Home » Africa » On the Rwandan Genocide, Part Three: The Role of the West

On the Rwandan Genocide, Part Three: The Role of the West

“Much of [John Hanning] Speke’s Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile is devoted to descriptions of the physical and moral ugliness of Africa’s “primitive races,” in whose condition he found “a strikingly existing proof of the Holy Scriptures.” For his text, Speke took the story in Genesis 9, which tells how Noah, when he was just six hundred years old and had safely skippered his ark over the flood to dry land, got drunk and passed out naked in his tent. On emerging from his oblivion, Noah learned that his youngest son, Ham, had seen him naked; that Ham had told his brothers, Shem and Japheth, of the spectacle; and that Shem and Japheth had, with their backs chastely turned, covered the old man with a garment. Noah responded by cursing the progeny of Ham’s son, Canaan, saying, “A slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” Amid the perplexities of Genesis, this is one of the most enigmatic stories, and it has been subjected to many bewildering interpretations–most notably that Ham was the original black man.”

– Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with our Families

“The Hutu, a poor farmer, is short and squat and has the nose characteristic of the negroid races. He is good natured but naïve, coarse and unintelligent. The Hutu is deceitful and lazy, and quick to take offence. He is a typical negro.

The Tutsi, a nomadic cattle grazier, is tall and slender. His skin is light brown on account of his northern origins. He is intelligent and skillful at trade. He has a sparkling wit and a pleasant disposition. Colonial administrators in Ruanda-Urundi would do well to obtain the assistance of Tutsis for tasks which in their judgment they may entrust without danger to natives.” 

– Jules S. Sasserath, Le Ruanda-Urundi: Un Étrange Royaume Féodal au Coeur de l’Afrique, 1948

Thus the seeds of artificial ethnic hatred were sown in Rwanda. Speke, a pseudo-scientist at best, “hypothesized” that culture had been introduced into Central Africa by a tribe of Ethiopians descended from King David who were superior because they somewhat resembled Europeans. Silly, racist “theorists” had laid the intellectual foundations for ethnic strife, and the Belgian colonial master put them into effect, introducing identity cards for every Rwandan in 1935, often arbitrarily based on how many cows a person had (most ethnographers agree there’s no ethnic difference between the Hutu and Tutsi, who have the same language, religion and customs, and who have interbred on a massive scale; Hutus could even “become” Tutsi, a process called Kiwihutura). Writes Gourevitch, “Whatever Hutu and Tutsi identity may have stood for in the pre-colonial state no longer mattered; the Belgians had made ‘ethnicity’ the defining feature of Rwandan existence.” 

Fast forward to 1994. As hell paid a visit to tiny Rwanda, as men turned to demons, as the word “machete” transformed from a noun into a verb, the rest of the world watched the OJ Simpson trial on TV. In the words of the leader of the Tutsi rebels and current president Paul Kagame, as the apocalypse was being carried out, the world simply “stood around with its hands in its pockets.” However, the truth is actually far worse. In some cases, the outside world, in particular France, actively helped the genocidaires.

The French had a long history of supporting Habyarimana’s extremist, anti-Tutsi, authoritarian government for geopolitical reasons. In 1991, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front was fighting with Habyarimana’s extremist Hutu government, France supported Habyarimana, and French troops were seen arresting Tutsis and handing them over to government forces. Over a year before the genocide, France’s own ambassador warned his government that Habyarimana’s administration was planning “to proceed to a systematic genocide.” France armed Mobutu’s intermediaries in eastern Congo (then Zaire) for direct transfer across the border to the genocidaires well after the genocide had begun. Hutu extremists most likely shot down Habyarimana’s plane as an excuse to begin the genocide using French missiles. The French also helped train the infamous interahamwe, the Hitler Youth-like paramilitaries who committed the bulk of the murders. France’s zealous support was so overt that in Kigali they started calling President Mitterrand “Mitterrahamwe.”

During the slaughter, the French Embassy provided refuge for Hutu Power extremists such as Habyarimana’s powerful wife Madame Agathe Kanzinga and the director of Radio Mille Collines, the main station responsible for organising hate broadcasts. Agathe and her entourage were subsequently given the first flight out of Rwanda and she was presented with $40,000 from the French government. At the same time, the French refused to evacuate the five children of murdered moderate prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and long-standing Tutsi embassy employees.

Operation Turquoise, the too-late French expeditionary force to establish a military presence, included former military advisers to Habyarimana and showed little inclination to disarm the genocidaires or take down their roadblocks. Many prominent killers, such as Colonel Bagosora, were allowed to pass through. Romeo Dallaire, who believed the French force was there to fight the RPF and support the genocidal regime, remarked in private: ‘If they land here to deliver their damn weapons to the government, I’ll have their planes shot down.’ Author and journalist Martin Meredith describes the situation on the ground after the French troops landed: 

French troops on the ground, disgusted by the evidence of massacres they found, felt betrayed. ‘We have not a single wounded Hutu here, just massacred Tutsi,’ reported one soldier. ‘We have been deceived,’ said a sergeant-major, staring at a group of wounded and starving Tutsi refugees. ‘This is not what we were led to believe. We were told the Tutsis were killing Hutus. We thought the Hutus were the good guys and the victims.’ Initially pleased at the welcome the militias had given them, they now felt revulsion. ‘I’ve had enough of being cheered by murderers,’ remarked one soldier. A French officer who had once instructed soldiers of the Presidential Guard broke down and cried, so appalled was he at the crimes committed by men whom he had trained.

French troops are even reported  to have committed “widespread rape” of  Tutsi women during Operation Turquoise, but are we really surprised at this point? No wonder they burned two rooms worth of personal communications documents between the French government and Habyarimana’s extremist government.

Francois Mitterrand with his “friend” Juvenal Habyarimana

President Mitterrand, who was personal friends with Habyarimana, once told Le Figaro newspaper that “In countries like that genocide is not so important.” A year after the horrors, President Chirac observed a moment of silence for the fallen dictator Habyarimana, a sign of respect he never thought to show for the 800,000 victims of the genocide, who were of course chopped up by members of Habyarimana’s regime.

Stephen Lewis, Canada’s former ambassador to the UN, described France’s actions during the genocide. “The French government worked with the Rwandan government that was planning the genocide [and] knew everything that was going on, and not only didn’t complain, but did the opposite – legitimized and spoke on behalf of the government everywhere in the world. So the French government kept giving the killers the conviction that they could get away with murder.”

The United States’ role was only slightly less despicable. The popular notion that the Americans had no idea what was going on and therefore did nothing is patently false. The genocide was meticulously planned for years, and was openly discussed during Rwandan cabinet meetings. Western activists noted the massive stockpiling of weapons in 1993 and informed their governments, who politely ignored them. There was a flood of diplomatic reports in late 1993 and early 1994 painting a fairly clear picture of exactly what was being planned. The CIA predicted in January, 1994 that there would be a massacre of approximately half a million people. The infamous “Dallaire fax,” sent months before the genocide began, explictedly informed the U.N. that a genocide was being planned. In an interview for a documentary about the genocide, Stephen Lewis bluntly spits out his opinion: “I think Clinton knew exactly what was going on in Rwanda […] all this caterwauling about ‘if only I had known.’ Spare me! He knew!

The Americans didn’t merely fail to send their own troops; they actively campaigned other countries to not send theirs, as mandated by Presidential Decision Directive 25. The decision of the U.N. to pull out the vast majority of their troops “can be credited almost single-handedly to the United States,” according to Gourevitch. They also refused to jam the Rwandan Radio Milles Collines broadcasts that were commanding Rwandans to slaughter each other.

Both the U.S. and U.N. refused to use the term “genocide” even after it became blatantly obvious to the world what was happening (they knew that it was more than just an arbitrary slaughter; America’s own diplomats were reporting that the genocidal regime was trying to exterminate the Tutsi), because it would legally bind them to act under international law.

As for Canada, perhaps its actions, or lack of actions, were best summed up by Canadian journalist Gil Courtemanche: “a country that asked no questions and gave with its eyes closed.”

The entire outside world overwhelmingly failed Rwanda. It was ultimately the Rwandan Patriotic Front that ended the genocide, established stability, fostered reconciliation, and rebuilt Rwanda, transforming it from the poorest country in the world to perhaps Africa’s greatest success story.

3 thoughts on “On the Rwandan Genocide, Part Three: The Role of the West

  1. What is so shocking for me is the role that the international media played in this horrendous event (or rather, their lack of a role in the situation.) What you said about the refusal of the word “genocide” is such a key part of this story. Much of the mainstream international media termed this event a “tribal conflict” (when they covered it at all), and thus, gave Westerners the despicable idea that they had permission to ignore it. I have written about and found the book Allan edited (“The Media and the Rwandan Genocide”) to be very informative– very sad, but very true.

    • This is where the “give the people what they want” theory of journalism runs into trouble. What do you do when viewers want to watch OJ Simpson and Tanya Harding, but not people being slaughtered in a tiny country far away that they’ve never heard of and with whom their country does no business?

  2. Pingback: On the Rwandan Genocide, Part Two: “A Single Death is a Tragedy, a Million Deaths is a Statistic…” | Advokat Dyavola

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