25 years ago today in 1994 A.D., while the Apartheid Regime was steadily coming to an end in South Africa, in the Great Lakes Region, a day after a plane carrying the Rwandan President, Juvénal Habyarimana, and the Burundian President, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down as it made its descent into Kigali, Hutu soldiers, police and Interahamwe militiamen began killing Tutsi and moderate Hutu leaders. Within a hundred days almost a million Tutsis and almost 10,000 of the pygmy Twa minority would be dead in what was to be known as the Rwandan Genocide. The world was to be shocked and yet the nations of the world were to do next to nothing until it was too late (machetes used by the Hutu militia pictured).
The roots of the rivalry between the Hutu and the Tutsi had was not in ‘ancient tribal’ hatreds but was a relic of the colonial era, in particular from the period when the Belgians had ruled Rwanda after it was given to them from Germany in 1919. As a means of divide-and-rule, the Belgians introduced their racial colonial ideology to the country, justifying the rule of the Tutsi monarchy on the basis that the Tutsi were a superior race of Africans, that the Rwandan kingdom owed its high level of organization and sophistication to the Tutsi being “whites in black skin” descended of Ham, the cursed son of Noah. The Tutsi aristocrats were meant to be physically taller and descended of invaders from Ethiopia and Middle East in contrast to their Hutu counterparts who were supposed to be smaller in stature and were meant to be of the lesser conquered Bantu people. In truth while the Tutsis had migrated to Rwanda later than the Hutu, the two groups have lived together for so long that there were no physical differences between the two, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was more class-based than anything and was interchangeable with Hutus becoming Tutsis through marriage. The Belgians however sought to divide them, bringing identity cards in for the population in 1933 to distinguish between the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. After the Second World War then there was an influx of Flemish officials and priests into the colonial administration who back home in Belgium felt hard done by by their Walloon counterparts and identified with the Hutu underdogs and encouraged them to perceive themselves as the only truly indigenous people of Rwanda. In 1959 this culminated in revolution with many of the Tutsi elite being exiled and the Tutsi king, the Mwami, being deposed not long afterwards.
From independence onwards the Hutu ruled Rwanda under two succeeding regimes, first under Kayibanda and then, after a coup in 1973, under Habyarimana. Though the Tutsi were excluded from the world of politics however, the ideology of Hutu racial supremacism by and large abated during this period and was consigned to the margins of political life. Though residues of this ideology remained with the Tutsi always being perceived as better off, by and large the two groups lived peacefully side by side with one another as the country enjoyed a degree of prosperity which was wanting in most other African states. This stability however began to unravel as the country’s export dependent economy was hit hard by the plummeting of world coffee prices in 1986-7. The regime managed to keep its grip however. What proved to be the decisive blow was the invasion of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) from Uganda in 1990. The RPF was composed of the descendants of the Tutsi exiles of 1959. As the RPF advanced into the country, the Hutu fled in their wake. Around the very same time there was an influx of Hutu refugees from Burundi where the country’s first Hutu president had been assassinated, thereby proving in the eyes of the extremists that the Tutsi and Hutu could not coexist with one another. In this setting where the regime was losing ground and fear was spreading throughout the populace, the ideology of Hutu supremacy swiftly returned to the fold. The war split the regime down the middle with some advocating moderation and negotiation while others, the defeated military especially, took a harder approach, accusing the Hutu moderates and the Tutsis within Rwanda of treachery and being allies of the RPF. The Arusha Peace Accords which resulted from the negotiations confirmed the worst fears of the extremists with power-sharing being agreed to with the RPF who would be given control of the Ministry of the Interior and half of the military.
A small inner circle known as the Akazu formed within the regime and secretly planned to exterminate the Tutsi to thwart these peace efforts. Propaganda was spread across the media, labeling the Tutsi as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feudal invaders’ and ‘royalists’ who would dominate the Hutus as they had done in the past. As early as 1991 the regime had started to arm large numbers of civilians as part of a national self-defence initiative. With the country’s economy in tatters, young men were easily attracted to join these militias with their promise of free food, drink and cash and thus were easily trained and radicalised for the explicit purposes of killing Tutsis. In the weeks leading up the genocide there was a number of false alarms in the capital which heightened tensions even more. Thus when Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, the extremists took it as their cue that the RPF had made their move and that the hour had come at last to put their plan into motion.
With the Hutu moderates and leading Tutsi out of the way, the word was spread from the top down to start the wholesale annihilation of the Tutsi. The Interahamwe militiamen spread out across the country and rallied the Hutu to their call, threatening to kill anyone who refused to kill their Tutsi neighbours. Habyarimana’s regime had instilled a culture of collective obedience and social conformism amongst the people so that with few exceptions everyone down the chain of command, even some of the most benevolent officials, took up arms and followed the orders. As the Tutsi and Hutu were largely indistinguishable from one another many mistakes were made with tall Hutus being cut down and some smaller stature Tutsi escaping in the slaughter. With the population density so high, about 208 people per square kilometre, the killings spread quickly with groups of machete-wielding Hutus marauding the countryside butchering the men, raping the women, smashing infants against rocks, hacking the unborn from their mother’s wombs, even forcing women to kill their own children, and plundering their victim’s properties for any loot they could get their hands on. Death by machete was by no means quick and some victims went so far as to pay their killers to shoot them to at least have a quick death.
With the country virtually cannibalising itself, the RPF took advantage of the situation and simply moved in, easily taking over and pushing the Hutu extremists out into the Congo. As for the international community, they made no attempt to stop the genocide. U.S President Bill Clinton was well informed on the situation and knew that the genocide was going to happen yet chose not to interfere. Rwanda was of no strategic value and had no lucrative resources. The last thing he wanted was a repeat of the military disaster in Mogadishu the year before. To make sure that he would not have to do this, he consciously refused to use the word ‘genocide’ so that he would not be pressured to intervene and even went so far as to obstruct in others aiding the situation.
In Rwanda meanwhile the country was left littered with hundreds of thousands of corpses. To dispose of the bodies the authorities had to resort to using garbage trucks to pick up 60,000 bodies and bury them in mass graves. In the hills the bodies were stacked up into piles that were four or five feet high and left to rot for months. 40,000 other bodies were washed down the Kagera River and polluted the waters of Lake Victoria. It would take years for the country to recover. The genocide has been commemorated annually by two public holidays of national mourning.