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#18: Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide

Ten years after arguably the most savage genocide in human history, the comprehension of how such an unspeakably horrible thing could have happened is still anything but clear. The chain of causes is long and complex, and how far back into Rwanda’s history one chooses to trace it, and the relative importance one gives to each cause, is a reflection of one’s cultural, political, and intellectual biases. Everyone who has examined the question (with a few notable, rigorously impartial exceptions) has projected his or her own culture and its history, social class, political persuasion and personal experience, so it is important to know what the hidden agendas (even from those who have them, in some cases) are. There is no better laboratory than Rwanda for students in the postmodern, deconstructionist field of historical studies known as “the production of history.”

Where does this monumental tragedy properly begin ? What is its first act and where is its dateline ? In neighboring Burundi in l972, when the Tutsi there (who, unlike Rwanda’s Tutsi, did not lose power after independence) massacred two-hundred thousand Hutu évolués, liquidating virtually the entire educated young generation of that ethnic group? Is it at this point that the idea of mass extermination enters the political discourse in these two tiny, overcrowded, ethnically riven countries ? Are the Tutsi of Burundi to some degree to blame for what happened to their Rwandan cousins twelve years later? That is what most French analysts and Western academics, who were invested in the Rwandan Hutu’s failed postcolonial experiment in creating an egalitarian, democratic society, think, and not only because of this underreported, now almost forgotten Burundian genocide, but because the Tutsi in both countries were an anachronistic feudal aristocracy that became even more oppressive during the colonial period. Privately professional Rwandanists intimate that “the Tutsi” got what was coming to them.

But the Burundian genocide was partly a response to the genocidal massacres, between l959 and l966, of about 20,000 of the Tutsi in Rwanda, whom their Hutu serfs succeeded in overthrowing, and the expulsion into exile of about 200,000 more. Tutsi analysts begin the tragedy with these “pilot genocides,” the first cases of ethnic slaughter in the region. They argue that the original relationship between the Tutsi cattlekeepers and the Hutu farmers was cordial and harmonious and based on mutual respect and the mutually agreeable and dissolvable leasing of the Tutsi’s cows to the Hutu in exchange for the Hutu’s agricultural produce and labor. The animosity only started after the Belgians came in after World War I and destroyed the delicate balance between the two ethnic groups, or modes of subsistence, by ruling indirectly through the Tutsi and making them oversee the forced labor gangs of Hutu that put in the roads and schools and hospitals and the rest of the Belgian “protectorate”s Western infrastructure. Many analysts, African and Western, argue that had not Rwandan society been destroyed by colonialism, had Rwanda’s political evolution been allowed to continue, the inequities (the “premise of inequality,” as one scholar calls it) would have eventually worked themselves out, and the genocide would never have happened.

But if you look at the Rwanda of three or four hundred years ago, long before Europeans gummed up the works, there is ample evidence of at least proto-genocidal behavior. The mwami, or king, had the power of life and death over all his subjects, and clans or lineages that fell into disfavor were regularly snuffed. When the mwami wanted to annex a neighboring kingdom or principality, if peaceful suasion, the offer of women and cows, failed, his soldiers slaughtered all the men and divied up the women and children as booty. The mutilations that shocked the West in l994—impalement, breast oblation, the harvesting of testicles as trophies—had been happening for centuries. Impalement was the punishment for cattle rustlers until the Belgians put a stop to it in the 1920s. But Rwanda was an expansionist state, and such symbolic acts of humiliation have been common on every continent at that stage of political evolution, when small polities are being gobbled up by bigger ones.

In the late 19th and early 20th century a number of fiercely warlike Hutu kingdoms in what is now northwestern Rwanda, collectively know as the abahinza, were forcibly annexed by the mwami with the help of the Germans (who were the first colonizers of Rwanda). The local chiefs were put to death and replaced by king’s kinsmen. Most of the Hutu ideologues of the l994 genocide and the ruling elete that carried it out belonged to abahinza lineages. For them the genocide was a long-awaited revenge. So does the tragedy begin with the subjugation of the abahinza, or in l700, or in l894, when the first whites arrive and as Chinoa Achebe quotes Yeats to characterize Nigeria’s colonial experience, “things fall apart” ? But the whites arrive just as the old king is dying, in time to witness a bloody succession struggle and a purge of the king’s clan by the queen’s clan, which usurps the throne. The capacity for genocide was clearly in Rwandan culture. But no more than it is in every society, and most of the killing at this point, with exceptions like the abahinza, was Tutsi on Tutsi, because most of the dozens of small kingdoms in the interlacustrine region (between Lake Victoria and the western, lake-studded arm of the Great Rift Valley in what is now eastern Congo) were ruled by Tutsi.

The Belgians classified everybody as Hutu or Tutsi and racialized what had been essentially a fluid class distinction (although who exactly the Tutsi are, to what extent did their taller, thinner somatotype evolve in place, and what relationship they have with physically nearly identical people in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, is still unclear).
Projecting the cockamany Eurocentric race science of the day, they embraced the Tutsi as long-lost “Hamitic” cousins, and at first reinforced the Tutsi’s supremacy and used them to run the colony. The Hutu, who were already being worked hard by the mwami’s chiefs, grew to hate the Tutsi. In l959, as the Belgians were leaving, they instigated a peasant revolution modeled after the French revolution that brought the ill-prepared Hutu to power. This set in motion the developments that culminated in genocide forty-five years later.

By l990 the Tutsi exiles in the five neighboring countries numbered about a million. They had been second-class citizens, perpetual refugees, in these countries for thirty years, and in Uganda more than 60,000 of them had been massacred in the early l980s by Milton Obote after he overthrew Idi Amin, so they decided, like the European Jews after the Holocaust, to take back their homeland and create a space where they could be safe (although Israel was created by Jewish terrorists already in Palestine, not by invading exiles). That fall a guerilla force of young English-speaking Tutsi exiles calling itself the Rwandese Patriotic Front invaded Rwanda from Uganda. By l992 the RPF had captured half the country and forced the Hutu regime to the negotiating table. Had this invasion not taken place, the genocide would not have happened, either, so this is another major cause, another reason why some argue that “the Tutsi brought it on themselves.” But who can blame the exiles for wanting to have a decent life, with basic civil rights, starting with the right not to be discriminated against, or even slaughtered, as foreign ethnics ?

There were many other causes. Overpopulation, environmental degradation, and resource scarcity was a big one, but it has not gotten enough attention because this issue is not in most analysts’ area of expertise. By l986, when I made my first trip to Rwanda, to write about the murder of Dian Fossey for Vanity Fair, the fertile Land of a Thousand Hills had the highest birth rate on earth– 8.2 live births per woman, and 25,000 new families needed land each year, but there wasn’t any. In the early nineties there was a severe drought in southern Rwanda, which created a great number of homeless, desperate refugees who were easily recruited by the promise that they could have the land the house of whoever they killed. At the same time, the world price of coffee crashed, and this escalated the youth unemployment. The ignorance of the general population was another underecognized cause : so many young men who had never been taught to think for themselves and believed whatever they were told, including the hate broadcasts of the regime’s radio station, that the Tutsi were coming back to enslave them again. The Catholic Church played a reprehensible role. Much of the wholesale slaughter took place in churches into which the Tutsi were lured by Hutu priests with the promise of sanctuary. France, which supported the extremist Hutu regime in the interests of maintaining a client state and a foothold of la francophonie in the region, was no less despicable. Mitterand’s and Habyarimana were dealing arms and cannabis together, and a dirty-tricks operative named Captain Barille was lurking around Kigali around the time of the genocide and may have had a hand in the events that precipate. All the well-intentioned foreign NGO’s that kept the Troisième République going when it was financially and morally bankrupt didn’t help the situation. The United Nations, which wrung its hands and did nothing, and the U.S., which prevented the Security Council from taking action by quibbling over the definition of genocide (reminiscent of its inaction and thwarting of international stepping in during the Armenian genocide), could have stopped the killing from spreading out of Kigali in the first few days, but instead just stood by and watched it happen. But the U.S. was still reeling from its disastrous “humanitarian intervention” in Somalia, and wasn’t about to send its soldiers to be killed in this “dinky little country that no one cares a rat’s ass about,” as an American diplomat described Rwanda to me.

The “proximate” cause, the event that triggered the slaughter, was the shooting down on April 6 of the plane carrying the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi (although the killing had already begun in a few places hours before!). It is still not clear who did this—Hutu extremists, French secret agents, the RPF, Burundians, Ugandans, or five other possibilities. The French investigation fingering Paul Kagame, the RPF’s leader and now Rwanda’s president, is speculative. One of their own operatives, a certain Capitain Barille, was lurking around Kigali around the genocide and some suspect him of having a hand in the dirty deed. Barille had been in charge of security for Melchoir Ndadaye, Burundi’s first Hutu president, when he was assassinated the previous fall by Tutsi extremists in the army. This, too, is another important cause, because it ignited a pogrom of Tutsi in the countryside and retaliatory massacres of Hutu, and drove thousands of Hutu refugees up into Rwanda. The refugees were highly motivated to kill Tutsi and played a major role in the genocide. So were the young Hutu of northeastern Rwanda, who fled south when the RPF invaded. They were anonymous in Kigali, so they could kill at will.

Then there are all kinds of subsidiary causes, such as if the colonial lines had been drawn differently so that Rwanda extended east to Lake Victoria, it would have had access to east African markets and not have become the poor landlocked country that it did, and the Hutu and Tutsi would have been thrown in with many other ethnic groups and might not have become so viciously polarized.

Whatever cause or set of causes one opts for to explain what happened, the genocide had the opposite effect that its architects were hoping for : it brought the Tutsi back to power, and now the Hutu are finding what it was like to be a Tutsi when they were running the show, which is not unlike being a Palestinian in today’s Israel. Minority rule is never stable, and despite the commendable strides the current regime has made at rehabilitating and healing the country abolishing the ethnic identity card and putting forth at least the public ideology that Rwanda is for all Rwandans, it is still a hard-line dictatorship with no tolerance of criticism or dissent. Understandably it is wary of the millions of young Hutu who are milling around and waiting for someone to come along and make it worth their while to finish the job. Meanwhile the virus of genocide has spread to northeastern Congo, where two groups of similarly ethnically distinct cattlekeepers and farmers, the Hema and the Lendu, have been slaughtering each other for the last four years. It will be decades before Central Africa recovers from Rwanda’s societal self-immolation, from this appalling episode of collective psychotic violence and its toxic fallout in the region. The lesson to be taken from it, rather than pointing blame (for which there is no shortage of candidates), or brooding on the numerous what if’s, or writing off Rwanda as one of the world’s rabid societies, is that every society, even the most supposedly civilized ones, has committed genocide at some point in its history, and the capacity for evil lurks within each of us. What happened in Rwanda, like the Holocaust, is just an extreme case of humanity at its worst. We need to see history in black and white terms, as the good guys versus the bad guys, but it is never that way. The good and evil is layered and mixed. It is each of our responsibilities to make sure that something like this doesn’t ever happen again, anywhere, but it almost certainly will, probably in some other distant, unheard of part of the world, whose existing ethnic or religious differences have been exacerbated by Western manipulation and exploitation. Despite its uniquely tragic history, Rwanda certainly doesn’t have a patent on such behavior.