Easter rising: The Rwandan genocide 25 years on

“When I came out, there were no birds, said one survivor who had hidden
throughout the genocide. There was sunshine and the stench of death.”

Introduction to Leave None to Tell the Story

I don’t get much time off at Easter but I’ve always enjoyed the time. Four days off is a reasonable time to plan something, whether a resurrection or a holiday.  I like it too as a moveable feast whether it is the spring of the north or the autumn of the south. One Easter I decided I needed to understand why the massacres in Rwanda happened. And so 13 years ago an Easter that started as a holiday for me changed into something else.  I decided to lock myself away and devour a dry Human Rights Watch 900-page explainer in the Easter of 2005 to see if I could understand why. I had printed it off in the office, on two sided-copy four pages up, still 100 sheets of dense A4 reading to get through, when the weather was probably nice outside.

But what I wanted, weather could not provide. 2005 was when I no longer wanted to work in IT but hadn’t yet figured out what to do. So I learned widely. Through a love of history, Aboriginal studies was the subject that compelled my return. What happened here when the neolithic era met European naval might and germs from Malaysia was inevitable, though the spoils less inevitably went to Britain. If the Arabs had worked out the Australian coast the same way they worked out the winds, it would have happened earlier. Or else China would have peeked up just over the horizon. But there remains no firm evidence of any European landing before the Dutch in Queensland.  There meetings set the tone and the template for European human behaviour over the next 300 years. It was a topic I would return to again and again. This is the unacknowledged theft of a continent and the categoric rejection that it was genocide that enabled it.

Around that time, Hotel Rwanda was released at the cinema in memory of the killing in that country just over a decade earlier.  It was the story of Paul Rusesabagina, the son of mixed Hutu/Tutsi parentage, caught up in the killing,  as a relatively powerful position of a conscierge in an exclusive white hotel.  The Hôtel des Mille Collines shared its name with the thousands of hills that dominated the capital Kigali but its picturesque setting belied astonishing violence. As the Europeans fled Kigali Rusesabagina turned the hotel into a refuge and the story tells how he and his refugees narrowly avoided the slaughter.

But a slaughter it was. Genocide was certainly possible in Australia in the 19th century,  it was possible in Europe in the 1940s and now we were seeing it was still possible in Africa 50 years later. No convention of human rights could stop it nor police nor courts.  The name of that report I began reading on Good Friday told the moral: “Leave None to Tell the Story”. The killers knew the more they killed, the less would be around to inform on them. Tens of thousands influenced by fear, hatred, promotion or money, made the choice to kill quickly and easily.

But that barely began to explain what was happening in Rwanda between April and July 1994. In Australia the battleground is identity politics (foolishly forgetting Australian politics has always been about identity). In Rwanda the battle was for real,  your identity could kill you. Over half a million people were killed either for being labelled a Tutsi or for being a Hutu who tried to protect Tutsis. Given Hutus grossly outnumbered in Tutsi in Rwanda, it was this latter action that spread widespread fear.

Yet it was a bogus distinction, they are the same people. Hutus and Tutsis had for centuries shared a single language, a common history, the same ideas and cultural practices. They intermarried, they looked alike. Today they are no longer different save arbitrary classifications based on birth.  The ancient kings of Rwanda were Tutsi and when the Germans, and then the Belgians ruled, it was convenient for the colonisers to keep the Tutsi elite and marked anyone Tutsi as an elite – as long as they kowtowed to European bosses. But when a gusty democracy was in the air in the Africa of the 1950s, the Belgians saw the numbers and switched sides. From independence in 1963 the Hutus ruled with implicit support of the French who replaced the Belgians as the regional hegemon. The French were happy to deal with a Hutu government and looked away while many Rwandan Tutsis were exiled or killed in the years that followed.

Long-term leader Juvénal Habyarimana was not easily identified as a Communist or capitalist so Rwanda was a powerful pawn in the Cold War, and tactically important to the east and west. Hutus still ruled Rwanda in 1994 but the collapse of the Soviet Union and a surge from a confident Tutsi-refugee army in Uganda (the Rwandan People’s Front or RPF)  threatened to change the balance of power again. Habyarimana was in power for over 20 years, increasingly unpopular and facing multi-party elections for the first time. He was increasingly useless to the west and like all unpopular leaders he played to far-right fear. He egged on a Hutu Power group, and drumming up hatred and suspicion of Tutsis by exaggerating the threat of the rebels.  State-controlled radio played a crucial role in getting that message out. Habyarimana backed up his talking with violence with several massacres of opponents in the years leading up to the genocide.

He had his supporters. As well as the loyalty of a large standing army, Habyarmina also trained up a young militia, some with guns, but mostly with machetes, and called them “Interihamwe”. Interihamwe was a Rwandan pun meaning “those who stand together” or in a more apt context, “those who attack together”.

Habyarimana had released a demon he could not control. He was growing weaker in his own organisation. There was no longer a Soviet Union to play off against the United States. Worse still the JPF was winning the war. Habyarimana agreed to a peace settlement on their terms. This antagonised Hutu Power who picked up the internal anti-Tutsi spoils. When Tutsis in next-door Burundi decided to overthrow its Hutu president for a Tutsi, Hutu Power decided to act in case Rwanda was next. It decided on large-scale massacres of Tutsis and “sympathisers” to derail the peace process and get the country behind them.

They started at the top. On April 9 Habyarimana’s plane, which he shared with Burundi’s new Tutsi president was gunned down near Kigali Airport killing all aboard. The culprit for this attack was never identified (nor the likely European support it received) but it left his lieutenants free to enact the planned massacre.

Enter Colonel Théoneste Bagosora. Bagosora led the Presidential Guard, other troops and militia in a murder frenzy of Hutu government officials and opposition leaders. The death spree created a power vacuum which Bagosora and his clique filled. The spread of the killing was tacitly condoned and other soldiers and militia also began systematically slaughtering Tutsi as well as Tutsi and Hutu political leaders across the country.  Within a day Bagosora’s government was accepted as fact by the army which was now on a war footing again, as the RPF had used Habyarimana’s death to launch another invasion.

The rest of the world looked away. The UN were ordered to withdrew to their posts leaving the local population at the mercy of assailants. Opposition forces appealed to the three colonial powers, France, Belgium and the US not to desert Rwanda. Bill Clinton’s US still smarting from their humbling experience in Somalia in 1993 did nothing. But all a joint European force of French, Belgian, and Italian troops did was evacuate the foreigners, and then departed. The Belgians were also cowarded into withdraw their troops from the UN peacekeeping force after 10 were killed in clashes with Hutu Power.

Bagosora recruited administrators and political leaders for the killing campaign, getting support first from Habyarimana loyalists and then from administrators and local leaders from the other parties who were predominant in central and southern Rwanda. By April 12 state radio stressed partisan interests must be put aside in the battle against the Tutsi enemy across the nation.

By April 17 the last few administrators opposed to the killing were removed and often killed.  Radio was used to ridicule and threaten those preaching calm. With no sign of foreign intervention the new government was ready to act. The processes were now in place. As well as the army, the administrators and the militia, a fourth movement sprung up dedicated to a “civilian self-defense” program which put a useful euphemism to the killing task.

Zeal to that task took on more significance than rank: subordinates could prevail over their superiors if they showed greater commitment to genocide. This encouraged ambition and initiative for those willing to trade in lives. In the early days killer systematically targetted opponents’ names and houses but this was not quick enough so a new strategy became driving Tutsi out to public sites, to be then massacred in large-scale operations. Towards the end of April, authorities sensitive to what little international condemnation there was, declared “pacification,” another dangerous euphemism. This was not an end to the killing but greater control over killing.

Like the Nazis the Hutu leadership was too distracted by genocide to ensure its own survival. By mid-May, the RPF were advancing through the country yet the genocide continued into its final phase: tracking down the last surviving Tutsi such as those hidden. or women and children who had been spared so far, or those protected by priestly or medical status. The rush was on to eliminate survivors who could testify to the slaughter.

But history is written by the winners. The RPF overthrew the Hutu leadership later that year and turned the country into a dictatorship under Paul Kagame. Many of the hardlines in the Interihamwe and military did what the Tutsi rebels did and continue the fight from exile. Some like Bagosora were caught and sentenced to prison but the majority slid back into obscurity. A few like Rusesabagina also stayed in exile because only there was it safe from Kagame’s wrath to say that Rwanda itself had not learned the lesson as it was subsequently turned into a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis.

The rest of the world was culpable too, wary of interfering in a war-torn country with few resources and dependent on foreign aid. So no one cried “never again” and the conditions for massacre were allowed to fester. If there is a lesson from the Rwandan genocide to the Australian one it is that sometime in the future it will be denied that it ever happened.

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