When I first heard my friend talking about her work with genocide survivors in Rwanda, I thought what probably most people think at first. My only impression of Rwanda was the movie Hotel Rwanda, and in my mind, genocide meant it was currently a war torn country. I have found that I am not alone in this first impression. The truth of the matter is that, through no fault of their own, most people aren’t very educated about the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
As I became involved with Safi Life and prepared for my first trip to Rwanda, I began to extensively study the history of this tiny country. I would like to share with you what I have learned about the Rwandan genocide, because it is such a vital part of the foundation for what we do at Safi Life. I recently co-wrote a case study about the impact of “identity” on Rwandan history, so there are some excerpts included below from that case study (thus the academic references). I will try to keep it as brief as possible, but a little depth is necessary to truly understand WHY this happened.
Rwandans have three tribal backgrounds: the majority Hutu, the minority Tutsi, and the Twa, an indigenous tribe who only make up about 3% of the population. The 1994 Genocide was a product of a deep-rooted racial hatred that the Hutu had against the Tutsi. It was, like the Holocaust, an extermination with racial motivation[i] .
When the Germans and Belgians colonized Rwanda, they decided that because the Tutsi had fairer skin than the Hutus, they must be of Caucasian descent and therefore were the superior race. Therefore, Tutsi were allowed positions in the government, a proper education, and higher wages. Hutus were not allowed any positions of power, and were only given education for manual labor. As a result, bitterness and resentment turned to hatred, and in 1959, the Hutus revolted against the Tutsi government. A bloody revolution led to over 100,000 Tutsi being slaughtered over the course of several years [ii].
By 1962, the roles had flipped, and the minority Tutsi were now being persecuted under a Hutu government. The new mindset became the complete opposite of what the Belgians had originally established: if Hutu were indigenous and Tutsi were alien, then it was the indigenous Hutu who deserved preferential treatment over the alien Tutsi, and the alien Tutsi who were politically illegitimatei.
In 1990, Kangura, an extremist publication, published the “Hutu Ten Commandments,” which spread anti-Tutsi messages. It outlined behavioral rules for Hutus. For example, it was considered traitorous for a Hutu to befriend, partner with, or marry a Tutsi. The publication demanded Hutu exclusivity in the Rwandan armed forces, and firmly labeled the Tutsi as the “enemy.” It demanded that the Hutus refuse mercy to the Tutsi[iii]. Fostering hatred against the Tutsi in this way defined the Tutsi as the enemy people group, dehumanized them, and made it possible to exterminate them with relatively clear consciencei. As anti-Tutsi sentiments festered, tribal divisions affected every aspect of life. Ethnic roll calls were taken in schools, and children were condemned for not knowing which tribe they belonged to. Discrimination was easy with the help of the ethnic identity cards that each person was required to carryii.
Tensions rose as anti-Tutsi messages were spread and extremist groups plotted to cleanse Rwanda of the foreign Tutsi race. Many weeks before the 1994 killings began, the Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLMC) in Kigali broadcast messages of hatred against the Tutsi population. It revealed the specifics of what would happen, sending out instructions to the Hutu population about the impending killings, what would happen when they began, and how the Hutu were to respond once the killings began. Young Hutu men seized the opportunity to take revenge on the group which they viewed to be responsible for their oppression[iv].
When the Hutu extremists gave the word, violence erupted. Tutsi were systematically rounded up and slaughtered with machetes. There were some who tried to resist. One such resistance arose in Kibuya Province, in western Rwanda. Thousands of mostly unarmed Tutsis gathered to oppose the advancing genocidaires in one last refusal to become victims. Unfortunately, the unarmed did not stand a fair chance against the armed perpetrators, who were named the interahamwe. One million people are estimated to have been killed within 100 daysiv.
The situation during those dark days felt hopeless, and it seemed like no one would stand against the ruthless killers. However, there was one rebel army that did stand up for the Tutsis. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a military group led by Paul Kagame, rose against the interahamwe to stop the systematic killings. After many months of fighting, they were able to take control of the Rwandan government and eventually put a halt to the genocide. The genocidal actions began in April of 1994. On July 4 of the same year, Kagame’s troops took control of Kigali. On July 17, the interahamwe fled from Rwanda into Zaire, taking with them into exile a large portion of the Hutu population.
A new government was sworn in on July 19, 1994, with Paul Kagame taking the position of Vice Presidentiv. In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda experienced rapid social and economic growth due to the leadership of Kagame, who eventually was elected Presidentiii. During his presidency, he rebuilt the country by encouraging the eradication of former false identities, instilling confidence in Rwandan citizens, and creating a unified national identity.
In June of 2014, I travelled to Rwanda with Safi Life founder Devon Ogden, and we had the amazing opportunity to sit down and have lunch with President Kagame. It was fascinating hearing his stories about what it was like fighting the interahamwe in the jungles, developing a new government from the ashes of the genocide, and rebuilding the morale of a nation. He told us that no one talks of different races or tribes anymore. They all consider themselves “Rwandans”. He encourages forgiveness among victims and perpetrators, and leads by example. It is his main focus that what happened in 1994 never happens again.
What is most striking about the Rwandan people is that they are vibrant, happy, and full of love. You’ve just read what sort of horrific tragedies they’ve gone through. Many of the perpetrators have served their time in prison and are now out and interacting with society again. It is common to find a person who is neighbors with the man who killed their family. But because of the emphasis of forgiveness, the survivors are healing, growing, and thriving. These are scenarios that our Western minds cannot fully grasp. But it is incredibly inspiring to witness.
We are honored to be involved in the growth of Rwanda. Each of our Safi Life scholarship recipients is either a genocide survivor or orphan. These young women have so much potential, but do not have the ability to pay for university. With your help, we can help them attend university, which will lead to them getting good jobs and giving back to their community.
Rwanda today is a peaceful, beautiful place—a phoenix rising from the ashes. There is much work to be done still, and we are excited to be a part of that journey!
[i] Mamdani, M. (2001). When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda [Kindle XD version]. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
[ii] Ilibagiza, I. (2006). Left To Tell [Digital]. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc.
[iii] Crisafulli, P., & Redmon, A. (2012). Rwanda Inc.: How a devastated nation became an economic model for the developing world [Digital]. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan
[iv] Waugh, C. M. (2004). Paul Kagame and Rwanda: Power, genocide, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front [Kindle XD version]. e-ISBN: 978-1-4766-1315-4