Few events in history are more subject to controversy than the mass killings commonly designated as genocide. This is hardly surprising considering the lack of anything like a consensus of scholarly opinion about the precise meaning of the term, the different interpretations of the phenomenon offered by social scientists, and the enormous emotional charge it carries. Rwanda is no exception. There are few parallels for the sheer depth of the discords and disagreements the 1994 genocide has generated among observers, survivors and perpetrators.
This is a commentary on the hurdles that stand in the way of a dispassionate discourse about its roots, the responsibilities involved, and its ultimate implications, moral and political. Some are traceable to our still inadequate knowledge of certain critical events and circumstances leading to the carnage; others to the biases and preconceptions of individual analysts, and persisting denials of the facts, including the fact of genocide; others to the uncritical parallel drawn with the Holocaust; others still to the character of the revisionist agenda offered by certain key actors, scholars and journalists.
No attempt to critically review the state of research on the genocide can overlook these challenges to our understanding of one of the most monstrous crimes of the last century.
Compounding such difficulties is the enormous volume of literature it has generated. The least that can be said is that it is of uneven quality. It ranges from journalistic accounts to scholarly works, from first person testimonies by survivors to interviews with convicted killers, from travel writing to in-depth investigations by human rights associations, from official inquests by aid agencies and international commissions to UN reports. To do justice to this massive body of evidence is beyond the scope of this review. Selectivity rather than comprehensiveness has guided our choice of sources. By and large the works discussed here have been selected with an eye to the most significant and contentious issues around which revolves much of the ongoing debate about the Rwanda bloodbath.
We begin with a brief sketch what is known and what is open to speculation about the Rwanda genocide, and move on to an overview of the most significant general works on the genocide. We then turn to the “Manichean temptation” discernible in the early works of journalists and scholars, and take a critical look at the relevance of the Holocaust model as a reference point for Rwanda before reviewing some of the contributions of the witness literature. Finally we shift the focus to the revisionist agenda inscribed in some of the more controversial works recently published by Rwandan actors and outside observers, and conclude with an attempt to bring out the full complexity of the Rwandan tragedy.
While there are still a number of gaps to be filled, the basic facts that emerge from the huge corpus of literature on Rwanda are beyond dispute. These can be briefly summarized as follows:
(a) unlike other mass killings in the Great Lakes region, which can best be described as partial genocides (as in Burundi in 1972), or massacres, we are dealing here with a total genocide, resulting in the death of anywhere between 500 000 and a million civilians, overwhelmingly Tutsi, killed in approximately one hundred days, beginning on April 7, 1994 (Des Forges 1999, 15);
(b) the precipitating factor behind the slaughter occurred the day before, on April 6, at 8:25 pm, when a SAM-16 surface -to-air-missile scored a direct hit on the plane carrying the Rwanda president, Juvénal Habyarimana, as it was about to land in Kigali (Braeckman, 1994: 174-180; Prunier, 1995: 213-217);
(c) the killers were drawn primarily from the solidly Hutu youth wing of the ruling Mouvement Républicain National pour le Développement et la Démocratie (MRNDD), the so-called interahamwe (“those who fight together”) as well as units of the Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) and the Presidential Guard; much of the mobilizing force behind the grass-roots killings came from the communal authorities (burgomasters) and local civilian defense networks put in place in 1993 (Des Forges, 1999: 223-231; Melvern, 2004: 24-32; Prunier, 1995: 239-250);
(d) the first to be killed on April 7 were all Hutu, the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a key member of the opposition party Mouvement Démocratique Républicain (MDR), Faustin Rucogoza (MDR), Minister of Information, Frédéric Namurambaho, Minister of Agriculture, and member of the Parti Social Démocrate (PSD), and the Tutsi Minister of Public Works and Secretary General of the Liberal Party, Landoald Ndasingwa (Melvern, 149-153);
(e) while Tutsi civilians were the prime target of the génocidaires, a substantial number of Hutu affiliated to opposition parties were massacred in the south and central regions (Des Forges, 1999: 555-559);
(f) despite the presence on the ground of the 2.700-strong United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR), headed by Romeo Dallaire, the latter proved utterly powerless to pre-empt the crisis, let alone prevent the killings, owing in large part to the determination of certain key members of the Security Council, notably the US, Belgium and France, to stay away from the mounting violence (Braeckman, 1994: 201-220; Melvern, 2000, 2004: 245-264)
(g) nearly three months after the killings got under way, and after lending considerable logistical and military support to Habyarimana’s FAR, France — in what seemed like an eleven-hour attempt to redeem itself — received the backing of the UN to establish a “humanitarian zone” in the southwest of the country, and on June 23 the first elements of the 2.500-strong Opération Turquoise began to take up positions in Rwanda (Prunier, 1995: 281-311);
(h) with the capture of Kigali by Paul Kagame’s FPR, on July 4, 1994, the killings of Tutsi finally came to a halt – but not the killings of Hutu. Just as in the course of the civil war, a large numbers of Hutu civilians were deliberately massacred by FPR troops – a fact substantiated in the so-called Gersony report, after the UN official who investigated the killings – after the defeat of the génocidaires an even greater number of Hutu lost their lives within and outside Rwanda at the hands of the FPR (Des Forges, 1999: 726-34).
From the standpoint of this discussion, the above summary is perhaps less significant for it tells us than for what it leaves out.
Consider some of the questions it raises: Who bears the onus of responsibility for lighting the fuse that brought down the presidential plane? How did this critical juncture relate to what Sémelin calls “le passage à l’acte”, the move from the will to kill to the act of killing? (Sémelin, 2005) What does the massacre of Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and other cabinet members tell us about what was left of the state and its relationship to the dynamics of mass murder? Who were the organizers of the killings in the capital city and the countryside? What were the motives behind the killings? How many Hutu were killed by other Hutu, where and why? How many Hutu were killed by the FPR between the time of the invasion, on October 1, 1990, and the fall of Kigali on July 4, 1994? How does the “numbers game”—i.e. the evaluation of victims on both sides of the ethnic divide — relate to the double genocide thesis? How should one assess France’s role prior to and during the genocide?
Our aim here is not to offer conclusive answers to these questions – some may never be known – but to bring out of the extant literature the complexity of the chain of events leading to the carnage, with due attention to the different positions taken by analysts on certain key issues. The absence of a common consensus of opinion about the why and how of the Rwanda bloodbath helps explain those “grey zones” which so profoundly complicate our understanding of why so many were killed, in so little time, and with such devastating consequences in Rwanda and beyond.