The long read: The violence that shocked the world in 1994 did not come from nowhere. For years, violent Tutsi rebels, backed by Uganda in full knowledge of the CIA, had been preparing for war
Between April and July 1994, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were murdered in the most rapid genocide ever recorded. The killers used simple tools machetes, clubs and other blunt objects, or herded people into buildings and set them aflame with kerosene. Most of the victims were of minority Tutsi ethnicity; most of the killers belonged to the majority Hutus.
The Rwanda genocide has been compared to the Nazi Holocaust in its surreal brutality. But there is a fundamental difference between these two atrocities. No Jewish army posed a threat to Germany. Hitler targeted the Jews and other weak groups solely because of his own demented beliefs and the prevailing prejudices of the time. The Rwandan Hutu gnocidaires, as the people who killed during the genocide were known, were also motivated by irrational beliefs and prejudices, but the powder keg contained another important ingredient: terror. Three and a half years before the genocide, a rebel army of mainly Rwandan Tutsi exiles known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, had invaded Rwanda and set up camps in the northern mountains. They had been armed and trained by neighbouring Uganda, which continued to supply them throughout the ensuing civil war, in violation of the UN charter, Organisation of African Unity rules, various Rwandan ceasefire and peace agreements, and the repeated promises of the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni.
During this period, officials at the US embassy in Kampala knew that weapons were crossing the border, and the CIA knew that the rebels growing military strength was escalating ethnic tensions within Rwanda to such a degree that hundreds of thousands of Rwandans might die in widespread ethnic violence. However, Washington not only ignored Ugandas assistance to the Rwandan rebels, it also ramped up military and development aid to Museveni and then hailed him as a peacemaker once the genocide was underway.
The hatred the Hutu gnocidaires unleashed represents the worst that human beings are capable of, but in considering what led to this disaster, it is important to bear in mind that the violence was not spontaneous. It emerged from a century or more of injustice and brutality on both sides, and although the gnocidaires struck back against innocents, they were provoked by heavily armed rebels supplied by Uganda, while the US looked on.
The RPF rebel army represented Tutsi refugees who had fled their country in the early 1960s. For centuries before that, they had formed an elite minority caste in Rwanda. In a system continued under Belgian colonialism, they treated the Hutu peasants like serfs, forcing them to work on their land and sometimes beating them like donkeys. Hutu anger simmered until shortly before independence in 1962, then exploded in brutal pogroms against the Tutsi, hundreds of thousands of whom fled to neighbouring countries.
In Uganda, a new generation of Tutsi refugees grew up, but they soon became embroiled in the lethal politics of their adoptive country. Some formed alliances with Ugandan Tutsis and the closely related Hima Musevenis tribe many of whom were opposition supporters and therefore seen as enemies by then-president Milton Obote, who ruled Uganda in the 1960s and again in the early 1980s.
After Idi Amin overthrew Obote in 1971, many Rwandan Tutsis moved out of the border refugee camps. Some tended the cattle of wealthy Ugandans; others acquired property and began farming; some married into Ugandan families; and a small number joined the State Research Bureau, Amins dreaded security apparatus, which inflicted terror on Ugandans. When Obote returned to power in the 1980s, he stripped the Rwandan Tutsis of their civil rights and ordered them into the refugee camps or back over the border into Rwanda, where they were not welcomed by the Hutu-dominated government. Those who refused to go were assaulted, raped and killed and their houses were destroyed.
In response to Obotes abuses, more and more Rwandan refugees joined the National Resistance Army, an anti-Obote rebel group founded by Museveni in 1981. When Musevenis rebels took power in 1986, a quarter of them were Rwandan Tutsi refugees, and Museveni granted them high ranks in Ugandas new army.
Musevenis promotion of the Rwandan refugees within the army generated not only resentment within Uganda, but terror within Rwanda where the majority Hutus had long feared an onslaught from Tutsi refugees. In 1972, some 75,000 educated Hutus just about anyone who could read had been massacred in Tutsi-ruled Burundi, a small country neighbouring Rwanda with a similar ethnic makeup. During the 1960s, Ugandas Tutsi refugees had launched occasional armed strikes across the border, but Rwandas army easily fought them off. Each attack sparked reprisals against those Tutsis who remained inside Rwanda many of whom were rounded up, tortured and killed on mere suspicion of being supporters of the refugee fighters. By the late 1980s, a new generation of refugees, with training and weapons supplied by Musevenis Uganda, represented a potentially far greater threat. According to the historian Andr Guichaoua, anger and fear hung over every bar-room altercation, every office dispute and every church sermon.
By the time Museveni took power, the plight of the Tutsi refugees had come to the attention of the west, which began pressuring Rwandas government to allow them to return. At first, Rwandas president, Juvnal Habyarimana, refused, protesting that Rwanda was among the most densely populated countries in the world, and its people, dependent upon peasant agriculture, needed land to survive. The population had grown since the refugees left, and Rwanda was now full, Habyarimana claimed.
Although he did not say so publicly, overpopulation almost certainly was not Habyarimanas major concern. He knew the refugees leaders were not just interested in a few plots of land and some hoes. The RPFs professed aim was refugee rights, but its true aim was an open secret throughout the Great Lakes region of Africa: to overthrow Habyarimanas government and take over Rwanda by force. Museveni had even informed the Rwandan president that the Tutsi exiles might invade, and Habyarimana had also told US state department officials that he feared an invasion from Uganda.
One afternoon in early 1988 when the news was slow, Kiwanuka Lawrence Nsereko, a journalist with the Citizen, an independent Ugandan newspaper, stopped by to see an old friend at the ministry of transport in downtown Kampala. Two senior army officers, whom Lawrence knew, happened to be in the waiting room when he arrived. Like many of Musevenis officers, they were Rwandan Tutsi refugees. After some polite preliminaries, Lawrence asked the men what they were doing there.
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