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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 historythe
killing of perhaps 800,000 Rwandanswe 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
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.
generally accepted story says that the majority Hutu in Rwanda engaged in a
systematic effort to eliminate the Tutsi minorityas 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
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.
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 killedanywhere
from 250,000 to 500,000. The world has not yet confronted the scale of Hutu
deathsnumbers 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 rivalswhich 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.
point is not to deny the scale of murder and violence as Rwandan society
unraveled or to deny that ethnic motivations existedjust the
oppositewe 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
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.