Martin Shaw

From the Rwandan genocide of 1994 to the Congo civil war

Draft for my project Slaughter: From War to Genocide

Contents: From war to genocide / From genocide to war

The most terrible genocide of the late twentieth century, in Rwanda in April-May 1994, is also one of the least well understood. Too often it is seen as the product of tribal savagery. In reality it was the outcome of war and political conflict, in which ethnicity was manufactured and exploited by the powerful. It was also a contributory factor in new wars which continued to bedevil central Africa into the twenty-first century.

President Juvénal Habyarimana's one-party regime had ruled since 1973, when it originated in a coup d'état backed by a pogrom of the minority Tutsi population. This followed genocidal massacres in 1959, which first brought to power parties of Hutu ascendancy, and in 1963 and 1967. Large numbers of people fled to neighbouring countries; Habyarimana prevented their return. Many exiles in Uganda fought in Yoweri Moseveni's National Resistance Army, which overthrew the dictatorship of Milton Obote in 1986, and subsequently formed a military-revolutionary force, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, to topple the Rwandan regime.

From war to genocide

In 1990, the RPF launched a war against the regime, in which hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. Regime supporters carried out increasing numbers of massacres and other human rights abuses; the government had to allow multi-party politics, and faced demands for democracy. By 1993, the RPF were striking towards Kigali (the capital); only French troops enabled the regime to halt their advance. International pressure forced the regime to negotiate with the RPF, and the Arusha Accords were signed. These provided for the rule of law, power-sharing, repatriation of refugees and integration of the RPF and Rwandese Armed Forces.

As Habyarimana blocked implementation of the accords, his supporters in the state machine planned mass killing, establishing the interahamwe militia that would be its main organizer on the ground, in order to maintain their hold on power and prevent peace. On 6 April 1994 as the President was flying back from an international meeting in Tanzania, where he had been pressured to stop prevaricating, his plane was shot down (probably by elements of the regime). This was the signal for the planned genocide to begin. The first targets were opposition politicians, Hutu as well as Tutsi; then journalists and other potential dissidents; local officials and other educated people. From here, the campaign spread rapidly, fanned by the notorious Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines, into comprehensive massacres of the Tutsi population.

The genocide was well planned and organized by politicians, army officers and local officials, with extensive complicity of the Church, and claimed up to a million lives. Army, police and 'professional' interahamwe used guns; unofficial militia and the large numbers of Hutu civilians who joined (or were pressed) into the campaign often slaughtered with machetes and clubs. Among the majority of the Tutsi people who were killed, young men were particular targets; while women were raped and enslaved by militia. Huge numbers of people of all ages were hacked to death or mown down, in their homes, on the streets, in churches where they had taken shelter. Hundreds of thousands fled to Tanzania and other neighbouring states where international agencies supplied makeshift camps.

The small UN forces that were stationed in Kigali were withdrawn after they were attacked, but only after they had rescued most of the resident European population. UN troops abandoned the Rwandans to their fate, even handing over to the génocidaires thousands of men, women and children who had taken refuge with them. In New York, the Security Council debated and resolved, and the Secretariat prevaricated; the Western powers failed to provide the forces which might have halted the genocide; neighbouring African states did not manage to put their concern into practice. Only France intervened, its Opération Turquoise in southwest Rwanda saving some victims, but also protecting some perpetrators.

From genocide to war

The genocide was ended, and the genocidal regime dispatched, by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which renewed its war and took over the country. In the face of the RPF's advance, over a million Hutus - including most of those implicated in the genocide - fled to Zaire (the name given to Congo-Kinshasa by the corrupt Mobutu regime which had ruled since the early 1960s). This second wave of 'refugees' was also supported by international agencies, but the camps (mainly around Goma in western Congo) became bases for the regrouped interahamwe. These forces allied themselves with the army and local administration of the distintegrating Zairean regime, terrorizing local Banyumalenge (people linked ethnically to Rwanda's Tutsis) in a new, potentially genocidal campaign.

In 1996, as this new war in the Congo escalated, the West once again began to discuss a 'humanitarian' intervention (to be led by Canada). Again, however, they were pre-empted by local military actors. Rwandan forces, with support from Uganda, allied with the Congolese opposition led by Laurent Kabila. They first dispersed the Goma camps, forcing the majority of Hutu exiles to return to Rwanda, while sending the militia fleeing further into Congo. Kabila's forces then advanced across the vast and shambolic territory of Congo to overthrow Mobutu and take power. Kabila (once linked to the romanticised guerrilla leader, Ché Guevara) rapidly disappointed the hopes placed on him both within and beyond the Congo. His forces were responsible for numerous atrocities, and once installed in Kinshasa his regime rapidly became almost as autocratic as Mobutu's.

By 1999, a new war was raging in the renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Rwandan and Ugandan governments now supported the anti-Kabila opposition. Zimbabwe, Angola and other states backed Kabila. While this could be described as an internationalised civil war, it reflected the general breakdown of state power across a wide region of central Africa - comparable to that in west Africa and Somalia. At the beginning of the new century, the war in the Congo had degenerated into local tribal conflict in the north-west of the territory.

In Rwanda, the aftermath of the genocide is appalling. Those who were mutilated and raped, and who lost children, husbands, wives, parents continue to suffer; they coexist uneasily with the returnees, including many suspected killers; prisons are full of tens of thousands of alleged killers that the judicial system cannot cope with.

Key text: African Rights, Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance, London: 1994