Rwanda: the genocide the West ignored

Posted: December 20, 2010 in Genocide Denial
Tags: , , , , , ,

Ten years ago, nearly a million people were killed in 100 days in Rwanda. This genocide is blamed on tribal conflict but Rekha Khurana argues that its causes are rooted in Rwanda’s colonial past and its capitalist present.

“I could feel blood coming from under my right shoulder and I did not know whether I was hit or not. I could not feel any pain then, my mind was occupied with the terror of being hacked to death”, Hamis Kamuhandu, genocide survivor said.

The 6 April 2004 saw the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, where between 850,000 and a million people were hacked, burned or shot to death in just 100 days. Many who have written about the genocide suggest that there was something uniquely African about the killings. But the reasons behind it lie not in the racist myths of African “savagery” but in the historical reality of brutal intervention by imperialist forces.

Divide and Rule

During the “Scramble for Africa” Rwanda was seized by Germany and remained part of German East Africa from 1899 until 1916, when it became directly ruled by Belgium. Although German colonialism began to transform the relations between the Hutus and Tutsis by using the Tutsi elite to run the country and giving them privileges, it was Belgian colonialism that succeeded in transporting the ideology of racism and racial superiority and adapting it to develop a hierarchy of “racial” differences among Africans.

Rwanda’s population was mainly made up of Hutus, (around 85 per cent), and Tutsis (about 14 per cent), along with a much smaller grouping, the Twa. Even though both Hutu and Tutsi spoke the same Bantu language, Kinyarwanda, and largely followed the Catholic religion, the Belgians created the theory that the Tutsis were a superior race to the Hutus – taller, thinner and generally ‘less African’ in appearance.

Before Rwanda was colonised, Hutu and Tutsi moved between each other’s groups mainly through intermarriage. The cattle-owning Tutsis were the wealthier group; however, if a Hutu came into possession of cattle and therefore wealth, he too could become a Tutsi by undergoing a ceremony. In other words, the distinction between Tutsi and Hutu, originally a racial division, was well on its way to becoming a class division.

This flexibility was lost when the Belgians introduced ID cards, fixing their colonised subjects’ ethnic group and creating further divisions between them. During the genocide, it was not physical appearance but these cards that enabled militiamen to identify Tutsis.

The divisive measures of the Belgians meant that the Hutus were deprived of political power and lived in poverty. However, outside of the European-educated royal family and entourage, most Tutsis were just as poor as their Hutu neighbours.

In 1962 Rwanda became independent but the divisions created by the colonial powers remained and inter-ethnic strife continued. By 1973, a Hutu-chauvinist dictatorship was in power which used propaganda against the Tutsis and periodic campaigns of terror and killing.

In 1989, a collapse in coffee prices on the commodity exchanges in London and New York effected the Rwandan peasants, who formed 85 per cent of the population, which led to big increases in water, health and school charges. Like many poor countries, Rwanda only had one commodity to export, coffee, and was vulnerable to market fluctuations. At the same time, the IMF imposed a structural adjustment programme to “cure” the country’s crippling debt problems, which resulted in privatisation, job losses and the removal of food subsidies. The government responded to the crisis by scapegoating the Tutsis. Hutu anger at their hunger and unemployment was channelled by the government against the Tutsis.

Some Tutsis had escaped to Uganda and formed the Rwandan Popular Front (RPF) which also had support from non chauvanist Hutus. In 1990, the RPF invaded Rwanda and over the next few years gained ground against the government. In 1993 a peace deal between the government and the RPF, known as the Arusha Accords, was brokered by Tanzania. Under the agreement, the Rwandan government was to share power with Hutu and Tutsi opposition parties. To ensure the deal’s success and the return of the Tutsis, the UN was deployed as peace keepers.

The genocide

When a plane carrying president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down on 6 April 1994, the country descended into genocide. The killings were initiated by the Hutu-dominated army and the Interahamwe militia (“those who kill together”). In the first two days, not just Tutsis, but anyone with ties to the opposition – critical journalists, human rights activists and lawyers – were killed. Most of these were of Hutu origin.

The ferocity of the massacre, the speed with which it took place, along with the initial targeting of those Hutus who wanted power-sharing with the Tutsis, all point to the fact that this was not a spontaneous outburst of racist hatred: it was a planned genocide. Habyarimana was in fact flying back from Tanzania, where he had signed the power-sharing pact. That’s why those who had everything to lose from such an accord had to shoot down his plane – and blame the Tutsis.

Once the opposition had been eliminated, the focus shifted. The new leaders sent out the message that the enemy was the Tutsis. All Hutus were instructed to participate in the war against the enemy. Hutus that didn’t would also be killed.

Radio propaganda was used to dehumanise the Tutsi. In a poor country like Rwanda, where many are illiterate and the population is scattered in small hillside hamlets, radio is the most effective form of mass communication. The radio station RTLMC (Radio-Television Libre Des Milles Collines) spewed out messages of hate: the Tutsis were “inyenzi” (cockroaches) vermin ripe for extermination. It even published names and addresses of prominent people that should be killed.

Many ordinary people ended up participatng in the genocide, increasing the horror and revulsion it evokes. But immense intimidation, terror and pressure were exerted on them. Many Hutus also protected Tutsis and hid them from the Interahamwe; many were killed for helping Tutsis or for refusing to kill.

Hutus were told that by exterminating the Tutsis they would get their land and possessions and have a better life. Many poor Hutus who have spoken of the part they played say that they feel as though they had been brain-washed into hating and killing.

The role of the West

The United Nations is widely held up as the force for good that could have stopped the killings had it been given the chance. But the UN is not an impartial world police force. It is a tool of the imperialist powers.

After the deaths of 18 American soldiers in Somalia in October 1993, the US decided not to participate in any more UN military missions. The Clinton administration further decided that no significant UN missions were to be allowed in Rwanda at all, even if US troops were not involved. Due to the delaying tactics of the US, after 100 days of genocide not a single reinforcement of UN troops or military supplies reached Rwanda. Clinton’s special assistant Richard Clarke said in the aftermath of Somalia “Peacekeeping was almost dead. There was no support for it in the US government and the peacekeepers were not effective.”

Clinton later gave a very carefully worded apology but his claims that his administration was not aware of the real situation are lies that have been exposed by a three year investigation in the US which haas uncovered mountains of evidence that the US and the UN were aware of what was happening. The documents have been released on the National Security Archive website under the Freedom of Information Act.

For example, in 1993 a UN commisssion and a body of human rights organisation both warned that Hutu extremists were planning genocidal attacks. However, the commander of the UN peace keeping force in Rwanda, French-Canadian major general Romeo Dallaire, was not informed of these warnings.

Daillaire told the UN office in January 1994 in New York that he had received information that Hutu extremists were registering all the Tutsis in Kigali the capital of Rwanda. But the UN office of Kofi Annan told him not to take any action.

The real reason for non-intervention was given by George W Bush during his 2000 Republican presidential nomination: “We should not send our troops to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide outside our own strategic interest. I would not send troops to Rwanda.” Coffee is not oil.

Even as the genocide was occuring US politicans uttered the same sentiments. On the 10 April, Republican leader Bob Dole said: “I don’t think we have any national interest there.” The same day the US ambassador and 250 other Americans left the country, 35 Rwandans who worked at the Embassy were killed.

Only days after the genocide began, 2,500 Tutsis and opposition politicians crowded into a school in Kigali, seeking protection against the militia and government soldiers outside the compound from the Belgian UN troops stationed at the school. In the middle of the stand-off, the Belgian soldiers were ordered to leave the school to help evacuate foreign nationals from the country. They did this without making any arrangements for the safety of those in the school and, as they moved out, the killers moved in. By the end of the afternoon all 2,500 civilians inside the school had been murdered. The Belgians later withdrew from the UN mission after 10 of their soldiers were killed.

The French role was even more despicable. Its officials were senior advisers to the Rwandan government and military in the years leading to the genocide, giving unconditional support as well as considerable arms to the Hutu elite. After six weeks of genocide, when the Tutsi-led opposition invasion began to turn the tide against the Hutu army, France suddenly decided to intervene, deploying 2,500 soldiers. Operation Turquoise created a safe haven in the south-west of the country for many leading Rwandan Government officials and large numbers of retreating soldiers and militiamen. The only fighting done by the French troops was against the RPF in July.

At a commemoration to mark the genocide lasst month, France’s representative left early following accusations by the Rwandan president Paul Kagame of “training and arming the government soldiers and militias who carried out the killings”.

The utter indifference of the agencies of global capitalism to the terrible suffering that took place is revealed in the response of the World Bank. Following the genocide, it withheld a $160 million programme of aid to Rwanda until $9 million in interest incurred by its predecessor was paid. As a bank official said: “After all, we are a commercial enterprise and have to adhere to our regulations.”

The genocide ended after the victory of the RPF. But this force, from which the present government originates, cannot bring the peace and stability Rwanda so desperately needs and deserves. It is crippled by its acquiescence in the very neoliberal policies that helped plunged the country into such chaos in the first place.

As we said at the time in Workers Power (May 1994): “The RPF is committed to a capitalist solution for Rwanda. But capitalism cannot deliver consistent democratic rights for the workers and peasants of central Africa. The whole history of the twentieth century proves that. Working together, Hutu and Tutsi alike, the workers and peasants of Rwanda and its neighbours must chart a course towards the only lasting solution to ethnic strife in the regions: a socialist federation of central African states.”

What happened to the survivors?

Today, the survivors of the genocide are haunted by memories of a horror that will stay with them for as long as they live. Many suffer from mental health problems because of their experiences. But, although the international community cries “Never Again” on this grim anniversary, the reality is that many of the survivors will die in their tens of thousands in the coming years of another silent genocide. One that, again, the West is fully aware of but chooses to ignore.

The killer in this new genocide is Aids. Many women taken by the militiamen were subjected to daily gang rapes. One surviving women who was gang raped for days on end said: “No matter what I am doing these days, work, cooking, whatever, I can never get the smell of semen out of my nose”. Many of these women were infected with HIV and are now suffering from the lack of the anti-retroviral drugs that are needed to help them survive. In the words of one survivor: “The world is watching again. If you have not protected someone in 1994, at least stop her dying now. The unjust let people die, and now it’s watching as the survivors die.”


Comments are closed.