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  • Published in History

Rwandan refugee children plead with Zairean soldiers to allow them across a bridge separating Rwanda and Zaire where their mothers had crossed moments earlier before the soldiers closed the border on Aug. 20, 1994. Photograph by Jean-Marc Bouju/AP

As many as one million Rwandans were killed in the 1994 genocide. Sean Ledwith looks back at this horrendous crime against humanity

On April 6th 1994, a plane carrying Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down as it was coming in to land at the country's capital city,Kigali. The culprits of the attack have never been conclusively identified but what is beyond doubt is that it was the catalyst for the most horrendous mass slaughter since the Jewish Holocaust of WW2. Habyarimana was a member of the majority Hutu ethnic group and within hours government radio was issuing a chilling message calling for vengeance against the minority Tutsi population:

'You have to kill [the Tutsis], they are cockroaches…… Fight with the weapons you have at your disposal, those of you who have arrows, with arrows, those of you who have spears with spears… Take your traditional tools… We must all fight [the Tutsis]; we must finish with them, exterminate them, sweep them from the whole country… There must be no refuge for them, none at all.'

Over the next 100 days, a barely believable 800,000 Rwandans-predominantly Tutsis - were massacred by Hutu militia in a stunning maelstrom of violence. The killers were mainly armed with low-tech weapons such as machetes, clubs and spears but that did not prevent them decimating one in ten of the adult male population. Of course, it was not just males who were targeted. One survivor recalls being told at the time:

'The time will come when we will kill all of you. From children to unborn babies, to the elderly, we don't want any of you left behind. You will all perish.'

The appalling calamity was predictably portrayed by mainstream Western media and politicians as a manifestation of an allegedly peculiar form of African savagery that would be unthinkable in other parts of the world. New York Mayor, Ed Koch, was symptomatic of this thinly-veiled racist reaction. He characterised the genocide as tribal warfare involving those without the veneer of Western civilization.

Even from the distance of twenty years, this shocking paroxysm of violence may strike some as being beyond comprehension and that numb silence can be our only response. To avert a similar barbarism erupting in the future, however, socialists have a responsibility to probe beneath the scenes of carnage and analyse the historical factors that paved the way for the catastrophe. Such an analysis   unsurprisingly reveals the mendacious activities of Western powers -in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries-as the real facilitators of the genocide.

Scramble for Rwanda

Contrary to the ignorance of observers such as Koch, the ethnic demarcation of Hutus and Tutsis was not an irreconcilable fault line running through Rwandan culture and history. Predictably, this divide-and-rule mentality had been fostered on the country by European colonial powers that penetrated the heart of the continent   in the late nineteenth century as part of the 'Scramble for Africa'.  The Hutu 85% of the population were originally cultivators, while the minority Tutsi group tended to be cattle herders. In the pre-colonial period, the relationship between the two was symbiotic and fluid. However, once the German empire became attracted to the country by the lucrative coffee and ivory trade, the ethnic factor was intentionally accentuated.  One historian of the period has noted:

'..the division between the groups was not a long established distinction marked by certain cultural norms or language, or by absolute socioeconomic or political imbalances, or by real biological differences. Instead, the differences were developed and strengthened to promote prejudice and hatred for the political gain of a few.'

Following their defeat in WW1, the Germans were replaced as colonial overlords by the Belgians. For Rwandans, this simply represented the exchange of one bunch of white exploiters for another. The Belgians resumed the German practice of utilising elements of the Tutsi minority as the collaborators of choice. An apartheid system of racial segregation was implemented that ultimately sowed the seeds of the horror of 1994. The Belgian masters introduced a mandatory ID card system that formalised the Hutu/Tutsi classification for the first time. The latter were assured of their marginally superior status through their eligibility for membership of the Belgian-sponsored Catholic Church and its elite school system. An absurd racist ideology was also concocted that justified the spurious racial distinction. One Belgian doctor wrote:

'[The Tutsi] ... have a distant, reserved, courteous and elegant manner ... The rest of the population is [Hutu]. They are negroes with all the negroid characteristics ... they are childish in nature both timid and lazy, and as often as not, extremely dirty.'

Cynical volte-face

After WW2, the country was influenced by the nationalist wind of change that swept the continent, bringing national liberation movements to power in place of the European elites. The Belgians cynically shifted their support to the leadership of the Hutu majority, believing the Tutsi minority would be unable to provide a secure base for their ongoing economic influence in the post-independence era. The disruption caused by this political volte-face undermined the stability of the state throughout the 1960s, climaxing with Habyarimana seizing power in a military coup in 1973 as an attempt to re-assure international investors. His military dictatorship succeeded in suppressing discontent from below among both Hutu and Tutsi rural workers ,not due to any skill on his part but because the stability of the global coffee and tin markets enabled the dictator to present himself as indispensable to the IMF and the World Bank. He had also created a Hutu-dominated militia known as the 'interahamwe' to act as his agents of repression. Inevitably, this commodity-dependent political stasis started to crumble once the global market ran into difficulties.

Enter the IMF

In 1989, the US pulled the plug on the International Coffee Agreement at the behest of American commodity dealers demanding lower prices.

This massively constrained the ability of the Rwandan regime to sustain minimal public services. Habyarimana’s predictable response was to slash government spending and transfer the burden of austerity to the already hard-pressed peasantry in the countryside. The subsequent economic crisis was exacerbated the following year by an IMF/World Bank 'structural adjustment programme' -the usual euphemism for the ransacking of essential services by the vampires of global capitalism. Economist Michel Chossudovsky has summarised the consequences of 'adjustment':

'...the austerity measures combined with the impact of the IMF-sponsored devaluations, contributed to impoverishing the Rwandan people at a time of acute political and social crisis. The deliberate manipulation of market forces destroyed economic activity and people's livelihood, fuelled unemployment and created a situation of generalised famine and social despair...'

By the mid-1990s, the US and France had emerged as the premier imperialist predators jostling for influence in the country. The latter had funded Habyarimana while the former sought to manipulate an exiled Tutsi-led opposition group, the RPF, as their vehicle of control. Following the fatal plane crash of April 1994, the French unbelievably continued funding the Hutu government that was conducting the carnage. A military intervention ordered by Paris-Operation Turquoise-became a de facto cover to permit many of the perpetrators to escape to neighbouring Zaire.

Genocide denial

The blood-soaked duplicity of French imperialism was matched by its US rival. Washington had cynically demanded the reduction of the scant UN presence in the country to guarantee the descent into barbarism that would provide the pretext for the RPF to challenge for power. One US diplomat expressed astonishment at the policy of her own government:

'It refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide. And even as, on average, 8,000 Rwandans were being butchered each day, U.S. officials shunned the term "genocide," for fear of being obliged to act. The United States in fact did virtually nothing "to try to limit what occurred." Indeed, staying out of Rwanda was an explicit U.S. policy' objective.'

These imperialist manoeuvrings highlight the reality that the genocide was not the consequence of some atavistic bloodlust peculiar to Africans, as is still believed by some.  Other atrocities of the twentieth century in Armenia, Germany and Bosnia indicate Westerners are more than capable of unspeakable acts of barbarism. The Rwandan catastrophe of 1994 is a chilling reminder of the constant potential for horror that underlies the madness of global capitalism.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch chair. He is a member of Counterfire and York People's Assembly. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Reviews in History.

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