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The Rwandan Genocide was the mass slaughter in 1994 of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority. Over 800,000 people were killed by Hutu extremists over the course of approximately 100 days. Over 70% of the Tutsi then living in Rwanda were killed. The population of Rwanda as a whole decreased by about 20%. The major reason for the killings was fear that the once-dominant Tutsi minority was on the verge of restoring its power over the Hutu. However, there was more to the genocide in Rwanda than simple ethnic hatred. Among the factors which led to the slaughter included a perceived need by the political elite to shore up its power by uniting the country in a campaign of hate and pressure on resources caused by a rapidly expanding population.
The origins of the tension between Hutu and Tutsi can be traced back to Rwanda's colonial period. Rwanda was occupied by Germany in the 1890s. Belgium took control of the country in 1916, during the First World War.
'Hutu' and 'Tutsi' had a different meaning before European colonizers arrived. The 'Hutu', who made up the majority of the population, were agriculturalists, while the 'Tutsi' were pastoralists. The political elite were largely Tutsi, including the king; however the majority of Tutsi were neither wealthy nor powerful. The Tutsi were generally taller and lighter-skinned. Identification was fluid however, and not based on these physical differences. For example, Tutsi who lost cattle might subsequently be considered Hutu and vice versa. Intermarriage between the two groups was common and they both spoke the same language. In short, prior to colonialism the difference was social rather than ethnic and overall not considered to be all that major.
While occasional tensions between them existed for thousands of years, it was the Belgian colonial authorities who did most to racialize this difference and end the fluidity. The Belgians found it convenient to work with the Tutsi ruling class, as they were already in power and the Belgians believed that the lighter-skinned Tutsi were descendants of Europeans and therefore made more 'natural rulers'. The difference between Hutu and Tutsi became more rigid in this period, with the supposed ethnic element reinforced by education. This culminated in the issuing of mandatory ethnic identity cards, which defined the holder legally as Hutu or Tutsi.
Rwanda was by no means immune from the wave of popular independence movements that swept Africa following the Second World War. The movement in Rwanda was primarily led by Hutu, who had lost out most from colonial rule. Both Hutu and Tutsi had by now accepted the ethnic divisions created by the colonial authorities, and tensions between them rose as they both strived for power. The Hutu had achieved the upper-hand when independence came in 1962 and the new state was dominated by the majority ethnic group. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsi fled into neighbouring countries. The ones who stayed faced discrimination.
From independence on, the Hutu elite cemented its control by whipping up fear of a Tutsi resurgence, finding it useful to resurrect the Tutsi threat whenever their corrupt rule faced popular opposition. The 1994 genocide can be seen as the horrific culmination of a long-standing practice.
In 1973 Juvenal Habyarimana came to power. He ruled in an authoritarian manner, around a clique formed from his own northern clan. This was tolerated while the economy was good, but people who visited the country warned of the atrocious mishandling of the country's farmland resulting from both the farmers themselves and government policies. When this inevitably caught up with him in the late 1980s, economic depression took hold and the regime started to face popular opposition. In the midst of this, in 1990, the 'Rwandan Patriotic Front' (RPF) made up largely of Tutsi exiles invaded from neighbouring Uganda, starting the Rwandan Civil War. Their goal was not to re-establish Tutsi dominance but to overthrow Habyarimana and establish a democracy. The war put greater stress on the regime and pressure from inside and out forced negotiations for the end of one party rule in 1992.
Even as peace talks were underway, the ruling clique had already formed plans to unite the country under their rule by a campaign of genocide against the Tutsi, claiming that they sought to return to their pre-independence position above the Hutu. Hutu opponents of the regime were to be eliminated by denouncing them as collaborators with the Tutsi. Proponents of 'Hutu Power' were able to use their links in the press to launch a propaganda campaign before the slaughter commenced. The 'Hutu Ten Commandments' were disseminated widely. The most quoted of the commandments was the eighth: 'Hutu must stop having mercy on the Tutsi'. The propaganda outlined that not only were the Tutsi aiming to regain their position, they were willing and intent on slaughtering Hutu en masse to do it. Dehumanising language was used to describe Tutsi, with 'cockroaches' being a common description.
Their efforts could not prevent a peace agreement being reached in 1993. By then, however, ethnic tensions were running high, with some violence occurring. Two events tipped the balance towards mass slaughter. One was the conflict in the winter of 1993 in Burundi. Mass killings of Hutu by Tutsi there seemed to confirm the propaganda and even moderate Hutu looking for peace with the RPF began to doubt Tutsi intentions. This directly led to the importation of over 500,000 machetes (one for every three adults in the country) and other weapons and the intensification of recruitment and training by Hutu Power militia groups. Senior leaders of the army and militia group planned for the extermination of the Tutsi. The other event was the still unsolved assassination in April 1994 of President Habyarimana when his plane was shot down. The killing was blamed on the RPF. With it the extermination of the Tutsi population of Rwanda began.
“”'This genocide was not an uncontrollable outburst of rage by a people consumed by 'ancient tribal hatred'...this genocide resulted from the deliberate choice of a modern elite to foster hatred and fear to keep itself in power.
Within hours of the death of Habyarimana scores of prominent Tutsi and Hutu opponents of the regime were murdered. Radio stations proclaimed that 'the graves are not yet full' and urged Hutu to do their duty and exterminate the Tutsi population of Rwanda. Civilians did much of the killing as well as the army and militia. Hospitals became killing grounds as doctors exterminated Tutsi patients. Teachers killed their pupils. Clergy largely turned a blind eye to the massacres or even gave their blessing, occasionally taking part themselves. Churches became some of the most infamous spots for massacres as people sought sanctuary.
In addition to Tutsi the Hutu militias also targeted another ethnic group, the Twa people, despite the fact that the Twa were and are about 1% of the population and clearly in no position to take power or aid anyone. In addition, forces brutally murdered any Hutu who attempted to assist Tutsi. Many Tutsi were saved by Hutu, however, with the most famous example being the actions of Hutu hotelier Paul Rusesabagina. Nevertheless, by July over 800,000 were dead. More people had been killed more quickly than any other mass killing in history.
The slaughter caused the predominantly Tutsi RPF to renew their campaign that April. Although outnumbered, the RPF was able to take advantage of the fact that government troops were more focused on genocide than fighting. When faced with the RPF, Hutu Power leaders often chose to flee rather than fight, fearing retribution. The RPF took the capital, Kigali, on July 4 and the rest of the country was liberated by the end of the month. With the change in government, the genocide ended.
Rwanda has been cited as a case where Thomas Malthus's growth model proved accurate. Studies of the Rwandan Genocide showed that large numbers of people were killed in communities that were virtually all Hutu. For example, one community in the northwest lost 5% of its population despite the fact that only a single Tutsi lived there. Jared Diamond notes how in the decades preceding the genocide, both population and agricultural production increased. He notes how per-capita food production rose from 1966 to 1981 but then dropped back to the level it had been in the early 1960s. By then 'all arable land outside of national parks was being cultivated'. The percentage of the population consuming less than 1,600 calories per day in 1982 was 9%. By 1990, it had risen to 40%. Added to this were rising socio-economic inequalities that caused tensions within communities, and even within families over the division between scarce land from a father to his children.
Thus breakdown of law and order 'provided a unique opportunity to settle scores or to reshuffle land properties, even among Hutu villagers...It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources'.  One Tutsi survivor stated that 'the people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs'.
The ethnic element no doubt interplayed with the economic element as extreme economic pressure made fear of a return to Tutsi dominance seem all the more threatening. In addition, ethnic hatred no doubt also made it seem less problematic to kill Tutsi over land disputes.
Role of the international community
The failure of the international community to respond to and stop the Genocide remains a point of contention. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was put in place during the civil war, meaning that UN peacekeeping troops were stationed in Rwanda when the slaughter began. Despite knowledge of ensuing conflict, the recent debacle of UN forces in Somalia meant that there was little stomach for a large campaign in Rwanda. Therefore, the Security Council only supplied troops and equipment well below the recommended levels, in terms of both size and quality.
Throughout the slaughter UNAMIR commander Romeo Dallaire argued that he could have stopped the Genocide if he had reinforcements but he was refused. Indeed, many troops were actually pulled out early when ten Belgian peacekeepers were killed. Despite knowledge of what was going on, the UN failed to act on it, referring to it as 'chaos', 'a confusing situation' and a 'tribal conflict'. The attitude was 'as if this were just one more tribal conflict of a type considered normal and acceptable in Africa'. Great effort went into avoiding the word genocide, for fear this might mean an obligation to act.
Despite the ultimate failure of UNAMIR, UN forces are still credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutu who might otherwise have been killed. But the results could have been far greater had the international community been more willing to commit to ending the slaughter.
One effect of the genocide was to cause large numbers of Hutus to flee into neighbouring countries to avoid retribution by the RPF. The Great Lakes Refugee Crisis, as it was known, led to the destabilization of neighbouring Zaire and civil war in that country. This sucked in both the new Rwandan government, pursuing the Hutu militias raiding into Rwanda from bases in Zaire, and several other neighboring states (with 9 states ultimately fighting in what was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The Rwandan Genocide thus, unlike the red-baiting original domino theory whose predictions turned out to be BS, actually did act as the first in a line of dominoes, sparking a war so ferocious and bloody that it has been called the African World War.
The RPF continues to be the ruling party in Rwanda and rules very undemocratically, despite its stated mission during its invasions of the early 1990s. Nonetheless, the economy has grown rapidly since the Genocide and the government promotes the idea of a unity of Rwandans, past ethnic divisions. However, it is by no means certain that the issues which led to the genocide have been definitively solved.
Denying the Rwandan Genocide occurred is currently a crime in Rwanda but it does happen. One way of putting it, among a few, is to claim that the killings of Hutu by the RPF was greater in volume than the killings of Tutsi by the Hutu Power militia, and that the west has simply swallowed the 'victors' propaganda' in tallying the casualty statistics. This claim has been rejected by scholars working in this area.
Those who claim that the Genocide never happened tend to be Hutu who may have been involved in the actual events or their defence at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Another group are anti-American left-wingers who argue that the claim of genocide is a plot to lessen France's long-standing involvement in the area (to the advantage of the Americans) by tainting their support for the Hutu government during the civil war.
On the other hand, legitimate human rights groups have criticised the government of Rwanda for taking advantage of potentially useful anti-denial laws to crack down on genuine dissent to the government's rule. Among them is the dissident Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, who was arrested for, among other things, attempting to raise awareness of the number of Hutus killed in the genocide, and also just happened to be one of the most high profile political opponents of Rwanda's current president.
- Stats = Wikipedia.
- Martin Meredith (2006). The State of Africa. London: The Free Press, p. 488
- Meredith (2006), p. 494.
- Meredith (2006), p. 498.
- Human Rights Watch (1999) Leave none to tell the story: Genocide in Rwanda.
- Meredith (2006), p. 509.
- Jared Diamond (2006) Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive. London: Penguin, p 316.
- Meredith (2006), p. 523.
- Not that the RPF were immune to savagery themselves - between 30,000 and 60,000 Hutu were slaughtered by them in reprisal.
- Diamond (2006), p. 320.
- Diamond (2006), p. 323.
- Diamond (2006), p. 326.
- Diamond (2006), p. 328.
- Diamond (2006), p. 317.
- Amnesty International (2013). Report on Rwanda