Rwanda’s March Through Hell

April 2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.

The hundred days after 6 April 1994 saw the murder of 800’000 of the 930’000 Tutsi living in Rwanda. Every single day, Hutu beat 8’000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu to death, on some days up to 45’000.

In contrast to the Nazi concentration camps, the horror happened among neighbours in small communities.

The Final Frontier

In the 19th century, the region of the Great Lakes was the final frontier of European expeditions. The Rwandan kingdom with its rolling hills in the highland to the east of Lake Kivu and the Virunga volcanoes had been spared from the centuries of slave trade at the coasts.

“The Great Lakes region was perhaps the largest, most richly endowed, most developed and most densely populated of indigenous agricultural systems in Africa. It was also the last to be ‘discovered’ by Europeans.”
–John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent

The Scottish missionary David Livingstone was the first European to cross Africa from the West to the East in 1841. His attempt to find the source of the Nile failed, and he was found in bad health at Lake Tanganyika by Henry Morton Stanley (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”). Stanley later returned in the service of King Leopold II of Belgium to take possession of the Congo for its rapacious exploitation of rubber – demanding ten million lifes, half its population (Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, 1998).

The source of the Nile was the goal of further expeditions by John Hanning Speke who on the side propounded the hypothesis of a superior African Hamitic race with tall and beautiful features.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 opened the way for East Africa’s colonisation. The British Cape-to-Cairo plan clashed with French Dakar-to-Djibouti dreams. At the Congo Conference of 1884, organized by Bismarck in Berlin, the African continent was distributed among the European colonial powers.

Rwanda became a German colony although no European had ever set foot on the Rwandese kingdom. In 1893, Gustav Adolf von Götzen led the first expedition to visit the court of King Kigeri IV Rwabugiri. Later King Yuhi V agreed to collaborate with the Germans to strengthen his own power. The first Resident of Rwanda appointed by Germany’s Emperor Wilhelm I, Richard Kandt, founded Kigali in 1907. The Germans maintained only a very light presence. In 1914, there were only 96 Europeans in Rwanda.

After Germany’s defeat in World War I and the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Belgium took control of Rwanda.

Historical map of central Africa, 1914.
Historical map of central Africa, 1914.

The Racism of the Colonial Masters

Both the Germans and the Belgians upheld traditional Tutsi economic and social supremacy based on Speke’s pseudoscientific Hamitic race theory. The Belgians favoured the Tutsi minority for chief positions and introduced identity cards labelling each individual as Tutsi or Hutu, or pygmy Twa. Those who could not be categorised based on their tall and thin appearance were simply designated as Tutsi if they owned more than 10 cows. Thereafter, ‘ethnic’ affiliation was cemented, although both Hutu and Tutsi spoke the same Kinyarwanda Bantu language.

Rwandan identity card (Kigali Genocide Memorial Center).
Rwandan identity card (Kigali Genocide Memorial Center).

The Catholic church was an important structure for the Belgian colonial organisation of Rwanda. Rwanda became the most Christianised African country. In 1931, the Belgians deposed King Yuhi V because he refused Christian baptism. His son Mutara III Rudahigwa became his successor and converted to Christianity. He voiced his opposition against releasing Rwanda into a Hutu-led independency and reigned until 1959 when he suddenly died at a conference with Belgian officials.

The Wind of Change of the Fifties

In the 1950s, a new generation of Belgian colonial officials and missionaries supported the Hutu emancipation movement. Their own experience of the conflict between Flemings and Walloon in Belgium made them recognise the injustice of the decades of preferential Tutsi treatment. In a complete reversal of the previous policy, the Hutu majority was promoted and integrated into administration and clergy.

In 1959, GrĂ©goire Kayibanda founded the Parti du Mouvement de l’Emancipation Hutu (Parmehutu). Pogroms against Tutsi followed. Tens of thousands of Tutsi were murdered, hundred thousand fled to neighbouring countries. Among the refugees was Paul Kagame (born 1957) who would later become Rwanda’s president. He grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda and joined Yoweri Museveni’s rebel army to overthrow Idi Amin’s regime.

Kayibanda overthrew the last Rwandan King Kigeli V Ndahindurwa in 1961 who today lives in social housing in Virginia in the USA. On 1. July 1962, Rwanda gained independence from Belgium encouraged by the anti-colonial movements in neighbouring countries under Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and Julius Nyere in Tanzania.

Exiled Tutsi, abusively nicknamed cockroaches by the Hutu, led Guerrilla attacks to Rwanda from Uganda and Burundi. In 1963, Rwandan forces with Belgian support had to fight back a raid by Tutsi from Burundi getting close to Kigali. In a radio speech held two months later, President Kayibanda first used the word “genocide”.

The Hutu Regime

In the Sixties and Seventies, Rwanda was “virtuous, Christian, respectable and boring” (GĂ©rard Prunier, The Rwandan Crisis). Because of its postcard landscape, cleanliness, and order Rwanda was called the “African Switzerland”.

After JuvĂ©nal Habyarimana’s 1973 coup against Kayibanda, the flow of development funds from Belgium, France, Germany, USA, and Canada continued. Rwanda was Switzerland’s number one financial aid recipient. France replaced Belgium as the principal power providing financial and military guarantees and continued to send weapons until June 1994.

In the 1980s, coffee and tin prices fell and an economic crisis struck the densely populated and resource poor country. People were starving. The stability of the Habyarimana regime melted.

Rebel War and UN Peacekeeping Mission

At the time of the genocide, the Tutsi had been oppressed for decades. President Habyarimana refused a return of the Tutsi refugees from the neighbouring countries (“The glass is full”).

The exiled Tutsi in Uganda formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Kagame underwent military training in the United States. After his return in 1990, he led the troops from Uganda into the Virunga volcanic mountain area in northern Rwanda to reorganise them.

French troops flew to Kigali in October 1990, the Belgians soon followed, and President Mobutu of Zaire also sent troops to please his former European patrons.

Kagame’s invasion of the town of Ruhengeri in 1991 led to more uncertainty among the Hutu and also in France under President Mitterand, a friend of the Habyarimana regime. In 1993, further RPF successes made France sending troops to Kigali.

Extremist Hutu propaganda charged the atmosphere. In 1990, the magazine Kangura published the ten Hutu commandments that prohibited social contact with Tutsi and reserved political, economic, military and educational positions for the Hutu. The radio station Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) broadcasted hate speech dehumanising Tutsi as cockroaches.

In June 1992, the RPF announced a ceasefire and began negotiations with the Rwandan government. Massacres and riots by extremist Hutu groups and a counterattack response by RPF slowed the peace negotiations, but the Arusha Accords were ultimately signed in 1993.

Peacekeepers of the UNAMIR mission arrived in Kigali in November 1993. On 11 January 1994, the Canadian commander Roméo Dallaire sent an urgent fax to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) led by Kofi Annan in New York. He informed the DPKO about weapons caches and Hutu death squads ready to kill thousands of Tutsis on command within twenty minutes. The response from New York forbade an active intervention.

“The code cable from Kofi Annan […] caught me completely off guard. It took me to ask for even thinking about raiding the weapons caches and ordered me to suspend the operation immediately.”
–Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil

The Genocide

In March 1994, the Hutu propaganda magazine Kangura published a headline stating that President Habyarimana would die within the same month, next to a cartoon depicting him as accomplice of the Tutsi rebels.

On 6 April 1994, the president’s plane with Habyarimana on board crashed during the approach to Kigali airport. To date, it is unclear who shot down the Falcon 50 flown by a French crew.

Within hours military roadblocks blocked the streets of Kigali and militias controlled the ethnic affiliation on the identity card. The 1500-strong Presidential Guard and Interahamwe militia went from house to house and murdered Tutsis and moderate Hutus (politicians, journalists and civil rights activists). The massacres started at the same time in all prefectures (except Butare in the South). At the end of April, virtually no Tutsi were alive in the western pro-government regions of Gisenyi and Ruhengeri.

“Often there were half-hidden piles of corpses where ‘the work’ was already complete […]. But far more startling to me was the fact that any hint of life was suspect and dangerous: the terrible assumption was that anyone still alive must have been one of the killers.”
–Daily Telegraph photojournalist Scott Peterson, 11 April 1994 in Kigali, Me Against my Brother

Hutu Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana was killed in the morning of 7 April. Ten Belgian peacekeepers ordered to protect her were mutilated. The murder of the Belgian Blue Helmets provoked the immediate reduction of the peacekeeping contingent from 2519 to 270 soldiers.

“On Sunday, April 10, I awoke to reduced gunfire in the city and the odour of death in the air. […] That night an adviser to the Secretary General called me to find out what was going on. I told him if I had four thousand effective troops I could stop the killing.”
–Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil

The UN ambassador and later U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, having fled Nazi genocide herself, spoke against a significant troop contingent, “which forms the absolute low point of her career.” (Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families).

The United States under President Clinton shied away from risking any involvement after ninety UN peacekeepers, including 18 Americans, had been killed in Somalia the year before. On 6 May the UN Security Council decided to deploy a 5’500-strong task force, however, it only arrived in Rwanda three months later.

“If the pictures of tens of thousands of human bodies rotting and gnawed on by the dogs […] do not wake us up out of our apathy, I don’t know what will.”
–Kofi Annan, Le Monde 25 May 1994

In April 1994, about 7.7 million people were living in Rwanda, of them about 930’000 Tutsi. The number of victims of the genocide is estimated at about 850’000 (GĂ©rard Prunier, The Rwandan Crisis).

“It is a genocide. […] I have failed. […] It is a scandal!”
–UN Secretary-General Butros Butros-Ghali, Le Monde 27 May 1994

The RPF under Paul Kagame marched on Kigali and took the power on 4 July 1994. Revengeful acts against the Hutu followed.

Victims of the genocide in Rwanda (Kigali Genocide Memorial Center).
Victims of the genocide in Rwanda (Kigali Genocide Memorial Center).

The Refugee Camps

Two million people fled to Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire).

At the end of June, French troops set up Opération Turquoise. However, the neutral zone allowed the génocidaires in the huge refugee camps to stay under armament. Relief organisations were only able to aid refugees by also supporting armed génocidaires. Due to this dilemma, Médecins Sans Frontières decided to withdraw.

“Over the next two years, donors spent over $2 billion on the refugee crisis in eastern Zaire, more than twice as much they spent on helping the new Rwandan government. The RPF was furious.”
–Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

Fighting and epidemics in the refugee camps demanded millions of lives. Paul Kagame’s appeals to the international community to disarm the gĂ©nocidaires in the refugee camps fizzled out. In 1996, Kagame’s troops stormed the camps in the eastern Congo and brutally destroyed the refugee camps. Kagame supported Laurent-DĂ©sirĂ© Kabila’s coup against Zaire’s dictator Mobutu who had supported Habyarimana’s government. When Kabila later in 1998 ordered his former allied Rwandan and Ugandan forces to leave Congo, the Second Congo War – also called the Great War of Africa – errupted in 1998 and involved nine African nations with a death toll of over 5 million lives.

“Especially in Goma, where the five largest refugee camps were situated, there was no mercy. Rwanda shelled the wretched camps with mortars and machine guns, and panicking Hutu fled back to their home country. […] Within days, almost four hundred thousand refugees crossed the border.”
–David Van Reybrouck, Kongo: Eine Geschichte

Hutu génocidaires remaining in Congo founded the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), an armed rebel group still terrorising the Kivu and Virunga border regions. At present, programs to repatriate renegade FDRL rebels are in operation.

Guilt and Reconciliation

Tens of thousands of suspects were arrested by 1996. Thousands died in overcrowded prisons. Gacaca courts processed almost two million cases. In some cases, false allegations and denunciations for economic or political benefit led to imprisonment of innocents.

The admission of guilt may appear to be of little value in view of a genocide. However, confession is a prerequisite for forgiveness and reconciliation. The Gacaca courts in Rwanda base on this principle. Driving through Rwanda, sentenced génocidaires in pink dresses can still be seen doing community work. Defendants who confess their role in the genocide can hope for milder sentences. The imposed sentences are often milder than one would expect which may also have practical reasons as the capacity of the prisons is limited and the enforcement of death penalty would lead to more mass killing. Rwanda abolished death penalty in 2007. The last death sentences were imposed in 2003, and the last executions took place in 1998.

“Rwanda’s gacaca courts are admirable for several reasons. They convene where crimes actually happened. Victims and witnesses are encouraged to speak. Sentences are limited to thirty years, with half to be served on parole. Defendants who make full and sincere confessions are treated mercifully and encouraged to rejoin their communities. Most are released.”
–Stephen Kinzer, A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It

In 1994, the UN Security Council established the International Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. The genocide trials abroad were perceived to be unjust in some cases. They may even become a hindrance for reconciliation, especially if they take place twenty years too late as in France.

“Citizens victimized by genocide or abandoned by the international community do not make good neighbours, as their thirst for vengeance, their irredentism, and their acceptance of violence as a means of generating change can turn them into future threads.”
–Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell

A Shining Success

Rwanda’s economic development in the past twenty years is a success story. In recent years, an annual growth rate of 7-9% was achieved. Life expectancy has doubled in the past twenty years. Child mortality shows the steepest drop ever recorded. Treatment of HIV-infected patients is exemplary. The streets of Kigali are the cleanest and safest in Africa. Corruption is the second lowest in Africa. More than half of the members of parliament of Rwanda are female.

“The country continued to make impressive progress in the delivery of public services, such as health care, but freedom of expression and association remain tightly controlled. […] Rwanda provided significant military support to the M23, an armed group responsible for serious abuses against civilians in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.”
–Human Rights Watch World Report 2014: Rwanda

President Kagame is celebrated as a visionary leader. His authoritarian leadership grants stability and development – although at the cost of human rights and press freedom, and a trail of assassinations of dissidents. Kagame’s second and constitutionally final term expires in 2017 – a crossroad for Rwanda.

“History teaches us that not allowing peaceful dissent and branding a criminal every politician who resists the consensus approach, increase the attractiveness of alternative ways of dissent that are not helpful to Rwanda, or its people.”
–United Nations Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai, Kigali, 27 January 2014

Still, challenges remain. The fear of political destabilization is still very present, e.g. by the FDLR rebel group in the Eastern Congo. The process of democratization needs courage and time. Since the 1994 genocide, population has further increased from 7 to 11.5 million people, the population of Kigali alone has increased six-fold. Hopefully, economic growth will continue in Rwanda and allow the country to thrive. Although economic development and educational progress is impressive, a large part of the population still lives under hard conditions.

In 2009, Rwanda joined the Commonwealth of Nations despite the lack of a British colonial past. English has largely replaced French as an official language. Rwanda has turned its back to its francophone heritage, and has drawn a line under its recent history – but the genocide is still very present in everyday life.

During the week-long twentieth anniversary of the genocide in April 2014, Rwanda commemorates the tragedy with a series of events under the theme “Remember, Unite, Renew”.