Here is a question that has floored me for twenty five years: What sense can I make of the Rwandan genocide? I am not an expert on this, or on international geopolitics, or on the Great Lakes region of Africa. But this event shook me deeply at the time and jolted how I look at the world. It was front and centre of my attention in 1994 because I was chairing Oxfam New Zealand and my wife, Patricia Sarr, headed off to Goma to work with the Oxfam team providing water supplies to refugee camps. At the time, for me, it was a kind of coming of age as a mid-life adult, or a loss of innocence, a testing of ideas I had held dear about humanity.
This question of how to make sense of it still flummoxes me. In these days of remembering the beginning of the genocide in April 1994, my main thoughts have been with the people whose lives were devastated through losing most of their families, often at the hands of their neighbours. And with the communities that were destroyed. Then I wonder again about how to make head or tail of the whole thing.
Perhaps making sense is not possible. Perhaps we should just lean into and accept the pain of it, along with those most directly affected. Yet I think there are messages for us, the wider community, from this horror story and its aftermath.
Here are six themes that have arisen for me:
- Any society can tip into chaos. Mass killings, civil wars, and other forms of communal violence can and do happen anywhere when a whole mix of factors come together and one bad thing leads to another. No groups have a mortgage on communal madness although some, because of their circumstances, are more at risk. It is not a developing world problem but a human problem; witness the ethnic cleansing carried out in the Balkans during the early 1990s. Yet each of these events is distinct and shaped by its context. The Rwandan genocide was both enormous and distinctly local. Estimates vary, but the generally-used figure is that about 800,000 Rwandans were killed out of a population of about 6 million. These were mostly Tutsi and moderate Hutu. The plan of the leaders of the killing was to wipe out the Tutsi population – literally a genocide. The victims were killed over 100 days with most of that number dying in the first six weeks. Killings were done with machetes, bricks or other heavy objects, grenades or small arms, and, in at least one case, bulldozers, used to destroy a Catholic church where 1500 Tutsis had taken refuge. The scale and speed of the killing is hair-raising. If you think about the almost 3000 people killed in the September 11 2001 attacks in the United States, in the Rwandan genocide on average two and a half times that number were killed every day for 100 days. For so many to be killed in such hands-on, low-tech ways means that a very large number of people were involved directly in doing the killing.
- The genocide was a complex disaster. Many things, big and small, added up to enable it. There are still mysteries (and the French President has just announced another inquiry into the French role). Here are some of the things that contributed to the crisis developing quickly and the United Nations and other countries responding far too slowly:
- A civil war had been underway since 1990, (although a ceasefire was being overseen by UN peacekeepers the terms of the ceasefire were not supported by more extreme Hutu leaders);
- A plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi was shot down while on descent into the Rwandan capital Kigali on April 6 1994 (another mystery or cover up revolves around who did the shooting) and was the spark that ignited the firestorm;
- There was an ensuing leadership vacuum giving Hutu extremists the chance to seize power;
- The constrained and passive approach of the UN to its peacekeeping role (it did not act on early signs that genocide was being planned for, it imposed a mandate to only use force in self defence, and the forces were gravely under-resourced) meant there was little resistance to early killing;
- The reluctance of more powerful nations to intervene militarily once the killing began enabled the killing to gain momentum (the USA, France, and Belgium all avoided active steps to stop the killing for different reasons);
- Rwanda’s Government, that was running the killing, happened to have a seat on the UN Security Council at the time and their presence constrained Council deliberations;
- The beginning of the genocide also coincided with South Africa’s first post-apartheid election and so virtually the whole foreign press corps in Africa, such as it was, was focused on Nelson Mandela’s South African campaign throughout April and largely ignored the rest of the continent;
- And the list goes on.
- This was hate-speech driven on a national scale. After the Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand last month we are again debating hate speech and how to suppress it, particularly now on social media. This arouses concerns about the extent to which ‘rights’ to free speech will be infringed. The Rwandan genocide was driven by hate speech broadcasts on two dominant radio stations. The Rwandan equivalent of shock-jock vitriol built waves of community fear, particularly that Hutu would be wiped out by Tutsi. The community’s fears sustained the killing and the two stations broadcast details of when, where, and who to kill. The international community resisted calls to jam these two stations. The Rwandan genocide might be the most calamitous example of prolonged and widespread impacts of hate speech.
- Humanitarian crises can be non-denominational. Many aid organisations try their best to help whoever is suffering. These crises are themselves complex systems. Odd things often happen. The odd thing in the Rwandan crisis was that the international humanitarian response to the Rwandan crisis was focused on taking care of many of those who had been doing the killing. The second wave of the Rwandan crisis came with the mass exodus of perhaps two million Rwandans into the Congo, Tanzania, and Burundi. The genocide ended when the army of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front had driven out the Hutu-lead regime in Kigali. The supporters of this regime fled out of Rwanda into hastily thrown together refugee camps. A second massive disaster threatened to kill thousands with epidemic diseases such as cholera and dysentery. It was largely averted by the work of non-government and government agencies. Amongst the people being helped were many thousands of those who had been murdering their neighbours in the preceding months. Eventually, running the camps became largely dominated by those who had led the genocide.
- Rwanda curbed my pacifist propensities. This was a situation where armed force was needed to protect the innocent. The careful use of significant force by a United Nations-led coalition would have been likely to have at least shut down the killings far earlier and, if mobilized early enough, it might have even prevented the killings. As it was, the UN leaders on the ground were hamstrung. They did not have a mandate to use force (except in self-defence) and when ten Belgian troops were killed their forces and others were withdrawn. The United Nations and large powers had been burnt in the years before. US soldiers had been attacked in Mogadishu and their bodies dragged through the streets. The United Nations and the United States felt bogged down trying to contain the wars in the Balkans. Because there was little appetite among constituents at home for peacekeeping in far-off lands, determined killers, even only lightly armed, could run amok.
- Rebuilding is possible. In twenty five years Rwanda has made a stirring recovery. It has often been very messy, as you would expect with a society so disrupted and traumatised. The justice process has proceeded in fits and starts. The Kagame government has intervened in the Congo and expanded and prolonged conflicts and chaos in the Great Lakes region. Dissent in Rwanda has been suppressed. Here I am still wondering about how much the imposition of force and order through this period was necessary for reconstruction to occur or how much it has been an obstacle to the recovery. Whatever the answer to that question, the extent of the rebuilding has been remarkable, communities have been brought back together, and the country is now relatively peaceful and prosperous. Redemption is achievable.