Capacity for evil is universal
In tracing the cause of the Rwandan genocide, it’s hard to know how far back
in history to go – but what happened in Africa 10 years ago is only the latest
example of humanity at its worst
Monday, April 12, 2004
Ten years after one of the most savage genocides in human history, the
comprehension of how such an unspeakably horrible thing could have
happenedis still anything but clear.
The chain of causes is long and complex. How far back into Rwanda’s
history one chooses to trace it, and the relative importance one gives
to each cause, is a reflection of one’s cultural, political, and
Everyone who has examined the question (with a few notable,
rigourously impartial exceptions) has projected onto it his or her own
culture and its history, social class, politics and personal
experience, so it is important to know what the hidden agendas (even
from those who have them, in some cases) are.
There is no better laboratory than Rwanda for students in the
postmodern, deconstructionist field of historical studies known as
“the production of history.” Where does this monumental tragedy
properly begin? What is its first act and act one’s dateline? In
neighbouring Burundi in 1972, when the Tutsi there (who, unlike
Rwanda’s Tutsi, did not lose power after independence) massacred
200,000 Hutu évolués, liquidating virtually the entire educated young
generation of that ethnic group? Is it at this point that the idea of
mass extermination enters the political discourse in these two tiny,
overcrowded, ethnically riven countries? Are the Tutsi of Burundi to
some degree to blame for what happened to their Rwandan cousins 12
years later? That is what most French analysts and Western academics,
who were invested in the Rwandan Hutu’s failed post-colonial
experiment in creating an egalitarian, democratic society, think. And
not only because of this underreported, now almost forgotten Burundian
genocide, butbecause the Tutsi in both countries were an anachronistic
feudal aristocracy that became even more oppressive during the
colonial period. Privately, professional Rwandanists intimate that
“the Tutsi” got what was coming to them.
But the Burundian genocide was partly a response to the genocidal
massacres between 1959 and 1966 of about 20,000 of the Tutsi in
Rwanda, whom their Hutu serfs succeeded in overthrowing, and the
expulsion into exile of about 200,000 more.
Tutsi analysts begin the tragedy with these “pilot genocides,” the
first cases of ethnic slaughter in the region. They argue that the
original relationship between the Tutsi cattlekeepers and the Hutu
farmers was cordial, based on mutual respect. The animosity only
started after the Belgians came in afterthe First World War and
destroyed the delicate balance between the two ethnic groups, by
ruling indirectly through the Tutsi and making them oversee the forced
labour gangs of Hutu.
Many analysts, African and Western, argue that had not Rwandan society
been destroyed by colonialism, had Rwanda’s political evolution been
allowed to continue, the inequities would have eventually worked
themselves out, and the genocide would never have happened.
But if you look at the Rwanda of 300 or 400 years ago, long before
Europeans gummed up the works, there is ample evidence of at least
proto-genocidal behaviour. The mwami, or king, had the power of life
and death over all his subjects, and clans that fell into disfavour
were regularly snuffed.
When the mwami wanted to annex a neighbouring kingdom or principality,
if peaceful suasion – the offer of women and cows – failed, his
soldiers slaughtered all the men and divvied up the women and children
as booty. The mutilations that shocked the West in 1994 – impalement,
breast oblation, harvesting of testicles as trophies – had been
happening for centuries. Impalement was the punishment for cattle
rustlers until the Belgians put a stop to it in the 1920s.
But Rwanda was an expansionist state, and such symbolic acts of
humiliationhave been common on every continent at that stage of
In the late 19th and early 20th century, a number of fiercely warlike
Hutu kingdoms in northwestern Rwanda, collectively know as the
abahinza, were forcibly annexed by the mwami with the help of the
Germans, the first colonizers of Rwanda. The local chiefs were put to
death and replaced by king’s kinsmen.
Most of the Hutu ideologues of the 1994 genocide and the ruling elite
that carried it out belonged to abahinza lineages. For them, the
genocide was a long-awaited revenge. So does the tragedy begin with
the subjugation of the abahinza, or in 1700, or in 1894, when the
first whites arrive and as Chinoa Achebe quotes Yeats to characterize
Nigeria’s colonial experience, “things fall apart”? But the whites
arrive just as the old king is dying, in time to witness a bloody
succession struggle and a purge of the king’s clan by the queen’s
clan, which usurps the throne.
The capacity for genocide was clearly in Rwandan culture. But no more
than it is in every society, and most of the killing at this point,
with exceptions like the abahinza, was Tutsi on Tutsi, because most of
the dozens of small kingdoms in the interlacustrine region (between
Lake Victoria and the western, lake-studded arm of the Great Rift
Valley in what is now eastern Congo) were ruled by Tutsi.
The Belgians classified everybody as Hutu or Tutsi and racialized what
had been essentially a fluid class distinction (although who exactly
the Tutsi are, to what extent did their taller, thinner somatotype
evolve in place, and what relationship they have with physically
nearly identical people in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, are still
Projecting the cockamamy Eurocentric race science of the day, they
embraced the Tutsi as long-lost “Hamitic” cousins, and at first
reinforced the Tutsi’s supremacy and used them to run the colony. The
Hutu, who were already being worked hard by the mwami’s chiefs, grew
to hate the Tutsi. In 1959, as the Belgians were leaving, they
instigated a peasant revolution modelled after the French revolution
that brought the ill-prepared Hutu to power. This set in motion the
developments that culminated in genocide 45 years later.
By 1990, the Tutsi exiles in the five neighbouring countries numbered
abouta million. They had been second-class citizens, perpetual
refugees, in these countries for 30 years, and in Uganda more than
60,000 of them had been massacred in the early 1980s by Milton Obote
after he overthrew Idi Amin. So they decided, like the European Jews
after the Holocaust, to take back their homeland and create a space
where they could be safe.
That fall, a guerrilla force of young English-speaking Tutsi exiles,
calling themselves the Rwandese Patriotic Front, invaded Rwanda from
Uganda. By 1992, the RPF had captured half the country and forced the
Hutu regime to the negotiating table. Had this invasion not taken
place, the genocide would not have happened, either, so this is
another major cause, another reason why some argue that “the Tutsi
brought it on themselves.” But who can blame the exiles for wanting
to have a decent life, with basic civil rights, starting with the
right not to be discriminated against, or even slaughtered, as foreign
ethnics ? There were many other causes. Overpopulation, environmental
degradation and resource scarcity were a big ones, but they have not
gotten enough attention because these issues are not in most analysts’
area of expertise. By 1986, when I made my first trip to Rwanda, to
write about the murder of Dian Fossey for Vanity Fair, the fertile
Land of a Thousand Hills had the highest birth rate on Earth – 8.2
live births per woman, and 25,000 new families needed land each year
but there wasn’t any.
In the early 1990s, there was a severe drought in southern Rwanda,
which created a great number of homeless, desperate refugees who were
easily recruited by the promise that they could have the land and the
house of anyone they killed. At the same time, the world price of
coffee crashed, and this escalated the youth unemployment.
The ignorance of the general population was another underecognized
cause. So many young men who had never been taught to think for
themselves believed whatever they were told, including the hate
broadcasts of the regime’s radio station, that the Tutsi were coming
back to enslave them again.
The Catholic Church played a reprehensible role. Much of the wholesale
slaughter took place in churches into which the Tutsi were lured by
Hutu priests with the promise of sanctuary. France, which supported
the extremist Hutu regime in the interests of maintaining a client
state and a foothold for la francophonie in the region, was no less
All the well-intentioned foreign NGOs that kept the Troisième
République going when it was financially and morally bankrupt didn’t
help the situation. The United Nations, which wrung its hands and did
nothing, and the U.S., which prevented the Security Council from
taking action by quibbling over the definition of genocide
(reminiscent of its inaction and thwarting of the international effort
to stop the Armenian genocide), could have stopped the killing from
spreading out of Kigali in the first few days, but instead just stood
by and watched it happen.
But the U.S., still reeling from its disastrous “humanitarian
intervention” in Somalia, wasn’t about to send its soldiers to be
killed in this “dinky little country that no one cares a rat’s ass
about,” as an American diplomat described Rwanda to me.
The “proximate” cause, the event that triggered the slaughter, was the
shooting down on April 6 of the plane carrying the Hutu presidents of
Rwanda and Burundi, although the killing had already begun in a few
places hours before. It is still not clear who did this – Hutu
extremists, French secret agents, the RPF, Burundians, Ugandans, or
five other possibilities.
This assassination, too, is another important cause, because it
ignited a pogrom of Tutsi in the countryside and retaliatory massacres
of Hutu, and drove thousands of Hutu refugees up into Rwanda. These
refugees were highly motivated to kill Tutsi and played a major role
in the genocide. So were the young Hutu of northeastern Rwanda, who
fled south when the RPF invaded. They were anonymous in Kigali, so
they could man roadblocks and kill at will.
Then there are all kinds of subsidiary causes. If, for example, the
colonial lines had been drawn differently so that Rwanda extended east
to Lake Victoria, it would have had access to east African markets and
not have become the poor landlocked country that it did, and the Hutu
and Tutsi would have been thrown in with many other ethnic groups and
might not have become so viciously polarized.
Whatever cause or set of causes one chooses to explain what happened,
the genocide had an effect opposite to the one that its architects
were hoping for: It brought the Tutsi back to power, and now the Hutu
are finding what it was like to be a Tutsi when they were running the
Minority rule is never stable, and despite the commendable strides the
current regime has made at healing the country abolishing the ethnic
identity card and putting forth at least the public ideology that
Rwanda is for all Rwandans, it is still a hard-line dictatorship with
no tolerance of criticism or dissent.
Understandably it is wary of the millions of young Hutu who are
milling around and waiting for someone to come along and make it worth
their while to finish the job. Meanwhile, the virus of genocide has
spread to northeasternCongo, where two groups of similarly ethnically
distinct cattlekeepers and farmers, the Hema and the Lendu, have been
slaughtering each other for the last four years.
It will be decades before Central Africa recovers from Rwanda’s
societal self-immolation, from this appalling episode of collective
psychotic violence and its toxic fallout, The lesson to be taken from
it, rather than doling out blame (for which there is no shortage of
candidates), or brooding on the numerous what ifs, or writing off
Rwanda as one of the world’s rabid societies, is that every society,
even the most supposedly civilized ones, has committed genocide at
some point in its history, and the capacity for evil lurks within
every one of them, and each of us. What happened in Rwanda, like the
Holocaust, is just an extremecase of humanity at its worst. We need to
see history in black and white terms, as the good guys vs. the bad
guys, but it is never that way. The good and evil are layered and
mixed. It is each of our responsibilities to make sure that something
like this doesn’t ever happen again, anywhere, but it almost certainly
will, probably in some other distant, unheard of part of the world,
whose existing ethnic or religious differences have been exacerbated
by Western manipulation and exploitation.
Despite its uniquely tragic history, Rwanda certainly doesn’t have a
patent on such behaviour.
Alex Shoumatoff is a Montreal writer.
© Copyright 2004 Montreal Gazette