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Rwanda 1994: More than Genocide

By Christian Davenport and Allan Stam

As the world marks the tenth anniversary of one of the worst mass murders in recent history—the killing of perhaps 800,000 Rwandans—we have a chance to honor the victims by correcting the historic record. The conventional wisdom has likely given us a deeply flawed picture of what really happened, overlooked some of the victims and clouded our judgments of how Rwanda and the international community responded.

The 100 days of killing and torture occurred on an epic scale. Of that much we are certain. The corpses and skeletons that remain in plain view across much of the country to this day attest to that.

The generally accepted story says that the majority Hutu in Rwanda engaged in a systematic effort to eliminate the Tutsi minority—as well as a small number of politically moderate Hutu. Fanatical followers of a parasitic regime, we are told, carried out the violence with wide popular support and assistance.

But this grossly oversimplifies what took place. Our source material comes from the approximately ten independent investigations conducted by governments and non-governmental human rights organizations operating within and outside of Rwanda. We are the first to analyze and compare all these efforts. When the data are put side-by side in this way, a sharply different picture emerges.

The violence did seem to begin with Hutu extremists. During the first days in early April, the militia group known as Interahamwe focused their murderous efforts against the Tutsi as well as Hutu in a handful of urban and rural settings. But from there, in a matter of a few days, violence spread in an ever-widening circle, with Hutu and Tutsi playing the roles of both attackers and victims. A wide diversity of individuals, both Hutu and Tutsi, systematically used the mass killing to settle political, economic and personal scores. Toward the end, most of the killing could once again be attributed to government agents in a few select locations.

Against conventional wisdom, we believe that the victims of this violence were fairly evenly distributed between Tutsi and Hutu. According to some estimates, the majority of victims may even have been Hutu. Widely accepted demographic data suggest that there simply weren't enough Tutsi in Rwanda at the time to account for all the reported deaths.

Definitive numbers aren't possible because estimates of the death toll vary widely, but during the mass killing more than three-fourths of Rwanda's Tutsis may have been killed—anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000. The world has not yet confronted the scale of Hutu deaths—numbers which range from 50,000 to 500,000.

Why the large number of Hutus, and why did we miss this? As numerous witnesses have testified in the U.N.-sponsored war crimes trials, the ethnic identity of individuals within Rwanda was far from clear in the midst of the raging civil war, state-sponsored mass killing and forced migration. Some Hutus were probably accidental victims of rampages where the killers didn't try to figure out who everybody was. Other Hutus were probably deliberate targets, as individuals, Hutu and Tutsi alike, used the mass mobilization as an opportunity to settle national and more localized grievances. The evidence suggests that political goals drove the killers, not just ethnic hatred, as the weak and transitional government attempted to purge the society of rivals—which invariably included most of the population.

The identity of the victims and their motives make all the difference in how this tragedy should be understood. If Tutsi and Hutu were slaughtered as the brutal byproduct of an ongoing civil war or state-sponsored pogrom, then, according to standard definitions, the term 'genocide' is too narrow. Clearly ethnic-based slaughter took place, but a lot more was going on in Rwanda in 1994. In the terminology used by scholars, the broader and equally repugnant term 'politicide' is more appropriate. This allows for a diversity of motives and victims, while simultaneously highlighting the role played by the Rwandan government of 1994.

Our point is not to deny the scale of murder and violence as Rwandan society unraveled or to deny that ethnic motivations existed—just the opposite—we want to confront it, acknowledge that other motivations as well as other victims existed, and that the conventional account denies the full extent of the horror.

Putting this new face on Rwanda's mass killing also highlights the difficulties in trying to intervene to limit organized and spontaneous violence in such a volatile situation. First of all, international law recognizes genocide, but not politicide, as a basis for international intervention. Most are thus responsive to the former and not the latter. Second, the killings took place in many different locations and at different times. Experience has shown that intervention works best when peacekeepers are able to focus their efforts on a few locations and on specific types of behavior. Peacekeepers would have needed detailed knowledge about the complex and unfolding tragedy in order to save many lives, but it has not been established that such intelligence was available or reliable.

Confronting the scope of violence also has implications for recovery efforts. Any allocations of medical, psychological or legal redress would need to be guided by the information about exactly who did what to whom. Similarly, criminal prosecutors need to establish the chain of events, motives, and processes, and to find witnesses. Last, but definitely not least, we need to get the details right for the victims. Unless we set the record straight, it will be as if many of the killings never happened and that would be a grave travesty.

Christian Davenport is associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. Allan Stam is associate professor of government at Dartmouth College. Their research is funded by a National Science Foundation grant. They have assembled their data online at www.genodynamics.com. The International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda (Arusha, Tanzania), National University of Rwanda at Butare and the Minister of Justice in Kigali, Rwanda are using their research.

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