Home » Africa » On the Rwandan Genocide, Part One: Rwanda’s Shadow

On the Rwandan Genocide, Part One: Rwanda’s Shadow

“The most terrifying fact is that people who only yesterday were guilty of nothing today were murdering other completely innocent people”  

– Ryszard Kapuściński, The Shadow of the Sun

“They were not angry, as I thought they would be, but happy. It was like a party. Burning the houses was like some sort of amusement for them.”

– Joseph Sebarenzi, God Sleeps in Rwanda

“[T]he earth is falling apart before our eyes and humans are turning into demons.”

– Gil Courtemanche, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali

 Machetes used during the genocide, © James Nachtwey

It’s nearly impossible to find a book written about Rwanda since 1994 that doesn’t use the genocide as its focal point. In fact, there are far more books exclusively about the genocide than about contemporary Rwandan society in general, Rwandan history, or any other subject related to the country. It can be frustrating for outsiders wishing to study other aspects of the country, and even more so for Rwandans who want the rest of the world to know something, anything about their country besides the genocide (and there is so much to know). As a Rwandan colleague told me, “The world discovered Rwanda on April 6, 1994” (the day that president Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, sparking the 100 days of the genocide).

The sad truth though, is that it’s virtually impossible to understand any aspect of present day Rwanda without understanding the genocide. It’s hard to go a single day in Kigali without hearing the word. Rwandans categorize events of the past as either ‘before’ or ‘after.’ Before 1994, Rwanda was “a world in which the very worst was still unknown,” as journalist Philip Gourevitch, author of one of the pivotal accounts of the genocide, wrote. It has infected the society like Malaria, and like the virus, it is treatable but not curable. It follows the nation like a cold shadow, and always will.


Those 100 days in 1994 were not in fact the first acts of genocide in Rwanda. During the late 1950s and early 1960s Rwanda was swept by the Muyaga, or wind of destruction. The Hutu and Tutsi had long lived in peace before colonialism, so any talk of the “age-old historical animosity” between them is utter tripe. Starting at the end of the nineteenth century, Germany ruled rather indirectly through the existing Tutsi king, the Mwami. However, after the First World War, the country was “given” to Belgium, who essentially planted the seeds of the genocides to come. The Belgians polarized the Hutu and Tutsi, initially giving the Tutsi more power, and handing out identity cards in 1935 “in one of history’s first incidences of large-scale, state-sponsored racial categorization.”

During the time of anticolonialism in Africa in the 1950s, many Hutu began lobbying for their rights, and some were becoming increasingly militant. Many Tutsis reacted with their own militancy, and on November 1, 1959, some of them attacked Hutu politician Dominique Mbonyumutwa. Some Hutus thought that he died (he didn’t) and responded with a campaign of pillage, arson, and murder. The Belgian colonial overlords under Colonel Logiest supervised this murderous rampage. Logiest said that “we have to take sides,” and chose the Hutu, because they were more numerous, and could be controlled more easily due to their lower educational level. Between 1959 and 1967, perhaps 20,000 Tutsis were murdered.

Kapuściński provides a brief history: 

“In Rwanda, alone in all of Africa, the liberation movement assumed the form of a social, antifeudal revolution. In all of Africa, only Rwanda had its siege of the Bastille, its dethronement of the king, its Gironde and its terror. Groups of peasants, enraged, inflamed Hutus armed with machetes, hoes, and spears, moved against their master-rulers, the Tutsis. A great massacre began, such as Africa had not seen for a long time. The peasants set fire to the households of their lords, slit their throats, and crushed their skulls. Rwanda flowed with blood, stood in flames. A massive slaughter of cattle began; the peasants, often for the first time in their lives, could eat as much meat as they wished. At the time, the country had a population of 2.6 million, including 300,000 Tutsis. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Tutsis were murdered, and as many fled to neighboring states—to the Congo, Uganda, Tanganyika, and Burundi. The monarchy and feudalism ceased to exist, and the Tutsi caste lost its dominant position. Power was now seized by the Hutu peasantry. When Rwanda gained its independence in 1962, it was members of that caste who formed the first government.”

Another writer, Joseph Sebarenzi, explains why the killing occurred on such a large scale:

“The logic of the killers went like this: They could loot under the cover of state-sanctioned terror. After they looted, they began to worry what would happen when the violence ended. Would the people they took from come to get their things back? Would they come seeking revenge? So they concluded that the only way to keep their newly acquired possessions safe was to kill the rightful owner. But it was not enough to kill just that person, they also had to kill anyone who would have a legitimate claim to his property, so his family was also murdered.”

The Muyaga was merely a dress rehearsal for 1994, when at least forty times more people were murdered. Ninety percent of Tutsis, constituting one sixth of Rwanda, were murdered during the most efficient mass slaughter in human history. The genocidaires put the Third Reich to shame – on average five people were killed every 60 seconds during the approximately 100 days of the genocide, mostly with Chinese machetes (over half a million purchased with World Bank aid money in 1993) or masu, crude clubs, though the occasional French grenade was used by some lucky killers. After the dust had settled, Rwanda was left with at least 800,000 mutilated bodies, 500,000 orphans, 400,000 widows, and 130,000 prisoners, and was missing 1.7 million Hutus who had fled to neighbouring countries.

Almost one million Tutsis, Twas (most people forget that one third of all Twas were wiped out), and moderate Hutus were murdered, but no one escaped the horrors. According to a study by UNICEF, at least five out of every six children directly witnessed someone being murdered or severely injured, almost 80 per cent experienced at least one death in their family, and over 90 per cent believed they were going to die. Imagine an entire nation with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The survivors are referred to as Bafuye bahagaze. It means the living dead.

Click here for Part Two in this series.

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