Rwanda and The Question of Violence

A Dassault Falcon 50 similar to the one involved in the shootdown.

On April 6, 1994, at approximately 8:30 p.m. local time, a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down, killing both presidents on board. Within minutes, the Rwandan army and militia, comprised of Hutu civilians, had set up roadblocks. They started stopping people and demanding to see their identity card, which identified each person’s ethnic identity—Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. And the killing of Tutsis began.

In the next 100 days, over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered, their bodies thrown into rivers, clogging the waterways and washing up on the shores of Lake Victoria. The killings averaged 333 1/3 murders per hour, over 5 ½ per minute, which, according to experts, was five times the killing rate of the Nazis (Melvern, 4).

Comparisons to the Nazi regime are understandable. However, unlike Germany fifty years earlier, this genocide was not carried out by specially trained military personnel in remote areas of the country using industrial gas chambers and other specialized equipment; this genocide was carried out by thousands of civilians, Hutu farmers and doctors and pastors of churches, who killed and maimed their neighbors, wives, friends and children with machetes and hoes, agricultural tools, “in full and immediate view of the public” (Berry & Berry, 5), in broad daylight.

Less than four months later, the killings were over as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), an army made up of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, defeated the Rwandan military. The organizers of the genocide and members of the former government fled the country and the international community began to recognize its responsibility in the matter—too late. Not only had we failed to intervene during the systematic murder of almost a million people while we quibbled over whether to use the word “genocide” to describe what some people believed was a tribal conflict, but French troops had intervened on the side of the former government, protecting killers as they fled the advancing RPF. In fact, there had been plenty of evidence of Hutu intent leading up to April 6th, but nobody had been willing to step in, for whatever reason, and stop the escalation of hate radio and journalism or force the government to end its system of ethnic discrimination against Tutsis.

By August, 5 out of 6 children in Rwanda had witnessed violence, and the adult population probably has similar statistics to report (Gourevitch, 224). How does a society recover from that? Everyone in Rwanda knows somebody or is related to somebody who has been killed or is a killer. Everyone has a genocide story to tell. How does a society heal from those wounds? And how does a society recover from the fact that a tenth of its population was killed and the international community did nothing to help?

When I think about Rwanda, I feel shame. Only eight months before the genocide, I was living in Kenya, absorbed with the question about whether I should marry the man I was dating at home, in New Mexico. Every morning, I got up and went to the shelter where I worked with street kids; but I never made connections between why these children were homeless and myself, how I might have intimately connected with their misery, simply by virtue of the fact that I am human. I didn’t read newspapers: I had very little knowledge about what was occurring in Somalia, in the north, even though some of “my” kids were Somalian refugees; I didn’t care about what was going on west of Nairobi, where militants were gearing up to slaughter women my age, women who, like me, were absorbed with the questions of marriage and children and career. It sounds very humanitarian that I went off to Kenya and worked with street kids for three months, but the truth is, I only thought about myself that summer.

The Question of Violence

I have never been witness to violence, real or imagined, though I have certainly dreamed about my demise in bloody and horrific ways. Despite this, though violence has never been the center of my world, it has always been there on the fringes. One of my grade school friends was beaten up regularly by her father until his balloon hit a telephone wire and he died in glorious flame.

I think it first started to hit me (no pun intended) that normal people, people I liked, could be guilty of extraordinary violence when, my junior year of college, I visited a boyfriend in Nevada. He was working out in the middle of nowhere, putting up some sort of tower. We stayed with one of his buddies, “John”, who had a beautiful ranch, a beautiful wife, and two beautiful kids. I remember remarking that I wouldn’t want to break down out there because it would be hard to find help, miles from nowhere.

“Yeah, there was some young woman who broke down out here last week,” my boyfriend said. “John helped her fix her car. It took him two hours. She was lucky he was here.”

“She was lucky he’s a nice guy,” I said. “Breaking down out here, in the middle of nowhere, that’d be scary. You could get raped, murdered, anything…”

“Oh, believe me,” he said. “If John didn’t have Stacey and the kids, she would have paid him.”

“What do you mean, ‘paid him’?” I asked.

“Oh, he would’ve expected payment. And he would’ve been paid, one way or another.”

I knew what he meant, so I dropped the subject because I liked John and I didn’t want to know that kind of information about him. It scared me.

That was the start of it, my intimate knowledge of violence. Then it came even closer. A girl I knew, about fourteen years old, was taking a road trip with her mother. On one of those long stretches of road in Texas where there is nothing but grass and more grass, their car broke down. A trucker stopped and picked them up. He drove them off road, raped them, shot them both in the head and left them for dead. The mother crawled back to the freeway and managed to flag down a car and get help. Luckily, both of them lived.

Then, a couple of years after that, a man I knew got so wasted on drugs that he tied a woman up in his bathroom and raped her. She was seven months pregnant. When she finally managed to escape his apartment, he got in his truck and drove down the streets looking for her. She hid behind trees, running in the shadows, until she made it to a McDonald’s and called the police. The man I knew was sent to jail for many, many years. I used to have dreams that I visited him in jail and stood there, wondering what to say, as we looked at each other across miles of space and glass and bars and desert scenery. I’m not sure why I dreamed about him like that—he hadn’t been a very close friend of mine, though we had shared some deep discussions about violence and sexism, of all things—but his violence had touched something deep inside me, which came out in the unconscious, and showed up in my dreams.

Those incidents made me realize how sheltered I really had been. I had never had to consider violence, or why we are violent, or how we cope with it—because I hadn’t realized how closely it had come to changing my life. Also, I think I hadn’t yet faced the internal violence that we do to ourselves—the violence that I, in fact, do to myself regularly. Facing that was one of the things that allowed me to actually look at the violence in my every-day world. Having friends who cut themselves or starved themselves made me look at violence from a closer angle, not as something from the outside that hovered nearby and sometimes touched our lives, but as something emanating from all of us, from me, from the people I loved.

Still, it’s hard to imagine an entire society madly, passionately, entering into a frenzy of violence, a violence that seemingly comes from nowhere, spends itself within a matter of months, and leaves such utter devastation and destruction that nobody, anywhere, knows how it will recover.

Violence from Nowhere

Of course, the violence didn’t come from nowhere.

In fact, for the last century, the Germans, then the Belgians, carefully cultivated a system of racial identity in Rwanda, a system based on the idea that the Tutsi were a superior race. This revisionist history saw the Tutsi as invaders from the north, probably Ethiopia, with possible semitic origins, certainly non-African origins.

The Tutsi and the Hutu had lived side by side for centuries. They had the same language, the same religion, the same origin myths. From what I gather, being “Tutsi” or “Hutu” had become synonymous with profession and level of wealth: the Tutsi tended to be pastoralists and chiefs or kings, a wealthier station in life than the Hutu, who were agriculturalists. In the southern part of Rwanda, at least, there was much inter-marrying and in-breeding and scientists have agreed that there is no genetic difference between the two groups.

The Germans, then the Belgians, ruled “indirectly” through the Tutsis. There was great concern over just who was Hutu and who was Tutsi, so they issued ethnic identity cards in 1933 and a great deal of tape measuring went on as authorities measured noses and people’s size (Tutsis were considered to be taller, with less “Negroid” noses) and looked at their hair. Ultimately, if they were unable to determine whether you were Tutsi or Hutu based on appearance, they went by wealth. More than ten cows, you were Tutsi. Less than ten, Hutu (Berry & Berry, 33). From this moment forward, ethnic identity was hereditary. If your father was Tutsi, so were you.

As Belgium moved Rwanda towards independence after World War II, they switched allegiance from the Tutsis to the Hutu, reversing their former policy and supporting the rise of a group of extremist Hutu. When the Hutu seized power in 1959, Tutsis left the country in droves to avoid being killed. From that year on, there were good years and bad years for Tutsis, but discrimination remained a constant for those who stayed in Rwanda.

In October of 1990, a group of rebel soldiers (mostly Tutsi) invaded Rwanda from Uganda, setting off a motion of events that led, ultimately, to the genocide. For the next three and a half years, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) made a series of guerrilla attacks on the country. Ultimately, in a major coup of international diplomacy, they were recognized as a legitimate political group with legitimate grievances, and the international community began negotiations between the RPF and the Rwandan government. The negotiations culminated in the Arusha Peace Accords, which called for power-sharing, integration of the RPF and Rwandan army, the return of refugees from their places of exile, and devolution of presidential power. Although the agreement was hailed as first-rate by observers and participants, Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana dragged his feet and failed to implement the agreement before his plane was shot down.

In the days and months and years preceding the president’s assassination, attacks against Tutsi escalated and propaganda, including references to Tutsi as “cockroaches” (inyenzi), increased. One Hutu politician, Dr. Leon Mugesera, called for Hutus to “send the Tutsis back to Ethiopia” via the rivers of Rwanda, one reason why bodies were thrown into rivers, later washing up on the shores of Lake Victoria.

The journalist Philip Gourevitch explores a cultural custom that may have contributed to the fact that ordinary Hutu not only failed to protect their neighbors and spouses and relatives but actively participated in the killing. One night, traveling through the Rwandan countryside, he heard a woman scream. The scream went on and on until it was joined by other screams. Then, he says, the screams subsided and there was furious shouting. He soon discovered the cause: a man had wanted to rape the woman. In Rwanda, when you hear a call of distress like that, you come running. Gourevitch was traveling with a Rwandan, who explained: “‘I cry, you cry. You cry, I cry. We all come running, and the one that stays quiet, the one that stays home, must explain. Is he in league with the criminals? Is he a coward? And what would he expect when he cries? This is simple. This is normal. This is community’” (Gourevitch, 33-34.) Although he doesn’t dwell on it, Gourevitch points out that this kind of community, though beautiful when used to help those in distress, could lead to mass killing when perverted and twisted.

I can see that, but I still fail to understand it. And yet, I understand it all too easily, unfortunately. I can see it happening in my neighborhood, I can see it happening here in the United States, I could have easily seen it happening in the wake of 9-11, for example, when, in fact, some Americans did go out in righteous “patriotic” duty and attack people of Middle-Eastern descent. I can see it happening because I have begun to realize how close we all are to the edge of violence, how such a thin thread of self-restraint holds us all back.

I also see, as I get older, how many things I’ve done that I thought I would never do when I was a child or teenager. I am not religious, and I do not buy into standard Christian theology on the concept of sin; however, like the Apostle Paul, I have found myself doing what I don’t want to do and not doing what I know I should do and wondering, in the midst of it, why and wondering afterwards why but then committing the same transgression again the following week and wondering, again, why.

I do not say that this justifies it. Nothing, of course, justifies it. I am simply saying that I believe all of us are closer to the sins we abhor than we think, and this should make us very careful about what we do.

Yesterday, I was grading papers in a coffee shop near the University where I teach. One of my African History students works there, and he stopped for a few minutes every once in awhile to chat. The day before, I had lectured on the Rwandan massacre; he had been there, high on allergy medicine and nodding off every few minutes. But he had heard what was important. Some of my stories had woken him up, until the medicine kicked in again and he drifted off, only to be woken again by another drastic quote.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I hate your class.”

This is something a teacher is always dying to hear. “Yeah? Why?” I asked.

“It makes me ashamed,” he said. “It makes me ashamed of being a human being.”

This isn’t what I set out to do when I teach African history, but I understand what he’s talking about.

“What do you do about it?” I asked. I didn’t know what he would say, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be something along the lines of marching in the streets with signs or writing a petition to the government or even volunteering massive amounts of time at Amnesty International. But I asked him anyway. I wanted to know. “What do you do,” I said, “when you are ashamed of being human?”

“Nothing,” he said. “I come here and I make coffee. I love making coffee. It makes me happy. I never thought making coffee would make me so happy. But it does.”

As I write this, I’m drinking coffee, Kenyan coffee, excellent coffee that makes my morning just a tad bit better than otherwise—and also serves as another intimate connection with that side of the world. I do not have my student’s simple—but profound—solution; I flail uselessly about in my mind until I can write my thoughts down. But ultimately, both of these responses are affirmations of the basic goodness of our lives, these rituals—the same rituals somebody is performing in Rwanda on the other side of the globe.


  1. Berry, John & Berry, Carol Pott. Genocide in Rwanda: A Collective Memory. Washington D.C.: Howard UP, 1999.
  2. Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We will be Killed with our Families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998.
  3. Keane, Fergal. Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
  4. Melvern, L.R. A People Betrayed: The role of the West in Rwanda’s genocide. New York: Zed Books, 2000.