100 days of media and machetes: memories from an African genocide

We are celebrating the International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Giorno della Memoria) on 27th January, and we will probably devote at least one minute of our time to the millions of victims of Shoah. About 6 millions Jewish died between 1941 and 1945 in concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, whose gates were finally opened on January 27th 1945. That day, however, didn’t represent the end of the history of genocides at all: slaughters went on, ideologies continued to be the reason why entire populations, ethnic groups and political opponents were systematically massacred. Some of these bloody stories are well-fixed in our heads, some others have been, on the other hand, forgotten.

One of them is the Rwandan genocide, which occurred in a short period of time but was disastrous nonetheless. Its peak of death occurred in 1994, 100 days of blood and hate. Then, the result was population reduced by 800.000 people and incurable, unforgettable injuries to the country. Think about the Rwandan genocide reflecting on three key terms: racial ideology, crimes against humanity, memory.

Racial ideology is a fundamental feature of this case, as of the majority of genocides caused over centuries: in the Rwandan history the idea of racism was firstly introduced when, in 1924, the Rwanda-Urundi territory was assigned to Belgium. Following the racial ideologies that were spreading out in Europe, Belgium labeled the two main ethnic groups, the Tutsis and the Hutus (the Tutsis accounted for the 15% of the population, the Hutus for the 84%), as the most and the least appropriate to control over Rwanda. Until that moment, they had lived together without any consideration for differences: they were perfectly integrated and it was possible to shift from a group to the other. Nevertheless, colonists discriminated them based on their physical aspect and assigned control over the country to the group characterized by the tallest and thinnest individuals, the Tutsis. Since that critical moment identity documents started reporting the ethnicity, and movements were no longer allowed: the richer and more powerful the Tutsis were becoming, the poorer and more oppressed the Hutus. After years of persecution by the Tutsis and their European supporters, the Hutus finally succeeded in rebelling against them: in 1959 the so-called Social Revolution brought the Hutus to the power. Moreover, in 1961 Rwanda gained independence, a Hutu president was finally elected and thousands of Tutsis had to flee to the neighbouring countries, Uganda and Burundi. The following years were characterized by unsuccessful attempts by the Tutsis to come back to the government of Rwanda. When a new Hutu authoritarian regime was installed in early 1970s, about half of the Tutsi population had to flee the country: then, the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) organization was founded (1987), based in Uganda and aimed to claw the Tutsis’ position back. The fight became more explicit and bloody in 1990, when an open attack by RPF was launched, provoking the reaction of the Hutu despotic government. It consisted of a deliberately targeted progaganda against the Tutsis and the moderate Hutus, fueling an hate that was not only racial nor political nor ideological, but a mix of them. Across roads hate claims spread out from radios and televisions: the Tutsis living within Rwandan boundaries were labeled as accomplices of RPF, and the Hutus members of opposition parties as traitors. Oppression, racism and thirsty of power had lead to a civil war, calling for international actors’ intervention: a resolution by the United Nations Security Council established the peacekeeping mission UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda). In fact, between 1993 and 1994 an agreement seemed to put an end to the civil war, the Arusha Accord Peace Agreement: Rwandan president and the RPF agreed on a political coalition and on the re-integration of the Tutsis refugees.


Then, here we are with the second keyword: crimes against humanity. Human eyes and minds cannot conceive nor imagine nor ignore such non-human weapons and scenes. The Arusha Agreement failed when on April 6th, 1994 the airplane carrying the Presidents of Burundi and Uganda was dramatically shot down in unknown circumstances. From there on, the genocide caused victims belonging to the civil Tutsi and Hutu populations, as well as the Rwandan Prime Minister and 10 UN peacekeepers entrusted to protect her. The extremist Hutu party visited each home, looking for the Tutsis and for the moderate Hutus to kill them with machetes and rifles. In addition, a new weapon was introduced by the Hutu genocidaires: for the very first time systematic genocidal rapes were considered as a genocide weapon that was used against 250.000-500.000 women. While this was happening, international actors did not manage to face the emergency: soon after the explosion of the massacre UNAMIR withdrew almost completely (out of the 2,500 UNAMIR soldiers only 270 kept on carrying out the mission), to avoid losses on the part of peacekeepers. In a popular film by Terry George, “Hotel Rwanda” (2004), the essential message from this moment is enshrined in the dramatic sentence “There will be no rescue, no intervention force: we can only save ourselves”. In 100 days 800.000 people were systematically killed, Rwandan roads were full of corpses, while the hateful voices of the genocidaires kept spreading through the mass media.

On 18th July, 1994 the Rwandan Patriotic Front unilaterally claimed the cease-fire and gained control over the entire territory: the genocide was over. Imagine the loud noises of gunshots and weapons, and the unthinkable cries of children and raped women, and then silence. All happened too quickly to let the international community take any decision (with all the possible claims that could be reasonably done, of course), too bloody to allow the injuries to be cured, too hateful to consider the victims vindicated by indictments.

After the end of the massacre, the UN established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, then substituted by the UN Residual Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals in 2015 (http://unictr.unmict.org/). Its purpose was the trial and prosecution of people considered “responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of Rwanda between 1 January and 31 December 1994”. Something similar to the Nurimberg Trials after the Shoah. In Rwanda 93 people were indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The introduction of a new weapon occurred, genocidal rape: 2.000-10.000 “war babies” were estimated.

Finally, the last keyword. Memory. I will conclude by quoting Sebastiao Salgado’s words about his reaction to the scenes he saw in Rwanda: “I saw in Rwanda total brutality. I saw deaths by thousands every day. I lost my faith in our species, I didn’t believe it was possible for us to live any longer”. Our lives continued, instead: the day after tomorrow we are celebrating the Remembrance Day, and I would like all of us to devote one minute of these lives and a prayer to the genocides’ victims all over the World.

Carolina Laghi

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