Imagine a group of men, juiced up on banana beer, wading through a misty marsh on a hunting expedition. They’re not stalking pigs or fowl or sitatungas, but the sweat on their brow and the cautious look in their eyes suggests a more dangerous prey. The weapon of choice is the machete, but some of them brandish iron bars, clubs studded with nails, a butcher knife, a sickle, a sharpened metal file, and other makeshift tools of destruction. Ibises probe the slough for insects seemingly oblivious to the biped mammals in their midst. Hunters usually pursue game quietly; however, these men are singing songs as they slog through the mud, startle the water lilies, and weave through the papyrus. If this isn’t odd enough, they’ve been talking about killing cockroaches in the swamp since receiving the morning briefing at a soccer field. For the most part these “cockroaches” are their Tutsi neighbors—men, women and children—people with whom they’ve lived for decades. Once the whistle blows, the members of the local death squad will call it a day, as if they’re punching the clock; indeed, they’ll go home and nourish themselves on brochettes of goat meat and Belgian beer before a good night sleep. Killing, especially without firearms, is grueling work. Besides, none of these men are professional assassins or serial murderers or “natural born killers.” They’re neither soldiers nor even members of the paramilitary organization known as the Interahamwe; rather, we can imagine them as simple farmers, tavern keepers, and even members of the clergy.
The Rwandan Genocide occurred in the spring of 1994. In the early evening of April 6 someone shot down the plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana as it neared the Kigali airport. The explosion was apparently the signal for slaughter, for after a few hours of uncanny quietude, shots rang out and killers started to drag Tutsi elite from their homes and butcher them on the spot. No less than the Presidential Guard gunned down the Prime Minister as blue helmets stood by helplessly. This was no murderous rampage in a spontaneous paroxysm of hate and violence; rather, it was a systematic, premeditated, and carefully planned massacre. The history books have agreed on the casualty count: in a hundred days over 800,ooo Tutsis and "moderate" Hutus succumbed to a horrific death. If math serves me well, that averages to 10,000 murders per day. That’s practically an assembly line of carnage, and only Treblinka in 1943 and Auschwitz in 1944 can match it.
Historians of genocide like to divide the participants into three categories: perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. Each of these categories can be complex and in some cases they even overlap. In this instance, the killers, now known as génocidaires, were unequivocally Hutus, the ethnic majority of Rwanda, a country the size of Maryland. Firebrands, fueled on the slogan of Hutu Power, had worked up their kin into a hateful frenzy via newspapers, pamphlets, and radio broadcasts. Most infamously Radio et Television des Milles Collines (RMTL) broadcasted the names and addresses of victims. The so-called Hutu Ten Commandments exhorted Hutus to show no mercy toward Tutsis. Among the sources of their grievances were decades of Tutsi domination, as European colonizers had tended to favor this largely pastoral people because of their more European features. The target victims were the Tutsis, but the tens of thousands of murderers took the lives of Hutus as well, for the two ethnic groups had intermarried for years. Many Hutus even turned in their spouses and children or even killed them before a menacing crowd of Hutu onlookers. Finally, we have the third category of “bystanders,” which is complicated enough to merit a separate paragraph.
The world’s superpower, the United States, did nothing, for the Clinton administration was not about to get involved in another African debacle six months after Somalia. In the fall of 1993, mobs dragged the naked corpses of Army Rangers through the dusty streets of Mogadishu. Infamously, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his staff refused to utter the G-word, for a recognition of the bloodbath in Rwanda as genocide would obligate the international community to intervene. We now know that a few non-military options, like jamming the radio transmission via high-tech aircraft, were possible and not taken. President Clinton issued a formal apology ten years after the genocide. France, jealously watching over the last vestiges of its African empire, inadvertently (or otherwise) helped Francophonic Hutu killers flee the country when it established a safe zone in the southwest. The role of the United Nations, by anyone’s reckoning, was a tragedy of errors, with only the small and ineffective peacekeeping force under the command of General Romeo Dallaire offering any hope for humanity. Despite the warning signs and heads-up they received, the higher-ups in New York either did not appreciate the gravity of the situation or simply turned a blind eye. Hutu killers continued to intimidate and select victims unhindered in the UN refugee camps. The West did virtually nothing to stop the genocide. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a political and military organization formed by Tutsi refugees in Uganda and led by Paul Kagame, liberated the country and chased the killers into Congo. The international community’s failure to act is a complex story, but the bottom line is that Rwanda is an impoverished country with no significant natural resources or major industrial exports to offer. Mountain gorillas, bananas and the bags of Rwanda coffee beans I saw at Starbucks the other day can’t compete with the West’s insatiable thirst for oil.
The génocidaires, let us not forget, are the real culprits. They stabbed, slashed and shot their hapless victims in the streets, homes, and churches. The mass rape of Tutsi women, both a strategy and a fringe benefit for the murderers, was no less effective in the Hutu program of ethnic cleansing. The ringleaders, rapists, propagandists and other prominent individuals who took part in the genocide will hopefully pay the piper at the UN Tribunal set up in neighboring Tanzania. Most of the 100,000 rank and file killers have either escaped justice altogether or since 2002 have appeared in tribal court system known as a gaçaça for a hasty trial and slap on the wrist. The men gathering on the soccer field to receive their instructions bring to mind the Christopher Browning’s depiction of an SS death squad in his profound study, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. These reservists were ordinary men from the city of Hamburg, with regular jobs and normal families; yet most of them followed instructions to round up Jews and shoot them into pits. Like their Rwanda counterparts in the marsh, these ordinary Germans liquored up and justified their actions in the name of a “greater good.”
Among the many high-quality books, documentaries and movies about Rwanda, I would like to single out a few excellent works for readers who might want to follow up on this grim topic. The best overall account, and highly engaging and readable, is Philip Gourevitch, We Would Like to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (1999). The author is a journalist who traveled to Rwanda a couple years after the genocide. A compelling eyewitness account from inside the UN and bearing a telling subtitle is Romeo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2004). General Dallaire, the commander of UN peacekeeping forces, has committed his life to public awareness of genocide in the last decade. Jean Hatzfeld, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak (2005) lets some of the perpetrators give their story. I drew heavily on this book for the opening of this essay. The two-hour PBS documentary The Ghosts of Rwanda (2004) is superb and its viewing an emotional experience. A few good movies set in Rwanda have come out, but the best one is Sometimes in April (2005) starring Idris Elba.