Imperialism and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda


not even a fraction of the massacred population in Rwanda...

not even a fraction of the massacred population in Rwanda...

 This week with the AP students, we are going over the effects of imperialism on Africa and on Asia. We have seen how the Europeans literally scrambled for Africa. Over the winter break, your’e going to have a book critique assignment, on a specific text: We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. To prepare the APWH students  for what you will read, this blog is for them (although all my students are expected to particpate in the blogs). This is two-question observation: first, why is it felt that European imperialism, in part, encouraged the acts of genocide that were evident in Rwanda in 1994?  The second will need some explaining on my part: As so many Hutu participated in the genocide, which pretty much wrecked the legal system in Rwanda, how can justice prevail without a return to the horror and violence which occurred in the spring of 1994? Should Rwanda simply put everyone on trial, Western-style (in French, of course), or should Rwanda find another mechanism which is more relevant to their own society and customs?  

Rwanda, Ten Years Later: Justice Is Elusive, Despite Peace

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
April 6, 2004
Every time I visited Rwanda after the 1994 genocide—during my years
as a reporter covering Africa—it was like entering a world askew
from the verve and vim of the rest of the continent.At the airport the cab drivers never hustled me for my business. On the road into Kigali, the capital, there never seemed to be any traffic. I rarely heard music playing. The place always seemed eerily quiet, reserved, almost lethargic.How could this be the country where 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during a hundred-day spasm of ethnic slaughter ten years ago?

The genocide was ignited by the death of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, when his plane was shot down above the Kigali airport on April 6, 1994. Soon, the streets filled with murderous Hutu militia known as the Interahamwe, or “those who work together.”

Spurred on by furious calls for blood by extremist politicians and a popular radio station, the militiamen first killed the Tutsi business and political elite before turning to ordinary Tutsi citizens.

In weeks the slaughter had spread to much of the Rwandan countryside. Local officials ordered Hutu peasants to kill their Tutsi neighbors. Those Hutus who refused were murdered themselves. At its peak, the genocide claimed 8,000 lives per day, a rate far faster than the Holocaust.

Far from being an impulsive outburst of ancient tribal animosity, the genocide was in fact precisely planned and executed by one of the most authoritarian states in Africa.

Today, exactly ten years after the start of the genocide, Rwanda is remarkably at peace. The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front—the former rebels who toppled the genocidal regime—has worked hard on abolishing ethnic divisions.

But peace has come at a price. President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, rules Rwanda with an iron fist. Critics charge there is no freedom of press or association. Opposition parties have been outlawed. Such is Rwanda’s irony: Just as the genocide was made possible because of the government’s absolute authority over its citizenry, so is peace maintained today.

Colonial Science

I was never in Rwanda during the genocide. But I spent the summer of 1996 during the war in neighboring Burundi, a country with an almost identical ethnic makeup as Rwanda—roughly 85 percent Hutus and 15 percent Tutsis—and its own ghastly history of ethnic violence.

As an outsider, it’s always been difficult to explain or understand the ethnic strife in these tiny central African nations. Hutus and Tutsis are very similar: They speak the same language and share the same culture. But the main cause of the conflict can be traced back to European colonialism.

The Belgians, who once ruled both Rwanda and Burundi, came with a strange form of race science. After concluding that the tall and thin Tutsis were superior to the short and stocky Hutus, the colonialists produced ethnic identity cards and favored Tutsis for all positions of power.

Resentment among the Hutu majority gradually built up. In 1959 riots killed 20,000 Tutsis and sent many more fleeing to neighboring countries, such as Uganda and Tanzania.

When Belgium granted Rwanda independence in 1962, the Hutus took over. For decades a Hutu dictatorship further polarized the ethnic state, blaming Tutsis for every crisis.

The originators of the 1994 genocide—a small group of Hutu politicians from northern Rwanda—harnessed the well-oiled state apparatus to their murderous cause, extending its tentacles to the grassroots level.

Local officials exhorted Hutu farmers to kill their Tutsi neighbors. Some farmers were told they could appropriate the land of those they killed.

At roadblocks the ethnic identity cards originally introduced by the Belgians proved invaluable to Hutu gangs. The gangs needed to know who was a Tutsi, and thus who should be killed.

National Unity

The scars of genocide are everywhere in Rwanda today. In a church at Ntarama, south of Kigali, the remains of 5,000 Tutsis who had taken refuge there, many of them children, have been left to rot between the church pews where they were killed—a haunting memorial to their brutal slaughter.

But the new government has abolished the ethnic identity cards, and it has promoted an ambitious program of national unity. Many former militia fighters who fled to neighboring Congo after the genocide have returned to Rwanda and joined reintegration camps, where they have been taught new skills.

Critics, however, say the new government is using the past to justify a de facto one-party state, virtually eliminating all political opposition in the process.

“This is an extremely disciplined and effective political organization that has incorporated a tradition of 300 years of strong control in Rwanda and turned it to its benefit,” said Alison des Forges, a Rwanda expert at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The biggest problem may be justice. Some 100,000 people are still locked up in Rwanda’s prisons. Only 11,000 cases have so far been handled.

Few of those who have confessed to killings have expressed sincere remorse, instead blaming what happened on evil spirits or the former government.

In 2001 the government started organizing village courts known as gacaca (meaning “on the grass,” which is where they are to be held), in which elected lay judges would hear witness testimony from villagers.

Not a single trial, however, has so far been held. Some observers warn that if gacaca is extended throughout the country, it could increase the number of accused by as many as 600,000 suspects, making the process unmanageable.

A lack of trials would not sit well with genocide survivors, who have already been told they will receive no financial reparation, as first promised. It will also hurt innocent Hutus.

“If there’s no establishment of who is guilty, that means there’s no establishment of who is innocent,” des Forges said. “That leads to a globalization of guilt—that all Hutus are guilty—and the consequences of that for any kind of future reconciliation is, of course, very, very serious.”

Never Again

After the Holocaust, the international community pledged “never again” to allow genocide to take place. Yet it did happen—in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda.

By killing ten Belgian United Nations soldiers early in the three months of slaughter, the Hutu militias sent a message to the outside world: Stay out of Rwanda.

The tactic worked. Western governments avoided using “genocide” to describe the slaughter. Under the UN Geneva convention, calling the event a genocide would have obliged them to intervene.

The United States, stung by failure in Somalia a year earlier, vetoed any military intervention and successfully lobbied for the withdrawal of UN forces.

In recent years leaders of national governments and international institutions have acknowledged their mistake. During a visit to Rwanda in 1998, President Clinton apologized for not acting. While commemorating the tenth anniversary of the genocide, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said he personally could have done more to stop it.

Many survivors I met in Rwanda over the years were understandably bitter about the international failure to stop the genocide, but some said they understood why.

“People forget,” said Esther Mujawayo, who lost her husband in the genocide and started a support group for 18,000 widows of the massacres. “We are even forgetting.”

In 1999, on the fifth anniversary of the genocide, Mujawayo was watching the NATO bombing campaign unfold in Kosovo. “When I saw the television news, I watched it and I turned it off,” Mujawayo said. “Then I realized how easy it is to tune out.”

On a lush hilltop outside Kigali five years ago, I followed Anastase Ndagijimana through a rusted metal gate into a school compound that was mostly destroyed when militias raided it in 1994. As a young choir sang inside the school, Ndagijimana bowed his head in front of a mass grave that included 15 family members.

“I can understand why no one came to help,” Ndagijimana told me. “We are very far away in Rwanda.”

26 thoughts on “Imperialism and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda

  1. Like Marx stated: “All human history had been a history of class struggles.” That said, the Belgians implemented the distinction between the Hutus and the Tutsis, which evidently erupted in the rivalry of the two ethnic groups. In other words, the Hutus wanted to seek revenge for all the years that the Belgians had preference for the Tutsis; this was obvious during the genocide, and, especially through the 100 years of governing on the Hutus’ behalf. I believe that after the genocide, the Tutsis did not avenge what was done to them because they knew that at last this rivalry will be over because the Hutus achieved what they always wanted- the opportunity to be superior to the Tutsis.

  2. “Hutus and Tutsis are very similar: They speak the same language and share the same culture. But the main cause of the conflict can be traced back to European colonialism.” I found this quote really touching because it showed me the effects of imperialism and it also showed me the inhumane treatment towards mankind. Ethnic cleansing or genocide is as a result of ethnocentrism. The Hutus felt as if they were superior to the Tutsis and established this by killing the Tutsis in Rwanda.

    (1) It was felt that European imperialization affected the genocide in Rwanda because of the scientific racism which was popular during the nineteenth century. Race measured human potential and the Europeans felt superior to other nations. With European domination, only the ‘survival of the fittest” from Social Darwinism will be able to survive. Therefore, the struggle of social classes will occur. As seen with the Hutus destruction with the Tutsis.

    (2)Rwanda should find other mechanisms which are more relevant to their own society and customs without the reinforcements of violence because this would further damage their country and economy. They can’t just put everyone on trial, but they could see to it that actions like this never occur again. Let’s see if they can start a new page!

  3. It’s incredible how the Hutus and Tutsis are very similar and just because the Belgians establish this roles base on appearance, they didn’t realize that it was nonsense to keep this ethnic groups. This show the impact that imperialistic countries left on the countries they colonize. I do be live that the massacre was a way for the Hutus revenge on the Tutsis, for me they just took the shooting of the president as an excuse to just “explode”. I truly believe that instead of creating a trial for everyone, they should accuse the officers in command for this and the owner of the radio station since they were the main supporters of this genocides. It would totally be a waste of time to o trial for all 100,000 cases because the process would be lazy job since all they would try to do is get over it fast, and since the international community didn’t help on the genocide they should at least help in the process of restoring peace.

  4. The European imperialism that took place in Rwanda centuries ago in a way acted as a starter for the future ethnic clashes that lead to the genocide of 1994. Favoritism on the part of the Europeans for the tutsis established anger among the different groups like the hutus, which took control of the government and tried to ethnically cleanse their country.

    I agree that Rwanda should put the main officials involved in the genocide on trial, along with those who confess. However, there comes fault with this because justice is not always just. Due to the fact that they are without, a proper legal system, trials may be rushed and unfair.

  5. I agree with all you guys. A foundation no matter how wrong it is, is hard to be abolished. Their foundation, traced back to the Europeans, was based on appearance. This said, it will take a long time for the country to repair no matter what is done. They are still not at peace.

  6. OK, let’s try another tact here. Your’e definitely onto the legal quagmire that Rwanda presents in terms of finding justice and reconciliation here. Consider this – when it comes to many conflicts in Africa, whether it be a civil war in Cote d’Ivoire or Sudan, or a genocide like the 1994 Rwanda example, the perpetrators who did much of the actual atrocities were under 18, in fact many were 12-15, serving as child soldiers, were basically forced into committing these acts under threat of death to themselves or their families, and were also addicted to numerous drugs foisted onto them by their supervisors. Question: can person reasonably expect to get a fair trial after the conflict is over, and moreover, can that person remain in the country where the conflict took place?

  7. I don’t think a person can expect a fair trial. The Tutsis are probably extremely angry at the Hutus and think that they are all evil. There are also probably some Hutus that still consider themselves superior to the Tutsis. They would be able to remain since now the international community is more likely to step in after what happened.

  8. I think what the Hutus are doing to completely wrong and pathetic.They should not be commiting such a crime against innocent Tutsis. Just because in the past, Belgium rule in Rwanda favored Tutsis doesn’t mean the Hutus should be killing them now. Hutus and Tutsis are basically the same. And I don’t understand why no one is doing anything about. As humans we should be doing something, not just let Hutus go on a rampage to kill all Tutsis in Rwanda

  9. This is very similar to the the holocaust. Same concept Hitler wanted to Implement, one race being better than the other.
    This can also be closely related to the Israelites and the Palestinians and their religious conflicts.
    There will ALWAYS be struggles among the human race, we may not always like each other and that only defines us.
    All of this makes great history

  10. I’ve heard people say why were put on this world if all we do is cause destruction suffering and ultimately later on we will bring our own demise be it global worming or all out nuclear war. But the question I have is why did we have to advance why couldn’t we stay in our little caves fighting with stick and stones. Why did we have to develop so much and do horrible things. Sure we done some good things but so what look at all the bad things just one man can do like hitler mentioned above.

  11. Before the 20th century Hutus and Tutsis got along fine. In Rwanda they account for nearly all the people. 90 percent of people in Rwanda are Hutus and 9 percent are Tutsis. It seems like when Belgium granted independence to Rwanda in 1962, the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis started. There were a string of mass murders perpetrated by the Hutus against the Tutsis and vice versa, but the genocide of 1994 had to be the biggest. If imperialism was still in Rwanda at the time, I doubt any of this would have every happened. Belgium giving Rwanda independence led to their downfall. Sometimes it’s better to be led by a superior power because it puts you in place.

  12. Due to the European imperialism, there was a lot of conflict between the Tutsis and Hutus. The Belgians considered the Tutsis more superior than the Hutus which gave them more power. Due to this the Hutus wanted revenge and started to rebel against the Tutsis. After Rwanda was given independence, the Hutus started to dictator over the Tutsis. So, you can see that the start of this problem was due to European Imperialism because before both groups used to get along. The biggest step of revenge for the Hutus was the 1994 genocide which had a great impact.

  13. There was much conflict because of the European imperialism. The Hutus should not be doing such harm towards the Tutsis.
    Imperialism is something that happens everywhere.
    We saw it hundreds of years ago.
    You see it now.
    You’ll see for the years to come.
    It tortures and destroys people lives.
    For example, the Hutus and the Tutis is something like we’re learning in AP world, the Japanese taking over parts of Asia.

  14. It is hard to believe such things happening. And to think the root cause is that the Belgians favored the tall and thin Tutis over the short and stocky Hutis. They are similar in culture but because of this physical difference the Hutis got jealous and killed the Tutis. This dosen’t justify the deaths of hundreds upon hundreds. But what can we do, it’s history we can only learn from it, and I also find it ironic that Rwanda is at peace today. Then again it may be because all the Tutis are dead.

  15. Just the fact that the genocide was claiming over 8,000 lives per day is just outright crazy. But on another note, the problem all started out by class struggles. When the Belgians came and began to distinguish the two peoples from each other, a hatred started to form. This is when the genocide started because the Europeans favored the Tutsis over the Hutus. The Belgians forced the Africans to turn on each other and then therefore provided relief to make them look like the saviors.

  16. OK, to add more of my two cents here, the Tutsi population was not completely eliminated, approximately a quarter population was wiped out in the genocide (I am not trying to minimize the ratio at all, rather just putting a perspective on this).
    Rama brings up a point, what can one do about this event? It is true, that individuals only have so much at their disposal at providing information, or working proactively to prevent such an event from reoccurrring elsewhere. However, there are organizations which are quite vocal in abuses such as genocide. Here’s a couple which I support:
    Amnesty International
    International Center for Transitional Justice
    Here is a wikipedia list ( I scrutinized this thoroughly prior to placing this here)

  17. I agree with Doris about the European imperialism in Rwanda being the starting point and leading to the genocide. But what surprised me the most was that “the genocide claimed 8,000 lives per day, a rate far faster than the Holocaust” which gives me a fair idea of the degree things were. Also I think that the main officials of the genocide and the once that confessed should go on trial.

  18. Today’s lesson was very eye-opening for me to the whole idea of Rwandan genocide. In my previous years of learning about it, mainly from watching the movie “Hotel Rwanda”, I had understood that many lives were taken but not sure what the particular reason was. Now after I had learned the reason, surprisingly, I’m not that shocked at all of this happening.

    I mean, it’s really brutal of all this happening, but if you think about it, the Hutus had their entire lives change by a bunch of Belgians who decided that Tutsis were given more power. If a group that had been interlacing with you for so many years, all of a sudden becomes the superpower of your country, a sure sign of revolt and a new grasp for power would surely take place.

  19. Indeed it is true that History Repeats Itself. However, can we stop history from repeating itself ? This i do not know. But what i do know is that the Genocide in Rwanda was a repetition of the Holocaust , this time it was within the different tribes in the country. I believe that people may look at the Hutus as starting the genocide. However, what triggered them to this was the Belgian belief that they planted in the heads of the people. They stated that the Tutsi’s were more superior then the Hutus because they resembled more of the Belgians. So for 20 years the Tutsi’s ruled over the Hutus. Although this was wrong it was unmoral and not ethical for the Hutus to go on a killing rage. It was outrageous the actions that took place to stop this massacre of killing. I hope that something like this doesn’t happen again !

  20. I belive that people today think that this genocide started with European imperialism. This is because the Belgians had entered Rwanda and had brought with them the belief of the Hamitic theory, an idea that basically stated that the lighter your skin was the more “pure and closer to god you were”. This resulted in a split between the people in Rwanda and eventually the genocide that we witnessed in 1994. To answer the other question I believe that the legal proceddings and trials should be “Western-style” and piel put it only because its very clear that the local system of “gacaca” isn’t working. However even if we do commence the legal proceddings in a more Western model, I think that the government has delayed the trials for too long and any relavent and useful information or witnesses have evaporated into the air. The government isnt fully to blame because this is ALOT of people to put on trial. However I think they might be processing these trials slow becase they are all Hutu and the current, heavy-handed gov. is Tutsi making the situation obvious. People seem to claim however that this whole inciddent is starting to dissapear, though we should not forget the message learned from this genocide.

  21. It is assumed that Europeans, Belgians, encouraged the acts of genocide in 1994 because they concluded that the Tutsis were superior to the Hutus; as a result, the Hutus became irate and mass killings on both sides had begun. Justice prevailing in Rwanda is a tough solution because many people are angry that other nations did not intervene to stop the killings during the genocide. Rwanda should not put everybody on trail because the process will take a long time and will require management. In Rwanda, management of over 100,000+ people is more than a challenge. I believe that Rwanda should find an alternative solution that is more relevant to their society and customs because this method will help bring people together. Also, people of Rwanda will feel more unified due to the fact that they are sharing cultures. Furthermore, this system of judging by using society and culture will help bring people together to innovate; consequently, there will be a new form of justice.

  22. The events of Rwanda was a horrible and shameful past in the history of the world. the world watched as thousands of people died and did nothing. People now visit what happened all those years ago and show regret but never really mean it. if they did mean it they wouldn’t allow what was happening in Sudan right now. Darfur is a repeat of Rwanda, but what are other doing now? We see ads of brand new shows, new exercise equipment, cars, food, but never what happens in Darfur right now. The world is blocking it out and when we get older we well hear how we didn’t nothing to stop it. Our children will read about how we sat around while thousands died. People need to stop mourning the past and realize instead of thinking of Rwanda think about Darfur. the things that happened in Rwanda were bad but we sit here not doing anything and our kids will write a blog comment in their history class about the things in Darfur instead of Rwanda.

  23. I find it funny how when teachers ask students why is it important to learn what happens in the past the right answer is usually to prevent history from repeating itself. Yet history still repeats itself and we don’t seem to learn from it. Even if we do our actions haven’t really improved from the past. Like Atif was referring to how Darfur is a repeat of Rwanda. The United States stayed away from Rwanda during the genocide taking place there with the Huts and Tutsi and because of the US lack of action so many innocent lives were taken away. While we just herd what was going on without taking any action and later learning that all that went on in Rwanda could have been preventable only if US took earlier actions. But even now Darfur is a repeat of Rwanda we are aware of whats going on but no one is really taking any actions about it.

  24. Of course imperialism plays a role here as one group of people thought they were superior than the other. It is difficult to suggest a solution to prevent such a horrific genocide to occur again, but if anything everyone should be put on trial it is better to take the slow and definite path than the fast but indefinite one.

  25. Imperialism does play a role of this situation because the group wanted to be more stronger to others. We need to take steps slow and think carefully for a solution so we can not repeat the same mistakes as the past and to not start a horrible genocide.

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