Between April and June 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days. Most of the dead were Tutsis—and most of those who perpetrated the violence were Hutus.
—“RWANDA: HOW THE GENOCIDE HAPPENED,” BBC
GISENYI, RWANDA, JULY 17, 1994
To the east of the Congo, in the heart of the African continent, lie the highlands of Rwanda. The country is tiny, the size of Massachusetts, and has one of the highest population densities in the world. This is not the Africa of jungles, corruption, and failed states portrayed in movies. Temperatures fall to freezing on some hilltops, cattle graze on velvety pastures, and the government maintains a tight grip on all aspects of society. On the thousands of hills—in between tea plantations and eucalyptus groves—millions of peasants eke out a living by farming beans, bananas, and sorghum.
The conflict in the Congo has many causes, but the most immediate ones came across the border from Rwanda, a country ninety times smaller. In 1994, violence unfolded there that was many times larger than anything the modern African continent had ever seen, killing a sixth of the population and sending another sixth into refugee camps. This genocide helped create the conditions for another cataclysm in neighboring Congo, just as terrible in terms of loss of life, albeit very different in nature.
Paul Rwarakabije, a lieutenant colonel in Rwanda’s police force, fled across the border into Zaire on July 17, 1994. He was dejected; after four years of civil war, the Hutu-led government had been defeated by soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). At the beginning of the war, he had sworn to himself that he would never surrender or accept defeat. Now he was sitting in an army truck, crossing the border into the Congo with his wife, children, and a few belongings. He was not alone: It was one of the largest population movements of modern times; over half a million people packed into a two-lane highway forty miles long. The air was filled with the rumble of thousands of flip-flops and bare feet on the hot tarmac.
While Rwarakabije and the elite moved in a fleet of hundreds of cars—they had taken with them every functioning vehicle they could find—the peasantry trudged sullenly with children strapped to their backs and bundles of clothes and mattresses on their head, moving in lockstep with panic written on their faces. Government trucks with loudspeakers brought up the rear, warning that “anybody who stays will be massacred by the RPF.” Army soldiers fired salvos into the air to keep the crowds moving. The roadside was littered with the old and sick, unable to continue.
The masses were leaving one of the largest, quickest slaughters of humankind at their backs. On April 6, 1994, Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down just before landing in the capital Kigali, ending the fragile cease-fire that had halted the civil war.1 Preying on the population’s fear of the Tutsi insurgents, Hutu extremists in the Rwandan government deployed killing squads and popular militias, who rallied others, saying they must kill or be killed.
The two largest and most notorious of these youth militias were the Interahamwe and the Impuzamugambi, ragtag bands made up mostly of unemployed young men, which were affiliated with two radical Hutu political parties. They drew up hit lists and manned roadblocks, checking identity cards for ethnic identity or just looking for stereotypical Tutsi features: a slender frame, high cheekbones, an aquiline nose. It mattered little that the Hutu and Tutsi identities themselves were historically as much class-based as morphological and that a rich, cattle-owning Hutu could be promoted to become a Tutsi. Or that there had been extensive intermarriage between the ethnicities, meaning that in many cases the physical stereotypes had little meaning.
In just one hundred days, between April and July 1994, over 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed. Unlike the holocaust of World War II, which had been carried out by a select group of state officials and army officers, largely away from the view of the population, Rwanda’s genocide was organized by the elites but executed by the people. Between 175,000 and 210,000 people took part in the butchery, using machetes, nail-studded clubs, hoes, and axes.2 The killing took place in public places: in churches, schools, and marketplaces, on roads, and in the fields. The entire population was involved in the drama, either as an organizer, a perpetrator, a victim, or a witness.
It was paradoxically the Hutu, who made up around 85 percent of Rwanda’s population, who fled during the violence, even though the genocide mainly targeted the minority Tutsi community. This was because the genocide spelled the end of the government’s resistance against the Tutsi-led RPF. It was one last, final paroxysm of violence as the government’s army and police fell apart. A million Hutu civilians streamed across the border into Zaire, accompanied and driven along by 30,000 government soldiers and tens of thousands of militiamen.
The army’s flight across the border did not end the civil war in Rwanda but constituted a hiatus in the hostilities. The Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR), as the Hutu-dominated army was called, used the protection provided by the border to regroup, rearm, and prepare to retake power in Kigali. One of their leaders, Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, said in an interview that they would “wage a war that will be long and full of dead people until the minority Tutsi are finished and completely out of the country.”3
Crucially, they enjoyed the support of Zaire’s ailing president, Mobutu Sese Seko, who had sent troops to support the FAR against the RPF, and who had been close friends with President Juvénal Habyarimana. In part, what was to play out over the next decade in the Congo was a continuation of the Rwandan civil war, as the new government attempted to extirpate the génocidaires and the remnants of Habyarimana’s army on a much broader canvas.
Between 1994 and 2003, Paul Rwarakabije continued fighting the Rwandan civil war. He eventually took command of the remnants of those Rwandan soldiers and militiamen who had fled to Zaire, commonly known as the ex-FAR and Interahamwe. Under Rwarakabije, they became one of the most feared militia in the region.
I met Rwarakabije in Kigali in 2004. After spending a decade fighting a guerrilla war against the Rwandan government, he had surrendered and had been given a high-ranking, if somewhat ceremonial, job in Rwanda’s demobilization commission.4 Even though he had led a brutal insurgency that had claimed the lives of thousands of Rwandan civilians, he had not been involved in the 1994 genocide, and the government had chosen not to press charges.
Over the years, I met the general a dozen times, always in his sparsely decorated office. He is a short, avuncular man with a proud gut undercut by his tight belt, always available for a chat, always polite and friendly. He told me he had diabetes, and he took short, deliberate steps when he walked, but otherwise looked as if he were in good health; he had put on forty pounds since he had deserted the rebellion and returned home. His reintegration into the army had gone without problems, he said. He was a major general, the same rank as President Paul Kagame. He lived in a house provided by the government and had an official car and guard (although it wasn’t clear if they were protecting him or keeping tabs on him). He now taught lessons on counterinsurgency and gave advice on how to deal with the remaining Hutu rebels across the border.
When I asked him about the flight into Zaire after the genocide, all Rwarakabije could remember was “the confusion.” There was little hint of remorse or distress, just the military man’s disdain for disorder. He was a career officer who talked about past wars in terms of strategy, battle plans, and clinical figures. He made it seem there was little ideology at play; he had fought against the RPF, lost, and now here he was, taking orders from his former enemies.
“The anti-Tutsi propaganda was part of our military tactics,” he said, smiling affably. “We didn’t believe it, but in a guerrilla war you have to motivate soldiers and indoctrinate the population.”
Even though the general had far less blood on his hands, his attitude reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi officer who ordered the transport of countless Jews to their death in concentration camps, as someone who had never been a Jew-hater and had never willed the murder of human beings. His guilt came from his obedience, his mindless desire to please his hierarchy.5 There were, however, far more differences than similarities between Eichmann and Rwarakabije. In the case of the Rwandan commander, there was little formal law and no dehumanizing bureaucracy to justify his actions. Rwarakabije was not just a cog in a machine whose nature he did not question. So what drove him?
Rwarakabije was from the Kiga community in northern Rwanda, home of “the mountain people,” who had fought annexation by the central Rwandan court and colonial rulers well into the twentieth century. Warrior folklore ran deep in his family, and he had grown up on tales of his ancestors’ heroism and exploits. Rwarakabije’s father had told him how, when he was a child growing up, their community had risen up numerous times against the German and then Belgian rulers who tried to impose forced labor and taxes on the peasants there. Later, colonial administrators sent Tutsi, considered by the European clergy and rulers as genetically superior, to replace the Kiga chiefs. Slowly, the Kiga were assimilated into Rwandan culture. On colonial identity cards, they were classified as Hutu, as they met the stereotype of short, broad-nosed farmers. Like the Hutu, their ambitions were stymied by the colonial government’s ethnic prejudice.
All that changed with independence in 1962. Rebelling against Tutsi domination, a new Hutu elite took power in the wake of pogroms, in which tens of thousands of Tutsi and many others fled. Over 300,000 Tutsi refugees emigrated to neighboring Uganda, the Congo, and Burundi, where many lived as refugees and second-class citizens.
Given this political turbulence, Rwarakabije saw little sense in going to university. Power was in the hands of the army, a fact driven home by the 1973 military coup that brought Juvénal Habyarimana to power. Rwarakabije was twenty, and he promptly signed up for officer training in the prestigious High Military Academy. Immediately after graduating, he was sent to a special forces training run by Belgian officers in Kota-Koli, in the heart of Zaire’s rainforest, where he was taught survival techniques, abseiling, and basic tactics. Upon his return to Rwanda, he was placed in the gendarmerie, a souped-up police force that dealt with internal security as well as matters of law and order. He was a career soldier who took pleasure in describing military tactics and logistics to me, but steered away from questions about politics.
“It is strange to think this given everything that has happened in this country,” he told me, “but the army when I joined was a place of discipline and order, where people were not swayed so much by identity as by professionalism.”
In late 1990, the political situation in the country deteriorated rapidly. A range of factors contributed to this: The price of Rwanda’s main exports, tin and tea, had collapsed over recent years, leading to a contraction of the national budget by 40 percent. The same year, after seventeen years of one-party rule, Habyarimana decided to open his country to multiparty democracy, prompting a proliferation of political parties with affiliated radio stations and newsletters, some of which resorted to explicit ethnic hate-mongering.
The trigger for the conflict was the decision by the Tutsi diaspora—through the Rwandan Patriotic Front—to launch a civil war to reclaim their rights as Rwandan citizens. The war provoked many hardships, especially for the population in northern Rwanda, where the RPF was based. Up to a million people were displaced. The RPF’s abuses of local villagers were reciprocated with virulent pogroms against Tutsi throughout the country, test runs for the cataclysm that would ultimately unfold. The peasantry was subjected to rumors of ghastly massacres committed by RPF troops, propagated by the new, rabid press, most famously the Hutu extremist Radio Télévision Libre Mille Collines.
All of these factors fueled the ethnic tensions, which Rwarakabije saw seeping into his barracks. “There were older officers who thought we had to blame the whole Tutsi community for the crimes of their soldiers. It was a throwback to independence, when similar Tutsi guerrillas had killed civilians and vice versa.” He shook his head. “Indiscipline crept into the army.”
It was, of course, not the first time Rwarakabije had experienced ethnic hatred. Although many families had intermarried with the other ethnicity, and they all shared the same language, culture, and traditional religious practices, the Hutu-Tutsi rift had grown steadily since independence. “In secondary school I was taught that Hutu come from Chad and Niger, while Tutsi are from Abyssinia, what is now Ethiopia. This was the ideology that was hammered into us, even at the military academy: Tutsi are more intelligent, more beautiful, but also tricksters, unreliable. But,” he laughed, “they said it was the Hutu who had developed the country, who had farmed the fields!”
When Habyarimana was killed on the evening of April 6, 1994, Rwarakabije, then the operational commander for the gendarmerie, became part of a war council that was supposed to name new commanders to take the country forward. The commander of the army had been killed along with President Habyarimana, and a new leader needed to be named. Rwarakabije was in close contact with the acting commander in chief, who opposed the killing of Tutsi civilians. “He used to call me every day,” he said, “telling me to make sure no gendarmes kill civilians.”
Rwarakabije, in the meantime, concentrated on the civil war, pushing back the RPF rebels, who had launched a major attack on Kigali as soon as the president’s plane was shot down. However, parallel chains of command permeated the security services, and his orders were often contradicted by extremists. The acting commander lost control of much of the army; Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, a close confidant of President Habyarimana, took control of the most important units and began orchestrating massacres. The presidential guard and the various youth militia began systematically killing Tutsi civilians. On one occasion, Rwarakabije’s own officers, whom he had sent to evacuate a group of eight Tutsi who lived next to his house, were attacked by a mob of militiamen who accused them of conniving with the enemy.
“I knew that members of the police were also carrying out massacres, but what could I do to stop them?” When I asked the general whether he had given orders to stop the killings, he nodded, then put his hands in the air. “Of course. But what could we do? We were no longer in control.” On his way to work every morning, Rwarakabije passed by roadblocks where Tutsi were picked out and hacked to death. The smell of rotting flesh hung in the air over Kigali; his children complained and cried in their beds at night. Crows circled in the skies, and packs of dogs roamed the streets, scavenging for dead bodies.
And yet Rwarakabije continued to go to the office every day, continued to do his job. Unlike other officers, who defected to the RPF, Rwarakabije was determined to win the war. He sent his family to his home village in the north and only fled Kigali when it was clear the fight was lost. When talking about the genocide, he emphasized the military, not the human dimension: “The army deployed most of its forces to massacre civilians, diverting trucks, ammunition, and manpower to slaughter them. The genocide caused our resistance to crumble. It was a cafouillage, a real mess.”
The words “chaos,” “mess,” and “confusion” recurred in my discussions with the general. They contrasted with his refrain that all he tried to do during this time was obey orders and uphold discipline. They were two conflicting ways of absolving himself from responsibility, but also means of coping morally and psychologically with the killing around him.
According to everybody who knew him, Rwarakabije was not himself involved in the killing. In 2009, he stood trial in court for crimes of genocide, but his former neighbors and colleagues quickly came to his defense. “I was glad I was put on trial,” he insisted, “so that once and for all, my reputation would be cleared.” A Tutsi man whom he helped bring to safety testified for him; one of the officers whom he had sent to evacuate a group of Tutsi argued on his behalf.
He was, however, part of an organization that caused the deaths of over 800,000 people, and he was in a position to save lives. When I pressed Rwarakabije about his loyalty to the army, even when it became obvious that many of his superiors were involved in the massacres, he shook his head, exasperated: “You are much too logical about this! We were in the middle of a war. We didn’t have time to think whether we were complicit in a genocide—we were just trying to survive!” He thought they still had a chance to win the war, he said. They thought their flight to Zaire was a tactical retreat, nothing more.
Many of his colleagues, however, did run, and called him from Canada and Belgium, urging him to join them in exile. He refused. One of his fellow police commanders, who had defected during the genocide and didn’t want me to reveal his name, told me: “He was a disciplinarian to the core. He never really asked why he was fighting; that was for the politicians to decide. And when the politicians ran, he just kept on fighting, like a robot.”
Even if he had decided to defect, it would not have been simple. Several of Rwarakabije’s colleagues surrendered to the RPF but were never heard from again. There were stories of President Habyarimana’s former officers turning themselves in only to be found the next day in a banana grove, their hands tied behind their back and their brains shot out.
“Don’t forget that this was a war,” the avuncular general repeated. “If I had deserted, I could have been killed by my own commanders or by the RPF.” He paused and fiddled with his watch. “The genocide was terrible, of course,” he said. “I thought it was a huge mistake.” He saw the killing out of his office window, as it were, disagreed with it, and got on with his work.
Watching him seated behind his almost empty desk, I found it hard to imagine that this man had been the leader of one of the most notorious rebel groups in Africa. He explained with his steady, glued-on smile that he had never learned how to use a computer in the bush. Instead, he operated with pen and a stack of printer paper, on which he made random notes and diagrams, as if to illustrate his thoughts to himself as he spoke with me. He was writing his own history of the war, he told me, showing me a stack of worn notebooks. He flipped through their pages as we talked, to find dates and names he was uncertain of. He had highlighted important passages in yellow or circled them with a ballpoint pen. When I asked him when he would publish his own book, he smiled. “Not yet. The country is not yet ready for everything I have to say. It is too early.”
Ethnic-based violence, the most extreme form of which was the genocide, is so often associated with the Congolese and Rwandan wars that it is worth trying to understand its causes. We tend to see the history of Rwanda as the history of a struggle between two ethnic groups, the agriculturist Hutu and the cattleherding Tutsi. An honest interrogation of the past, however, would require us to throw most of these crude concepts out the window, or at least to deconstruct them. The Rwandan state in its current geographical and political form did not come into existence until the twentieth century, after centuries of fighting between competing kingdoms and princely states.
Ethnic identities behind the rift between Hutu and Tutsi are being constantly contested and redefined with the changing political, cultural, and economic landscape. Until the eighteenth century, for example, ethnicity was less important than class and clan-based identities, which themselves coexisted alongside several layers of regional and social identities. Thus, each of the twenty major clans in Rwanda includes both Hutu and Tutsi, and among each ethnic group one can find poor, landless peasants as well as wealthier princes. To label someone a Hutu and leave it at that neglects that she may, depending on the social context, see herself more as a southerner, a member of the Abega clan, or a follower of the Pentecostal church. This is not just hair-splitting; much of contemporary Rwandan politics has been shaped by these competing and overlapping identities.
The polarization of Rwandan society into Hutu and Tutsi increased with King Rujugira’s consolidation of the Rwandan state in the eighteenth century. He expanded his armies and began subjugating much of what is today Rwanda, including areas where these ethnic distinctions previously had little traction. His armies’ long military campaigns required more revenues and deeper administrative penetration of society. The military, which was led by Tutsi, became the basis for a bureaucracy that administered land and collected taxes. Progressively, the loose distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi tightened and became more hierarchical. By the late nineteenth century, when the first colonizers arrived, many Hutu depended on Tutsi chiefs for land to farm and had to pay tithes as well as provide free manual labor. Still, ethnic identity remained fluid, with intermarriages between ethnic groups and the possibility, albeit rare, for rich Hutu to become “promoted” to Tutsi if they owned many cattle and had power in society. At the local level, Hutu remained influential, in particular in the administration of land. Still, social arrangements varied greatly between different regions, with some, like Gisaka in eastern Rwanda, not showing much ethnic polarization until much later.
The conquest of Rwanda—first by Germans, then Belgians—radically altered social structures. A tiny group of white administrators was faced with ruling a complex, foreign country they barely understood. As elsewhere in Africa, the new rulers chose to rule through what they thought were well-established, existing structures. They thus empowered the Tutsi monarchy, which they saw as the “natural” elite, abolished checks and balances on the royal family, and streamlined the local administration by ousting Hutu chiefs and vesting all power in a Tutsi-dominated administration. At the same time, they helped the royal court double the territory under its control, conquering kingdoms and princely states around its periphery.
The delicate social balance between the farmers and the pastoralists, the royal elite and the peasantry, the rich and the poor was brutally disrupted. Whereas Hutu peasants had previously been able to appeal to their relatives in case of abuses by the government, or at least play different chiefs off against each other, now they were left at the mercy of a Tutsi administration.6
The European rulers grounded their rule in an ideology and ethnography heavily influenced by racial theories popular in the United States and Europe at the time. John Hanning Speke, one of the first British explorers in the region, had written in 1863 about a distinct “Asiatic” sophistication among some of the people, presumably Tutsi, he encountered. “In these countries,” he wrote, “government is in the hands of foreigners, who had invaded and taken possession of them, leaving the agricultural aborigines to till the ground.” Speke, dabbling in history and religion, conjectured a link between these tribes and Ethiopia and proposed a “historical” basis for what he claimed to observe: “The traditions of these tribes go as far back as the scriptural age of King David.”
Speke’s theory was not a mere flight of fancy. Since the Middle Ages, Europeans had studied Africa through the lens of the Bible, trying to find divine design in nature and human society. One of the passages of most interest was from Genesis 9 and 10. Just before a description of how Noah’s sons peopled the earth after the flood, the text tells the story of when Noah, drunk from wine, falls asleep naked. His sons Shem and Japheth avert their eyes and cover him, but their brother, Ham, stares at his naked body. When he awakes, Noah is furious at Ham and condemns Ham’s son, Canaan, to slavery: “a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.”
Although the Bible remains vague about Ham and Canaan’s destiny, well into the nineteenth century biblical scholars and scientists alike categorized the nations of the world as the descendents of Noah’s sons: the Semitic races of the Middle East, the Japhetic races of Europe, and the Hamitic races of Africa. Turned on its head, this theory explained the advanced civilizations found in Africa: Rock-cut wells, complex political organization, and irrigation systems were all creations of a Hamitic race that traced its lineage back to the Middle East. In Speke’s view, this explanation placed the continent’s Negroid races firmly where they belonged: on the bottom of the racial hierarchy, incapable of advanced civilization, and open game for slavery. Elsewhere, in the Muslim world, leaders also used the Hamitic theory to justify the enslavement of black Africans.
The first German governor of Rwanda, Count von Goetzen, theorized “the Tutsi are Hamitic pastoralists from Ethiopia, who have subjugated a tribe of Negro Bantus,” while Catholic prelate Monsignor Le Roy put it differently: “Their intelligent and delicate appearance, their love of money, their capacity to adapt to any situation seem to indicate a Semitic origin.” Armed with rulers and measuring tape, craniometric Belgian administrators went about rigidifying with physical measurements the previously more fluid boundaries between Tutsi and Hutu identities.
These colonial fantasies soon became engraved on the consciousness of the colonized, as well. The Tutsi elite, long favored under the Belgians, seized on the myths to justify their continued superiority, imbibing the stereotypes of Hutu—as espoused by a Belgian priest—as “the most common type of black, brachycephalic and prognathous, with agronomic taste and aptitudes, sociable and jovial ... with thick lips and squashed noses, but so good, so simple, so loyal .”7 Hutu dissidents, in the meantime, appropriated the stereotypes of Tutsi as a race of crafty herders from Ethiopia to rally support against “the foreigners.”
Where loyalty and power stirred General Rwarakabije, the masses were moved more by fear, ideology, and local politics. In the popular imagination, the RPF had been cast as subhuman, as demons. By the time the genocide began, the civil war had been raging for almost four years. Over a million people, mostly Hutu, had been displaced from the north of the country, and many of them had moved toward Kigali, where they spread the word of the rebels’ abuses. Hutu extremists preyed on this paranoia in their radio broadcasts. A Tutsi officer, having seized a village, was asked by one of the few Hutu who had stayed to lift up his shirt so the villagers could see if he had a tail, so sure were they that he was a devil.8 Even the sick and frail marched hundreds of miles to the border to escape the sure death they thought awaited them under the RPF. In the camps, refugees’ reluctance to return came at least as much from their fear of the RPF. The intimidation had become internalized.
Recent studies of the genocide have also revealed the importance of local politics in determining whether an area carried out genocide or not. Seasonal laborers and the landless, for example, were more likely to be manipulated by rural elites who stood to lose if the Hutu regime lost power.9The local strength of more extremist political parties reinforced pressure to carry out killings, as did the presence of Burundian Hutu refugees who had fled violence in their home country. In total, some 200,000 probably took part in the killing for many reasons: 10 Some were forced to do so by authorities; others sought economic gain; still others participated out of a mixture of social pressure and the belief that they would be killed themselves if they did not comply.11
In southwestern Rwanda, the Hutu flight was stalled by the deployment of a UN-mandated French military mission, dubbed Operation Turquoise, intended to protect the few remaining Tutsi in that region as well as aid workers. It was one of the many absurdities of the Rwandan crisis: The French government and its contractors had made thirty-six shipments of weapons to Habyarimana’s government between 1990 and 1994, worth $11 million, and had deployed seven hundred fifty French troops, who helped with military training, planning, and even interrogation of RPF prisoners.12 Just months after they had finished helping to train the Interahamwe, the French, wolves turned shepherds, announced a humanitarian intervention to bring an end to the killing.
The French troops did save Tutsi lives. They also, however, refused to arrest the Habyarimana government and army officials in their territory who were known to have organized massacres. Hate radio continued broadcasting unhindered from the area controlled by the French, exhorting the population to continue the extermination of Tutsi. Meanwhile, across the Zairian border in Goma, the base of French operations, at least five shipments of weapons from France were delivered to the ex-FAR leadership who had fled from Kigali.13 To add insult to injury, French president François Mitterrand personally authorized a donation of $40,000 to Habyarimana’s wife, one of the most extremist members of the president’s inner circle, when she arrived in Paris fleeing the violence in country. The donation was labeled as “urgent assistance to Rwandan refugees.”14
When Rwarakabije crossed into Zaire and arrived in Goma in July 1994, he spent a few days wandering about, disoriented and deflated. Goma, a town of 300,000, was inundated with goats, cars, and a teeming mass of people that surged in various directions, confused, without bearings. Rwarakabije had arrived in a truck with fellow officers, but everybody had dispersed to tend to their families. He finally managed to rent a house on the edge of town from a traditional chief for his wife and four children. Like all officers, he had benefited from the looting of state coffers before leaving Rwanda. They needed the extra cash, as the influx of refugees had sent prices in the markets skyrocketing. A kilo of meat was almost $10, five times the normal price.
Whereas the price of food had peaked, the value of weapons and ammunition had plummeted because of their abundance. At the border crossing, within sight of French troops, the fleeing Rwandan soldiers were supposed to give their weapons over to Mobutu’s presidential guard. Machine guns and rocket launchers piled up.
Behind the customs offices, however, an arms market had spontaneously sprung up, where ex-FAR officers negotiated to buy back their arms. An AK-47 went for $40 to $50, a Russian-made rocket launcher for just under $100. Other weapons were never handed over to the Zairians. Rwarakabije saw tons of ammunition smuggled through in trucks, hidden under bags of rice and maize. “We gave the border guards some money to look the other way. All they wanted was money.”
Located on the northern tip of Lake Kivu, which forms most of the border between the Congo and Rwanda, and underneath the towering Nyiragongo volcano, Goma had been a prime tourist destination in its heyday. The local Belgian elite, Mobutu’s coterie, and adventurous backpackers filled its colonial-style hotels, which featured ceramic tiling, whitewashed exteriors, and lush, manicured gardens. The fertile hinterlands had provided a cheap supply of vegetables—including such Belgian favorites as broccoli, sweet peas, and leeks—and the dairies created by Belgian priests had produced famous cheese rounds that were exported throughout the region. Travel agencies had organized guided tours to Virunga National Park to the north, habitat of the rare mountain gorilla. A beer and soft drinks factory just across the border in Rwanda kept the numerous bars and nightclubs supplied with a steady stream of lager, Coke, and Fanta.
The decay of the Zairian state and the influx of refugees drew a somber curtain over those days. Now the hotels hosted guests of a different caliber. The defeated Rwandan army commanders and politicians began checking into Hotel des Grands Lacs and Nyiragongo, Karibu, and Stella hotels and renting sumptuous villas on the lake. Journalists, fresh from the death-strewn camps, sat with politicians and army officers in their mansions on fake leather couches behind bougainvillea-draped walls.
After several months of confusion, Rwarakabije attended a meeting of the former Rwandan army’s top brass in a Pentecostal church in Goma. Sitting with him in the church’s sacristy, under a large cross, were the dour faces of his remaining army staff. Morale had hit rock bottom. Most of the officers present had evacuated their families on chartered flights to Nairobi, Yaounde (Cameroon), and Paris. “We had lost the war,” Rwarakabije remembered. “Anyone who had enough money eventually left.” Rwarakabije himself was not so fortunate.
The exiled war council took urgent measures. It swiftly reorganized the armed forces into two divisions of 7,680 and 10,240 men, based in camps on the northern and southern end of Lake Kivu, respectively. Support units of 4,000 soldiers pushed their total to 22,000 soldiers. Rwarakabije became the commander of the several thousand soldiers who made up the Fourth Brigade.
The quality of the soldiers varied. The officers came from regular army units, and many had trained in Belgium and France; they set up rigid administrative structures with carefully typed budgets and circulars. But some troops had no military experience. Hundreds of prisoners were recruited; since they were among the only people who benefited from the mayhem, they tended to have high morale. Primary and secondary students, some as young as nine, were coaxed and coerced into training camps, forming the Twenty-Sixth Reserve Brigade.
When I prodded Rwarakabije about the feared Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi militias, who had carried out much of the genocidal killing, he scoffed, deriding their lack of discipline. “They drugged themselves on marijuana and cheap liquor, robbed the population. They were thugs,” he remembered. “Many of them eliminated themselves in the war. They would stagger onto the battlefield like zombies, high and drunk, and get picked off by the enemy.” For him, there was a world of difference between the FAR’s discipline and objective of overthrowing the new government in Rwanda and the Interahamwe’s ethnic vendetta.
To raise spirits, the war council authorized the immediate payment of June and July salaries for all state employees and soldiers. They had brought with them the entire treasury of Rwanda, $30–40 million in Rwandan francs, which they stashed in a bank in downtown Goma. According to some reports, they were able to transfer over $100 million dollars in the early days of the genocide into private accounts; they had just collected the yearly taxes, and the coffers were flush with money.15 Most importantly, the commanders agreed on immediately launching guerrilla warfare against the new regime in Kigali. The expectations of the population were now especially palpable—the hopes of a million people, who were dying slow deaths in the camps, weighed on them. Since the Tutsi forces were known as inyenzi, or cockroaches, this offensive was dubbed Operation Insecticide.
Rwarakabije found pleasure, perhaps solace, in reciting troop strengths, names of commanding officers, and dates of battles, but he was reluctant to talk about the more human side of history: feelings, motivations, morality. The tragedy of the past decade was reduced to desiccated statistics.
Going through my notes later, the vision of two generals clashed in my head. One was of the pleasant old man who always had time for me and my many questions, who never seemed troubled or bothered by my probing. This was also the man his soldiers knew. In my interviews with the former Hutu troops under his command in demobilization camps in Rwanda, they painted a picture of a respected, caring commander who had become a father figure to many of the officers. They remembered him as a judicious leader, always conferring with his fellow leaders before making decisions.
The other Rwarakabije I had to infer through human rights reports and interviews with victims. While he was commander of the Hutu rebels between 1996 and 2003, his troops were guilty of massacres, mass rape, and routine pillage in both the Congo and Rwanda. Given the tight discipline that reigned, it was difficult to imagine that the general did not know about his soldiers’ behavior. At the very least, he failed to punish them.
During my first journey to the eastern Congo in 2001, to work for a local human rights group, Héritiers de la Justice (Heirs of Justice), in the border town of Bukavu, I heard daily the stories of people who had been raped or tortured or had their family members killed by the ones they called Interahamwe, the catch-all term for Rwarakabije’s rebels. Individual cases were then entered into a hardcover blue ledger in clipped terms:
On 10/08/2000, Mr. Nono Marandura, from Nkono village in the territory of Bunyakiri, was shot to death in his house by Interahamwe. The victim left behind a widow and six children who until now suffer from a lack of support.
On 19/09/2000, Mr. Papayi wa Katachi was killed by Interahamwe. The victim was 17 years old. He lived in Kaloba, in Bunyakiri territory. His brother was injured by bullets and their belongings were stolen. According to the information collected, the authors of these acts targeted the victim for unknown reasons.
The ledger contained hundreds of such entries.
I turned back to my own notes to reread Rwarakabije’s answers to my questions. I had scrawled “Abuses?” on the top of one page with an arrow pointing at his answer:
At the beginning we didn’t have many abuses. We even taught courses in international humanitarian law to our soldiers; some of our officers had done that training. But the troops got tired and hungry and started taking food by force from the population. We called it “pillage operations”—you would attack a village and take all of its cows and steal money.
When I pushed him, Rwarakabije conceded: “You have to remember that we had 10,000 soldiers and their families to feed. And once the pillage started, soldiers lost control and raped and even killed sometimes. If we caught them, we punished them. At the beginning, we executed several soldiers for murder, but that gave us problems, so we started caning. I remember we gave one rapist 300 strokes of a stick on his naked buttocks and expelled him from the troops. But how did you know who raped? The villagers were afraid of us; they didn’t tell us. So most of the criminals went unpunished.”
By October 1994, the Inzirabwoba—“those who are not afraid”—were infiltrating Rwanda from the refugee camps every week. Rwarakabije began leading nocturnal raids across the border. “We destroyed administrative buildings and killed local officials,” Rwarakabije explained, showing no sign of remorse. “It was a war; they were collaborators.”
As during the genocide, every Tutsi was seen as an accomplice of the RPF. In October 1994, rebels infiltrated across the hills at 3 AM, surrounding a village just yards from the border. They massacred thirty-seven people, mostly children. “Some killed out of hatred for Tutsi, others to prevent the survivors of the genocide from speaking out against them,” Rwarakabije remembered. Monitors from the United Nations tallied hundreds of killings of Tutsi in the first two years after the RPF drove the FAR from Rwanda.
It was not just Tutsi who suffered. If Hutu refugees dared to return home from the camps, they were considered traitors. Anatole Sucyendore was a Hutu doctor who had fled to Goma with the other refugees but had returned to Rwanda several months later to work in the Gisenyi hospital, despite numerous death threats. On February 25, 1995, Hutu rebels broke into his house, shot the doctor, stabbed his two-year-old infant to death, and severely injured his wife and other child.
Anonymous pamphlets distributed by Hutu militias in the camps give a taste of the rhetoric of the day:
You Hutu fools, who keep giving money which is used to buy weapons to kill your fellows. You say you are studying. Don’t you know where those who studied are? How many studies did Kagame undertake, he to whom you give your money, who leads all the massacres?
And You Tutsi, you have stretched your noses and necks because you think you have protectors! And you support your Inyenzi [RPF] fellows in their extermination of the Hutu, instead of fighting [us]. We will kill you until you are no longer contemptuous, and understand that you must cohabit with others.16
The general knew, however, that guerrilla attacks alone were never going to work. “We were nettling them, harassing them, but not really challenging their hold on power,” Rwarakabije remembered. They needed to resort to a stronger weapon: blackmail.
A leader of the former government boasted to journalists from the comfort of his villa in Goma: “Even if the RPF has won a military victory, it will not have the power. It has only the bullets, we have the population.”17 Failing to beat the enemy, they would use blackmail, holding the million refugees in Zaire for ransom to force Kigali to negotiate.
The exiled leaders resorted to similar organizational models to those they had used in their homeland. The Rwandan administration had been a tightly woven mesh that reached from Kigali to the provincial authorities, down to the commune, sector, and cell, a chain of command that had made possible the mass murder of 800,000 people in just a hundred days. They grafted this grid onto the camps, regrouping refugees by their places of origin in Rwanda and placing trusted officials in charge, often the same ones who had been involved in the killings back home.
When I asked Rwarakabije about these practices, he shook his head.
“It is true. We were brainwashed. And there were a lot of extremists there who preyed on people’s fear.”
“Did you ever use this kind of language?” I asked.
“Yes, but we never did what the tracts said. We needed to scare them. There were extremists who wanted to kill Tutsi, but that was wrong. We had Tutsi with us in the camps! There were officers who had been in the Rwandan army and had fled with us. One of my bodyguards was Tutsi. We had to tell them not to stray too far from the barracks or the population could kill them.”
“Did you ever order the killing of civilians?”
“But civilians were killed.”
Rwarakabije sighed and fidgeted with his loose watch again. “Chain of command ... I’m not sure you can apply that to our rebellion.”
“You didn’t control some of your own commanders?”
“My troops, yes. But the civilian ideologues, the extremists, no. Many of the army commanders did not support the genocide. It was something that had been organized by the civilians along with some extremist commanders.”
Rwarakabije ducked and weaved, denying responsibility, blaming massacres on others, using ends to justify means. “Where elephants fight,” he said, “the grass is trampled.” It was a convenient metaphor. Almost every commander I met in the region used it when I asked them about abuses against civilians.
In his calm serenity, Rwarakabije was a counterpoint to the images of hatedriven killers. According to everyone who knew him, he didn’t have any apparent hatred for Tutsi. One of his battalion commanders in the insurgency was Tutsi, and he was more comfortable being called Kiga than Hutu. Apparently he hadn’t joined and led the so-called Hutu rebellion out of ethnic chauvinism, even if the movement was deeply bigoted. He had joined because this is where he had ended up and what made sense for him to do when the civil war broke out; he could have tried to change it, but it would have been too difficult, too risky. Back to the description of Eichmann’s trial: “Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.”18
The same went for many rank-and-file soldiers I met. Many had joined because they were poor and unemployed or because they wanted “to be a man”; a gun and a uniform were among the best tools of social empowerment. Ethnicity was fundamental in this dynamic. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “Tutsi aggression” invoked as the reason for the war in the Congo, but it is not the origin of the conflict, as the quote from the BBC at the beginning of this chapter might have you believe. By limiting ourselves to the simplistic “Hutu militia killed half a million Tutsi,” we are suggesting that there is a reason for that violence implicit in those identities, that something about being Hutu and Tutsi caused the violence. While ethnicity is probably the strongest form of social organization in the region, we need to scratch behind that surface, to see what its history is, who is using it or being used by it, and for what reasons.