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Genocide in Rwanda—30 years on

The horrific killings were rooted in colonialism, economic crisis and scapegoating, writes Charlie Kimber
Issue 2648
Skulls at the Nyamata Memorial Site to the Rwandan genocide
Skulls at the Nyamata Memorial Site to the Rwandan genocide (Pic: Fanny Schertzer)

In the space of 100 days, starting from 7 April 1994, around 800,000 people were murdered in Rwanda, a country of around seven million people in east Africa.

Although driven from the top, the killing was carried out mainly by ordinary people. Much of it was done with basic weapons—clubs and machetes.

How can we understand why a footballer chops to death, seemingly without a care, the player who has been his team mate for years? How can a teacher slash the limbs from the person they used to work alongside?

For some it’s just another blood-soaked episode on a hopeless continent. But there were reasons for what happened, and it was not some uniquely African phenomenon.

The genocide is one of the most horrific examples of people won over in huge numbers by scapegoating.

Exploited and oppressed people, whose interests lie in unity against those in power, were persuaded to blame and hate each other.

This division was peddled by a ruling class seeking to deflect attention from its own crimes and its part in a deep economic crisis.

Rwanda’s rulers had used and intensified divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi groupings in the past. It led to violence and killing, although nothing on the scale of 1994.

The government of president Juvenal Habyarimana did the same again as an economic blizzard swept poorer countries in the 1980s.

The political stability of the regime followed almost exactly the curve of coffee, tea and tin prices that were set by the multinational corporations.

A collapse in raw material prices caused intense pressure on Rwanda’s peasantry, who made up 85 percent of the population. The government, with revenues falling, imposed huge increases in water prices, health charges and school fees.

At the same time the global bailiffs of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed a structural adjustment programme. It meant privatisation, job losses and the removal of food subsidies.

Imagine the hatred of Muslims and migrants that is pushed in Europe taking place at a far greater pitch and in a much poorer society. If you are persuaded that a minority of grasping traitors is to blame for your desperate conditions and the starvation of your children, the effects are predictably horrendous.

For years in the run-up to the genocide, the government deliberately focused the seething anger of the rural Hutu population towards the Tutsi minority.

Government ministers, the press and the equivalent of the BBC relentlessly hammered home the message that the Tutsis were an enemy within, “cockroaches” that had to be crushed.

The government used an attempted invasion by Tutsi-led exiles in 1990 to paint them as a part of the population of dubious allegiance who would link up with foreign forces.

On 6 April 1994 Habyarimana’s presidential plane was blasted from the sky by a missile. It’s not clear who fired it.

It might have been a Tutsi rebel group, Hutu hardliners who thought the president was going soft, or agents of the French state.

The message went out immediately that this attack must be avenged.

The killing began, fuelled by base hopes of economic gain and the belief that the Tutsis would launch their own murderous assaults unless they were annihilated.

The genocide has been used as a clear example of when outside military intervention by the major powers would have been right. But Rwanda suffered from too much intervention, not too little.

The divisions between Hutu and Tutsi were set in stone by colonialism. The French government, competing for influence in Africa against Britain, the US and China, sent troops to support Habyarimana and helped put down revolts against him. Throughout 1993, as social tensions grew, more and more of the Rwandan population were armed by foreign powers.

Successive French governments have blocked criminal proceedings against 22 of its military figures accused of complicity in the murders

There were machetes from China and Kalashnikov rifles from Russia.

Egypt secured a £4 million contract to supply arms, guaranteed by a French bank. Apartheid South Africa supplied £3.8 million of weaponry.

Two months after the killings began, the French launched a military intervention. Operation Turquoise, backed by the United Nations, involved 2,500 men.

French soldiers and government officials drove around Rwanda with enormous French flags displayed on their vehicles. On seeing them, Tutsis would come out of hiding only to be killed by Hutu militias while the French did nothing.

The mounds of bodies did not halt French backing. Agathe Kanziga Habyarimana, the president’s widow and one of those widely blamed for ordering the murders, was airlifted out of Rwanda by French troops and taken to Paris.

She is in France today, sustained initially by a government fund allocated for “urgent assistance for Rwandan refugees”.

Successive French governments have blocked criminal proceedings against 22 of its military figures accused of complicity in the murders.

The effects of intervention by other powers was clear in the years after the genocide.The mass murder ended after the invasion of Rwanda by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). This was an exile group, formed mainly by Tutsi refugees.

It became a powerful military force thanks to arms and training from the Ugandan government. And the US and Britain also provided support.

Paul Kagame, the effective head of the RPF, received military tuition at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The RPF carried out reprisal killings as it formed a government after the massacres. The numbers are disputed, but there is strong evidence that 100,000 Hutus died in the first year.

In October 1996, the Rwandan army attacked Hutu refugee camps in eastern Zaire, today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Some 300,000 Hutus fled deeper into Zaire to escape systematic killings. Nearly two thirds died over the next six months, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres. They were killed or died of disease, exhaustion and hunger.

Kagame, now president, presided over these killings and was backed to the hilt by the US and Britain. He set up a brutal, one-party, repressive state whose elections are fixed.

The Rwandan killings were a product of imperialism, the actions of the local ruling class and the way capitalist booms and slumps wreck lives.

They are an indictment of that system.

False division of Hutus and Tutsis

For hundreds of years there have been people called Tutsis and people called Hutus in Rwanda.

In 1994 Tutsis made up about 15 percent of the population. Hutus made up nearly all the remaining 85 percent.

The terms originally corresponded to occupational categories. Cattle-herders, soldiers and administrators were mostly Tutsi, farmers were Hutu.

If your father was a Hutu, you would be a Hutu. But if you then grew richer and could buy cattle, you might become a Tutsi.

There was a ceremony of “becoming Tutsi”’ which recognised this. Your children would then be Tutsi.

These groups lived in relative peace in a society where they shared elements of power.

Colonialism brought a shattering transformation. Germany grabbed Rwanda as part of the carve-up of Africa between European states in the late 19th century.

To bolster their rule, they used an elite from the Tutsi minority to govern. This increased hatreds and division.

When the Belgians took over colonial rule after the First World War they introduced identity cards that fixed ethnic groups for life.

Occupational-political identity became racialised. The Hutu were portrayed as only semi-human while the Tutsis were said to be “of good race, with nothing of the Negro, apart from his colour”.

In fact it is generally very difficult to tell the two groups apart. In 1994 the murdering militias had to use the identity cards to determine who lived and who died.

After decolonisation, the “social revolution” of 1959 saw a Hutu counter-elite take over. They adopted the method of divide and rule.

But the propaganda and divisions did not sweep everyone away in 1994.

Some Rwandans did their utmost to resist the slaughter. Ordinary Hutu people sometimes concealed Tutsis, even at a great price.

Amid the horror, there was heroic resistance by some ordinary people.

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