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The Tragedy of Rwanda


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.”


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.

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