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The Tragedy of Rwanda

Lukin Robinson is a longtime trade unionist in Ontario, Canada.

Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton University Press, 2001), 384 pages, paperback $16.95.
Linda Melvern, A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide (London and New York: Zed Books, 2000), 288 pages, hardcover $69.95, paperback $19.95.

In Rwanda, in four months of 1994, as many as a million people were massacred in a well prepared and organized orgy of killing amounting to genocide. Seldom in recorded history has there been such a concentrated frenzy of mass murder of innocent people. How could such a thing have happened? Who was responsible? Could it have been prevented and why wasn’t it? These questions are the subject of the two books under review.

Linda Melvern’s book deals with all three questions, Mahmood Mamdani’s deals mostly with the first. Melvern is an English journalist and author. Mamdani was born and brought up in Uganda and is now a professor and the director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University. The style of each book reflects the profession of its author.

A Canadian, General Roméo Dallaire, is the hero of the Rwandan tragedy. He was the commander of the UN peacekeeping force sent to Rwanda in 1993. There are a few other heroes as well, but mostly the genocide is a story of hatred, slaughter, unimaginable horror, fear, cowardice and betrayal. It is one of the great crimes of the last century. It is also the great unacknowledged scandal of the Clinton administration.

Rwanda is a small, landlocked country in Central Africa, with seven to eight million people. It is all hills, mountains, and valleys. It was in Rwanda that Diane Fossey studied the mountain gorillas and tried at the cost of her life to protect them from poachers. It has no railways, but passable roads. The people are overwhelmingly rural and make their living from the land, as owners, herdsmen or peasants. Most of them are also poor.

Unlike many African countries, Rwanda’s people all speak the same language and, until the advent of the Catholic Church, shared the same religion and told the same ancestral stories. But, when the Europeans arrived at the end of the nineteenth century, Rwandans were divided into three castes: the Tutsi, the Hutu, and a tiny minority of Twa.

The Tutsis, accounting for 14 percent of the population, were the rulers, the Hutu, accounting for 85 percent, were the ruled, and the Twa were the remaining 1 percent. The Tutsis owned the land and raised cows. The more cows a Tutsi owned, the greater his wealth and power and the higher his status in the ruling hierarchy. The Hutu cultivated the land and were in effect serfs of the Tutsi lords, to whom they had to give part of their harvest in return for protection and the use of a cow. As long as the population was small, this system was stable, although oppressive.

But as the population grew, trouble developed. More Tutsis meant more cows, taking up more and more of the land and pressing irreconcilably on the land needed by the growing number of Hutu for cultivation. Just as the livelihood of the Hutu majority was threatened, so was the power of the Tutsi minority. The conflict came to a head in the 1950s.

The first European to set foot in Rwanda was the German Count G. A. von Götzen. He arrived in 1894. In 1885, the Berlin Conference had “awarded” Rwanda to Germany—without consulting or even informing the Rwandans. In 1918 Rwanda and its neighbor Burundi were awarded to Belgium as a mandate under the League of Nations and later the United Nations. With the Belgians came the Catholic Church. It gathered many adherents and became a pillar of the combined Belgian and Tutsi rule. When, in the 1950s, movements of national liberation from colonialism took hold in Africa as they had elsewhere, the Tutsis began to agitate against Belgian authority. Hoping to maintain its position, Belgium switched its support to the Hutu, who were allowed to take power in 1959 in a bloody revolution. The underdog became the top dog. There were widespread massacres of Tutsis, as well as the first wave of Tutsis fleeing in fear of their lives into neighboring countries, especially Uganda to the north and Burundi to the south, where Tutsis still held power. They were followed by many thousands more. This was the beginning of the descent to genocide.

Mamdani sets out three identities: cultural, market-based, and political. By political, he means a person’s ethnic or racial identity as defined by the state. He considers political identity to be primary, so that the key difference between Tutsi and Hutu was their ethnic or supposed racial origin. He argues against the opposite tendency “to see political identity as derivative of either market-based or cultural identities” (p. 21). But, however important it may be in itself, political identity is also the door to economic opportunity. Thus: “The key socioeconomic right is the right to use land as a source of livelihood.” This right is “not accessed individually but by virtue of membership in the ethnic community…The link between political violence and social redistribution has been key to revolutionary politics everywhere” (pp. 29, 201). So it was in Rwanda. “Political” and “market-based” identities were inseparable. Colonialism made use of both. Hence, “the Rwandan genocide needs to be thought through within the logic of colonialism” (p. 9).

The Belgian colonial administration displaced the native king as the symbol of national authority and made the local chiefs, all of whom were Tutsi, their agents of government, solely responsible to the central administration and ending any form of accountability to their communities. The colonial administration, together with the Catholic Church, also promoted the myth that the Tutsi were of Hamitic origin and were therefore descended from a superior, partly Caucasian race who had come to Rwanda centuries ago from the northeast—Ethiopia and southern Sudan. The administration thus changed the difference between the Tutsi and the Hutu from an ethnic to a racial one. This was confirmed in the identity card issued to each person which “classified the entire population as Tutsi, Hutu or Twa.” Tutsi power and privilege was thus identified with race, foreign versus indigenous, non-native versus native. The Tutsi were exalted as superior, the Hutu branded as inferior. As Mamdani explains, the change was crucial and disastrous.1

To make things worse, Belgian rule was the harshest the Hutu remembered ever having endured. The power of the chiefs was reinforced; the administration of “customary” law became stricter as well as arbitrary; state and church taxes were increased, and more and more unpaid, forced labor was required for a growing variety of purposes. Finally, because famines were frequent, the peasants were required to grow famine-resistant but protein-deficient crops plus coffee, which was the country’s main export and was required to pay for “development.” The agents for all this oppression were the Tutsi chiefs, who were happy to believe in the myth of their superiority. The Hutu had their own reasons for believing the myth; it added acid to their hatred.

The revolution of 1959, leading to independence in 1962, changed the state’s top personnel from Tutsi to Hutu. But the new regime failed to change much else. The Tutsis retained their position in the lower ranks of government; they continued to run the church and church education and most of the non-agricultural economy. In short, they continued to dominate so-called civil society. The gradually developing Hutu elite, in particular the students vainly looking for jobs, became increasingly dissatisfied.

In July 1973, the relatively moderate Hutu government was overthrown and the head of the Rwandan army (General Juvenal Habyarimana) became president. The new government at first sought accommodation with the Tutsi. It changed the designation of the Tutsi back from racial to ethnic and wanted to give them a place in Rwandan society in proportion to their number, i.e. 14 percent. This meant quotas throughout the government, the church, and the economy. The Tutsi naturally did not see this “accommodation” as a blessing. Thousands lost their jobs, and the tensions arising from enforcing the quotas made many fear for their safety; thousands fled. From their point of view, democracy for the Hutu meant despotism for them.

But a drive to exclude the Tutsi won out. In particular, the president’s wife, Agathe Kazinga, her three brothers, and their cronies gained increasing power and appropriated—actually stole—privatized state property. The regime became a dictatorship, which the Tutsi, together with a small but growing number of the Hutu majority, opposed. The economy also turned sour. There were recurring droughts and famines, the price of coffee collapsed, and a structural adjustment program (SAP) imposed by the IMF was the last straw.

Many Tutsi fled to refugee camps in Uganda, seeing no hope under the new regime. The early refugees wanted above all to go back home and, together with the new generation growing up without hope or prospects, they turned increasingly to armed struggle. At first there were only small groups of so-called terrorists, but eventually a powerful force was built up under the leadership of what called itself the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). It had the support of the Ugandan government, which wanted the refugees out. Every incursion into Rwanda led to renewed Tutsi massacres and new waves of refugees, and each of these in turn lead to an increase in the determination of the RPF and the strength of its army.

In 1990, the RPF forces embarked on a full-scale invasion. They saw themselves as liberators; but most Hutu feared and hated them as returning oppressors. When in 1993 the RPF reached the outskirts of the capital, Kigali, President Habyarimana appealed to his friend President Mitterrand of France—a bad man if ever there was one—who quickly sent a contingent of French paratroopers. The RPF could easily have beaten the Rwandan army, but French paratroopers were something else. The result was a stand-off.

During these years Agathe Kazinga and her clique began to advocate for the extermination of the Tutsi, as well as of all Hutu opposed to the increasingly corrupt and oppressive dictatorship. A new radio station was established to spew hatred and prepare the Hutu population for the genocide. More arms and ammunition were bought from abroad, mostly from Egypt, and Rwanda became the third largest African importer of weapons. The army was expanded from five thousand to twenty-eight thousand men and was trained by the French. A new militia, the Interahamwe, crazed with racism, was organized throughout the country. Together with the Presidential Guard and the army, it took a leading part in the genocide. The hate broadcasts and calls for the extermination of the Tutsis became more frequent and vicious; arms were stockpiled and, when the time came, were openly distributed to the waiting killers. The slaughter was planned and organized at the top, and was systematically carried out. Lists of people to be killed were drawn up. Every Hutu was encouraged to take part. Hundreds of thousands did. The preparations for the coming slaughter were well known and reported many times in the foreign press. Repeated warnings were sent to the Belgian, French, and U.S. governments, and later also to the UN. No one would ever be able to plead ignorance.

In the evening of April 6, 1994, the president’s plane was shot down as it approached the Kigali airport. The president and his advisers were returning from a meeting intended to ensure the implementation of the Arusha Accords—the peace agreement between the government and the RPF reached the previous summer. The genocide began the next day. It lasted one hundred days. Most of the victims were Tutsi, but Hutu relatives, friends, and political moderates were not spared either.

Both books describe what happened in horrifying detail. There was no effort to keep the genocide secret or hidden. It was not carried out in death camps and gas chambers in remote areas. It was all done in the open and publicly, in the streets and public buildings, with clubs, knives, and machetes, as often as with guns. It could be seen and heard everywhere. Churches, schools, and hospitals, where people gathered thinking they would be safe, were instead the scene of wholesale massacres; hundreds and probably thousands were burned alive.

The ten Belgian peacekeepers sent to protect the prime minister were taken prisoner and murdered. So was the prime minister and her husband, the president of the Constitutional Court, and every member of the proposed broad-based transitional government called for under the Arusha Accords, as well as political leaders, government officials, and every priest, doctor, lawyer, teacher, student, and journalist, whether Tutsi or Hutu, known to be opposed to the dictatorship. Trying to help those in danger was to risk, and for many to lose, one’s life.

Most astonishing of all, doctors and nurses as well as priests, nuns, and teachers took an active part in the slaughter, including the murder of their own Tutsi colleagues. All were prime enthusiasts of the genocide. Mamdani writes: “How could it be that most massacres of the genocide took place in churches? How could all these institutions that we associate with nurturing life—not only churches, but schools and even hospitals—be turned into places where life was taken with impunity and facility?” A doctor reported that “some of the most horrific massacres occurred in maternity clinics, where people gathered in the belief that no one would kill mothers and new born babies” (p. 227).

Tutsi women and the children of mixed marriages were killed by their husbands and fathers. A survivor told of Hutu men who were “forced to kill their Tutsi wives before they got to kill anyone else. One man tried to refuse. He was told he must choose between his wife and himself. He chose to save his own life. Another man rebuked him for having killed his Tutsi wife. That man was also killed” (p. 4).

The Rwandan army was finally routed in July 1994 and the genocide came to an end. But the victorious RPF took over a ravaged and ruined country. The government buildings were in a shambles, there were no chairs, no desks, no paper, no telephones, nothing. The streets of the capital were almost empty. Sixty percent of the population was either dead or displaced. The flood of Hutu, fleeing the country as well as their own guilt and fear of revenge, “broke all refugee records; it was the fastest and largest exodus ever recorded. In two days, about one million people crossed into Zaire. According to one observer, it was as though the whole country was emptying” (Melvern, pp. 217–18).

And suddenly, when the flood began, the so-called international community and the media opened their eyes and saw that a new humanitarian crisis was in the making, although refusing to see that it was a consequence of the genocide which they had done so little to prevent or stop. Having turned their backs on the Tutsi and Hutu moderates when they were being slaughtered, they now overflowed with sympathy and help for their killers. The United States allocated $300–400 million for humanitarian aid, with up to four thousand troops and hundreds of civilian relief workers. They arrived within three days and began distributing fresh water and food to the refugees. How easily it could have been done four months earlier!

The flood of refugees led to further disasters. The Hutu killer-leaders among the refugees terrorized and made life hell for everyone else, so much so that some relief agencies had to leave. The remnants of the Rwandan army and militia were merged and slowly rearmed. They then began incursions into Rwanda, killing and pillaging at random and boasting that they would reconquer the whole country. They also got involved in Zaire’s civil war, which eventually drew in several other central and southern African countries and has cost up to three million lives. Recovery and reconstruction in Rwanda proceeded at a snail’s pace. Outside help was—and still is—a mere fraction of what was needed. It is easy to apologize after the event, as President Clinton did when he visited Rwanda. What the people have needed since the genocide, but did not get, is generous and disinterested aid in rebuilding their ruined country.

A shortcoming of Mamdani’s book is his treatment of the question: could the genocide have been prevented? He quotes the opinion of a United States Agency for International Development official that “it would have been virtually impossible to do anything under the circumstances,” but admits that General Dallaire thought otherwise. He says,“Many were killed right in front of UN troops, who just stood by and let it happen,” without mentioning that, under instructions from UN headquarters in New York, they were forbidden to intervene if it meant using force. His disinterest in the international betrayal of Rwanda is illustrated by his single reference to General Dallaire, whose name he misspells and whom he refers to as “the Belgian commander in charge of UN forces in Rwanda” (emphasis added). In contrast, Linda Melvern marshals the evidence which amply justifies the title of her book.2

If Mitterand had not sent French paratroopers to support the government when the RPF was about to take Kigali, the RPF would have won in 1993. A year later the French intervened again to protect the fleeing ragtag of the Rwandan army and helped it to escape into Zaire. The French bear a heavy responsibility.

Under the Arusha Accords of 1993 to end the civil war, a UN peacekeeping force was to be sent to Rwanda to observe and help the parties carry out the agreement. The trouble was that the Rwandan government had no intention of carrying them out. On the other hand, the UN force approved by the Security Council was given only a peacekeeping mandate. This assumed that both sides wanted the accords to succeed and needed only some help in resolving differences. The peacekeeping mandate was thus based on an illusion. It also had a low priority in New York. It did not take General Dallaire long to realize this. He at first asked for a minimum of 4,500 troops. The Security Council cut this down to 2,400. They were under-equipped, and many units had only one or two days’ water supply and rations, about twenty rounds of ammunition for each soldier and practically no reserves of fuel. The timorous officials in New York kept General Dallaire under constant restraining instructions and he was not allowed to intervene with force when the genocide began. And when the ten Belgian peacekeepers were killed, Belgium recalled its entire contingent of 1,000 men. Thereupon Britain and the United States proposed that all peacekeepers be withdrawn. A “compromise” was eventually reached; the Security Council agreed that 270 would be left. Dallaire defied the council and kept 456. Even so, this was hardly more than a token force. The exterminators in Rwanda concluded that they had a free hand to do as they pleased, which they did.

Meanwhile, Belgium, France, and Italy sent troops, but under orders to rescue Europeans only. Rwandan staff of foreign embassies and aid agencies were left behind. This made it plain that foreign lives were valuable, Rwandan lives were not. In authorizing the peacekeepers to use force if necessary to help the evacuation, but not to protect Rwandans, UN headquarters expressed the same view. It was a flagrant betrayal. Dallaire was bitter: “We were left to fend for ourselves with neither mandate nor supplies,…an inexcusable apathy by sovereign states that make up the UN that is completely beyond comprehension and moral acceptability” (Melvern, pp. 147–48).

At every point, the United States blocked effective UN action and obstructed every preventive measure, with the detestable Madeleine Albright taking the lead and public responsibility for Clinton’s political cowardice. The governments of Belgium, England, and France were not far behind. The excuse that no troops were available is false. Troops to rescue foreigners were sent within a couple of days, and later, troops—French troops in particular—were promptly sent to protect the fleeing refugees from the pursuing RFP. After the Belgium contingent was withdrawn, Ghana offered to increase its contingent and ten other countries offered troops, but they lacked weapons; these could easily have been supplied by the rich countries with ample stocks and money. There were no offers. More than criminal negligence, this amounted to knowingly encouraging the killers by allowing them a free hand.

Linda Melvern writes: “Dallaire had trained and risen through the ranks of an army proud of its tradition of peacekeeping. He was a committed internationalist and had first hand experience of UN missions. He was a hard worker. And he was obstinate” (p. 83). But nothing had prepared him for what he was compelled to witness but not allowed to prevent in Rwanda. When he returned to Canada, he suffered prolonged and disabling trauma, from which he has now recovered and has become a powerful voice of conscience.

We must not forget the background and circumstances of the chicken-hearted perfidy of the governments which allowed the genocide to happen. This was not the first example of such behavior, nor will it be the last. The current policy in the “war on terrorism” and against Iraq is but the latest in a long line of imperialist villainy and crime. To know of this behavior, and to be angered by it, is to oppose it. Mamdani’s book, as he himself says, is mainly for specialists in area studies and as such is valuable. Linda Melvern’s book is an exemplary piece of political history, and is for everyone.


  1. Linda Melvern writes: “The idea that Hutu and Tutsi were distinct ethnic groups appears to have originated with the colonial agent and celebrated explorer John Hanning Speke, who ‘discovered’ and named Lake Victoria in 1859….[He] theorized that in this part of Central Africa there was a superior race, which differed from the common order of natives….The Tutsi ruling classes were thought to have come from further north, perhaps Ethiopia, and were more closely related to the ‘noble Europeans’ ” (p. 8). See Mamdani, p. 23. See also Ryszard Kapuscinski, “A Lecture on Rwanda” in The Shadow of the Sun (New York: Knopf, Vintage Books, 2002). “Only one group inhabits Rwanda, the Banyarwanda, a single nation divided into three castes; the Tutsi cattle owners, the Hutu farmers and the Twa labourers and servants” (p. 165). Kapuscinski’s lecture is an eloquent and moving summary of the background and events of the genocide, although regrettably it does not deal with the role of West.
  2. There is another account of the Rwanda tragedy for which two Canadians can take a great deal of credit. In 1997, the Organization for African Unity (OAU) appointed an International Panel of Eminent Persons to report on what had happened. Stephen Lewis was a member of the Panel and Gerald Caplan was its principal writer and author of the report, Rwanda —The Preventable Genocide. It confirms all the main facts and conclusions of Linda Melvern’s book and carries the story of the resulting upheavals in Central Africa forward for the following five years. It is unsparing in its criticism and condemnation of the UN, the United States, France, Belgium, and others responsible for what happened, all the more remarkable because it has the authority of the eleven panelists from four continents who signed it. Unfortunately, copies of the report are as scarce as hens’ teeth and practically impossible to get, except perhaps from the OAU.