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“I lost everything, I lost everyone”: Remembering and Misremembering the Genocide Against the Tutsi

Posted by Dina Mansour-Ille, Thursday 15th June, 2017

volunteer blog

Photos of victims of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide on display at the Kigali Memorial Centre at Kigali, Rwanda

Photos of victims on display at the Kigali Memorial Centre at Kigali, Rwanda

I hold a PhD in the political economy of human rights. I am particularly interested in issues around identity, citizenship, and belonging in relation to conflict and social movements. I have always been fascinated with The Wiener Library and its important role in commemorating and educating the public on genocide. I am volunteering at The Wiener Library because I believe in this mission and want to be a part of a community dedicated to opposing prejudice, hatred, and discrimination. The Genocide Against the Tutsi is an example of how prejudice can lead us to forget our humanity - hence my interest in commemorating it.

“I lost everything, I lost everyone”: Remembering and Misremembering the Genocide Against the Tutsi

April 2017 marked the 23rd anniversary of the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda. For my first blog for The Wiener Library, I took this occasion as an opportunity to commemorate the memory of those who lost their lives in one of humanity’s darkest hours. To this day the Genocide Against the Tutsi represents 100 days in which humanity failed us and failed almost one million people who lost their lives in the bloodshed that took over the country between April and June 1994.

As part of my volunteer work at The Wiener Library, I accessed interviews conducted with survivors, which shed light on their lives before, during and after the genocide. The interviews are part of the project ‘Keeping Memories: The Rwandan Community in the UK’, which aimed to explore themes of childhood, legacies of colonialism, prejudice, ignorance, forgiveness and reconciliation, whilst looking at how the past relates to the present. Those interviewed shared one common conviction: the international community had failed them by standing by and watching as Rwanda tore itself apart.

In this blog, I will be looking at the lead-up to the genocide, and how warning signs were overlooked and in some instances ignored. I also aim to examine the role of different actors with a focus on the role of the international community, the media and the controversial role of the church in the Genocide Against the Tutsi.

For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Brief History of Violence

The Hutu-Tutsi ethnic strife predates the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Both ethnic groups have been at the heart of the modern histories of Rwanda, Burundi and the Great Lakes region of Africa and other major conflicts including the First and Second Congo Wars and the Burundian genocides.  

Prior to colonialism, the Tutsis represented the upper social class, while the Hutu majority represented the lower peasant class. Traditionally cattle-herders, the Tutsis were often in a position of economic power and dominance over the soil-tilling Hutus (PBS, 1999). For centuries, the Hutus and Tutsis lived alongside each other on the same land, intermarried, spoke the same language and shared the same religion and culture (Lichtfield, 1996). The Tutsis have always represented close to 15% of the Rwandan population, the Hutus close to 85% and the Twa around 1% (UN, 2016). Despite being a minority, the Tutsis represented the dominant elite and class in pre-colonial Rwanda. Class warfare resulted in disagreements over power structures and the distribution of economic resources, but such disagreements did not turn into conflict. The relationship between Hutu, Tutsi and Twa was one of mutual benefit based mainly on labour exchange (Amnesty International, 2010).

Colonialism introduced ID cards, which explicitly specified ‘race’ and with it contributed to the creation of a system of racial classification that favoured the Tutsis as being a more ‘superior race’. As such, the Tutsis were largely the only group to receive an education while the Hutus were additionally stripped of their traditional landholdings (Saunders, 3). This resulted in a situation in which the Hutu majority were rendered marginal and powerless against a minority that they grew to despise (ibid). On the other hand, the Tutsis pushed for independence in order to cement their position.

By the 1950s, the position of both the Catholic Church and Belgians started to change (Saunders, 2016). While the Church began to be more sympathetic towards the Hutus, the Belgians feared for their position, especially with the Tutsis calling for independence. Tutsi chiefs began to be replaced by Hutus, which largely allowed different Hutu groups to join forces against the perceived common enemy: the Tutsis. To prevent a revolution by the Hutus, the Belgians held democratic elections to contain the situation, which, according to Saunders, “ended up creating more of a racial dictatorship led by the Hutus than a true democracy” (Saunders, 3).

This racial tension culminated between 1959 and 1961 in what is known as the Rwandan Revolution, which caused around 120,000 people, mostly Tutsis, to flee to neighbouring countries as refugees (UN, 2016). This wave of ethnic violence didn’t result in independence however, which was eventually granted the following year. After independence, the country witnessed a new wave of violence as Tutsi refugees in Tanzania and Zaire sought to regain their former positions in Rwanda. Between 1962 and 1967, they staged attacks on Hutu targets, which in return resulted in retaliatory attacks on Tutsi civilians in Rwanda. This ‘tug-of-war’ conflict created new waves of refugees on both sides.

By the 1980s, there were at least 480,000 Rwandan refugees, mainly in Burundi, Uganda, Zaire and Tanzania calling for their right to return – a right that then-President Habyarimana (1973-1994) resisted, citing population pressures and limited economic opportunities as reasons not to allow Rwanda to accommodate this number of Tutsi refugees (UN, 2016).

Pity the Nation: From Warning Signs to Failure

Early ‘warning signs’ could be traced back as far as the 1959 conflict. As Michael, one of those interviewed put it, 1959 was “the first time the problems between the two tribes [Hutus and Tutsis] in Rwanda started.” The tribal conflict in Rwanda spilt over to neighbouring countries, which made life more challenging to Rwandan Tutsis seeking refuge. “There were times when we had to change [our] names…otherwise we’d be discriminated in schools,” said Michael who grew up in neighbouring Burundi.

Stanton (2009) and Melvern (2009) refers to a few ‘warning signs’ between 1991 and 1994 that in hindsight clearly represented the prelude to the genocide - signs that were systematically ignored. In 1992, for example, the Belgian ambassador in Kigali warned his government of plans calling for “the extermination of the Tutsi of Rwanda to resolve once and for all...the ethnic problem” (Stanton, 2009, 6). In 1993, an international human rights fact-finding mission to Rwanda organised by four prominent NGOs including Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights cited acts of ‘genocide’ in Rwanda and warned “of the abyss into which the country was headed” – a statement that was confirmed by UN Special Rapporteur Bacre Waly Ndiaye (Schabas, 1011; Stanton, 2009). Stanton further adds that less than two months before the genocide, on February 25, 1994, “Belgium explicitly warned the U.N. Secretary General of impending genocide…but Belgium’s plea for a stronger U.N. peacekeeping force was rebuffed by members of the U.N. Security Council, particularly the U.S. and the United Kingdom”(Stanton, 2009, 8).” “That genocide was in the air in Rwanda was plain for any objective observer to see,” notes Schabas (2008, 1012).

“The international community didn’t do enough, actually they didn’t really do anything,” says one interviewee, Beatrice. “What the UN were doing is that they were just evacuating people from European countries, the Western world, people who worked for the embassies, but they didn’t help the locals at all, they didn’t even try to stop it or…to at least get it into the news so that everybody knew what was happening,” she added. The failure of the international community to intervene or report the genocide is well-documented. The international inaction at the time can largely be contributed to the misguided view of African conflicts, peacekeeping fatigue and the bureaucracy of the United Nations (Maritz, 2012). The United Nations Assistance Mission For Rwanda (UNAMIR), which was on the ground in Rwanda at the time with neither a robust mandate nor enough resources, and could only stand and watch as the atrocities of the genocide started to unfold (ibid). The UN Secretariat continued to supply the Security Council with insufficient information, which in turn did not enable the latter to take action. In addition, many Western powers at the time, particularly the US, preferred to avoid intervention abroad. After its experience in Somalia earlier in the decade, the US had in fact decided to stop putting the UN agenda before its own interests and this made an international decision to intervene difficult.

The Role of the Media and Church

Furthermore, local, regional and international media venues failed in their coverage of the genocide. Even more devastatingly, it is well-documented how local media fabricated reports, amplified the hate propaganda and was misused as a tool to incite the mass killing of the Tutsi population (Stanton, 9). The international media was criticised as being largely lopsided and failing to provide accurate coverage of the atrocities and many news reporters, especially regionally, failed to provide in-depth coverage or analysis (Thompson, 145). Moreover, from 1993 onward, the Radio Television Libres des Milles Collines (RTLM) played an active role in instigating hate propaganda, fabricating news and actively calling for the mass killing of Tutsis that had a significant role in spreading violence throughout the country (Yanagizawa-Drott, 1948).

Even the role of the Catholic Church during the Rwandan genocide was not without controversy. After the genocide, controversial reports emerged about the complicit role of local Catholic Church leaders in protecting perpetrators and several Catholic priests, as well as nuns and brothers, were accused and charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to have even taken sides and participating in the genocide (Al-Jazeerah, 2017). This year, Pope Francis has plead for forgiveness for the Church’s failings and stated that “this humble recognition of the failings of that period, which, unfortunately, disfigured the face of the church, may contribute to a ‘purification of memory’” and promote “renewed trust” (ibid). As one interviewee Appolinaire recalled, “[my mum and dad] tried to hide in Catholic church, because they have some memory in 1959…[that] people [going] to hide in the churches, they had a chance to survive. In 1994…unfortunately they didn’t have that chance.”

Never Again, Ever Again?

The Genocide Against the Tutsi stands as one of the most horrific crimes against humanity since the Holocaust. Yet, since the genocide, the world has witnessed more devastating conflicts – the worst of which is the Syrian Civil War that entered its 7th year last March and the mass killing, enslavement and genocide by ISIS against the Yazidi population of Iraq since 2014. After the Holocaust and the demise of millions of Jews, the world has said ‘never again’, but the international community seems to constantly fail to recognise the early ‘warning signs’ of conflict and precursive acts of genocide. The international community needs to be the balanced conscience of our humanity. We need to learn from past failings and empower the international community with tools and structures to prevent, act and protect, and do more than simply ‘condemn’. As Michael, one of those interviewed concludes, “the international community, if it does exist for a purpose, it should have some obligations…, unless it is pointless and useless then there’s no point for it to exist.”  


Works Cited:

Appolinaire, Keeping Memories: The Rwandan Community in the UK, 18 March 2012.

Beatrice, Keeping Memories: The Rwandan Community in the UK, 2 March 2012.

Lichfield, John. “Guide to the Zaire Crisis: The Difference Between a Hutu and a Tutsi.” The Independent, November 16, 1996.

Maritz, Dominique. “Rwandan Genocide: Failure of the International Community?” E-International Relations, April 7, 2012.

Melvern, Linda. A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide. London: Zed Books, 2009.

Michael, Keeping Memories: The Rwandan Community in the UK, 18 March 2012.

“Outreach Programme on Rwanda and the United Nations.” United Nations, 2016.

“Pope apologises for church's role in Rwanda genocide.” Al-Jazeerah, March 20, 2017.

Sauders, Cody. “Colonial Influence’s Role in the Rwandan Genocide.” Washington State University, January 20, 2016.

Schabas, William A. War Crimes and Human Rights: Essays on the Death Penalty, Justice and Accountability. London: Cameron May, 2008.

Stanton, Gregory. "The Rwandan Genocide: Why Early Warning Failed." Journal of African Conflicts and Peace Studies. 1.2 (2009): 6-25.

“The Heart of the Hutu-Tutsi Conflict.” PBS Newshour, October 8, 1999.

Thompson, Allan. The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. London: Pluto, 2007.

“Timeline: Rwanda.” Amnesty International, 2010.

Yanagizawa-Drott, David. “Propaganda and Conflict: Evidence from the Rwandan Genocide.” Quarterly Journal of Economics. 2014; 129 (4): 1947-1994.

Suggested Further Reading:

Visit our Reading Room to consult the many items our Collection which relate to The Rwandan Genocide. Some of this material is listed below:

The interviews with Rwandan survivors cited in this blog are part of a larger collection titled Keeping Memories: The Rwandan Community in the UK. The interview footage, transcripts and supplementary material can be consulted in our Reading Room.

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Genocide; Rwanda; Justice Trial, Imperialism, Race Relations, Ethnic Relations, Crimes Against Humanity.



Image credit: Photos of victims of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide on display at the Kigali Memorial Centre at Kigali, Rwanda © Nelson Gashagaza via Wikimedia Commons

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