The world said “never again!” after the Holocaust, only to see the 20th century close with a genocide that left people dead at a rate three times faster. At the 25th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, we ask: Why could it not be stopped?
Subscribe to the Real Truth for FREE news and analysis.Subscribe Now
Two events in 24 hours sparked the greatest tragedy of the 1990s.
First, two missiles cut through the evening calm in the capital Kigali and downed a jet airliner carrying Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana. Though no evidence was discovered to support the claim, the military presidential guard blamed the attack on the minority ethnic group—the Tutsi.
The following morning, a military commander’s voice crackled on radios nationwide: “Cut down the tall trees! Crush the inyenzi [cockroaches]!” These were code words for the Tutsi. The Hutu majority—from police to peasants—were given orders to utterly destroy the minority group.
The declaration on April 7, 1994, unleashed waves of Interahamwe, unofficial militia, to hack their way through the entire Tutsi population. United Nations peacekeeping forces, outmanned and outgunned, stood back and watched.
With machetes and small arms—neighbor against neighbor and family member against family member—Rwandans were murdered at a pace three times faster than Jews in the Holocaust.
“It almost seemed as if, with the machete, the nail-studded club, a few well-placed grenades, and a few bursts of automatic-rifle fire, the quiet orders of Hutu Power had made the neutron bomb obsolete,” American reporter Philip Gourevitch wrote from Rwanda for The New Yorker.
The scenes of the killing are nothing short of horrifying.
In the town of Kibuye, Tutsi fleeing the marauding Interahamwe were advised by their governor to gather in a church.
“They soon realized their mistake,” The Guardian reported. “The church was perched atop a small peninsula jutting into Lake Kivu…there was nowhere to flee. Some Tutsis ran to the water only to be attacked by men in boats. The genocidaire tossed grenades into the lake just as they used explosives to catch fish.”
Thousands were slaughtered there in a single day. The newspaper reported of a rare survivor of that attack named Lucie. Even decades later, she has made a living of washing the skulls of the dead.
In just 100 days, up to 1 million Rwandans were killed. Most were Tutsi, though some 10,000 Hutu lives were taken for refusing to take part in the systematic murder.
The genocide has taken its place among the killing fields across the world borne of ethnic hatred: The Ottoman Empire’s Armenian genocide during World War I, the Holocaust, the Soviet Union’s systematic starvation of Ukraine, Bangladesh in 1971, the killing of Hutus in Burundi, Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Mayans in Guatemala, Kurds in Iraq, Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
And, if we are under any illusion that it could not happen again, recently we witnessed the killings by Islamic State militants, the purging of Rohingya from Myanmar, and the persecution of Uyghur in China.
Humanity is left to ask after each tragedy: How does an ethnicity come to be seen as less than human? How can mass killing be stopped?
And this is perhaps what makes what occurred in Rwanda so unspeakable—beyond the carnage itself. The international community, including those who had the most power to stop the genocide, had plenty of warning that large-scale violence was going to occur.
Reflecting on the fact the UN was unable to intervene, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on the 10th anniversary of the slaughter: “Such crimes cannot be reversed. Such failures cannot be repaired. The dead cannot be brought back to life. So what can we do?”
On the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan killings, we revisit a question: How did it come to this?
The causes of the Rwanda genocide certainly run much deeper than a single plane crash and a few trigger words. The scale of death and violence revealed a fundamental, deep-seated hatred.
It is unclear precisely where the ethnic hatred between the Tutsi and Hutu developed. The two peoples have coexisted in Rwanda for centuries—speaking the same language, living in the same lands, practicing the same religion (Christianity) and following the same cultural standards.
If judging by appearance, “There is no clear-cut distinction in the physical features between the two,” Genetic Literacy Project explained. “Even for Rwandans, during the genocide, some Tutsi survived because they were mistaken for Hutu, while some Hutu mistaken for Tutsi were killed.”
Rwandans were never thought of as two tribes until they were more distinctly labeled by colonists in the early 20th century. Their labels developed to describe people of a particular rank—Hutu referred to peasants, Tutsi referred to nobles.
Genetic Literacy Project paints a fuller picture: “Many researchers have traced the origins of the conflict to pre-colonial Rwanda. While the Hutu are known to be a Bantu population from central and southern Africa, understanding the precise background of the Tutsi poses a challenge to scholars. One popular theory, derived from Rwandan folklore and a diversity of research efforts, traces the origin of the Tutsi to the Horn of Africa, and more specifically to what is today Ethiopia. According to this theory, migrating populations from the Horn of Africa somehow occupied Rwanda and formed a monarchy around the sixteenth century. A hierarchical social system is thought to have evolved. The Ganwa, the elite ruling class, were at the top; below them were the Tutsi cattle herders; and they were followed by the majority of the population, Hutu farmers. Under this theory, both the Ganwa and Tutsi eventually adopted the local language and were assimilated into the mainstream culture and religion of the Rwanda region. Over time, the Ganwa were essentially absorbed by the Tutsi; thus the Tutsi became the most powerful group in the monarchy.
“When the Belgians arrived in Rwanda in the early twentieth century, they allowed the Tutsi to continue their leadership under colonial supervision. The Tutsi were, accordingly, granted better opportunities than the Hutu, which would have exacerbated tension between the two groups. Moreover, the colonial system allowed the Tutsi easier access to education and placed them in superior administrative positions.”
“Later in their rule, the Belgians came to redefine the boundaries between the two groups by economic status, more so than by ethnicity. In the early 1930s, for example, the Belgians in Burundi classified an owner with ten or more cows as Tutsi and a poor citizen as Hutu regardless of ethnic identity. Another colonial policy, of similar effect, involved the introduction of an ID card that allowed a citizen to change ethnic identity, either to Hutu or Tutsi, though a certain fee was required.”
By 1962, Belgium relinquished control and granted Rwanda and its southern neighbor Burundi, which had a large population of Hutu and Tutsi, independence. Ethnic tension boiled over during this freedom, resulting in multiple lesser-known genocides prior to 1994. For instance, Hutu riots in 1959 left more than 20,000 Tutsi dead and many more fled to neighboring countries. In 1972, the Tutsi slaughtered up to 200,000 Hutu in Burundi.
These only served to build up tension culminating in the 1994 killings, which were so severe and widely publicized that it seemed it could never happen again. At least one would hope…
The 100-day genocide ended when a Tutsi military force from Uganda called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took control of the capital Kigali. Fearing retribution, two million Hutus fled to Rwanda’s western neighbor, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Rwanda’s now Tutsi-led government has since twice invaded the DRC in an effort to wipe out Hutu forces there implicated for the genocide.
The result: a reverse genocide, as those who were being killed sought to turn the tables on their attackers.
“In 2010, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report documenting serious violations of international humanitarian law in DR Congo between 1993 and 2003,” BBC reported.
“It estimated tens of thousands of civilians, mainly Rwandan Hutu refugees and Congolese Hutus, were killed.”
“It accused Rwanda of war crimes and suggested certain crimes committed in the DR Congo between 1996 and 1998 could amount to genocide against the Hutu population—accusations flatly rejected by Rwanda’s government.”
Since then, much of the conflict that has occurred in the DRC is the result of the Rwanda genocide. Armed groups in the Congo continued the fight against the Tutsi Rwandan government. The Tutsi has responded by backing groups in Congo to fight the Hutu. One of these, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, “was the first of several Rwandan-backed groups to take up arms in DR Congo,” BBC described.
“Uganda financed several others and dozens of local self-defense militias emerged in the late 1990s, initially as a reaction to the foreign or foreign-backed groups, to defend local communities—which were in turn armed by the Congolese government.
“Today there are more than 30 armed militias in eastern DR Congo still making a living from the region’s minerals—trafficking, poaching, taxing and pillaging.”
Hutu and Tutsi militias continue to clash in eastern Congo. And though a 13,500-strong UN peacekeeping mission is stationed in the region—the largest such mission in the world—it has struggled to protect civilians and contain the fighting since its arrival in 2014.
Meanwhile, Rwanda today is still working to undo decades of ethnic animosity by disbanding the labels Tutsi and Hutu. Genocide participants are expected by the government to apologize for their actions, and Tutsi survivors are supposed to accept their pleas for forgiveness.
But is this approach removing the deep-rooted hatred between the ethnicities? Or is it merely pushing it under the surface?
At the church in Kibuye, a former Interahamwe participant now sweeps leaves from a mass grave of 4,500 Tutsi. “He is short, with the same tightly cropped beard and haunted look I encountered in 1994 a few weeks after the church massacre, when the stench of the dead tossed just outside its walls still overwhelmed Sunday mass,” Chris McGreal of The Guardian reported. “Members of the congregation held cloths over their faces as they prayed, and then emerged to blame the Tutsis for their own deaths.
“Lucie [the Tutsi survivor of the church massacre] reminds me that the man’s name is Thomas Kanyeperu and that he had been the church groundsman. She says he served nine years in prison for genocide. ‘He said he didn’t do it,’ she tells me. ‘He said he saved Tutsis. Maybe he saved some Tutsis but he killed others. Even today he hates us. Ask him. You’ll see.’”
Following the second world war and the horrors of the Holocaust, the newly born United Nations established The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It defined genocide as acts committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
In an article released on the 24th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, stated that genocides do not take place “all of a sudden.”
“Genocide is a process. The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers. It started with hate speech.”
The article continued: “In Rwanda and Bosnia, too, mass killings followed escalating hate speech and dehumanization.”
The organization stated that, in order to prevent future genocides, world powers must intervene. Yet the same article bewailed today’s “rise of racism, hate speech and xenophobia around the world.” It also noted that—despite saying “never again” after previous genocides—today we witness the “brutal persecution of the Rohingya, which has caused more than one million members of the ethnic and religious minority to flee to Bangladesh,” and “atrocities against civilians in Syria and South Sudan.”
As these events continue on, will the world be stuck in a continuous loop of saying “never again,” again and again?
One of the few Americans to stay behind in Rwanda and witness the genocide said, “In each one of us, there’s such a potential for good and there’s such a potential for evil” (Frontline).
Genocide may be the ugliest side of the human spectrum. It reveals that an entire population can turn against others it once deemed neighbors, friends, even relatives. It also reveals mankind is utterly capable of letting “simple” hatred boil over into a full-blown desire to eliminate an entire race.
Think again of all the genocides in just the past 100 years. Despite the horrifying scale of each of them, the hatred that started them has never truly went away. Anti-Semitism is still alive and well. Tutsi and Hutu continue to seek one another’s throats.
Mankind must recognize that hatred is the reason for murder. Without changing his disposition and proclivity to hate, genocide is inevitable. And, sadly, all it takes for human beings to hate is to recognize differences in others, whether real or perceived.
Readers of this magazine know that man’s efforts do not stop his greatest problems. The reason for this is he addresses the effects, not the root causes, of these problems. (Read Why Man Cannot Solve His Problems to better understand this subject.)
Yet God hates violence. Psalm 11:5 states, “The Lord tries the righteous: but the wicked and him that loves violence His soul loathes.” He never intended mankind to remain in this miserable state. His solution is to address the cause.
As the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2), the devil makes this extraordinarily difficult without God’s help. Satan routinely sends thoughts of confusion, deceit, anger, pride, hate, vanity, jealousy, lust, greed, envy, rebellion and much more directly into people’s thinking. It is this kind of thinking behind the tragedy in Rwanda and other wicked incidences both large and small.
Yet, from God’s perspective, human beings were designed to change! Change starts with each individual choosing to do good over doing evil—even in the face of pressure.
Our booklet Why Do You Exist? explains this by quoting a verse in Romans: “Because the carnal [physical] mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (8:7).
The booklet continues: “This verse offers startling insight into the working of every person’s physical—‘carnal’—mind. Cut off from God, the natural mind is His ENEMY—it hates Him.”
To eliminate hate and stop genocide from ever happening, each person must go through a process of rejecting his own nature and turning to God’s perfect nature.
The booklet continues: “God has perfect character in all respects. He is love. Remember, love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:10; I John 5:3), which requires yielding to God. It is outgoing, outflowing concern for others, putting them first—ahead of self-interests.
“Satan’s nature is selfish, incoming and concerned only with what is best for self and how to get more for self.”
“You were created to become like God—to build perfect, holy, righteous character.”
Read the rest of Why Do You Exist? to see how each person must, with God’s help, change this world of violence to ensure genocide will truly happen “never again.”