middle class and many civil servants had begun to show sympathies for the moderate opposition, led by the Parti Socialiste-Démocratique (PSD), the Parti Liberal (PL), the Parti Socialiste Rwandais (PSR), and the Mouvement Démocratique Républicain (MDR). The youth wing of the MRND was set up as a group that would be fiercely loyal to the president. Habyarimana called it Interahamwe, a name taken from a patriotic song. The lyrics said: “Rise up Rwanda, you are supported by Interahamwe, those who join together in common cause.” By April 1994, the name was popularly translated as “those who attack together.”

2.

Jacques is twenty-seven and a former civil servant from the capital, Kigali. He is soft-spoken and neat. He does not seem the sort of person capable of murder, but by his own admission, he has personally killed at least ten people and was a member of a militia in a Kigali suburb that tortured and murdered dozens more, including a former Miss Rwanda.

His proof of Interahamwe membership is a card with a red, green, and black border, bearing the logo of the MRND. He joined in 1990. According to Jacques, before the president died in a suspicious plane crash on April 6, 1994, “the Interahamwe was only the MRND youth wing. We were just young people, not militias. Originally we were not together for fighting but for thinking.”

It was, however, a very short step from “thinking” to genocide, and in fact the militias were killing people earlier than Jacques claims they did. After a series of failed cease-fires between the RPF and the government, in 1991 it became apparent that the MRND youth wing was getting involved in activities far different from traditional youth politics. Human rights groups and opposition parties began to accuse the Interahamwe of disrupting opposition rallies and of involvement in political killings. In March 1992, party youths took part in a massacre of Tutsi civilians in the southern town of Bugasera. Before the attack the militias cut the telephone lines. When they finished killing, they dumped the bodies in pit latrines. This, in retrospect, was the dress rehearsal for April 1994. It was the first time the Interahamwe were used in a military action. It was also the first time that radio broadcasts were used to incite people to kill.

Almost from the start of the civil war, Habyarimana launched a propaganda campaign against the Tutsis within the country, accusing them of being accomplices of the RPF. But it was not until March 1992 that the two elements which became central to the genocide—indoctrinated youths and poisonously aggressive radio broadcasts—were combined with such devastating effect.

By the end of 1992, the idea of an independent “home guard” was formally scrapped; the youth wing was mobilized as the party militia, ready to enforce Hutu political domination. According to press reports, the militia started with about 1,700 members organized in units that gave themselves pseudo-military names like Abazulu and called themselves “brigades.” The Hutu government officially denied that the militia existed and described the Interahamwe alternatively as boy scouts, political youths, and even forest guards.

In 1993, the government did much to arm and train the members of the Interahamwe. Their weapons consisted mainly of machetes and fragmentation grenades, although some were given rifles. Most of the training was carried out by the Rwandan army, but there have also been reports that French military advisers may have tutored some of the groups in the art of killing.

In December 1993, the archbishop of the large Catholic diocese of Nyundo wrote a pastoral letter criticizing the government’s distribution of weapons to Rwandan youths. A month earlier, in November, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees formally protested to the Habyarimana government about the involvement of Hutu refugees from neighboring Burundi in the militias. The Burundis fled to Rwanda to escape excesses committed by the Burundi army, which is dominated by Tutsis. Unlike in Rwanda, the Tutsis in Burundi maintain their power through their control of the army. After their own ordeal the Burundi Hutus needed little convincing to join groups whose ultimate aim was to kill Tutsis. Survivors of attacks in several villages in the southwest of Rwanda often spoke of Burundis being sent into villages to do the killings when the local groups did not have the stomach for the job.

The UN’s criticisms came just three months after the Habyarimana government and the RPF formally ended their civil war. On August 4, 1993, they signed, in Tanzania, a peace agreement known as the Arusha Accords, providing for a transitional government composed of the MRND, the opposition parties, and the RPF. However, an important but nasty section of Rwandese society, including those closest to Habyarimana, never supported the agreement. Under constant pressure from his hard-line coterie, President Habyarimana did not dismantle the militias as the country limped toward peace.

The militias were the instruments of Hutu extremism, but what inspired them, what set off the genocide, was a dangerous racial ideology systematically spread by the Habyarimana government—“an ideology,” wrote Alex de Waal, the co-director of African Rights, “that would be laughable were it not so demonically powerful.”1 Its main tenets were that Hutus were destined to rule Rwanda, that Tutsis were murderous outsiders bent on the destruction of the Hutus, and that any Hutu who did not share this view was a traitor. The power of this view was such that it created an atmosphere of extreme paranoia in which mass murder could masquerade as civic duty.

The relationship between Hutus and Tutsis has always been unique. They lived on the same hills and in the same valleys. They shared the same language, the same kinds of food, and attended the same Catholic and Protestant churches. The killing that was carried out was not part of a war over disputed territory. For many Hutus and Tutsis the entire world is in dispute. For them the conflict was and continues to be a war in the mind.

Tutsis are the descendants of a pastoral people who emigrated to the region in the fifteenth century, established a monarchy, and gradually subjugated the more numerous Hutu farmers. With the passage of time what distinguished Tutsis from Hutus became more a matter of economics than ethnicity. Until the Belgians took control of the country in 1919, there appears to have been some upward mobility for economically successful Hutus as well as assimilation into the Hutu majority for poor Tutsis. But Belgium solidified the social structure, and in doing so, set the stage for future problems.2

Anthropologists reject the description of Hutus and Tutsis as “tribes” and are also uneasy about calling them ethnic groups. Despite caricatures to the contrary, years of intermarriage have made it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between most Hutu and Tutsi by their physical appearance. (By law and custom, ethnic identity is passed through the father.) If it were not for the national ethnic identification cards which all Rwandans were obliged to carry, the militias would in many cases have had a difficult time knowing whom to kill.

Those identification cards, like the hardening of the Hutu-Tutsi social structure, were a legacy of Belgian colonial rule. Much of the current problems can be traced back to the arrival of colonialism and the creation of the “Hamitic theory,” a discredited racial explanation for the physical and cultural differences in black Africa. Its origins lie in the refusal of European explorers and colonizers to believe that the Bantu peoples of Central Africa could have developed relatively sophisticated kingdoms such as existed in precolonial Rwanda. So the Europeans explained these “anomalies” by inventing a race of “African Aryans,” the Hamites, who supposedly migrated from northeastern Africa, bringing civilization to the “savages” further south.

Today the theory is universally dismissed by experts, but in the heyday of colonialism it was used to reward or withhold privileges from local peoples. When the Belgians arrived, they favored the Tutsis—taller and, to Belgian eyes, more European in appearance—while the Hutus became a second-class majority. Consigned to a life of peasant farming, most Hutus were denied education and barred from administrative jobs. As independence approached, however, the Belgians shifted their allegiances to the Hutus, whose uprising between 1959 and 1963 resulted in the massacre of 100,000 Tutsis, while 200,000 more were forced to flee, most of them to Uganda. Their unsuccessful attempts to negotiate their return home combined with their persecution under a succession of Ugandan governments ultimately led to the creation of the RPF.

Since their own rise to dominance, Hutu political leaders themselves have adopted the Hamitic theory but with a new twist. In the revised version, the Hutu are said to be the original inhabitants of Rwanda while the Tutsis are seen as despicable foreign invaders. This is the central theme of the hate propaganda that the Hutu extremists circulate in the camps in Zaire. It was even endorsed by some of the country’s most prominent academics.

Dr. Leon Mugasera, for example, was a senior adviser to President Habyarimana and one of the most important ideologues of the MRND party. Now he is a refugee in Canada, where he is under investigation for war crimes. In November 1992 he delivered a speech that was widely interpreted as a call to the Hutus to commit acts of genocide against the Tutsis. A transcript of the speech, authenticated by a human rights commission which visited Rwanda last year, shows that he urged Hutus to rise up and “decimate” sympathizers of the RPF.

“The fatal error we made in ’59…was that we let them leave,” he said.

“We cannot live in peace if we do not unearth the battle axe,” he added. “Be warned that he whose life you save will not save yours.”

In clear reference to the Hamitic theory, he exhorted the population to return their erstwhile masters to Ethiopia. They should take, he said, a short cut by way of the Nyaborongo River. Two years later, many thousands of bodies clogged rivers and streams and floated toward Lake Victoria.

The killing, however, was not limited to ethnic Tutsis. The militias also slaughtered Hutus who did not support the ruling party. While these people were killed because they were supposedly traitors to the Hutu cause, another ideological aim was also being carried out: to destroy the more moderate groups whose demands for human rights and democracy were a direct threat to the extremists.

By autumn of 1993, hate-filled radio broadcasts by the most vehement of the country’s three main radio stations, Radio Milles Collines, owned by members of Habyarimana’s inner circle, were circulating two propaganda messages one against the Tutsis in general, the other against the political opposition. As time went on, the broadcasts became more virulent and specific. Politicians were singled out by name as enemies or traitors who “deserved to die.”

The political situation in Rwanda was extremely tense by April 1994. President Habyarimana had been delaying for months the final stages of the Arusha Accords, much to the irritation of the Western and African nations who were concerned to avoid a major conflagration in Rwanda. Finally, Habyarimana was dragged back to the table by African leaders who had convened a meeting at Dar Es Salaam. Reports from the meeting say that Habyarimana, despite reservations of his hard-line critics at home, grudgingly agreed to fully implement the accords and surrender power to a broad-based transitional government. Whatever Habyarimana agreed to may never be known, because on April 6, on his way home from the meeting, his plane mysteriously and suspiciously exploded. (The president’s body and much of the wreckage landed in his own backyard.)

The government immediately accused the RPF of downing the plane, while the RPF claimed it was the work of the hard-liners in the MRND. It mattered little. Habyarimana’s death was the pretext the extremists in the president’s entourage used to unleash the slaughter. Within an hour of the plane crash that killed Habyarimana, the presidential guard, the military unit loyal to Habyarimana, set up road-blocks around the capital and began liquidating members of the moderate opposition, most of them Hutus. Among the first to die was Ms. Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who was both the prime minister and a PSD politician.

Rwanda also had one of the most active human rights movements in Africa with at least six independent organizations working to expose both government and RPF abuses. After April 6, most of the leaders and the members of those groups were murdered. In just a few days several thousand of the more educated and active citizens of Rwanda were killed off by the presidential guard, who prowled the streets of Kigali with lists of those they wanted dead: journalists, human rights lawyers, civil servants, teachers, businessmen, and clergymen. A curfew was imposed under the pretense of controlling the violence, but in reality it was done to help the presidential guard hunt down their victims in their houses.

The presidential guard was soon joined by the youth militias and within a week, according to Human Rights Watch, these forces had killed an estimated 20,000 people in Kigali and the surrounding region. It was during this time that the massacres spread to other parts of the country. There were places such as Butare, a university town with a tradition of tolerance, where local administrators refused to cooperate with the genocide. Not to be thwarted, the extremists replaced these brave men and women with hard-liners who when necessary bussed in soldiers and militia from outside to liquidate local communities.

It was also during this time that militia units that had not been armed were summoned to local barracks for brief training and to receive weapons and supplies. Jacques was among them.

“Three days after the president was killed, the military began to organize the Interahamwe, so that they could keep up the roadblocks. And the young people from each neighborhood went to get training to learn to fight and kill,” Jacques said.

How did you kill?

“In our neighborhood we killed with guns, but in other areas they killed with pangas [machetes], clubs, and sometimes guns.” Each time Jacques and his friends saw someone they thought was “collaborating” with RPF members, “the word would be passed to the roadblocks and if these people were stopped or found they would be encircled and killed along with their family.”

You killed entire families?

“Yes, they were RPF members.”

Women and children too?

“Yes, everybody was killed because if one escaped he could join the RPF and come back and attack us. In some cases children were spared and were taken to the Red Cross. But if their father or brother was an RPF member or supporter then the whole family was killed. Even the children.”

Do you feel sorry that you killed Tutsis?

He emitted a small “hummh” like a laugh stuck in his throat.

“No. I can’t say that I feel sorry.”

It is hard to comprehend the sheer audacity of what the Interahamwe tried to do. Using fragmentation grenades, machetes, truncheons, and wooden boards with nails sticking out of them, Rwandan extremists matched the efficiency of the Nazis’ industrialized method of genocide. In just ten weeks, Rwanda’s militias and army, along with many Hutu civilians killed at least 500,000 people. Throughout the slaughter the radio continued to encourage Rwandans “to fill the half-empty graves.” “When you kill the rat do not let the pregnant one escape. We made the mistake thirty years ago of letting them flee into exile, this time none will escape,” the radio said.

Perhaps the most disturbing triumph of the propaganda campaign was that it reached beyond the militias and the army and penetrated deep into Rwandan society, touching many people who would not normally have dreamed of killing. Teachers killed students. Husbands killed wives.

Even Rwanda’s churches were bloodied by the violence, both figuratively and literally. When the slaughter began, many people sought refuge in their local church. However, the sanctity of God’s house was not respected by those bent on killing. The largest of the massacres took place in church buildings or church compounds. Unfortunately, it was not just the buildings that were corrupted. According to a fact-finding mission of the World Council of Churches (WCC) which visited Rwanda in August, both the Protestant and Catholic church hierarchies have been discredited by “aligning themselves too much with the former Hutu regime and its tribal politics.” A report drafted by Samuel Isaac, a WCC official, said: “In every conversation we had, with the government and church people alike, the point was brought home to us that the church itself stands tainted, not only by passive indifference, but by errors of commission as well.”

The reasons why Hutus joined the Interahamwe in the killing spree are varied. Often the members of Interahamwe directly threatened people with death if they themselves did not kill; but in most cases the killing frenzy had so carried people away that such pressures were hardly necessary. Some people killed because they had personal scores to settle. Others joined the butchery out of greed. Radio broadcasts promised the killers they could have the land of those they killed. Radio RTLM, another extremist station, told listeners: “Those who mount the roadblocks will be rewarded. Those who do the work will not be forgotten. Those who do nothing will get nothing in return.”

3.

In conversations with hundreds of Hutu refugees in the camps over a period of weeks, I found hardly any who recognized the enormity of the crime that was committed in Rwanda. All but a very few Hutus deny any guilt for the mass slaughter and almost everyone you meet in the camps does not see their ordeal as self-inflicted but as the fault of the Tutsis. “We are dying here because of the Tutsis and the cockroaches of the RPF who want to rule over us,” one woman told me. She was absolutely convinced that it was right to kill Tutsis.

The Hutus in the camps quote a proverb to justify what happened in Rwanda: “You would do to us what we are going to do to you.” Then they say, “The people you call victims were the ones responsible.” They not only refused to reject the leadership that urged them to kill but sincerely believed that their own survival depended on killing.

Part of the government’s success was that its propaganda managed to convince the Hutu population that there was no difference between Tutsis generally and the RPF—a claim still made by former government leaders, among them Eliezer Niytegeka, the information minister in the so-called interim government that took power after Habyarimana died. Currently living in exile in Bukavu in Zaire with other members of the former government, he continues to consider himself a minister of Rwanda and to insist that in a war with the RPF the Tutsis were fair game.

“It has been proved that RPF had to recruit members from Tutsi families,” the minister said when we met on the veranda of a lakeside resort hotel in Zaire. “We have documents written which proved that most of the Tutsis were part of the RPF. And if we were fighting against RPF and there was proof that Tutsis were also members of RPF then people had to fight them also. This is what happened after the crash of the president’s plane.

“No single individual or group is responsible for what happened. Personally I blame nobody,” he added, laughing heartily.

That Rwanda might somehow become a peaceful country seems increasingly impossible. The mistrust between Hutus and Tutsis is greater than ever. The genocide has only confirmed the gulf between those who were selected for murder and those who did the killing. The RPF leaders have said that they want to bring to justice only those who organized the killings. Everyone else is welcome to come home. But fear of the RPF both real and imagined keeps them away.

In an attempt to reassure the Hutus of its honorable intentions, the RPF has named a Hutu, Pasteur Bizimungu, as the new president of the country and also appointed a Hutu prime minister, Faustin Twagiramungu. The Hutus see them as little more than RPF puppets. Few doubt that the real power behind the government is the Tutsi vice-president and defense minister, Major General Paul Kagame. General Kagame was the military strategist behind the RPF’s victory.

The Hutu often refer to the RPF as inkhotanyi, intrepid fighters, the name given to the warriors during the days of the Tutsi kingdom. General Kagame has always defended himself against the accusations that he has been fighting for a return to Tutsi domination. He has always maintained that he is a genuine revolutionary and an anti-feudal fighter. But if he remains unable to convince the Hutus that the RPF is a liberating force, he will have a hard time rebuilding a working administration.

After what happened in Rwanda, it would be naive to think that the RPF will readily surrender their dominance of the government any time soon. If the estimates of the number killed are accurate, then the Tutsis have been reduced from about 15 percent of Rwanda’s pre-war, pre-massacre population to somewhere between 1 and 9 percent. But sooner or later the Hutus will return, either through a slow repatriation or by force of arms. And when they do return they will bring with them their demands for democratic rule, which will probably return many of their same leaders to power. If the government succeeds in putting some of the Hutus responsible for mass murder on trial it may well find that the accused still have strong political support from the remaining Hutu population which, according to very rough estimates, includes over three million people still inside the country and over two million outside it.

In the meantime, the militias are still active in parts of Rwanda, as well as in the Zaire camps. Sybella Wilkes, a press officer for the UN Rwanda Emergency Office (UNREO), said recently that every day relief agencies must treat patients with fresh machete wounds in the northwest around Gisenyi and Ruhengeri, near the Zaire border. Militia bandits in the southwest, where the former French security zone was located, are preventing refugees from returning home through the region’s forests. In the refugee camps, militiamen and 20,000 former soldiers are thwarting the efforts of aid agencies to convince the refugees that it is safe to return to Rwanda. People are being killed every day for just talking about going back to Rwanda.

In Kimumba camp, near Goma, Renovat Rungo, a soft-spoken man who until recently was an English teacher at a training college in Rwanda, said he could not trust the RPF. “They are not honest.” However, he had no illusions about what happened in his country. The killings, he said, were not carried out by just the militias. Everyone joined in, even women and children. Pointing at the crowds of men and women in the camp around him he said: “No, they do not feel guilty now. They thought they would be successful, they thought they would get rid of all the Tutsis. They failed. Now the bad seed has been sown. They are seeds of hatred and they are in these little children you see here. This is a very long story and it is going to continue.”

  1. 1

    See his article, “The Genocidal State: Hutu Extremism and the Origins of the Final Solution in Rwanda,” in the Times Literary Supplement, July 1, 1994. 

  2. 2

    See the article by James Murray, the former British ambassador to Rwanda, in The New York Times, September 3, 1994.