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Bodies to the right of them. Bodies to the left of them. Bodies in the front of them.
This is not an assonance inspired by the verses of the poem by Lord Tennyson “Charge of the Light Brigade”; this is pretty much what hundreds of western journalists and volunteers encountered when they arrived in Rwanda at around this time of year in 1994.
Slaughtered bodies scattered for as far as your eyes could possibly reach. Elders, adults, young children, males, females, doctors, nuns, priests, drivers, farmers, builders, nurses and anyone else you can think of was probably among the ones slaughtered. No one was spared, and the blades of machetes cut through the flesh of anyone who gave the wrong answer to the question “Es tu Hutu ou Tutsi?”.
That one question, which in English would be “Are you Hutu or Tutsi?”, has determined the destiny of millions of Rwandans from April the 7th to July the 15th 1994, and the wrong answer to that question caused approximately the death of about 1,000,000 Tutsis, which were the target of this bloody genocide.
To understand why answering “Tutsi” to that question we need to go back to the Colonial history of Rwanda. In 1884, the Rwandan territory was assigned to Germany, which began a policy of ruling through the local monarchy so that the colonisation process would only require a short amount of European troops. The German colonists noticed differences among the different tribes living on the Rwandan territory and they were convinced that the Tutsi were more Caucasian and migrated from Ethiopia. This meant that the Germans considered the Tutsis racially superior and better than the Hutus and the Twas, which were the other two tribes on the territory. With the Belgian forces taking over and establishing in this colony in 1919, the new colonisers used the same racial ideals and concentrated the power in the hands of Tutsi chiefs, and left the Hutus subject to large scale forced labour in slavery-like conditions. The country was therefore characterised by a Tutsi supremacy, and in 1935, Belgium introduced identity cards labelling each person as Hutu, Tutsi, Twa or Naturalised.
After World War II a Hutu lead emancipation movement started to gain popularity and in 1957 a group of Hutu scholars wrote the “Bahutu Manifesto”, which considered Hutus and Tutsis as two separate races and asked for the transfer of powers from Tutsi to Hutu elites due to what was called “statistical law”. Many internal tensions followed, and clashes between the pro-Tutsi party and Hutu activists and in 1959, the Rwandan Revolution started. As attacks from Tutsis continued, the Belgian administration backed the Hutu elites and in 1960, they overturned the power from Tutsis chiefs to Hutu elites. The king was deposed and a Hutu dominated republic formed, which gained independence in 1962.
The revolution progressed; Tutsis started to escape from the Hutu attacks and settled in neighbouring countries such as Uganda and Tanzania. The exiled Tutsis were welcomed as refugees, and in their host countries, they formed armed groups in order to attack the Hutus in Rwanda. By 1964, almost 300,000 Tutsis had fled and during the following years, discrimination back in Rwanda developed even more.
During the 1980s, a group of 500 Tutsi refugees in Uganda started to fight back the Hutu forces in Rwanda and it causes many attacks and many deaths between the groups of Tutsi rebels and the Hutu militias. The conflict when on and off during the decade but unfortunately the Tutsis could not take back their privileged status as France and Zaire supported the Hutu dominated Rwandan army. The Tutsi rebels, which fought under the banner Rwandan Patriotic Front, retreated and Paul Kagame took their command, organising a tactical retreat to re-organise the army.
Once again in 1991, the RPF committed surprise attacks across the northern regions of Rwanda, and as usual, another conflict started between the two factions. However in 1993, Hutu organised armed groups began campaigns of large scale violence against the Tutsi “cockroaches”. Some sort of stability was only reached when the United Nations peacekeeping forces arrived, a Hutu dominated government formed and both the Hutus and the Tutsis tried to co-habit and share their own country. During this peaceful period, Rwanda also experienced an unprecedented economic growth but not all good things are set to last long.
As matter of fact, on April 6, 1994, the airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down as it was landing in Kigali. These two political leaders were both Hutus, and you can guess what happened thereafter in Rwanda.
If you can’t guess, what happened thereafter was the mass slaughter of the majority of the Rwandan Tutsi population; one of the worst genocides which took place after the Nazi Germany’s genocide of Jews, gypsies, gays and political adversaries.
Following Habyarimana’s death, a crisis committee formed and it consisted of Theoneste Bagosora, Augustin Ndindiliyiamana and many other officers of the senior army staff. The RPF was blamed for the attack and the Hutu armed civilians started to attack the Tutsis. The Hutu civilians were ordered to “begin your work” and “spare no one”. The killing spree was encouraged by the famous RTLMC, which was a Hutu lead radio station that supported the Interahamwe, which the Hutu paramilitary organisation which carried out the massacre, and emphasised the racial discrimination against the “cockroaches”.
The following weeks saw Rwanda become hell on earth. Over a period of 100 days, around 1,000,000 Tutsis were killed. The Interahamwe used machetes, fire guns, grenades and they often used to burn alive the “cockroaches”. The physical massacre and the slaughtering of thousands of Tutsis on a daily basis was not enough. The Hutu armed civilians also decided to sometime rape, more than one time, before killing their victims. The Interhamwe also raped Hutu women who were married to Tutsi men and often the rape would take place before the killing of the Tutsi men, which were forced to witness. The testimonial of a Hutu woman, Maria Louse Niyobuhungiro, recalled seeing local people and Hutu men watching her get raped at least 5 times a day. Many survivors were not only affected by the affectional loss of their families, but they were also left with a greater pain, the transmission of HIV.
But during all of what was happening, where were the United Nations’ blue caps? Where were the Europeans?
We must not forget that the United Nations soldiers were there only to keep the peace and receive orders. When the massacre started, the only order they received was to go back home and flee the country. A few weeks from the start of the genocide, all the white European tourists were quickly rescued by the military forces of their country of origin and the Tutsis were instead left to die. The western media showed images of the genocide, but they only decided to intervene when the death toll reached the million. The French-led United Nations “Operation Turquoise” started only on June 23 with 2500 soldiers entering Rwanda and try to stop the genocide.
The Tutsis were abandoned to themselves. The West left them to die, quite ironically, just like cockroaches. When they could save the Tutsis, they decided to evacuate the white privileged tourists within a few days, whereas the black Rwandans who were unfortunately born as Tutsis were doomed to die by machete, or AK-47 or grenades. The cruelty of the conflict was also portrayed in Hollywood productions, such as “Hotel Rwanda” and “Shooting dogs”, which were based on the true stories lived during the genocide narrated by the survivors.
It is important to remember this event not only because one million of innocent civilians were brutally murdered, but because it is shocking that such a massacre could have happened so recently. It was only 22 years ago. While the West was enjoying the story of Forrest Gump, thousands of Tutsis were slaughtered in Africa. It seems surreal, but the deaths in Rwanda were not relevant up until June 23, when the Europeans decided that it was enough.
Image credits: https://sites.google.com/a/moreaucatholic.org/rwandan-genocide/causes/denial