Genocide in Rwanda

For over three decades prior to the genocide of 1994, the Tutsis of Rwanda were subject to periodic massacres by the majority Hutu population. Author Philip Gourevitch explains, "This is how Rwandan Tutsis count the years of their lives: in hopscotch fashion—'59, '60, '61, '63, and so on, through '94—sometimes skipping several years, when they knew no terror, sometimes slowing down to name the months and the days."

By the late 1980s, the Rwandan government, led by President Habyarimana and his wife Madame Agathe Habyarimana's influential family, was increasingly totalitarian—in control of the media, most jobs, the country's one political party and much more. The government's power to induce the population to carry out its will was immense. Like other tyrants in other times and places, Rwanda's Hutu Power government played on ethnic hatreds to build its own power and then systematically unleashed those hatreds in the most horrific of ways.

Following his Prologue, we pick up Gourevitch's devastating story as the massacres of 1992, a prelude to the genocide of 1994, were just beginning.



Decimation means the killing of every tenth person in a population, and in the spring and early summer of 1994 a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda. Although the killing was low-tech—performed largely by machete—it was carried out at dazzling speed: Of an original population of about seven and a half million, at least 800,000 people were killed in just a hundred days. Rwandans often speak of a million deaths, and they may be right. The dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

*  *  *

So it went—an attack here, a massacre there—as the increasingly well-organized Hutu extremists stockpiled weapons, and Hutu youth militias were recruited and trained for "civil defense." First among these militias was the interhamwe—"those who attack together"—which had its genesis in soccer fan clubs sponsored by leaders of the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND), the president's political party which, by law, every citizen was a member of for life, and the akazu.1 The economic collapse of the late 1980s had left tens of thousands of young men without any prospect of a job, wasting in idleness and its attendant resentments, and ripe for recruitment. The interhamwe, and the various copycat groups that were eventually subsumed into it, promoted genocide as a carnival romp. Hutu Power youth leaders, jetting around on motorbikes and sporting pop hairstyles, dark glasses, and flamboyantly colored pajama suits and robes, preached ethnic solidarity and civil defense to increasingly packed rallies, where alcohol usually flowed freely, giant banners splashed with hagiographic portraits of [President] Habyarimana flapped in the breeze, and paramilitary drills were conducted like the latest hot dance moves. The President and his wife [Madame Agathe Habyarimana] often turned out to be cheered at these spectacles, while in private the members of the interhamwe were organized into small neighborhood bands, drew up lists of Tutsis, and went on retreats to practice burning houses, tossing grenades, and hacking dummies up with machetes.

Play first turned to work for the interhamwe in early March of 1992, when the state-owned Radio Rwanda announced the "discovery" of a Tutsi plan to massacre Hutus. This was pure misinformation, but in preemptive "self-defense," militia members and villagers in the Bugesera region, south of Kigali, slaughtered 300 Tutsis in three days. Similar killings occurred at the same time in Gisenyi, and in August, shortly after Habyarimana—under intense pressure from international donors—signed a cease-fire with the RPF,2 Tutsis were massacred in Kibuye. That October, the cease-fire was expanded to embrace plans for a new, transitional government that would include the RPF; one week later, Habyarimana delivered a speech dismissing the truce as "nothing but a scrap of paper."

Still, the foreign-aid money poured into Habyarimana's coffers, and weapons kept arriving—from France, from Egypt, from apartheid South Africa.3 Occasionally, when donors expressed concern about the killings of Tutsis, there were arrests, but releases followed swiftly; nobody was brought to trial, much less prosecuted for the massacres. To soothe foreign nerves, the government portrayed the killings as "spontaneous" and "popular" acts of "anger" or "self-protection." The villagers knew better: Massacres were invariably preceded by political "consciousness-raising" meetings at which local leaders, usually with a higher officer of the provincial or national government at their side, described Tutsis as devils—horns, hoofs, tails, and all—and gave the order to kill them, according to the old revolutionary lingo, as a "work assignment." The local authorities consistently profited from massacres, seizing slain Tutsis' land and possessions, and sometimes enjoying promotions if they showed special enthusiasm, and the civilian killers, too, were usually rewarded with petty spoils.

In retrospect, the massacres of the early 1990s can be seen as dress rehearsals for what proponents of Hutuness themselves called the "final solution" in 1994. Yet there was nothing inevitable about the horror. With the advent of multipartyism [which had been pressed on the Habyarimana government by the international community], the President had been compelled by popular pressure to make substantial concessions to reform-minded oppositionists, and it required a dogged uphill effort for Habyarimana's extremist entourage to prevent Rwanda from slipping toward moderation. Violence was the key to that effort. The interhamwe was bankrolled and supervised by a consortium of akazu leaders, who also ran their own death squads, with names like the Zero Network and the Bullets group. Madame Habyarimana's three brothers, along with a bevy of colonels and leaders of the northwestern business mafia, were founding members of these outfits, which first rolled into action alongside the interhamwe during the Bugesera massacre in March of 1992. But the most crucial innovation at Bugesera was the use of the national radio to prepare the ground for slaughter, and the ratcheting up of the suggestive message of us against them to the categorically compelling kill or be killed.

Genocide, after all, is an exercise in community building. A vigorous totalitarian order requires that the people be invested in the leaders' scheme, and while genocide may be the most perverse and ambitious means to this end, it is also the most comprehensive. In 1994, Rwanda was regarded in much of the rest of the world as the exemplary instance of the chaos and anarchy associated with collapsed states. In fact, the genocide was the product of order, authoritarianism, decades of modern political theorizing and indoctrination, and one of the most meticulously administered states in history. And strange as it may sound, the ideology—or what Rwandans call "the logic"—of genocide was promoted as a way not to create suffering but to alleviate it. The specter of an absolute menace that requires absolute eradication binds leader and people in a hermetic utopian embrace, and the individual—always an annoyance to totality—ceases to exist.

The mass of participants in the practice massacres of the early 1990s may have taken little pleasure in obediently murdering their neighbors. Still, few refused, and assertive resistance was extremely rare. Killing Tutsis was a political tradition in postcolonial Rwanda; it brought people together.

*  *  *

It has become a commonplace in the past 50 years to say that the industrialized killings of the Holocaust calls into question the notion of human progress, since art and science can lead straight through the famous gate—stamped with the words "Work Makes You Free"—to Auschwitz. Without all that technology, the argument goes, the Germans couldn't have killed all those Jews. Yet it was the Germans, not the machinery, who did the killing. Rwanda's Hutu Power leaders understood this perfectly. If you could swing the people who would swing the machetes, technological underdevelopment was no obstacle to genocide. The people were the weapon, and that meant everybody: The entire Hutu population had to kill the entire Tutsi population. In addition to ensuring obvious numerical advantages, this arrangement eliminated any questions of accountability that might arise. If everybody is implicated, then implication becomes meaningless. Implication in what? A Hutu who thought there was anything to be implicated in would have to be an accomplice of the enemy.

"We the people are obliged to take responsibility ourselves and wipe out this scum," explained Leon Mugesera, in November of 1992, during the same speech in which he urged Hutus to return the Tutsis to Ethiopia by way of the Nyabarongo River. Mugesera was a doctor, a vice president of the MRND, and a close friend and adviser of Habyarimana. His voice was the voice of power, and most Rwandans can still quote from his famous speech quite accurately; members of the interhamwe often recited favorite phrases as they went forth to kill. The law, Mugesera claimed, mandated death to "accomplices" of the "cockroaches," and he asked, "What are we waiting for to execute the sentence?" Members of opposition parties, he said, "have no right to live among us," and as a leader of "the Party," he invoked his duty to spread the alarm and to instruct the people to "defend themselves." As for the "cockroaches" themselves, he wondered, "What are we waiting for to decimate these families?" He called on those who had prospered under Habyarimana to "finance operations to eliminate these people." He spoke of 1959 [one of the early massacres of Tutsis], saying it had been a terrible mistake to allow Tutsis to survive. "Destroy them," he said. "No matter what you do, do not let them get away," and he said, "Remember that the person whose life you save will certainly not save yours." He finished with the words "Drive them out. Long live President Habyarimana."

*  *  *

On the evening of April 6, 1994, Thomas Kamilindi was in high spirits. His wife, Jacqueline, had baked a cake for a festive dinner at their home in Kigali. It was Thomas's 33rd birthday, and that afternoon he had completed his last day of work as a reporter for Radio Rwanda. After 10 years at the state-owned station, Thomas, who was a Hutu, had resigned in protest against the lack of political balance in news programming. He was taking a shower when Jacqueline began pounding on the bathroom door. "Hurry up!" she shouted. "The President has been attacked!" Thomas locked the doors of his house and sat by the radio listening to Radio Television Libres des Milles Collines (RTLM), a radio station created by the akazu. He disliked the Hutu Power station's violent propaganda, but the way things were going in Rwanda, that propaganda often served as a highly accurate political weather forecast. On April 3, RTLM had announced that during the next three days "there will be a little something here in Kigali, and also on April 7 and 8 you will hear the sounds of bullets or grenades exploding." Now the station was saying that President Habyarimana's plane, returning from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, had been shot down over Kigali and had crashed into the grounds of his own palace. The new Hutu President of Burundi and several of Habyarimana's top advisers had also been on board. There were no survivors.

Thomas, who had well-placed friends, had heard that large-scale massacres of Tutsis were being prepared nationwide by the President's extremist entourage and that lists of Hutu oppositionists had been drawn up for the first wave of killings. But he had never imagined that Habyarimana himself might be targeted. If Hutu Power had sacrificed him, who was safe?

...Nobody, at that moment, was entirely sure who was in charge of the decapitated government, but the roadblocks, the confident tone of the RTLM announcers, and the reports of killing in the streets left little doubt that Hutu Power was conducting a coup d'état. And it was. Although Habyarimana's assassins have never been positively identified, suspicion has focused on the extremists in his own entourage—notably the semi-retired Colonel Théoneste Bagasora, an intimate of President Habyarimana's wife Madame Agathe Habyarimana, and a charter member of the akazu and its death squads, who had said in January of 1993 that he was preparing the apocalypse. But regardless of who killed Habyarimana, the fact remains that the organizers of the genocide were primed to exploit his death instantaneously. (While Rwanda's Hutu Power elite spent the night cranking up the genocidal engines, in Burundi, whose President had also been killed, the army and the United Nations broadcast calls for calm, and this time Burundi did not explode.)

In the early evening of April 6, Colonel Bagasora had taken dinner as the guest of the Bangladeshi battalion of UNAMIR.4 An hour after the President's death, he was presiding over a meeting of a self-anointed "crisis committee," a mostly military gathering at which Hutu Power ratified its own coup and, because General Dallaire5 and the special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General were in attendance, paid lip service to continuing the Arusha6 process. The meeting broke up around midnight. By then the capital was already crawling with soldiers, interhamwe, and members of the elite Presidential Guard, equipped with lists of people to kill. The assassins' first priority was to eliminate Hutu opposition leaders, including the Hutu Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, whose house was one of many that were surrounded at daybreak on April 7. A contingent of 10 Belgian UNAMIR soldiers arrived on the scene, but the Prime Minister fled over her garden wall and was killed nearby. Before the Belgians could leave, a Rwandan officer drove up and ordered them to surrender their arms and to come with him. The Belgians, outnumbered, were taken to Camp Kigali, the military base in the center of town, where they were held for several hours, then tortured, murdered, and mutilated.

After that, the wholesale extermination of Tutsis got underway, and the U.N. troops offered little resistance to the killers. Foreign governments rushed to shut down their embassies and evacuate their nationals. Rwandans who pleaded for rescue were abandoned, except for a few special cases like Madame Agathe Habyarimana, who was spirited to Paris on a French military transport. The RPF, which had remained prepared for combat throughout the stalled peace-implementation period, resumed its war less than 24 hours after Habyarimana's death, simultaneously moving its troops out of their Kigali barracks to secure an area of high ground around the parliament, and launching a major offensive from the "demilitarized zone" in the northeast. The government army fought back fiercely, allowing the people to get on with their murderous work. "You cockroaches must know you are made of flesh," a broadcaster gloated over RTLM. "We won't let you kill. We will kill you."

With the encouragement of such messages and leaders at every level of society, the slaughter of Tutsis and the assassination of Hutu oppositionists spread from region to region. Following the militias' example, Hutus, young and old, rose to the task. Neighbors hacked neighbors to death in their homes, and colleagues hacked colleagues to death in their workplaces. Doctors killed their patients, and schoolteachers killed their pupils. Within days, the Tutsi populations of many villages were all but eliminated, and in Kigali, prisoners were released in work gangs to collect the corpses that lined the roadsides. Throughout Rwanda, mass rape and looting accompanied the slaughter. Drunken militia bands, fortified with assorted drugs from ransacked pharmacies, were bused from massacre to massacre. Radio announcers reminded listeners not to take pity on women and children. As an added incentive to the killers, Tutsis' belongings were parceled out in advance—the radio, the couch, the goat, the opportunity to rape a young girl. A council woman in one Kigali neighborhood was reported to have offered 50 Rwandan francs apiece (about 30 cents at the time) for severed Tutsi heads, a practice known as "selling cabbages."

*  *  *

In May of 1994, I happened to be in Washington to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, an immensely popular tourist attraction adjacent to the National Mall. The ticket line formed two hours before opening time. Waiting amid the crowd, I tried to read a local newspaper. But I couldn't get past a photograph on the front page: bodies swirling in water, dead bodies, bloated and colorless, bodies so numerous that they jammed against each other and clogged the stream. The caption explained that these were the corpses of genocide victims in Rwanda. Looking up from the paper, I saw a group of museum staffers arriving for work. On their maroon blazers, several wore the lapel buttons that sold for a dollar each in the museum shop, inscribed with the slogans "Remember" and "Never Again." The museum was just a year old; at its inaugural ceremony, President Clinton had described it as "an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lurks ahead." Apparently, all he meant was that the victims of future exterminations could now die knowing that a shrine already existed in Washington D.C., where their suffering might be commemorated, but at the time, his meaning seemed to carry a bolder promise.

By early June, the Secretary-General of the U.N.—and even, in an odd moment, the French Foreign Minister—had taken to describing the slaughter in Rwanda as "genocide." But the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights still favored the phrase "possible genocide," while the Clinton administration actually forbade unqualified use of the g-word. The official formulation approved by the White House was: "acts of genocide may have occurred." When Christine Shelley, a State Department spokeswoman, tried to defend this semantic squirm at a press briefing on June 10, she was asked how many acts of genocide it takes to make a genocide. She said she wasn't in "a position to answer," adding dimly, "There are formulations that we are using that we are trying to be consistent in our use of." Pressed to define an act of genocide, Shelley recited the definition of the crime from the Genocide Convention of 1948, which the U.S. only got around to signing in 1989, 14 years after Rwanda itself had done so. A State Department transcript of the briefing records the ensuing exchange:

Question: So you say genocide happens when certain acts happen, and you say that those acts have happened in Rwanda. So why can't you say that genocide has happened?

Ms. Shelley: Because, Alan, there is a reason for the selection of words that we have made, and I have—perhaps I have—I'm not a lawyer. I don't approach this from the international legal and scholarly point of view. We try, best as we can, to accurately reflect a description in particularly addressing that issue. It's—the issue is out there. People have obviously been looking at it.

Shelley was a bit more to the point when she rejected the denomination of genocide, because, she said, "there are obligations which arise in connection with the use of the term." She meant that if it was a genocide, the Convention of 1948 required the contracting parties to act. Washington didn't want to act. So Washington pretended that is wasn't a genocide—an evasive posture that was in different ways shared by other major powers and even members of the United Nations Secretariat, as well. Still, assuming that the above exchange took about two minutes, an average of 11 Tutsis were exterminated in Rwanda while it transpired.


Philip Gourevitch is a staff writer at the New Yorker and has reported from Africa, Asia, and Europe for magazines such as Harper's and Granta. Between May 1995 and April 1998, Philip Gourevitch spent nine months in Rwanda collecting stories from the survivors of the 1994 genocide. The result is a compelling book—We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda—that takes its name from a letter by seven Tutsi pastors who were asking their colleague, a Hutu pastor, to intervene on their behalf. This article is excerpted with permission of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, LLC, New York, ©1998.




1. Gourevitch writes, "The akazu was the core of the concentric webs of political, economic, and military muscle that came to be known as Hutu Power." It emanated from the influential family of President Habyarimana's wife, Agathe Kanzinga.

2. The Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) was an army aimed at putting military pressure on the Habyarimana regime. It was composed of Tutsis and anti-Hutu Power Hutus who had taken refuge in neighboring Uganda. The existence of the RPF was used by the Hutu Power government as one more excuse to stir suspicion and hatred against the Tutsi population.

3. Among the tragedies of Rwanda detailed in Gourevitch's book, is the extent to which foreign governments and the United Nations acted in ways, intentional or not, that strengthened and sustained the Hutu government and its war on the Tutsis.

4. The United Nations' Assistance Mission in Rwanda, a peacekeeping mission deployed six months earlier.

5. Major General Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian, who was in charge of U.N. forces in Rwanda.

6. Negotiations for peace with the Rawandese Patriotic Front are often referred to as the Arusha process because they took place in Arusha, Tanzania.

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