“There is very much in the world that is bad. But usually the attempt to defeat evil engenders more evil. I advise you to do good; that is the only way to win the victory.” — Sergei Lukyanenko, Last Watch
The genocide that shocked the world
Imagine your next-door neighbors armed with machetes and rifles, plotting to enter your house to kill your entire family. Imagine even your friends consumed by madness and waiting to eliminate all your loved ones by whatever means possible. It may sound like a nightmare or a horror movie, but it actually happened to the Tutsis at Rwanda in 1994.
Before I go on, however, I would like to say that this is not about a political stand nor any claim as to which parties are to be blamed. This is about learning from history. This is about what could possibly save us all from ourselves.
A brief background
For a period of 100 days, between 7 April and 15 July 1994, about 500,000 to 1,000,000 people (70% of the entire Tutsi population) have been killed in Rwanda. They were slaughtered by the Hutus, an ethnic group that comprised about 85% of the population.
The conflict between the two ethnic groups had a long and complex origin, but what sparked the said massacre was the assassination of the then-President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a group of Tutsi rebels were blamed and from then on, what followed was an organized effort against the Tutsi minority group.
Weapons like machetes were distributed even to Hutu civilians who were bombarded with propaganda, especially from the newly founded radio station RTLMC, which incited fear and hatred toward the Tutsis.
When your ID is the only evidence to save your life
It is said that there is not much difference in the physical appearance between a Hutu and a Tutsi. Minor distinctions may include traits like being taller and having a lighter skin for Tutsis, but such are not that easy to tell.
What can specifically identify their ethnicity is the national ID of Rwanda which clearly indicates one’s ethnic classification. In the absence of which, the next reliable sources of information are their fellow villagers because they know each other. And that’s the terrifying part.
When your neighbor has become your enemy
What’s truly shocking with the Rwandan genocide was that it wasn’t merely the people in power nor the military that committed the said massacre. It was committed by people whom the victims have known.
It was committed by ordinary men and women who have been provoked and conditioned to a point of extreme rage against their neighbors.
People tried to hide in schools and churches, but even those places were used to trap countless victims of violence. Houses were looted and burned. Children were murdered, women were raped, even men were sexually violated.
A crime fueled by a long history of hatred
Long before the assassination of the Hutu president, Hutus and Tutsis have had a long account of enmity.
Prior to World War II, it was the Tutsis who wielded power. Early colonial rulers favored the Tutsis, culminating with the issuance of identity cards in 1935 that permanently identified each one’s ethnicity. As the Tutsis were in power, the said identification referred not only to one’s race but also to one’s social class.
It was only after World War II that the Hutus gained control over the country. Since then, there have been various movements struggling for power between the two groups.
The role of media
The role of media in inciting the people towards hatred for the Tutsis cannot be denied. Through the Hutu-controlled newspaper (Kangura) and radio station (RTLMC), Hutus were conditioned to hate their Tutsi neighbors and to see them as demons or insects instead of fellow human beings.
Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLMC)
RTLMC has bombarded the Hutus with messages that tagged the Tutsis as “cockroaches” or “snakes” that need to be exterminated.
In one of the radio’s live broadcasts transcribed in Immaculée Ilibagiza’s book Left To Tell, the following horrifying message was conveyed to the Hutus in reference to the Tutsi minority:
“If you don’t have a gun, the government will bring you one. If you’re working your field and spot a Tutsi woman in the bushes breast-feeding her baby, don’t waste a golden opportunity: Pick up your gun, shoot her, and return to work, knowing that you did your duty. But don’t forget to kill the baby — the child of a snake is a snake, so kill it, too!”
Like its radio counterpart, Kangura published critical and antagonistic articles against the Tutsis.
In the cover of its November 1991 issue, the following text could be read next to the image of a machete:
“Which weapons are we going to use to beat the cockroaches for good?”
Kangura also published what was to be known as The Hutu Ten Commandments, a set of racist guidelines against the Tutsis. It also labeled as “traitors” all of those who may support them.
The Hutu Ten Commandments
- Every Hutu should know that a Tutsi woman, whoever she is, works for the interest of her Tutsi ethnic group. As a result, we shall consider a traitor any Hutu who
— marries a Tutsi woman
— employs a Tutsi woman as concubine
— employs a Tutsi woman as a secretary or takes her under protection.
- Every Hutu should know that our Hutu daughters are more suitable and conscientious in their role as woman, wife and mother of the family. Are they not beautiful, good secretaries and more honest?
- Hutu women, be vigilant and try to bring your husbands, brothers and sons back to reason.
- Every Hutu should know that every Tutsi is dishonest in business. His only aim is the supremacy of his ethnic group. As a result, any Hutu who does the following is a traitor:
— makes a partnership with Tutsi in business
— invests his money or the government’s money in a Tutsi enterprise
— lends or borrows money from a Tutsi
— gives favours to Tutsi in business (obtaining import licenses, bank loans, construction sites, public markets, etc.).
- All strategic positions, political, administrative, economic, military and security should be entrusted only to Hutu.
- The education sector (school pupils, students, teachers) must be majority Hutu.
- The Rwandan Armed Forces should be exclusively Hutu. The experience of the October 1990 war has taught us a lesson. No member of the military shall marry a Tutsi.
- The Hutu should stop having mercy on the Tutsi.
- The Hutu, wherever they are, must have unity and solidarity and be concerned with the fate of their Hutu brothers.
— The Hutu inside and outside Rwanda must constantly look for friends and allies for the Hutu cause, starting with their Hutu brothers.
— They must constantly counteract Tutsi propaganda.
— The Hutu must be firm and vigilant against their common Tutsi enemy.
- The Social Revolution of 1959, the Referendum of 1961, and the Hutu Ideology, must be taught to every Hutu at every level. Every Hutu must spread this ideology widely. Any Hutu who persecutes his brother Hutu for having read, spread, and taught this ideology is a traitor.
A heartbreaking film
Based on the life of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, Hotel Rwanda is a heartbreaking movie in 2004 that depicts the horrifying ordeals the Tutsi minority went through.
Using the hotel operations as camouflage for those who sought refuge in hopes of survival, Paul was able to save not only his family but also the lives of more than a thousand refugees during the Rwandan genocide.
The children of mixed marriages
In the above film, the hero of the story is a Hutu himself who was married to a Tutsi. While he could have been secure for his life, the life of his wife and of his children were on the line. Perhaps it was his love for his family that enabled him to overcome the madness that crept in and resulted in the mass brutal killings by his fellow Hutus.
“Hutu with Tutsi relatives faced wrenching decisions about whether or not to desert their loved ones in order to save their own lives. At Mugonero church in Kibuye, two Hutu sisters, each married to a Tutsi husband, faced such a choice. One decided to die with her husband. The other chose to leave because she hoped to save the lives of her eleven children. The children, classed as Tutsi because their father was Tutsi, would not ordinarily have had the right to live, but assailants had said that they could be allowed to depart safely if she agreed to go with them. When she stepped out of the door of the church, she saw eight of the eleven children struck down before her eyes. The youngest, a child of three years old, begged for his life after seeing his brothers and sisters slain. ‘Please don’t kill me,’ he said. ‘I’ll never be Tutsi again.’ He was killed.”
A lesson for our times
It may be unimaginable for most people how such a terrible massacre could occur in recent times, but what has transpired in Rwanda is something that can very well occur elsewhere given the various factors that contributed to the said genocide.
A slow descent into hell
What happened in Rwanda was not something that occurred overnight. It was the result of centuries of conflict between ethnic groups that learned to distrust and fear each other.
A dehumanized image of the other
It isn’t normal to desire murdering a fellow human being, especially friends and neighbors who have done nothing wrong against you. But what happened in Rwanda was the incessant propaganda of hatred and demonization of the other race whereby human beings were no longer seen as the people that they truly are. Referring to them as “snakes” or “cockroaches” have provoked many to justify their actions.
The excuse of “self-defense”
A campaign that constantly pictures a certain group as a threat to the other is something that can be used to bring people to the edges of fear for their own lives.
The rule of the majority
When you comprise 85% of the population, there is that all too human tendency to think that your opinion is right. Belonging to a majority is often seen as belonging to the right group and the right ideas. When that happens, however, the dignity that should be attributed to each person ends up only as a matter of numbers.
A license to kill
When it is those in authority who gives the people the power to do something, this can be seen as having the license to do just that thing even when the conscience of the person may say that it is wrong. If that person’s will is not that inclined to do what is right, this license can be used as an excuse.
The person may justify himself saying, “I have been given the right to do this, and so this is the right thing to do.”
Human tendencies to envy and greed
People are not perfect. We have the free will to choose righteousness, but we can also convince ourselves otherwise once we’re influenced by our weaknesses.
These weaknesses are like holes that allow more and more evil to creep in until our hearts harden and we could no longer see what is right. We begin to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re doing something meaningful when we’re actually only giving way to our envy, our hatred or our greed.
“The time is always right to do what is right.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
The human heart is often weak, changeable and insecure. What we could convince ourselves as acts of righteousness may only be our fearful response to a threat we have been deceived to believe. When anger is allowed to creep in and to cloud our minds with false accusations against our neighbors, we could start to see them as less than the human beings that they truly are.
It could happen to anyone. It could start with any conflict in one’s race, social class, political beliefs or other ideologies. Once we cast aside our neighbors as unworthy of our respect and compassion, we could easily fall into a hell of our own making.
Never allow fear or hatred to poison your heart and your soul.
In the worst of situations, let us remember that we can still be human, we can still look at other people with a merciful heart.
"There were many voices, many killers. I could see them in my mind: my former friends and neighbors, who had always greeted me with love and kindness, moving through the house carrying spears and machetes and calling my name.
'I have killed 399 cockroaches,' said one of the killers. 'Immaculée will make 400. It’s a good number to kill.’”
— Immaculée Ilibagiza, Left To Tell