“Never Again:” How Guilt Over Rwanda Fueled African Genocide

“Never Again:” How Guilt Over Rwanda Fueled African Genocide

by Ezra Max

“The sharpness of the tongue defeats the sharpness of the warriors. Language is better than weapons.”

—Rwandan proverb[1]


In 1995 Susan Rice (then the National Security Council’s director for international organizations and peacekeeping), acknowledging the tepid nature of America’s response to the atrocities of the Rwandan Genocide the previous year, “swore to [herself] that if [she] ever faced such a crisis again, [she] would come down on the side of dramatic action.”[2] Three years later, and now the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Rice found herself faced with exactly such a crisis. This time, Rwanda and Uganda had jointly invaded Zaire and begun massacring Hutu refugees. Her dramatic action? To “look the other way.”[3]

Rice’s progression over those three years did not constitute deliberate hypocrisy, or even a recognition that global realities sometimes impede best intentions. Instead, this shift from guilt over Rwanda to complicity in the Congo is ideologically consistent with a foreign policy tack in which the international community, led by the United States, has tried to offset its apathy during the Rwandan Genocide by ignoring, and at times enthusiastically supporting, the post-Genocide Rwandan government’s atrocities both within its own borders and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Tutsi-led Rwandan regime, in turn, has billed itself as a model for a post-ethnic, liberal-democratic African state—even while quietly pursuing out some of the most violent, genocidal actions in living memory. This series of articles, in three parts, examines the evolution and consequences of Rwanda’s paradoxical role in the global order. As we will see, since the end of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 international organizations, news media, and the United States government have promulgated warped and oversimplified views of the Rwandan conflict, effectively legitimized tit-for-tat genocide, and helped fuel the deadliest conflict in recent world history.

Part I analyzes the international reaction to organized Tutsi violence during and immediately following the Rwandan Genocide. Part II focuses on American support for Rwanda’s invasion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Part III discusses the ongoing domestic and international policies of Paul Kagame’s US-backed regime.

The RPF and the Genocide Narrative

Hotel Rwanda, Terry George’s 1994 Academy-Award nominated film, depicts a group of Tutsi civilians besieged by genocidal Hutu forces in Kigali. Their seemingly hopeless situation is resolved by the intervention of the UN and Tutsi-affiliated RPF rebels, who spirit them to safety into Tutsi territory. The viewer only momentarily glimpses, at the film’s triumphant climax, a curious anomaly: the steady stream of Hutu refugees fleeing in the exact opposite direction, away from the RPF and toward government-held territory.[4]

George’s dramatic repurposing of real-world events is a good starting point to understand the Western Rwanda narrative. His closely mimics the version of events upheld by real-world news organizations and official reports. As the BBC summarizes it: “In just 100 days in 1994, some 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda by ethnic Hutu extremists[,] targeting members of the minority Tutsi community, as well as their political opponents.”[5] In this telling, violence was almost uniformly perpetrated against Tutsis by the Hutu Rwandan government and by the Hutu Interahamwe militia, and was ended by the victory of Paul Kagame’s RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Forces.) Although nominally Tutsi, the RPF had not participated in ethnic violence and quickly committed itself to forming a unity government; backed by the US and the international community, Kagame has since ushered in an unprecedented era of peace, understanding, and prosperity in Rwanda.[6][7][8]

As is often the case, the truth is both darker and more complex. In simplest terms, the narrative of one-sided Hutu-on-Tutsi violence fails to square with basic demographic information. Before the war, Rwanda’s Tutsi population stood at 600,000, of which 300,000 survived the conflict.[9] Thus, the majority of the 800,000-1,000,000 war dead must have been Hutu (the country’s other ethnic groups collectively accounting for less than half a percent of its population.)[10]While these death tolls do not directly implicate the RPF, they certainly undermine the simple perpetrator-victim narrative favored in the West. As we will discuss, a combination of international indifference, careless media coverage, and steady post-genocide propaganda from Rwanda has kept accurate statistics like these from informing public discourse.[11][12]

Evidence of Tutsi-perpetrated ethnic violence has discretely accumulated. Going back to May 1994, several reports have documented mass killings of Hutu civilians by RPF forces under Kagame during the genocide.[13] The most significant of these early wartime findings came from Robert Gersony, a consultant contracted by the UNHRC. Initially sympathetic to Kagame, Gersony was horrified to discover that the RPF had been executing approximately 5,000-10,000 Hutus per month over the spring and summer of 1994.[14][15][16][17] The killings’ systematic nature made them particularly gruesome. When a new Hutu village fell under RPF control, special squads of soldiers would hold a “peace and reconciliation meeting.” In reality, the name was a dark euphemism: once assembled in one place, inhabitants were executed en masse.[18] Gersony’s findings were based on months of field research and hundreds of witness interviews. However, when he presented his preliminary results to the UNHRC in October of 1994, the organization halted publication of his final report and ordered all related research materials and testimony classified.[19][20] Other documents attesting to similar RPF atrocities during wartime, including an internal State Department memo claiming that over 10,000 Hutus were being exterminated each month in RPF territory, were similarly hushed.[21] Thus, the “Rwanda narrative” was formed. This oversimplified view that the events of 1994-1995 constituted a simple, Hutu-perpetrated genocide, once recorded in official documents, would quickly radiate out from the expert class of UN and US bureaucrats to the news media, and from there to the general public.

The question remains as to why the non-Rwandan officials bought and sold this narrative. For this, two governments can held particularly culpable. The first was Paul Kagame’s regime. Benefitting tremendously from the legitimation provided by a rare combination of victimhood and leadership, after seizing state power the new Rwandan government denounced any attempt to document RPF-perpetrated violence as “genocide denial” and expelled researchers investigating RPF killings from the country, even more than a decade after the conflict had ended.[22][23][24] (It has since similarly silenced criticism of its domestic policies.) As Gerard Prunier writes, Kigali’s policy was and is a “carefully design[ed] propaganda line to exploit the world’s guilt.”[25]

Second was the country most swayed by this propaganda line: the United States. While the American media and public embraced now-familiar narratives of systematic Tutsi extermination stopped by Kagame’s heroic, almost impossibly tolerant RPF, the American government found Kagame both a convenient distraction from its wartime inaction and an ideological ally going forward.[26][27]President Clinton led the way in this regard, praising Kagame as one of “the greatest leaders of our time” and continuously providing his government with material support.[28][29]

Many commenters, including some in the American foreign policy orthodoxy, have noted cynically the usefulness of the Kagame myth for the Clinton Administration and the United States government. Even in 2001, Samantha Power remarked how conspicuously Clinton embraced Rwanda’s new leadership, while an anonymous Clinton-era diplomat directly involved with Rwandan relations stated things more bluntly: although Kagame was “utterly ruthless,” he told the New York Times Magazine, “we needed a success story, and he was it.”[30][31] Clinton’s decision to promote Kagame was partially motivated by a laudable desire to preserve and expand America’s foreign-aid programs. With government spending under scrutiny and the Soviet Union defeated, some in congress suggested that USAID had outlived its use; Clinton hoped to shift the organization’s mission to African development in order to preserve its operation in the Twenty-First Century.[32][33] A stabilized and optimistic Rwanda would showcase the continent’s potential and offset the violent images of 1994 that had fused African politics with ethnic violence in the American conscience. However noble the president’s aspirations were, though, his attempts to mould Rwanda into a “success story” through unscrupulous rhetoric and financial generosity alone would prove insufficient. Instead, the only effect as Rwanda emerged from the violence of 1994 was general ignorance to the complex nature of what had occurred in the country (beyond the vague, requisite sense of “guilt”) and strengthening international support for the RPF.

Kagame’s was a fledgling government, whose mandate to rule over the war-torn Rwandan landscape came only from the force it commanded. Despite this, the Clinton administration and US allies placed only two conditions on future aid packages : Kagame had to allow humanitarian NGOs to enter the country, and had to add a member of the pre-genocide Hutu government to his cabinet.[34] But of the 154 NGOs that operated in post-war Rwanda, shockingly few were interested in or capable of pressuring the new government to follow international norms (the UN and ICTR are particularly notable for their widespread incompetence and corruption); the Hutu cabinet member was never added.[35] Having failed in these regards, the international community gave up its short lived and modest efforts to steer post-Genocide Rwanda toward a measure of security and democracy. Instead, it offered the country financial and diplomatic support unconditionally.[36] This was the character of international affairs during Rwanda’s immediate post-war period. First, Western leaders and bureaucrats embraced a warped understanding of the complex tragedy that had occurred in the country, seeing only that the RPF had ended the Rwandan conflict and forgetting that it had played a major role in it. Then, buoyed by this narrative, the United States and its allies whole-heartedly endorsed the new RPF government, paving the way for a remarkably violent peace in Rwanda.

Life During Peacetime

As relations warmed between Kigali and Washington, commentators gushed over Kagame’s steps toward a post-ethnic Rwanda.[37] Despite the new leader’s inspiring rhetoric, however, a far grislier scene was playing out within the country’s borders. From July 1994 until the end of that year, relative peace had reigned as the unity government sought to stabilize its position. In January of 1995, however, likely emboldened by the strong international support it had secured, Kagame’s old RPF returned to systematic killing.[38] The forces were now legitimized by state power and reorganized as the RPA (Rwandan Patriotic Army). In turn, this wave of atrocities was both more targeted and more efficient than those during wartime, aimed at effecting Hutu subservience rather than indiscriminate extermination.[39] Killings were largely conducted in secret, organized raids, and scores of incinerators for corpse disposal were set up to hide evidence of the government’s crimes.[40]

Still, it took little work to hide what international organizations did not want to find: the UNHRC country director blocked all investigations into reports of massacres or mass Hutu graves, warning his staff that such actions would “create problems with the government.” Later, UN Assistant Secretary-General Kofi Annan even flew to Kigali to personally assure Kagame’s government that his organization would stamp out any discussion of organized anti-Hutu violence, including the Gersony Report.[41] The UN’s exact motivation for doing so is unclear. While certainly some in the organization must have felt that Rwanda’s best hopes lay in its achieving political stability, there was also a potentially darker financial motive at play. In particular, Prunier cites mounting concerns over the cost of maintaining camps for Hutu refugees who had fled Rwanda some (2,000,000,000 USD over 1994-1996.)[42] Surely, any official red flags raised concerning the Hutus’ safety under Kagame would have delayed the repatriation process. In either case it is clear that the NGOs, like the western governments, were working hard to plaster over any fissures in the facade of Rwanda’s post-ethnic, non-violent state.

While these outside groups exalted Rwanda’s future and ignored its present and unresolved unrest, its leader was eager to settle scores from the past. Now made more confident in his international position, from January-April of 1995 Kagame seemed to test how far he could take his genocidal policies without losing the aegis of foreign support. As anti-Hutu violence ratcheted up during these months, he made less and less of an effort to account for the apparent gap between his inspirational public persona and the massacres his troops committed. At first, Kagame promised official investigations into the violence; then, he acknowledged some RPF complicity; eventually, he stopped responding to queries about the mounting Hutu death toll altogether. No international groups responded.[43] With the global community either disengaged from the situation on the ground or actively covering up evidence of RPF crimes in the name of stability, Kagame’s choice to avoid overt anti-Hutu rhetoric while doubling down on actual anti-Hutu violence paid off handsomely. To the West, he was now one of the “good guys,” and as such no longer feared their censure; at home, he was free to exact genocidal revenge.

With the question of international reputation settled, Kagame turned his attention to the camps. In the weeks before the RPF took Kigali in July of 1994, hundreds of thousands of Hutus had fled to French-operated safe zones on the Zairian border.[44][45] The UN later took control of these safe zones and set up long-term internally displaced person (IDP) camps. The UN apparently found Hutu fears of returning to Tutsi-controlled Rwanda credible enough to deploy UNAMIR II forces to the border for protection (the same forces that had been widely denounced for their failure to stop Interahamwe attacks during the first wave of the Rwandan Genocide).[46] But these security measures were not sufficient. In January of 1995, the Rwandan government began conducting regular “cleaning operations” at Kibeho, the largest IDP camp.[47] In these operations, the RPA would simply bypass the camp UN guards (who could not stop them, as the UN forces were assigned to cooperate with the Rwandan government,) execute 60-70 Hutu “suspects” selected from the IDP population, and then haul their bodies away for disposal by the truckload.[48] Still, the UN’s true failure to protect the Hutu refugees at Kibeho was not made fully apparent until the spring of that year. On April 19, following days of particularly violent cleaning operations near the camp perimeter, the RPA forced all 150,000 IDPs living in Kibeho out of the camp, made them stand on an exposed plateau for 60 hours, and then, with six UN agencies and 120 NGOs looking on, opened fire into the crowd.[49][50] UN peacekeepers, horrified, were ordered by their commanders to stand down (again, as their mandate was to assist the Rwandan army.) In a dark reprise of the events in Kigali during summer of 1994, UNAMIR soldiers were again forced to look on, powerless, as Rwandans slaughtered their countrymen. Unofficial UN estimates from forces on the ground give a death toll of at least 4,500 from this initial assault. The survivors were then taken on a death march into the interior of Rwanda, through hostile villages, in order to be “repatriated.” Some 20,000-30,000 refugees from Kibeho died this way, and the country’s other camps were similarly “closed” in the weeks following.[51]

The massacre at Kibeho showed how little the UN and its partner agencies were doing to stop Kagame’s genocide. But the international community’s true apathy toward the Rwandan situation was even clearer in its aftermath. When Kagame’s government put the “official” death toll for Kibeho at 300—casualties, it claimed, of gunbattles with former Interahamwe—not a single public report was made to dispute this account.[52] Appallingly, having themselves witnessed the clearest evidence yet of Hutu genocide, neither the UN nor the NGOs challenged the government’s lies. Instead, an international commission corroborated the government’s version of events (although it is hard to imagine on what evidence it was corroborated, as no visits to Kibeho were conducted during the research process.)[53] Even the Security Council, in its feeble condemnation of the massacres, only cited “numerous” civilian casualties: it made no effort to expose the sheer scale of the carnage that had occurred against refugees under the UN’s watch, and, in a darkly absurd twist, expressed faith that the RPF government would root out the attack’s perpetrators (unstated, of course, was that the RPF government was the perpetrator.)[54]

It seems that the international community’s disgraceful response to the slaughter at Kibeho gave Kagame the final confirmation he needed that the farce of a post-ethnic Rwandan state was over. In the following weeks and months, token Hutu ministers and Tutsi moderates were expelled from the government and either arrested or forced to flee the country; they were replaced by hardliner RPF Tutsis loyal to Kagame.[55] Any remaining hope that Kigali’s fear of losing Western support might protect Rwandan Hutus from the worst of RPF violence was now gone, as Kagame achieved total Tutsi domination of Rwanda. In the autumn and winter of 1994, his RPF had won international backing with its pledges of peace and reconciliation. In early 1995, it had experimented with a double-game of anti-Hutu violence and high-minded rhetoric. Now, even the pretense of ethnic unity was dropped as the government rolled out its genocidal designs. Worse still, through it all foreign support for the new government had only increased. In short, the regime had managed to be both a vocal symbol against and a private perpetrator of ethnic cleansing, becoming the world’s most legitimated genocidaire state.

But Kagame’s war against the Hutu did not end with Rwanda. As Part II of this series will discuss, Kagame would refine and extend his model of winning Western ideological endorsement while perpetrating brutal ethnic violence, this time leveraging his reputation in the US to secure generous military and diplomatic support for his genocidal occupation of Eastern Zaire.

[1] Jean Paul Martinon, “Rwanda: Proverbs,” Jean Paul Martinon, accessed April 5 2017.

[2] Samantha Power, “Bystanders to Genocide,” The Atlantic, September 2001. 

[3] According to a senior aide to the assistant secretary.

[4] Gerard Prunier, Africa’s World War (Oxford U.P., 2009), 338, digital file. 

[5] Hotel Rwanda, directed by Terry George, United Artists, 2004. 

[6]“Rwanda genocide: 100 days of slaughter,” BBC. 

[7] Ibid. 

[8] Jeffrey Gettleman, “The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman,” The New York Times Magazine, September 2013.

[9] Herman and Peterson, “Paul Kagame.” 

[10] Christian Davenport and Allan C. Stam, Miller-McCune (Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, 2009). 

[11] Ibid. 

[12] Davenport and Stam, Miller-McCune. 

[13] Keith Harmon Snow, “Real Rwandan genocide & brainwashing of the Western mind,” RT, last modified April 12, 2014. 

[14] See footnote 56. Prunier, Africa’s World, 15. 

[15] Ibid, 16. 

[16] Christopher Black, “The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s Bloody Record and the History of UN Cover-Ups,” Monthly Review Online, last modified September 12, 2010. 

[17] Herman and Peterson, “Paul Kagame.” 

[18] Prunier, Africa’s World, 15. 

[19] Ibid, 14-15. 

[20] Black, “The Rwandan,” Monthly Review Online. 

[21] Herman and Peterson, “Paul Kagame.” 

[22] Prunier, Africa’s World, 20. 

[23] Davenport and Stam, Miller-McCune. 

[24] Herman and Peterson, “Paul Kagame.” 

[25] Jeffrey Gettleman, “The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman,” The New York Times Magazine, September 2013. 

[26] Prunier, Africa’s World, 20.  Prunier, Africa’s World 32-34. 

[27] Power, “Bystanders to Genocide.” 

[28] Anjan Sundaram, “Rwanda: The Darling Tyrant,” Politico Magazine, March/April 2014. 

[29] Power, “Bystanders to Genocide.” 

[30] Ibid. 

[31] Gettleman, “The Global.” 

[32] Richard Grant and Jan Nijman, The Global Crisis in Foreign Aid (Syracuse UP, 2000), 29, digital file. 

[33] Gettleman, “The Global.” 

[34] Prunier, Africa’s World 7. 

[35] Ibid, 18. 

[36] Ibid. 

[37] Gettleman, “The Global.” Although technically Kagame served as Vice President under president Pasteur Bizimungu until 2000, after July 1994 he controlled the RPA, virtually all domestic affairs, and was Rwanda’s best-known representative to the outside world. For this reason, he is recognized as the country’s leader during this period. 

[38] Prunier, Africa’s World 20. 

[39] Ibid 20, 17. 

[40] Ibid. 

[41] Ibid 15-16, 19. 

[42] Ibid, 30. 

[43] Ibid 18. 

[44] Judi Rever, “Kibeho: A Story of Flesh and Blood,” Foreign Policy Journal, last modified April 2015. 

[45] John Connor, “Wartime Issue 39: Bravery under fire,” Australian War Memorial.

[46] Prunier, Africa’s World, 38.

[47] Rever, “Kibeho: A Story,” Foreign Policy Journal. 

[48] Ibid. 

[49] Prunier, Africa’s World, 39-40. 

[50] Rever, “Kibeho: A Story,” Foreign Policy Journal. 

[51] Ibid. 

[52] Prunier, Africa’s World, 42. 

[53] Ibid. 

[54] Donatella Lorch, “Rwanda Calls for Others to Join Massacre Inquiry,” The New York Times, last modified April 28, 1995. 

[55] Prunier, Africa’s World, 45-46.

Works Cited

BBC. “Rwanda genocide: 100 days of slaughter.”

Black, Christopher. “The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s Bloody Record and the History of UN Cover-Ups.” Monthly Review Online. Last modified September 12, 2010.

Connor, John. “Wartime Issue 39: Bravery under fire.” Australian War Memorial.

Davenport, Christian, and Allan C. Stam. Miller-McCune. Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, 2009.

Gettleman, Jeffrey. “The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman.” The New York Times Magazine, September 2013.

Herman, Edward S., and David Peterson. “Paul Kagame: “Our Kind of Guy”.” Voltaire Network, January 3, 2011.

Hotel Rwanda. Directed by Terry George. United Artists, 2004.

Lorch, Donatella. “Rwanda Calls for Others to Join Massacre Inquiry.” The New York Times. Last modified April 28, 1995.

Power, Samantha. “Bystanders to Genocide.” The Atlantic, September 2001.

Prunier, Gerard. Africa’s World War. Oxford U.P., 2009. Digital file.

Rever, Judi. “Kibeho: A Story of Flesh and Blood.” Foreign Policy Journal. Last modified April 2015.

Sundaram, Anjan. “Rwanda: The Darling Tyrant.” Politico Magazine, March/April 2014.