Rwanda: tracing the roots of genocide

The fate of Rwanda has set off shockwaves in Canada, as two senior Canadian officers defended their actions on behalf of the UN during 1994. Unlike Somalia, the issue here was not abuse of power, but rather the inability of the UN's Assistance Mission to offer any meaningful assistance to a nation on the brink of genocide.
Gen. Roméo Dallaire, who headed the UN mission in Kigali, has charged in recent interviews that his warnings were ignored by UN functionaries in New York. His immediate superior, Lt-Gen Maurice Baril - now Canada's head of defence staff - has denied that his decisions prevented the mission from taking effective action.
Canada's Vision TV interviewed Dallaire and several other key witnesses to the genocide as part of its September 1997 Africa Week.

By J.M. Dykstra

IN THE 1880s, Rwanda was colonized by Belgium - the colonial power in the neighboring "Belgian Congo", now the Democratic Republic of the Congo - which saw the colony as a potential source of natural resources and converts to Christianity. Conversion was easily achieved because the native population was already monotheistic; resource extraction, primarily of cash crops and minerals, was facilitated by technology and intensive agriculture.

At the time, the Tutsi tribe made up 15% of the population. In Vision TV's view, there had been no persistent animosity between the Tutsi and the majority Hutu group prior to colonization. The Belgians decided to make the smaller of the two groups into its proxy ruling class, thereby ensuring a legacy of ethnic division. The Tutsi were given educational advantages and appointments to positions not available to the Hutu population.

In practice, it was difficult to distinguish between the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Belgian colonial authorities developed a series of measurements of facial features to aid them in this (wholly pseudo-scientific) task. Vision TV is quick to point out that these techniques were used a half-century later by the Nazis, also with tragic results.

The religious aspects of Belgium's colonizing mission were handled by Belgian Roman Catholic priests; with independence, these were largely replaced by clergy from Quebec. The early '60s were a critical time for the Church in Quebec, as the 1958-66 "Quiet Revolution" displaced it from its traditional role. Many Quebec priests were eager to exercise their vocation in another country.

Involvement in the country by Quebec-born clergy strengthened the cultural and economic ties between Canada and Rwanda. Between independence and 1994, Canadian foreign aid to Rwanda totaled $300 million, much of it in education. Rwanda's only university was built with Canadian aid, and Rwandan students came to Canada for higher study.

Vision TV footage quotes one Laval University graduate who returned to Rwanda to become a prominent public crusader for the killing of Tutsis: "the Ethiopians [i.e. the 'alien' Tutsi] should be sent home by way of the river". And in the early '90s, just before the deteriorating relationships between the country's two main ethnic groups culminated in genocide, aid money was illegally diverted to groups close to the Hutu-led government.

But there had been open discrimination against Tutsis, and even massacres, from the time of the first open elections in 1959. One priest who had been in Rwanda during this period told Vision TV he had almost given up after driving down a river road and observing arms and legs floating in the water. In the event, he did nothing and the crime went unreported.

Another Quebec priest who found himself in a similar situation - this time, during the 1994 genocide - was Father Claude Simard, the principal subject of Vision TV's "Hand of God, Hand of the Devil" film. He called the Rwandans his people, and devoted his life to their spiritual and material well-being. Accordingly, he refused to leave Rwanda when the other Westerners fled in the spring of 1994.

Father Simard tape-recorded a massacre in a valley near his home, one small part of the genocide which was occurring across the country between April and July 1994. He was murdered some time later.

By August 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi army based in Uganda and composed of refugees and exiles from Rwanda, had invaded and routed the Hutu-led government and armed forces. During the first few months of RPF rule, it was clear that Tutsis were involved in reprisal killings of Hutus, including massacres and isolated acts of murder. No one knows whether Father Simard died at the hands of Hutus fearing his earlier recording of a massacre of Tutsis, or whether he was subsequently a witness to reprisal killings of Hutus by Tutsis and was killed for this. As Vision TV puts it, he had enemies in both camps.

How much did Father Simard know, and when did he know it? Similar questions can be asked of the Canadian government. Warren Allmand, the former Liberal MP who now heads Montreal's International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, said on Vision TV that his organization held a press conference in 1993 to warn the world of impending massacres in Rwanda. No one showed up.

Gen. Dallaire noted in his interview that he was aware as early as the fall of 1993 of the use of massacres as an instument of state policy. Yet, Vision TV shows an enthusiastic, then-prime minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney, welcoming the then-president of Rwanda to a development conference in Montreal in that same year of 1993.

In January of 1994, the rest of the world began to be aware something was happening. General Dallaire forwarded a fax to his headquarters that spoke of troop and arms movements, and ongoing military training activities, and that predicted Belgian soldiers would be killed. He suggested that he be authorized to take preventitive actions. He flatly refused in his Vision TV interview to say who was responsible for the orders denying such actions to him. Three months later, several Belgian soldiers were killed by Hutus in a deliberate attempt to scare off the U.N. and the Belgians. The westerners fled, the genocide began, and the Tutsi army moved South from its position in Uganda.

By September 1994, up to 2 million Hutus had fled to the now-famous refugee camps in Zaire; camps which were famous first because aid agencies spent up to $1 million a day to keep them operating, and famous later because it was clear the camps were run by Hutu militia leaders, implicated in the genocide, who would not let the others leave. The camps were also used as bases for military attacks on Tutsis, both in Zaire (which has both Tutsi and Hutu minority populations) and in Rwanda.

So the camps had to be dismantled. The three leaders who did it were Laurent Kabila, a retired Marxist guerrilla and businessman who came out of obscurity to lead a revolution in Zaire, which he renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo; Rwanda's vice-president and minister of defence, Paul Kagame; and Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni. These men had the active support of the RPF, of Tutsis from all three countries, and the passive support of many in Zaire who sought the end of Mobutu's dictatorship. They also had the backing of ten other African countries interested in an African solution to the problem rather than one hatched in Washington or Paris.

There have been questions as to whether Kabila's troops were themselves guilty of massacring Hutus. Many Hutus fought on the side of Mobutu following the break up of the camps. Kabila's response to the charges, printed in The New Yorker magazine, was to say, "While they were fighting, they were Mobutu's army, and when they die they become refugees... I wish somebody could explain it to me."

The truth is complex. Although there are no reliable estimates of numbers, Vision TV, speaking with Alison Deforges of Human Rights Watch, has established the existence of at least one mass grave of Hutus buried in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Further, Kabila has clearly been stonewalling the U.N. investigation into the charges: he has reset the terms of reference of the investigation many times - so many times that the investigation has now been officially suspended.

Meanwhile, Paul Kagame, the Rwandan vice-president, has been presiding over the roundups and detentions of suspected Hutu genocidaires in Rwanda.

Many are held in response to accusations which are reported to be false or fabricated, but there are only twelve judges in the whole country who are empowered to work on the thousands of cases.

Only 15% of those arrested have court documents to register their official status as prisoners under investigation. All are held in overcrowded conditions, some standing toe-to-toe, others with feet rotting from infections from standing in their own feces, many with serious unattended injuries.

There is at least one documented case of a massacre of prisoners; the defence ministry admits that 300 were killed, while prisoners say the figure was nearer four thousand.

Outside the prisons, a general pattern is repeated: discrimination, hit-and-run killings, a climate of fear and accusation. While innocent Hutus feel guilty by association for the sins of their brothers, there is also a feeling of being mistreated by the Tutsi government and by Tutsis in general. The "genocide foretold" of Vision TV's film is the chronicle both of the horrific events of 1994 and of a potential future slaughter.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1997

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1997, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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