12 lessons from the Rwandan genocide (1999)
Only a few weeks ago William Schabas (a senior fellow of the US Institute for Peace Studies) said on Voice of America that there have been three real genocides this century. They are the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. Anyone who considers these three inappropriately restrictive will perhaps acknowledge them to be the worst genocides this century. I spent two weeks in Rwanda documenting massacres during those terrible 100 days.

Between the beginning of April and the end of July 1994 an estimated 800,000 Tutsis along with politically moderate Hutus were brutally murdered. More people were killed in Rwanda in 100 days than Britain AND the whole of the British Empire lost in the four years of WW1 [or the US lost in four years of Civil War]. But there were two huge differences - rather than soldiers those killed in Rwanda were all civilians - men woman and children (one third were children) and those in Rwanda came from a much smaller population base .

I have only heard one person speak with appropriate emotion about the Rwandan genocide. It was in Nov 1995 at the 5 day conference organised by the Government of Rwanda. I was waiting my turn to make a presentation, it was well past lunch time, the Prime Minister had overrun his allotted time and I was thinking about my imminent talk when I became aware of the anger in the tone of the speaker, a woman survivor of the genocide. She was describing how she had been at home with her family when the interahamwe arrived. They first killed her husband outside the house and then came inside and macheted her and her 5 children. Philip Gourevitch [who wrote "WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL ALL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES"] vividly describes the hard work and considerable force that he had observed was required to cut up a cows hind leg with a machete. For the next three days, this woman, who had watched her children receive terrible, fatal injuries lay partially disembowelled amongst their mutilated bodies whilst the interahamwe and others repeatedly entered the house to steal goods and out of curiosity. Time and again she pleaded with them to finish her off yet no one had the humanity to do as she asked. On the third day she managed to drag herself outside to get some water and later the RPF arrived and she survived.

The first lesson is that we did it again - despite the Convention on Genocide. The existence of laws does not prevent crimes - something more proactive is needed to prevent genocide.

The second lesson is that genocide is never spontaneous - in 1995 HRW published a report (1) demonstrating that the murder of civilians because of their ethnic, religious or racial affiliations are almost always the result of government manipulation, rather than ancient animosities. In Rwanda the genocide was organised by Hutu supremacists within the interim government, the military, the gendarmerie, the civil service and by other accomplices and was intended to eliminate political opposition. The tendency of the international community to erroneously label the killings as tribal, compounded by confused responses on the part of the United Nations, allowed the impetus of the slaughter to develop a critical momentum that only the slaughter of every Tutsi and moderate Hutu or the military defeat of the Rwandese Government Forces could end.

The third lesson is that you do not need sophisticated weapons to commit genocide. The killing was largely carried out with low technology weapons such as machetes and masus (clubs studded with nails). Philip Gourevitch calculated that "The dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust."

The fourth lesson is the tremendous power of propaganda in the hands of a ruthless government which has monopoly control of the nation's main source of information, the radio, whose listeners were predominantly people with limited education.

The fifth lesson is that the educated and professional classes not only failed to reject the lethal ideology but tended to lead from the front.

The sixth lesson is that the demonisation that encourages the perpetrator to 'permit' him/herself to kill neighbours, relatives and even spouses generates dreadful cruelty, that can be, and often is, gratuitous.

The seventh lesson is that being active Christians, as 90% of Rwandan people ostensibly were, does not prevent participation.

The eighth lesson is that the West is partially responsible for the what happened - from Belgium's deliberate amplification of the ethnic differences within the Rwandan people for their own ends in the first half of the century, through Belgium's tacit support of the massacres of Tutsis in the 1950's and '60's, to the French moral and military support of the clique that ultimately led the genocide - and later the French 'Operation Turquoise' which allowed the genocidal regime to escape to Zaire from where they later continued the genocide in north west Rwanda. In the years leading up to the genocide the World Bank imposed austerity measures and US coffee buyers' manipulation of coffee prices helped to destroy economic activity, fuel unemployment and create a situation of generalised famine and social despair in Rwanda.

The ninth lesson is that, if the ample evidence that a genocide was being planned had been acted upon, the UN could have prevented it - either before or immediately after it started, or could have ameliorated it at any stage subsequently. Jean-Damascene Bizimana, the then Rwandese government permanent representative to the UN and coincidentally a member of the UN Security Council, was, bizarrely, allowed to take part in the Security Council debate on the genocide and to depict the killing as spontaneous acts. The initial UN response to the genocide was to drastically reduce it force, and it was not until fully eight weeks later, by which time most of the genocide had taken place, that Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali acknowledged in his report to the UN Security Council that the conflict amounted to genocide. The western leaders had an investment in denying that genocide was taking place because its recognition would have mandated action. HRW say that the Americans were interested in saving money, the Belgians in saving face, and the French in saving their ally.

Later, when the genocidal regime had escaped into bordering countries, colossal amounts of international aid was channelled into refugee camps controlled by the very politicians and killer militias who carried out the massacres, allowing them to regroup and later continue the genocide in north west Rwanda, from bases in Zaire. The international community were offered the opportunity, but failed to support initiatives by the UN, to separate former genocidaires from their power base - the genuine refugees. The subsequent invasion of Zaire by Rwanda, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of those refugees, is a direct result of that failure - as is the current chaotic battle for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) involving eight armies and at least 12 other armed groups

The tenth lesson is that the Rwandan people are not intrinsically any more susceptible to participating in genocide than any other people. The reason the genocide took place, as with many disasters, was not due to any one factor but rather the unfortunate conflation of many factors promoting ethnic conflict, all at the same time. The Rwandan people were simply the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The penultimate lesson is the incomparable capacity that African people exhibit to tolerate truly unbearable conditions. The Rwandans, having experienced one of the cruellest conflicts ever involving perhaps the largest mass participation in human rights violations ever to take place (a UNICEF survey found that eighty percent of the children had witnessed relatives being murdered), are currently rebuilding their nation. In July 1994 a novice government had inherited a country with no money, no administration, no infrastructure, 10% of its population dead and 70% displaced, and who knows how many genocide perpetrators. The fastest human exodus ever recorded took place April 28th 1994, when 250,000 Hutus crossed the Rusuma Falls bridge into Tanzania - only 3 months later at the opposite end of Rwanda, a Red Cross official was describing "a nation on the move" as over a million moved into Zaire ahead of the victorious Rwandese Patriotic Front soldiers. There the horror of civil war was replaced by that of Vibrio cholerae let loose in tent cities perched on volcanic rock that yielded neither water nor a place for effluent disposal. No one escaped infection and soon 46,000 more were dead. The war ended with two million living in camps in Zaire, Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania, where the militia and civil administrators that led the genocide maintained their hold on power by controlling food and aid distribution. Since then huge numbers of the refugees in Zaire, caught up in the civil war there, trekked countless miles through jungle in appalling conditions and many have been killed.

Five years on few members of the two ethnic groups, once so polarised by genocide, relish living cheek by jowl as they are forced to do, and widespread denial continues despite massive population complicity. And yet in the face what are truly uniquely formidable adverse circumstances, not only is there peace in Rwanda but the economy is beginning to gain strength.

The last lesson, penned as it was by the satirist Jonathan Swift (who wrote Gulliver's Travels) in the eighteenth century, is not new. His observation serves as an epitaph to the 800,000 men women and children brutally killed in 1994 "falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after; so that when men come to be undeceived it is too late; the jest is over and the tale has had its effect "

1. In Playing the Communal Card. HRW 1995


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Web deployment by Rahul Roychoudhuri. DHR is the trading name of Physicians for Human Rights - UK. Registered Company No 3792515. Registered Charity No 1078420   March 19, 2019, 8:23 am GMT   Copyright Physicians for Human Rights-UK(c)2004