The Apocalypse in Rwanda


The scenes of mayhem are straight out of the apocalypse. From a distance their bodies look like broken dolls floating down the Akagera River, limbs severed by the hand of an angry child; moving closer to the scene brings into view the horror of a carnage described by one French official as the biggest genocide of the end of the century. The suffering inflicted on the victims is inscribed in the vicious machete wounds. "Those who were shot were the lucky ones," said one observer. Few were that lucky. At the Musha mission, some 40 kilometers north of the capital, where some 1200 Tutsi had sought refuge, the death squads went to work at 8:00 A.M. on 8 April; not until the evening was the "job" done.

In countless other localities - in Nyarubuye, Butare, Kabgaye, Kigali, Cyangugu - hundreds and thousands of civilians, men, women, and children, were shot, speared, clubbed or hacked to pieces in church compounds and courtyards. If the estimates ventured by some nongovernmental organizations are correct - half a million dead - twice as many people died in Rwanda in a month as in the Bosnian civil war in two years.

As much as the appalling scale of the massacre, it is the element of planned annihilation that gives the Rwanda killings their genocidal quality. The agonies of Rwanda are not those of civil war, but of an organized carnage orchestrated from above. Anyone whose physical appearance, ethnic identity or political affiliation offers grounds of presumed sympathy for the Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front (FPR) is fair game for ethnic cleansing. After the Hutu of Burundi it is now the turn of the Tutsi of Rwanda to claim the status of a martyred community.


Though seldom noted by the media, this is not the first instance of systematic extermination visited upon the people of the former Belgian Trust Territory of Ruanda-Urundi (now known as Rwanda and Burundi) (Lemarchand 1970, 1994). The parallel with the 1972 genocide in Burundi, resulting in anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 deaths (overwhelmingly Hutu), immediately comes to mind. Although the threats to their ruling ethnocracies - Hutu in Rwanda, Tutsi in Burundi - came from small groups of armed opponents, in the end entire civilian communities became the targets of ethnic cleansing - the Hutu in Burundi, and the Tutsi in Rwanda.

In both cases the killing were conducted by mixed teams of civilian and military elements recruited from specific ethnoregional subgroups - Tutsi-Hima from the south in Burundi, and northern Hutu in Rwanda. And in both instances the result has been to generate a massive exodus of displaced persons and refugees. In 1972 at least 150,000 Hutu left Burundi for Rwanda, Zaire, and Tanzania; in 1994 an estimated three quarters of a million Rwandese, both Hutu and Tutsi, poured into neighboring states, with Tanzania sheltering an estimated 250,000 in the Benaco refugee camp, 14 kilometers from the Rwanda/Tanzanian border.

Where Rwanda differs from Burundi is not just that the "rebels" happen to be Tutsi, but Tutsi refugees, or children of refugees, who fought their way back into the country from Uganda in October 1990, and quickly emerged as a remarkably tough and disciplined politico-military force.

The Rwandese Patriotic Front has a long pedigree, going back to the creation in 1979 of the Uganda-based Rwandese Alliance for National Unity (RANU). Intended to provide refugees and their descendants with a cultural home away from home, RANU eventually developed into a recruiting ground for Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Army (NRA) in Uganda. For critical assistance against Milton Obote's army, and the tribute paid in human lives, the refugee-warriors were handsomely rewarded. The late Fred Rwigema, FPR President (later killed in Rwanda), became Chief of Staff of the NRA and Deputy Minister of Defense, a post he held until 1989. Paul Kagame, Commander in Chief of the FPR, once served as Head of Military Security of the NRA.

Their meteoric rise within the NRA turned out to be a mixed blessing, however. For while giving them access to information, weapons, and ammunition, their presence at the top did not go without causing considerable resentment among "native" Ugandans. As Museveni stated to a group of diplomats in Kampala on 16 October 1990, "if there is one issue on which opinion in Uganda is unanimous, it is the view that Banyarwanda should go back to their country."

Thus there were compelling reasons for the FPR's politico-military designs on Rwanda: an intense desire to return to their homeland (even though most of them were born abroad), made all the more legitimate by the countless frustrations they experienced as refugees. What better way of solving the refugee problem than to give them a blank check to fight their way back into Rwanda (Watson 1991)?

Other facts, specific to Rwanda, are equally well established. France's massive military assistance notwithstand, the Rwanda armed forces were no match for the battle-hardened refugee-warriors of the FPR. Domestic and international pressures for a negotiated solution eventually led to the Arusha (Tanzania) accords of 4 August 1993, when the parties to the conflict agreed on bringing opposition members, including the FPR, into a broadly-based traditional government, pending general elections 22 months later. The Rwandan armed forces, meanwhile, were to be restructured so as to allow a 40 per cent representation of FPR elements in the officer corps and 60 per cent among the troops. In anticipation of the implementation of the Arusha accords units of the FPR were allowed to be stationed in Kigali, under the supervision of the United Nations mission in Rwanda, while others remained in control of areas in the northeast where they had already gained a solid foothold.

And then, like a bolt out of the blue, on 6 April, catastrophe struck. On its return flight from Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania) the plane carrying the Rwanda president, Juvenal Habyalimana, along with his Burundi counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot to bits by a SAM-6 ground to air missile as it was about to land in Kigali. Almost immediately the slaughter began. It is still going on at the time of this writing (20 June).

Although the foregoing is reasonably well established, a host of nagging questions remain about the why and how of the Rwanda apocalypse. By what perverse combination of circumstances did a society that seemed considerably more stable than its neighbors (except for Tanzania) five or six years ago end up mutilated beyond all recognition? How did Burundi's aborted tradition to democracy in 1993 affect Rwanda's destinies in 1994? Who fired the fateful missile that brought down Habyalimana's plane? What are the implications of Rwanda butchery for the region? What are the lessons from the standpoint of international peacekeeping operations?

The answers to these queries are still largely speculative. Some may never be known. Nonetheless, the evidence available is difficult to square with the myths that have gained currency in some of the media, and which sometimes reflect the biases and prejudices of the protagonists. The impression one gets is that (a) the killings are but the most recent and tragic expression of atavistic antagonisms between Hutu and Tutsi, (b) they were trigered by a sudden explosion of righteous popular anger in the face of the criminal shooting down of the presidential plane by the FPR, (c)the conflict is everywhere reducible to a straight Hutu-Tutsi confrontation, (d)the dynamic of the genocide has little to do with developments outside Rwanda, being entirely rooted in the rapid ethnic polarization triggered by the FPR invasion of 1 October 1990. None of the foregoing is strictly true.


Unless we rid ourselves of the notions of Hutu and Tutsi as static, culturally differentiated categories denoting ancestral animosities, we will miss the critical factor behind the Rwanda genocide: the manufacturing of ethnic hatred by regime ideologies. The historic and historiographic roots of the phenomenon are worth noting. For if the terms Hutu and Tutsi are clearly not an invention of the European colonizer, the images and meanings they convey ("the tall, willowy Tutsi cattle lords (ruled by) a magical Tutsi king" pitted against "darker-skinned, stockier Hutu farmers...who kept the Tutsi clothed and fed" (Time Magazine, 16 October 1994) are in part traceable to missionary historiography, much of it revolving around the so-called Hamitic hypothesis. Like all Hamites the Tutsi were said to have originated from Ethiopia, and their intellectual superiority was the natural consequence of their early exposure to Coptic Christianity.

Tutsi ethnicity - reconstructed by Catholic "Hamitic" histories, and in due course manipulated by the "native" majority to validate their claims against a "foreign" minority - surfaced in 1959-1962 as a key ideological ingredient of the Hutu revolution, and lately in even more extreme form in the pages of the stridently anti-Tutsi newspaper Kangura, in the urgings of some Hutu ideologies to "send back the Tutsi to where they come from, Ethiopia," and in the racist venom distilled day after day by the privately-owned and operated Radio Mille Collines.

In calling attention to these phantasms our intention is not to deny that traditional Rwanda society was among the most rigidly stratified in the Great Lakes region, or that the Tutsi held a monopoly of power and wealth. It is equally important that (a) violence was far more frequent among Tutsi than between Hutu and Tutsi, (b) Tutsi rule was made immensely more oppressive by the exigencies of colonial rule than at any time prior to colonization.

It is impossible to comprehend the ferocity of the killings without a proper grasp of their historical dimensions. The colonial state served as the crucible within which collective identities were reshaped and mythologized. For it was the colonial state that destroyed the preexisting balance-of-power mechanisms built chiefly around the hierarchies, the first in a series of measures leading to the transformation of traditional reciprocities into obligations, and ethnic identities into incipient class differences. It was the colonial state that insisted on each individual carrying an identity card specifying his/her ethnic background, a practice perpetuated until 1994, when "tribal cards" often spelled the difference between life and death. And it was the colonial state that gave ideological justification to Tutsi overrule,k the Hamitic "myth" added a solid basis of cultural legitimacy to practical arguments in favor of Tutsi hegemony - making its overthrow by violent means, during the 1959-62 Hutu revolution, a foregone conclusion.

Now as in 1959 the root cause of ethnic violence must be found in the extent to which collective identities have been reactivated, mythologized and manipulated for political advantage. Hutu and Tutsi are not just ethnic labels, but social categories which, arbitrary though they may be in many cases, carry an enormous emotional charge. "Inveterate tribalists, ready to impose the tyranny of the many on the few": such is the image that many Tutsi, at home and abroad, have of the Hutu. As for the Tutsi, their original sin, in the minds of many Hutu extremists, is that they are culturally alien to Rwanda - their presence traceable to "Hamitic invaders from the north" who used ruse and cunning, including gifts of "cattle and beautiful women," to enslave Hutu agriculturalists. That such portrayals are at odds with every shred of evidence is immaterial. The point is that they are critical elements in the cognitive map of Hutu and Tutsi.

Reconstructed ethnohistory dovetails with recent history to give added salience to the image of the Tutsi as an alien invader. Have they not again invaded the country from the north, this time with arms and ammunitions supplied by Uganda? Is it not the case that very few of the soldiers enlisted in the ranks of the FPR were born in Rwanda, and that many of its leaders served as high-ranking officers in Museveni's National Resistance Army (NRA) in Uganda? In the light of their history is it not logical to assume that their overriding objective is to restore the monarchy, the only way to legitimize minority rule, and thus destroy the democratic heritage of the "glorious" 1959 Hutu revolution? And can one seriously doubt that the shooting down of the presidential plane, on 6 April, was the work of the FPR, so as to block the implementation of the Arusha accords and thereby eliminate once and for all the prospects of multiparty elections?


Whether Habyalimana's plane was shot down by elements of the Presidential Guard or by the Tutsi-dominated FPR has yet to be established. But when one reflects on the strong opposition of certain key members of the presidential entourage to the Arusha accords - seen as the thin edge of the wedge by which the FPR would penetrate and subvert the Republic - and on the fact that the killings began almost immediately after the crash, as if carefully planned well ahead of time, suspicions that it could have been the work of the Presidential Guard tend to harden into certainty.

No sooner was the news of the crash made public than a manhunt got under way, aimed at the physical liquidation of not only every Tutsi in the capital but every moderate Hutu as well. During the first phase of the massacre the Presidential Guard set up roadblocks around the capital, so as to control the movement of people in and out of the city while troops proceeded to arrest and kill Tutsi politicians and moderate Hutu ministers (including the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana). So as to facilitate their task, lists of Hutu and Tutsi to be eliminated were handed out to the death squads. The second phase began some 48 hours after the crash, when the civilian militias were given a free hand to just kill every Tutsi in sight. Throughout the carnage, Radio Mille Collines exhorted the militias to show diligence, with messages like "The enemy is out there - go get him!" and "The graves are only half full!"

Predictably, the wanton killing of Tutsi civilians (and not a few Hutu who appeared to be Tutsi), quickly drew the FPR into the fray. Thus began the long drawn-out battle for Kigali. Against the FPR stood the Presidential Guard and the Forces Armees Rwandaises (FAR), with auxiliary slaughterhouse support provided by the Hutu militias, the so-called Interahamwe ("those who stand together") and the Impuza Mugambi ("the singleminded ones"), the first being the paramilitary wing of the ruling Movement National Republicain pour la Democratie et le Developpement (MNRD), and the second that of the sinister Coalition pour la Defense de la Republique (CDR), a party even more rabidly anti-Tutsi than the MNRD. Formally organized in 1992, both are the outgrowth of self-defense groups - nyumbakumi, or "ten houses" - organized under MNRD auspices in the days immediately following the October 1990 invasion. By the end of 1993 they claimed a membership of 50,000.

No sooner was the battle for Kigali joined than ethnic killings spread to the countryside and other towns. On 10 April, hundreds of Tutsi refugees huddled in the stadium of Cyangugu, on the Rwanda/Zaire border, were killed when FAR troops lobbed hand grenades into the crowd; on 16 April anti-Tutsi pogroms began in Butare after bands of young Hutu from other localities suddenly overran the city, saying that the Tutsi had killed the President, that they were attacking the Hutu, and that now the time had come to eliminate the enemy in their midst. Thus, as Stephen Smith noted, "the Hutu began killing their Tutsi neighbors, for fear that otherwise they might be killed. A hecatomb by anticipation.... Then army men and civilians broke into homes, dragging their horror-stricken inhabitants out into the street, to be clubbed or hacked to pieces. `There are mass graves all over', one young woman whispered; `our town is like a charnel house.'" (Smith 1994)


With public attention and sympathy riveted on the hundreds and thousands of Tutsi victims, other dimensions of the conflict have gone almost unnoticed. For the organizers of the carnage, all of them of northern Hutu origins, the shooting down of the presidential plane offered a unique opportunity to kill three birds with one stone. Not only Tutsi civilians, but two other categories of potential allies for the FPR had to be wiped out: (a)Hutu politicians from the central and southern regions, for the most part identified with the leadership of the Mouvement Democratique Republicain (MDR), and (b) the so-called "moderates", consisting of Hutu and Tutsi elements affiliated to the Parti Liberal (PL) or the Parti Social Democrate (PSD), and whose spirit of compromise and conciliation towards the FPR was readily seen by the northerners as synonymous with treason. The latter two categories were quickly disposed of; in less than 48 hours after the crash all had been killed. Doing away with entire communities of Tutsi civilians proved a more difficult undertaking, yet the scale of the carnage leaves no doubt about the efficiency of the death squads organized by Habyalimana's sinner circle - the so-called "akazu," or "little house" in Kinyarwanda - in the months preceding his death.

The downing of Habyalimana's plane is as much the cause of the killings as it is the symptom of something more fundamental that made the killings almost inevitable. I refer to the critically significant implications of President Melchior Ndadaye's assassination in neighboring Burundi, on 21 October 1993. The first Hutu president in the history of Burundi, Ndadaye's election brought to a close 28 years of Tutsi hegemony, and this after a transition to multiparty democracy widely described by international observers as "exeplary." Of his tremendous popularity among the Hutu masses - and not a few Tutsi - there can be no doubt. Nor is there any question that the news of his death at the hands of an all-Tutsi army carried a demonstration effect of immediate significance for the Hutu of Rwanda. As ethnic violence swept across the country, causing some 200,000 panic-stricken Hutu to seek refuge in Rwanda, the message that came across to Rwanda, clear and loud, could be summed up in four words: "Never trust the Tutsi."

In the months following Ndadaye's assassination several things happened that help explain why Habyalimana's April trip to Tanzania turned out to be his last. The presence of thousands of Hutu refugees from Burundi was a critical factor in sharpening the edges of ethnic conflict. Little prodding was needed to persuade some of them to join the death squads. By then what moderating influence Habyaliamana could have claimed for himself had already vanished. Real power was now concentrated in the hands of the akazu, a small clique of presidential relatives and friends who not only shared the same regional origins (Bushiru) but the conviction that nothing good could come out of Arusha. While maximum pressure was put on Habyalimana to resist implementation of the Arusha accords, every effort was made by the akazu to create divisions among the middle of the road parties in hopes that disagreements over representation in the transitional government and assembly would lead to endless misunderstandings.

The strategy worked brilliantly. As 1993 drew to an end the MDR, PL, and PSD found themselves torn asunder by internecine quarrels between moderates and hardliners, between those who were willing to come to terms with the demands of the FPR and those who categorically refused to accept the Arusha compromise. On 3 January 1994 the MNRD National Secretary, the all-powerful Joseph Nzirorera, delivered a blistering attack against two leading Hutu moderates, the incumbent Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and Faustin Twagiramungu, Prime Minister designate of the future transitional government. "Their blackmail and tricks," he said, "are a serious handicap to the process of peace and democratization."

Meanwhile, Nziroera's personal contribution to that process came in the form of incitements to violence and, according to some observers, in the physical liquidation of his political rivals. In February 1994 the Executive Secretary of the PSD, Felicien Gatabazi, was assassinated by elements of the Presidential Guard. Retribution in kind immediately followed: a day later it was the turn of the CDR president, Martin Bukyana, to fall under the bullet of an unidentified assassin. By then nothing short of a miracle was needed to put Arusha back on the tracks.

The seeds of hatred were present in the soil of Rwanda long before the Burundi disaster offered them fresh opportunities to flourish. The report of the International Commission on Human Rights Abuses in Rwanda, published in March 1993, is totally unambiguous about the responsibility of the Habyalimana government: "The Rwandan government had killed or caused to be killed about 2,000 of its citizens from October 1990 to January 1993.... The majority of the victims were members of the Tutsi minority and they were killed for the sole reason that they were Tutsi. More recently an increasing number of Hutu were targeted if they belonged to parties opposed to the President.... Authorities at the highest level, including the President of the Republic, consented to the abuses, which were carried out by dozens of civilians and military officials.... The Rwanda army slaughtered hundreds of civilians in the course of one military operation and, in a number of subsequent and separate cases, assassinated or summarily executed civilians singled out for murder by local authorities." As for the RPF, the Commission noted that "the RPF attacked civilian targets and killed and injured civilians who were clearly protected by the Geneva conventions, kidnapped and expelled civilians to Uganda and looted and destroyed the property of civilians."

To chronicle the countless human rights violations reported by the International Commission, Africa Watch and other human rights organizations since the October 1990 invasion would take us too far afield. It is sufficient to note that, although the FPR does not come out with clean hands, the Rwanda authorities, and specifically the hardcore akazu faction, must be held fully responsible for invitations to violence leading to the elimination of thousands of innocent Tutsi civilians.

As we now realize, despite substantial military presence on the ground (reaching 680 men in 1993), and a privileged access to the Presidential Guard, the French showed few qualms of conscience even when confronted with irrefutable evidence of wanton killings of civilians. Given that such "incidents" began in the weeks immediately following the FPR invasion - a strategy designed to restore unity to otherwise fragmented Hutu constituencies - only to grow in scale and frequency as months went by, it is easy to see why France's silence should be seen by its critics as a form of complicity. France has sinned both by omission and by commission, by its persistent indifference to massive human rights violations, and by its active involvement in the training of the Presidential Guard and the FAR and in occasional military operations against the FPR. Only now, in about of retrospective guilt, is the French government taking the initiative in saving Tutsi lives.

Laudable as it is, France's latest move leaves unanswered critical questions: how to redefine the rules of engagement of the UN, and whether the UN can be expected to intervene effectively in Rwanda-type situations in the absence of a properly trained and equipped standing force. Unless appropriate answers are given to these questions it is difficult to see how the UN can contribute effectively to the restoration of peace and stability, not only in Rwanda but in a number of other settings where ethnic massacres are waiting to happen (Burundi being the most obvious case).

As these lines are being written, there is no telling when the killings in Rwanda will stop; nor is there any point in trying to anticipate what kind of vengeance, if any, the RPF might exact once they gain the upper hand militarily; or in speculating about the ripple effects of the Rwanda carnage in neighboring states, particularly Burundi and Zaire. The only certitude at this state is that irrespective of who wins the last battle, winning the peace will be an extraordinarily long and delicate undertaking.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: