By Charlie Kimber
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How West intervened and fuelled genocide

This article is over 20 years, 3 months old
GENOCIDE IS an overused word, but ten years ago it took place in the tiny African country of Rwanda. Throughout 100 days between 800,000 and one million people were murdered in a country of just six million. The media coverage remembering these events conveys the horror. But much of it also accepts two arguments. The first is that there was something inexplicable about what occurred-or that perhaps this is something uniquely 'African'.
Issue 1896

GENOCIDE IS an overused word, but ten years ago it took place in the tiny African country of Rwanda. Throughout 100 days between 800,000 and one million people were murdered in a country of just six million. The media coverage remembering these events conveys the horror. But much of it also accepts two arguments. The first is that there was something inexplicable about what occurred-or that perhaps this is something uniquely ‘African’.

The second argument is that Rwanda shows that sometimes the great powers need to go in to sort out the world. It is put forward as the key example of what could have been ‘good’ humanitarian military intervention. And if it would have been right to go in then, there will be examples when it is right to send troops elsewhere. The claim is apparently made stronger because the United Nations (UN) and the US did deliberately ignore genocide in 1994.

As the killing began the UN reduced its peacekeeping force by 90 percent to just 270 troops. Far from questioning what was done, Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the UN, wanted the whole lot out. But calls for military force in such circumstances, however well meant, ignore the fact that Rwanda’s agony was not a result of too little intervention. It was precisely the product of 100 years of brutal intervention by colonial and imperialist forces.

Colonialism sharply separated groups of people in Rwanda-Hutus and Tutsis-and set them against each other. Modern-day capitalism set the conditions for a million dead.

As in so many other places suffering from an imperial legacy-such as Ireland, India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Liberia-the great powers use divide and rule and then throw up their hands in mock horror at the conflict they have created. Military action in 1994 could only have been carried out directly by the great powers, or with their support through the UN Security Council, or by some regional superpower.

Yet these people had prepared the way for the genocide, armed those who carried it out and defended them even as the killings took place. France, Belgium, the US, China, Russia, South Africa and Egypt intervened in 1992-4 and made the situation worse. Without them the massacres could never have happened. In 1990 the brutal Rwandan government only survived because of military support from the French and Belgians.

This allowed the government to believe that no matter what horrors it carried out the French would go along with it. It was like giving brandy bottles to an alcoholic. Then the European powers watched as the Rwandan regime developed a system of local militias (the interahamwe) in order to create a murder machine. Throughout 1993 more and more of the Rwandan population were armed. Many of the arms were ‘low-tech weapons’ like studded clubs, knives and spears. There were machetes from China and Kalashnikov rifles from Russia. Egypt secured a $6 million contract with Rwanda to supply arms, guaranteed by a French bank. Apartheid South Africa supplied $5.9 million of weaponry.

The US wanted to curb French influence in central Africa. So it stoked the conflict from the opposite side by channelling weapons to the exiled opposition forces invading from Uganda. The French government continued to supply arms to the Rwandan regime even after the murders began in 1994.

In June, two months after the killings began, the French launched a military intervention. ‘Operation Turquoise’, backed by the UN, involved 2,500 men. The government’s retreating forces, which had carried out the killings, welcomed the French troops.

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

Military intervention is never carried out by an abstract ‘force for good’. It is done, or not done, by the strong for their own agenda. That is what happened in 1994. ‘Useful’ intervention would have been cancellation of Rwanda’s debt, withdrawal of all support for the government, encouragement to democratic forces, an end to arms sales, aid for the impoverished, help to combat AIDS-and it should have started well before 1994.

These are the sort of measures needed in Rwanda and every other similar case, not more soldiers.


Stock markets and ‘shock therapy’

THERE IS a wider sense in which ‘intervention’ went on in Rwanda. The genocide was triggered by economic crisis which tore society apart and made it possible to turn ordinary people into killers. This crisis was a result of capitalism and more specifically the debt system, the power of the multinationals to set commodity prices, and the actions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

As the braying traders on the commodity exchanges in London and New York sold Rwanda’s coffee and tin they were sealing the fate of peasants 6,000 miles away. A collapse in raw material prices meant crisis in 1989. The peasantry (85 percent of the population) faced huge increases in water fees, health charges and school fees.

At just this moment the IMF imposed a structural adjustment programme that meant the removal of food subsidies, privatisation and job losses. The World Bank and the IMF brushed aside fears of the likely effects of their ‘shock therapy’ on a country that was ripe for civil war and had a history of massacres.

As society collapsed the government urged scapegoating. This is not some ‘African’ phenomenon but a general pattern of capitalist rule. When the going gets tough, turn people’s legitimate anger against a weaker group.

It is what Hitler did to the Jews, it is what happened in the Balkans during the 1990s, it is what governments across Europe are doing now to asylum seekers and Muslims.

In Rwanda, a society in total crisis, the effects were cataclysmic. The grievances of the rural Hutu population were redirected to the Tutsi minority. Hundreds of thousands of people’s lives were empty. They had no work and no hope. The government, press and the equivalent of the BBC were urging them to kill their neighbours.

It was a programme of lies and despair but it is not surprising that many people went along with it. What is often missed out is that some did not. Some Rwandans did their utmost to resist the slaughter. Ordinary Hutu people concealed Tutsis knowing that the price of being discovered was probably death.

Boniface Ndekezi, a Hutu peasant from Gitarama, recalls, ‘The interahamwe came to search our house. They found a Tutsi my father had hidden. They not only killed the Tutsi, they also killed seven members of our family, my father, my brother and five sisters. They killed everybody they found in the house.’

We should remember the dead in Rwanda and remember those who tried to save them. The ordinary people who were capable of such heroism are the hope for the future.

Rwanda’s people were encouraged to hate each other

IN RWANDA there have always been people called Tutsis, who in 1994 made up about 15 percent of the population. There have always been Hutus, who made up about 85 percent in 1994. The distinction was basically about categories of people, founded originally on their occupations as cattle herders or cultivators.

For 1,000 years and more these groups lived in relative peace in a society where they shared power. All this changed with the arrival of colonial powers in the 1890s. As part of the ‘scramble for Africa’ between rival European states, Germany seized Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi.

The Germans did not have the manpower to run Rwanda themselves. So they used an elite from the Tutsi minority. The vast majority of Rwandans-Tutsi and Hutu-suffered vicious treatment designed to extract as much labour as possible from them. But a minority of Tutsi leaders acted as rapacious overlords.

When the Belgians took over colonial rule after the First World War they introduced identity cards that fixed each Rwandan’s ethnic group. Previously people had been able to move from one group to another. Now they couldn’t.

The colonisers’ choice of the Tutsi was backed by racial fictions. 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. The murdering militias used the identity cards to determine who should live and who should die in 1994.

When Rwanda became independent in 1960 the Belgians decided that the best way to maintain control over the territory’s resources was to switch sides, and cynically backed the majority Hutu.

Whenever the new government felt its support was slipping it mimicked the strategy handed down by colonialism-setting Hutu against Tutsi. Regular programmes of ‘ethnic purification’ were backed up by killings and pogroms that saw tens of thousands of people driven into exile.


We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families

Philip Gourevitch, £7.99

The Great Lakes of Africa

Jean-Pierre Chretien, £23.95

‘Coming to Terms with Barbarism in Rwanda and Burundi’ Charlie Kimber

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