Lars Waldorf was a lecturer in Human Rights at The University of York and an expert on the Rwandan genocide. He ran Human Rights Watch’s field office in Rwanda in 2002 and 2003 and covered genocide trials at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 2001.
Below is a transcript of his podcast:
‘The trigger however, that set off the genocide was the assassination of the Rwandan President on April 6 1994. His plane was shot down as he was returning from a meeting in Arusha, Tanzania where he was being pressured to implement the peace accords. The Plane went down in his backyard. He was killed along with some very high level members of his government. Exactly who shot down the plane remains very much a mystery. Early on it was believed that it was Hutu extremists who thought the President was going too far in terms of power sharing [but] there is now a number of scholars, academics and prosecutors who believe that it may have been the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) that shot the plane down. It’s not clear but what is clear is that the downing of the plane was used by Hutu extremists to implement an extermination against the Tutsi minority.
The factors that made the genocide possible in the days after the downing of the plane were that the war resumed very quickly. The extremists started committing violence against moderate Hutu leaders. They basically wanted to get rid of anybody who would oppose an extermination plan. They also resumed the war against the RPF and the resumption of civil war is what made it easier for Hutu extremists to say that Tutsi civilians were supporting the RPF; were an enemy in the context of this renewed civil war. The other thing that made genocide violence possible was the withdrawal of international forces very quickly. Most of the donors and diplomats left Rwanda within the first week, week and a half and removed most of their diplomats as well as their civilians. So the Americans came in and got the Americans out, the Belgian troops came in and got the Belgians out, similarly the French and in a sense what that did is – it gave something of a green light to the Hutu extremists and basically meant that the genocide could unfold without the eyes of diplomats being still there in the country.
Let me say a few words now about one the most troubling aspects of the Rwandan genocide which is the fact that you had very high numbers of participation by ordinary people. As I mentioned before, it is estimated that approximately 200,000 mostly ordinary people participated in the violence as killers and large numbers of the population were bystanders as well. What makes this large scale participation even less comprehensible is the terrifying intimacy of the violence. Ordinary killers often turned on their Tutsi members, Tutsi family members and their neighbours using machetes and other everyday tools. Most of the perpetrators were ordinary farmers, though [the] rural elite [and] young thugs did play a crucial role in driving the violence. Most of the ordinary perpetrators committed genocide for fairly banal reasons. I remember being at a Gacaca* where I heard one of the killers explain how he joined a group of people to steal a Tutsi woman’s cow and after they had captured her cow somebody in the group said, ‘Well, when the war is over, she’s going to want her cow back so let’s kill her and we won’t have to give her cow back after the war is over.’ So again a very banal reason.
Why was there such wide spread participation? First of all there was widespread anger, fear and uncertainty caused by the death of the President. From 1973 until 1994, Rwandans had known President Habyarimana as a father figure, as the father of the country and so his killing which Hutu extremists blamed on the rebel Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front caused enormous anger and fear among the local population. The second reason for widespread participation was simple opportunism. You had Hutu Extremists at the local level who used this period of renewed war and this resurgence of anger, fear and uncertainty to take power at a local level and sometimes their power struggle was motivated by their own personal interest in grabbing power and grabbing control of the local economy more than anything. Another reason why you had widespread participation was social pressure and coercion. There was an enormous amount of coercion among Hutu to participate in the killing of Tutsi so often what would happen is that a group of Hutu led by a few extremists would go knock on the doors of other Hutu and say ‘You have got to come with us, you’ve got to help us patrol, you’ve got to be there at the barrier or roadblocks to help us find, track down and kill other Tutsi’. And so ordinary Hutu often felt under enormous pressure to join the patrols, to join the roadblocks because they felt that they would be harmed or fined if they didn’t join. Also many of them were hiding Tutsi relatives or Tutsi friends and they felt that if they didn’t join in killing Tutsi that they didn’t know they might be found out for the Tutsi that they were hiding.
There was an enormous reluctance on the part of the International Community particularly the Security Council and countries on the Security Council like the U.S., to call the genocide by its name to call it a genocide. The Clinton administration feared that calling it a genocide would obligate them to act under the UN genocide convention of 1948. That wasn’t true but it still held them back from calling it a genocide. Humanitarian intervention would have been difficult because the killings happened so quickly. There is no question about that, but still Belgians, the French, and the Americans had enough military forces in Rwanda or in the region, for example in neighbouring Kenya, who could have come into Rwanda quickly and at least stopped the killing in the capital city of Kigali which would of sent a very strong message to the extremists out on the hills. As I mentioned before, the pull out of the embassy staff, of the Belgian forces and most of the UN peacekeepers gave a green light to the extremists. The UN peacekeeping mission that was already in the country when the genocide started, that was there to monitor this very shaky peace accords between the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front and the Government, most of those peacekeepers were removed from the Country and so the peacekeeping force goes from about 2,500 to just 250, a really rump force led by the courageous Canadian General Romeo Dallaire who despite pressure from UN Headquarters made the decision to stay on with the 250 peacekeepers and try to do the best he could to stop the violence. In addition to humanitarian intervention, military intervention that could have been done and was not done in Rwanda to stop the killings, there were other none military options that the International Community sadly did not do.
The first and obvious one would have been diplomatic pressure. The International Community could not even rouse itself to make forceful denunciations of the genocide or engage in serious diplomatic pressure and at a minimum the Rwandan Ambassador should have been expelled from his seat on the Security Council. It meant perversely that a representative of the Government committing genocide had a voice, had a place on the Security Council, was involved in the deliberations about what to do about peacekeeping and military intervention. The only country that had real leverage over the genocidal government was France and the United States; the United Kingdom and others could have done much more to have shamed and pressured France into putting pressure on the genocidal government to stop the genocide.
I think a final thing to say about the Rwandan genocide is that at various junctures there were enormously courageous individuals. Rwandans, both Hutu and Tutsi, as well as foreigners who saved lives and so it’s important to remember and celebrate and commemorate these individual acts of heroism and rescue. As well as commemorating obviously the hundreds of thousands who were killed in the genocide.’
*The Gacaca court is part of a system of community justice inspired by tradition and established in 2001 in Rwanda, in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. It was set up to try individuals suspected of taking part in the genocide.
The views expressed in this podcast are of the individual contributor and not necessarily those of HMD