Trying to Understand the Rwandan Genocide

I’m reading a Wikipedia article about the Rwandan Genocide, which happened when I was in college and only got so much press here in the Midwestern US. Helpful as it is, much of the Wikipedia article is going over my head.

Here’s what I’m getting:

  1. The Hutus and Tutsis have hated each other for decades if not centuries, for reasons that Homie isn’t really clear on, but probably have much to do with colonialism and related problems brought on by Europeans.

  2. Hutu-Tutsi relations in Rwanda were particularly sour c. 1994, for reasons Homie isn’t really clear on.

  3. A plane carrying some Hutu politicians of some importance is shot down; it’s unclear as to who was responsible, but Tutsis collectively take the blame.

  4. Every last Hutu in and around Rwanda decide that every last Tutsi in and Rwanda deserves death for being Tutsi.

  5. Fast forward to 2014: everything is just peach between Hutus and Tutsis, having put that whole genocide thing behind them?

Obviously I’m missing a great deal. Can someone please help me get a general idea of what went on and why?


I’m not really qualified to give a summary of the history leading up to the genocide, but I’d recommend Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire’s book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda for the ‘what happened’ question.

I will warn you that I found the book difficult to read from an emotional standpoint. I had to take it in small doses.

Immaculee Ilibagiza’s wonderful book “Left To Tell” stated more than once that Rwandans were trained from birth to never question authority. This was one of the factors.

She survived by hiding in a bathroom for 3 months with 8 other women. The pastor who sheltered them was almost caught several times.

Well, I’ll take a stab at this one…

Pre-colonialism what you had was a ethnic split that was largely occupation-based. The agriculturalist Hutu had migrated into the inter-lake region first, followed some centuries later by the pastoralist Tutsi ( how many centuries in unsure, but at least a few - the Tutsi appear on the scene by about the 14th century ). The Tutsi became the politically dominant ethnic class in a bifurcated society, but at least by recorded history said ethnic barriers were permeable in both directions. One could become a “Tutsi” by accumulating enough resources to become a pastoral cattle-herder. Moreover one could become a “Hutu” by losing your mobile capital and being forced to become a farmer.

This class mobility, however common or uncommon, acted as a relief valve for internal social pressure. Not a good system, but at least weakly functional.

When the Germans and Belgians arrived, buoyed by 19th century racialist science and the associated discredited “Hamitic hypothesis”, they transformed a permeable class system into an impermeable caste system. The Tutsi, who were reputedly taller and somewhat more caucasoid in features ( though in fact the overlap is apparently large, reflecting centuries of intermarriage and class movement ) were placed on a higher colonial rung as a distinct race - below whites, but above Hutus. And this difference was fixed in law and custom by descent.

Transformed from a system with a social underclass with potential to advance, to a system with a permanent racial underclass, social tensions rapidly ratcheted up, particularly with the closing of the colonial era. And especially as the new Hutu caste, as underclasses tend to be, was far more numerous.

My wife was once so obsessed by understanding the genocide she was reading books and watching documentaries, pretty grim. I myself have spent a lot of time trying to wrap my head around this one. One detail often left out was that this wasn’t a spontaneous explosion of hate, there were hate based radio programs and papers for years beforehand.

I don’t mean this in a derogatory way but it may just be impossible to fully wrap your head around, I know I can’t. In a similar way explain WW1 in Europe in a way a modern person could fully understand, it is very hard because culturally the gulf is immense.

I found “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families” by Philip Gourevich to be informative and very unsettling.

I’m not an expert, but here is what I can offer.

In pre-colonial times, the notion of “Hutu” and “Tutsi” developed. While today, we think of them as ethnic catagories, it’s not a perfect description. Hutus and Tutsis speak the same languges, practice the same customs and religions, intermarry, and live in the same communities. In other words, they don’t, in a strict sense. display any of the differences that define ethnicities. But none the less, these notions deveoped.

When Rwanda was colonized, the colonial powers used the existing Tutsi royalty to implement indirect rule. This allowed the colonizers to rule the country and extract resources with relatively little manpower. The basic deal in indirect rule is that the colonizers provide support for their chosen ruling class, and the ruling class manages the day-to-day of keeping the population under control and extracting taxes. Anyway, using the Tutsi royalty as colonial instruments played a role in cementing “Hutu” and “Tutsi” as categories with political power behind them, and its in this time that ID cards started including ethnic information.

As independence loomed, a “Hutu liberation” movement formed, and some of the sentiment started to get pretty nasty. After indepedence, the Hutu majority gained power, and many Tutsis fled to nearby countries, where they maintained a fairly organized diaspora. Immediately after liberation, there was a great deal of violence as exiled Tutsis would stage attacks, and Hutus would retaliate.

In the decades after liberation, there were occassional, but signifigant, outbreaks of violence and reprisal killings, both within and outside of Rwanda. In the 1980s, there was a very well organized attempt by exiled Tutsis to gain power. This fed some very extreme ethnic rhetoric among Hutus, who characterized the Tutsi as power-mad foreign neo-colonial invaders bent on the re-conquest of Rwanda and enslavement of Hutus.

And this brings us to when the plans for the genocide were laid. A group of high-level politicians hatched the plan to “destroy the Tutsi”. Arms, primarily cheap machetes, were ordered in vast quantities. Radio personalities turned up the heat and gradually brought more and more hate speech into their acts. A command structure for the genocide was formed.

Then the president’s plane was shot down, nobody knows by who. This was, to the leaders, as good a time as any to start the genocide. Extremist leaders branched out into villages, recruiting, by enticement or by force, men to hunt down the “fugitive” Tutsis, who had fled to what they hoped were places of safety. Soon, the country became a free-for all, with the violence providing a reason to loot neighboring houses, settle old debts, and abandon the hard work of farming to feast on the much-prized livestock of the newly dead. Organized government-backed militia groups provided leadership and manned roadblocks, but most of the killing was done within communities, neighbor fighting neighbor.

The UN had stationed troops in the country to monitor a recent peace agreement. When it became clear there was a genocide in the works- and it was quite early on that this became clear- people on the ground tried their damnedest to get support. Looking back, it really wouldn’t have taken much to control the violence. Unfortunately, some Belgian troops were killed early on, and Belgium pulled out. The US, still smarting over their failures in Somalia, had little appetite for what seemed like a similar situation and lobbied the UN for a pull out. The UN hemmed and hawed about declaring it a genocide, which would require specific interventions, and until it was declared such, UN troops had no mandate to act except in self-defence. Nearly all Westerners were evacuated, often with militias waiting across the street to slaughter those they were protecting as soon as their vehicles pulled out. By the time the UN got it’s act together, the genocide was almost over, and all they could do was provide help at refugee camps, which in practice meant providing aid to the fleeing killers.

France, in particular, played a more active role in enabling the genocide. Rwanda had been (and still is) transitioning from a Francophone country to an English speaking one. France definitely supplied arms to the government, and may have provided more direct support.

As the genocide wound down, many Hutus fled to refugee camps in Zaire (now DRC). This caused all kinds of problems in DRC, none of which were helped by the fact that Rwanda has expansionist tendencies in the region and have been all up in DRCs business, causing the massive, continent-wide Second Congo War (which is the deadliest conflict in the world since WWII).

In any case, a new government was formed, discrimination was outlawed, and a somewhat effective authoritarianism has been the rule. Rwanda has grown well economically, and even become a bit of a darling in the West, and so the current regime gets away with a lot.

According to friends living in the area, the attitude now towards the genocide is mixed. Some people are eager to forget it, and don’t mention it. Others will bring it up casually, which can feel a bit surreal to a foreigner. For the most part, the great machinery of peace and reconciliation has done a reasonable job healing some of the wounds.

Oh, I left out what some argue is the most important part.

Rwanda is very small, and very dense. The population density is more than 1,000 people per square mile. Most of these were smallholder farmers, scratching out a living with hand tools on tough, hilly land. The population density had gotten to the point where plots were getting too small to feed a person, and competition over land was fierce. The Tutsi, who traditionally kept cattle, were often accused of destroying crops and allowing livestock to trample fields.

There is a school of thought that attributes the genocide to population pressures. Some evidence to support that is that many of those killed were Hutu, and violence occurred in areas where there were very few Tutsi. Looting was widespread, and it’s clear that in many cases the genocide provided a handy way to seize control of a neighbor’s land and goods.

I took a course on African history in college, and I will add the detail I know. I had a wonderful African professor who was very passionate about this topic. She said that these two groups never really got along, but when colonialist came to Africa, they drew new borders and created countries that previously did not exist and unfortunately in doing so, forced some people who already didn’t like one another into closer quarters. The colonialists, being, well, colonialists, decided to favor the tutsi people because they were lighter skinned and had “more European features”, so they were given better treatment and higher positions within the government etc. When the colonialist pulled out, true to form, they left a mess behind they didn’t have much interest in cleaning up…So now these long simmering tensions eventually boiled over and the hutu’s anger at their treatment spilled over into this horrible event. What makes this situation even more sad is that the world largely stood by and did nothing. My personal belief was that it was because they were poor and black and nobody really cared enough. There were even UN forces on the ground who did nothing. All foreigners in the country were evacuated but the Rwandan people were left to fend for themselves. We had to watch the movie “Hotel Rwanda” it’s very good as is the book. if you haven’t checked them out, I highly recommend both!!

Oh and I forgot, my husband worked for 8 years in Africa, he is a French physician. He was in a clinic in Niger but he did have the chance to go to Rwanda at one point and said that many of the people who committed the genocides got away with it and were not even really looked for. He spoke to one man who told him he saw his whole family murdered in front of him and he knows the man who did it and he’s free. My husband asked him who and it was his NEIGHBOR. This man had to see the person who killed his family everyday. The man denied he’d done anything of the sort…Sad sad story…

There were a lot of UN forces that did nothing (as noted above, the Belgians pulled out pretty early on), but a number of UN troops acted heroically to shield civilians.

See this wiki article on Romeo Dallaire for example (I don’t know how to do accents, so I’ve misspelled his name).

What **Tamerlane **said, it is almost word by word what my history teacher told me in college.

I wouldn’t exactly say everything’s hunky-dorey these days. The post-genocide Rwandan government is basically made up of the Tutsi rebels that took over the country to end the genocide. The government is regularly accused of supporting the M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a mostly Tutsi group, who oppose the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, which is a mostly Hutu group that operates in the eastern DRC, which is to some extent descended from the Interahamwe that were largely responsible for the genocide. See the Kivu conflict, M23 Rebellion, Second Congo war, and references therein. A cynic would just say they’ve exported the violence (OK, in reality perhaps the Rwandan genocide is best viewed as one part in a complicated set of regional conflicts)

Before the genocide there was a Tutsi led Rebel movement which had been created out of remnants of Tutsis fighting in the Ugandan civil war. They had been attacking parts of Rwanda in the years before the Genocide but the Rwandan army with the help of the french had them pretty well contained. After the genocide they were able to take over Rwanda and have been in charge ever since.
Kagame was the leader of the rebel force and is currently in his second term as president. When his term is over I think we will get a better idea of how relations between Tutsi and Hutu are.

Nick Nolte’s character in Hotel Rwanda, speaking to Don Cheadle’s character, summed up the lack of interest from the rest of the world:

“You’re not black, you’re not even a nigger…you’re African.

In reading my previous post, I think it implies that the Belgians did nothing. They did suffer casualties at the beginning of the genocide. For example, 10 Belgians who were protecting Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana were brutally tortured to death after they surrendered to Rwandan government forces. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a drop in the bucket of blood that happened during the genocide, but I didn’t mean to imply that the Belgians didn’t suffer losses.

All around, just a completely tragic situation. I have also read that the US could have jammed the Rwandan radio stations that were coordinating the attacks, but chose not to. I don’t know how true that is, though.

Add that to the situation in Somalia (“Black Hawk Down”); the Americans were stung by the accusation, “you only help friends with money and oil.” they decided to help push food to a population suffering a massive famine. Instead, they got wound up in a multi-way ethnic and political civil war. If you stop one side from doing anything, you must be allies of the other side and therefore the enemy. So a fair and impartial force will eventually be everyone’s enemy.

The western attitude at that point was “we tried to help them get food and limit the anarchy, instead our soldiers died for nothing and the people danced on their dead bodies”.

Add in the 10 Belgian soldiers killed, and is it any surprise when Rwanda came along the western attitude is “why the f**k should we get involved?”

Based on how good a job they’ve done with Iraq, maybe it’s good the west did not get involved. Considering how well Iraq and Afghanistan have gone, any surprise the Americans and Europe don’t want another try at it with Syria?

I remember Clinton saying that the thing he most regrets is doing nothing while this was going on.

My understanding is also that it would not have required a huge commitment of resources to save a lot of people. Two unarmed UN soldiers protected a large group of people who had sought refuge in a church.

Well, I think given how quickly the RPF was able to rout the government, and given how quickly France was able to establish its occupation zone, it seems to me that it would have been fairly easy for foreign intervention to establish safe areas in most parts of the country early on. But that’s easy to say in hindsight.

David Rawson was the ambassador to Rwanda at the time. I worked for him at his next post in Kampala, Uganda. I consider him to be one of those career diploraptors who tries to appear eccentric whenever possible. Mainly, he’s just an ineffective asshole. Anyway, Rawson refused to classify the situation in Rwanda as a genocidal attack, which meant that the US didn’t step in in any meaningful way. By the time Rawson and everyone else was evacuated, it was too late.

This interview is very telling. The guy was clueless as to what was going on in the country to which he was ambassador, with local CIA and others apparently either not briefing him, or him not paying attention to what he was told.

Rawson’s only comments to his new team in Kampala were to complain about how he had to leave all his furniture behind. :rolleyes: