In 100 days from April 6, 1994 to July 16, 1994, an estimated 1,074,017 people were killed in the Rwandan genocide.
In other words, 10,740 people were killed every day for 100 days.
In other words, 448 people were killed every hour of every day for 100 days.
In other words, 8 people were killed every minute of every day for 100 days.
In other words, 1 person was killed every 7.5 seconds of every day for 100 days.
When I first heard the word Rwanda, I had no idea it was a country. My initial ignorance would be best left unmen-tioned, but I gather I’m not alone as few people around the world have heard of this place. Even fewer understand the very conflict that led to the genocide that occurred here. Let me share what I have learned, heard and read about this country, its people and its people’s conflict. Before I begin, however, it is important to understand that Rwandan history is unclear and contentious and that any conclusions made from tran-scripts of scholars, historians, anthropologists, archeologists, geneticists, politicians and laymen are bound to exonerate some, antagonize others, and incite one or two, three or four more. Gray areas, contrary interpretations, biases, sentimentalism and sensationalism take their twists and turns, and leave anyone touching the subject overly exposed and vulnerable to public criticism. History, after all, is ‘his story’. Stories can be told and retold and morph into more flamboyant renditions or new and improved editions. Therefore, I’m not going to add to the mishmash by judging, analyzing, synthesizing, or interpreting any part of the Rwandan people’s past or present. The more prudent approach is to invite people to do their due diligence and make their own way through the historical records, testimonies, and maze of madness that led to the near extinction of a people. I would like, however, to record a few details I gleaned from the popular press and communal conversations here. Forgive me if the facts and figures I report conflict or contradict versions also in circulation. Forgive me for presenting anything that is incomplete, flawed or frankly wrong. If anything I’ve written is deemed inaccurate or offensive in any way, I apologize. My intention is not to judge or criticize, but to support those who live, honor those who died, and document the hazards of hate.
Before I begin, it is important to note that not all Hutus were complicit in the slaughter of Tutsis. There were many Hutus who protected Tutsis and many moderate Hutus who were slaughtered, too. I would also like to emphasize that I am not a historian and that this diary is my personal experience of the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.
Rwandan History and Conflict
Rwanda is a country in central Africa sharing borders with Zaire, Tanzania, Burundi and Uganda. It is one of Africa’s smallest countries, but has one of the continent’s biggest human conflicts.
The Rwandan conflict is complex and convoluted, while at the same time simple and straightforward. At the core of the conflict is an identity crisis. Who are the Rwandan people? Where did they come from? Are they one homogeneous people or a mix of different ethnicities from other lands? Anthropologists, archeologists, ethnobiologists, sociologists, geneticists and even politicians have done their best to answer these questions, but no one knows for sure the answers to these questions. What is for sure, however, is that ethnicity is the root of decades of hatred that ultimately led to the Rwandan genocide.
There are many theories about the origin of the Rwandan people. Two popular theories worth noting are diametrically opposed and contentious. One theory claims the Rwandan people are one homogeneous people whose ancestors were the original inhabitants of the territory currently called Rwanda. The other theory claims the Rwandan people are a mix of different tribes that came to Rwandan from different lands. The abbreviated version of this theory goes like this: Basically, somehow, somewhere, someone or something separated the Rwandan people and divided them into three distinct ethnic groups. I call this the Great Divide.
Before the Great Divide, the Rwandan people more or less got along, intermingled and intermarried. And life was good. During these times of social harmony the people prospered and multiplied. Some of the people farmed and lived off the land. Some were pastoralists raising predominantly cattle, while others hunted and gathered what they could from the forests. Eventually, as the population grew, some of the pastoralists took charge and established a ruling monarchy and small kingdom. In this way, the population self-organized and self-governed. And life went on like this for several centuries.
The story continues. In the 15th century, European expansionism was born and greed drove colonists deep into the heart of Africa. The first countrymen to come were the Portuguese followed by the Spaniards and Dutch in the 1500s. In the 1600s, the Danish, French and English came followed by the Belgians, Italians and Germans into the late 1800s. In three centuries Europe captured and claimed most of the continent and its vast natural resources including gold, diamonds, ivory, as well as men, women and children who in great numbers became slaves. Along with colonists clamoring for wealth and power came religious zealots who sought to spread the gospel, populate their parishes and increase their global influence. They believed the gospel would ‘civilize’ the African ‘heathens’ and ‘save’ them. And so Africa was born again. From the cradle to the cross, Africa was crucified.
Fast forward to the late 1800s…Germany colonized the region around the African Great lakes region which included modern day Burundi, Rwanda and part of Tanzania. Their sovereignty was short-lived, however, when their territory was seized after World War I and partitioned. Belgium was entrusted by the League of Nations to govern Ruanda-Urundi, the landmass that eventually became Rwanda and Burundi. Belgium essentially worked cooperatively with the leaders of the native monarchy though at times they unilaterally dominated them and made sure the monarchy complied with their demands.
In order for an alien power to subjugate a united and sovereign people, they often divided the population. After all, it was common knowledge that a people divided could always be defeated. A divided people are weak and easily broken. Colonial powers knew this all too well. For Belgium to successfully control the Rwandan people, it needed a level of division and dissonance within the population. Once fractured, the people would have no choice but to succumb to colonial rule. And this is how it all went down.
Shortly after taking control of the Rwanda, the Belgians divided the population according to their physical features and livelihoods. People with short statures, usually below five feet, were called Twa. They were hunter-gatherers and made up about 1% of the population. Those with stout constitutions, dark skin and wide noses resembling the Bantu people from West-Central Africa were called Hutu. They were predominantly farmers and made up about 85% of the population. Finally, those who were tall with lighter skin and narrow noses resembling people from the horn of Africa, namely Ethiopia, were called Tutsi. They were pastoralists (cattle herders) and made up about 14% of the population.
The Belgians were most impressed by the Tutsis. Physically, their tall majestic stature and Western appearance seemed to set them apart from the other natives. Economically, their skill as pastoralists gave them greater wealth compared to the Twa and Hutu. And socially, they were among the ruling class that made up Rwanda’s ruling monarchy. The Belgians thus determined that the Tutsis were superior to the rest of the population and most able to serve Belgium’s colonial ambitions. As a result, the Tutsi were afforded better housing, education, and employment compared with the rest of the population. In addition, they were placed in positions of power over their Twa and Hutu neighbors, a privilege given in exchange for their loyalty and cooperation in supporting Belgian rule.
The Twa and Hutu, on the other hand, were considered to be inferior subjects and were left marginalized and neglected. In some cases they were denied an education, forbidden to own land, and often forced into hard labor. Needless to say, Belgian favoritism of the Tutsi minority and the neglect and abuse of the Hutu majority and Twa created a rift between them. Establishing a hierarchy within the Rwandan population only divided the people and undermined any social cohesiveness.
The Great Divide was made even greater in the early 1930s when Belgium further degraded the population by obligating every Rwandan citizen to carry personal identity cards. These cards were issued to differentiate people according their ethnicity. As described, people with short statures were Twa, people with darker skin and wider noses were Hutu and people with tall stature, light skin and narrow noses were Tutsi. For people whose physical appearance was indiscernible, as would be the case with intermarriages between Twa, Hutu and Tutsi, the Belgians declared that those with less than ten cows were Hutu and those with more than ten cows were Tutsi. By accentuating people’s differences, the people lost sight of who they were and how they were all interconnected.
Belgium’s ‘divide and conquer’ method of governance to keep a stronghold on the population worked. Its declaration of a superior and inferior people within the Rwandan population did serve to create dissonance. The categorization of the people did divide them. Its preferential treatment of a segment of the population while neglecting the other did disenfranchise them. And over time, hardship gave rise to hard feelings, domination gave rise to resentment, and class distinctions gave rise to social divisions. And yes, this all did pave the way for colonial dominance, but it also led to the colony’s ultimate demise.
With the population polarized more than ever, political change was the only recourse to subdue an increasingly disgruntled Hutu population. Such political change came shortly after World War II ended. With a push for more democratic rule, the United Nations along with Belgium and the presiding Tutsi king sought to increase Hutu representation in government. This move understandably worried Tutsis who were concerned their own rule would be diminished. In the 1950s, the momentum for political change continued with a push for independence and a cessation of Belgian occupation.
In 1959, after decades of being dominated and denigrated, the majority Hutu population rebelled against Belgian rule and the Tutsis. Thousands of Tutsis were killed and thousands more fled for their lives leaving their homeland behind. Hutus took control of the country, ousted the existing Tutsi monarchy and elected their own political figureheads who in turn declared Rwanda’s independence in 1962.
Over the next 30 years, political and social turmoil continued in and out of the country. Exiled Tutsis engaged in repeated guerrilla warfare across borders hoping to return to their homes and regain their power. Hutus countered their insurgences leaving more and more dead on both sides. Up until the early 1990s the Hutu-led government in Rwanda was able to fend off Tutsi incursions. However, this was about to change.
Since the Hutu revolution in 1959, exiled Tutsis never lost sight of their dream to return to their homeland and reclaim their lives. This was particularly true of the Tutsis exiled in Uganda where in the 1980s they established an organization called the Rwandese Alliance for National Unity (RANU) to address the issue of their repatriation. When their call for change was left unheeded they reorganized themselves into a rebel army called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). In October 1990, the RPF invaded Rwanda and engaged the Rwandan Armed Forces in civil war.
The Rwandan civil war raged and death and destruction ensued on both sides. No one was winning on either side of the conflict. In an attempt to end the fighting, the international community used its leverage to push for peace in the region. Pressuring the Hutu led Rwandan government to seek reconciliation with exiled Tutsis, the presiding Hutu president, Juvénal Habyarimana, began moderating policies in favor of Tutsi repatriation. This led to a ceasefire between the RPF and the Rwandan Armed Forces in July 1992 and, subsequently, a peace agreement known as the Arusha Accords in August 1993. To support the peace process, the United Nations Security Council established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) to assist in the implementation of the Arusha peace agreement.
The Arusha Accords were intended to unify Hutus and Tutsis and establish an equitable power sharing between them. Unfortunately, many Hutus in and out of government vehemently opposed the peace agreement which they felt was only a harbinger of Tutsi domination again in Rwanda. With dissent in the government ranks, Hutus with more extreme ideologies transformed a previously peaceful youth movement called the Interahamwe, which means “to work together,” into a far-right Hutu paramilitary group. This group, comprised of Hutu extremists and rogue militants, took matters into their own hands and masterminded a plan to secure their political dominance and definitively rid any future Tutsi interference in the country’s internal affairs. Their plan was called GENOCIDE.
Speaking of genocide, it is important to reference the largest genocide in human history – the Holocaust. January 20, 1942, 15 nazi officials gathered around a dining room table in a villa in Wannsee, a locality minutes away from Berlin. Their agenda was to finalize plans for the implementation of the systematic extermination of a proposed 11 million Jews, code named the “Final Solution.”
The Interahamwe orchestrated their own final solution. To bolster support for its implementation, the paramilitary group needed to mobilize the more moderate Hutu population to join them in their fight to achieve complete annihilation of their enemy – the Tutsis. But how do you turn peace-loving people into murders? The Interahamwe knew the answer to this question—fear. And they knew the words to use and the actions to take to fan the flames of fear. They spoke of an imminent Tutsi invasion. They spoke of impending revenge killing by Tutsis whose ancestors were slaughtered decades before by Hutus in 1959. And they spoke of renewed Tutsi domination. It didn’t take long for this propaganda to ignite millions of fear-filled followers.
April 6, 1994, the Rwandan president Habyarimana was assassinated when his plane was mysteriously shot down. Hutu extremists claimed the Tutsis were responsible for the president’s assassination in order to retake the country. The Tutsis, on the other hand, accused extremist Hutu’s of assassinating the president to fuel a massive response from the population to join in the extermination campaign against them. To date, no one knows for sure who shot down the plane.
Regardless of who was responsible, the response to the event was immediate. The orchestrators of the genocide advised Hutus to take quick and decisive action to prevent a Tutsi takeover. They ordered Hutus countrywide to bear arms and protect themselves from the Tutsi invaders whose aim, they claimed, was to exterminate the Hutu people. The radio was the orchestators’ mouthpiece and through it their venom spewed. Broadcasts were incendiary and encouraged the annihilation of all Tutsis. “Kill the inyenzi!” they commanded. Inyenzi means cockroaches in Kinyarwanda. It was a term used to describe Tutsis. “Kill the children,” they blasted. They feared that if the children were allowed to live, they would avenge their fathers’ deaths in the future. In this way, the children would continue the cycle of destruction and Tutsi domination. So “kill them!” the Hutu instigators instructed. “Fill the graves! They are only half-empty! Kill the children! The children…kill them,” resounded over the radio. And so it was done.
Thousands of Hutus took to the streets and started massacring their Tutsi neighbors. Men, women, children and unborn infants were slaughtered. Anyone sympathizing with the Tutsis or opposing the master plan to ethnically cleanse the country was also exterminated. This killing spree lasted 100 days and over a million people were killed. Where was UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda? They were there. What did they do? Nothing. Why? Because their mandate was to implement the Arusha Peace Accords, not stop a genocide. Could they have done something? Absolutely. Why didn’t they? That’s a good question.
Then what happened? In an unexpected show of military force and prowess, the Rwandan Patriotic Front overpowered Interahamwe’s forces and took control of the country. Hutu militia along with millions of Hutus fled the country. This is where my story begins.
After the killings had essentially cleansed the Rwandan landscape of the Tutsi people, humanitarian aid workers from around the world were invited into the country to clean up the mess and put the pieces back together again. I was one of those aid workers.