It’s time to accept: the West failed Rwanda during genocide

  • Mucahid Durmaz
  • 5 Apr 2019

The Rwandan genocide was not the tale of two supposedly savage tribes in an African country. Instead, European colonialism helped plant the seeds of future tragedy.

Rwandan Girl Sitting at Roadside, 1994. ( Getty Images )

KIGALI, Rwanda- The genocide in Rwanda in many Western minds was a brutal conflict between savage tribes in a primitive African country. 

The accepted belief is that genocide erupted spontaneously when frantic black Africans with blunt machetes went after one another.  But that was an image created by the media; coverage, which did nothing to explain the conflict further but reinforced typical Western prejudices.

Such readings, devoid of context, mask decades of history and absolve the role played by European colonial powers, which deliberately seeded, watered, and raised the tree of hatred until its fruits bore down in 1994. Belgian colonisation of Rwanda and France's absolute dominance over the country in the post-colonial era, restructured society and culture in Rwanda, and instituted divisive ethnicity-based policies that laid the foundations for genocide. 

An unidentified Tutsi man displays slashes on his face and head June 3, 1994 in Rwanda.(Getty Images)

The Belgian colonial rule

Abdoul Khalim Harelimana,  a member of the Rwanda Elders Advisory Forum (REAF), the national agency responsible for advising the Rwandan government, explained to TRT World that tribes in Rwanda are not based on traditional clan networks but instead social classes. 

The split between Hutus and Tutsi was neither ethnic or religious. The primary identity of all Rwandans in the pre-colonial era was originally associated with eighteen different clans including Hutu and Tutsi.

Hutus were people who did farming, while people who were herders, were called Tutsis. As a result, the socio-economic distinction and the social customs by which the economic activities were formed, created different social classes within pre-colonial society. 

Harelimana said tribes in Rwanda are “the creation of the colonial masters”.

The elder pointed out that when Rwanda fell into the hands of Belgium from Germany after the First World War, socio-economic classes were designated as ethnicities.

The identification of locals depending on their economic activities deeply determined the lives of Rwandans who had the same language, same culture and tradition. 

With the introduction of the identity cards in 1932, Belgian rule forced Rwandans to label and identify themselves according to the tribes they belonged to. 

Those ethnicity-based ID cards stating ‘Tutsi’ became death sentences at checkpoints during the genocide in 1994. 

Belgian policies were highly influenced by 20th-century scientific racism, which was popular among European colonial rulers.

Tutsis were perceived as more ‘civilised’ due to their purportedly European-looking tall and thin body features. Hutus were characterised as having broader bodies and wider noses. 

Eye colour and nose length were used to distinguish Hutu, Tutsi and Twa.()

This problematic colonialist approach transformed the Tutsis into agents of colonial rule in the eyes of majority Hutus. And the seeds of discontentment among Hutus towards Tutsis were sown. Gradually, anger towards the Tutsis, who enjoyed better socio-political opportunities, resulted in a series of deadly riots. 

Colonial authorities reversed their policy of supporting the minority Tutsis in 1959 and empowered Hutus, but the now solidified divisions established a continuous pattern of ethnic violence. 

Violence in 1959 left 20,000 Tutsis dead and many others fled to neighbouring countries, such as Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. 

Among those who fled to Uganda, was a two-year-old boy called Paul Kagame, who would go on to become the leader of the rebel group that swept aside the genocidal government as the world hesitated in 1994. 

Independence in 1962 did not help to ease ethnic tension but institutionalised it. As the Hutu President Gregoire Kayibanda centralised Rwanda with his repressive one-party system, the discrimination and prosecution of Tutsis continued. 

French dominance in post-colonial Rwanda

Kayibanda’s rule ended with an army coup led by Major General Juvenal Habyarimana in 1973, but discrimination continued to affect every aspect of Rwandan life.

After Belgium, France became the dominant power over Rwanda. The close friendship between then French President Francois Mitterrand and Rwandan President Habyarimana helped influence the political and economic make-up of Rwanda. 

The country’s political elite, who were educated in Catholic Francophone culture and spoke French, saw in Paris a source of socio-political identity and also protection against the so-called ‘Anglophone’ Tutsi threat. 

French doctrine during this period was deeply rooted in the centuries-old great game in Africa, particularly the competition between two colonial powers and two cultures: Anglophone and Francophone.  Rwanda was where Francophone hegemony ends and where Anglophone colonial culture starts. 

The small Hutu-dominated country gradually became a vital partner in the FrancAfrique network , while Tutsis fleeing to former British colony, Uganda, adopted Anglophone culture.  

A Rwandan Patriotic Front soldier holds a weapon captured at Kanombe May 26, 1994 in Kigali, Rwanda. Refugees flee the genocide of more than 800,000 Tutsis and Twas in the ongoing civil war.(Getty Images)

The leader of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), Paul Kagame was everything Paris disliked. He was an English speaker who strongly disliked France, had military training in the US and was a strong ally of the Anglophone Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni. 

In this context, France strongly supported the sovereignty of Francophone Hutu-led governments and ignored the institutionalised discrimination and persecution of Tutsis who stayed in Rwanda. 

When RPF forces entered the country in 1990, France sent troops ostensibly to evacuate French citizens from the country, but they remained for three years, turning the so-called ‘humanitarian mission’ into massive military cooperation with the government. 

The French mission became directly responsible for arming, training and strengthening and growing the Rwandan Government Army (FAR) - forces that would go on to orchestrate the genocide. French Lieutenant-Colonel Gilles Chollet was even appointed as a special military advisor to Habyarimana. 

In 1998, when he was asked why France supported a regime that killed nearly up to one million just in 100 days, Mitterrand’s adviser Huber Vedrine said: “It was considered that it would only take one of these regimes to be overthrown, especially if it was a minority and supported by the army of a neighbouring country, to be enough to create a chain reaction that would compromise the security of all the countries bound to France and to discredit the French guarantee."

Training Of Young Rwandan Hutu On The Road To Kigali On June 27Th, 1994 - French Soldiers Watching Young Hutus Training .(Getty Images)

Harelimana said: “They [France] are defending their family, let me call it like that, they are defending their family, they are defending what they thought were their interests in this country and they are defending their culture and language here in this country”.

When Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on April 6 1994, the dehumanisation campaign against the Tutsis moved on to the next step: the systematic destruction of the Tutsi population. 

Radio stations and newspapers called for the total elimination of anything associated with the Tutsi people or culture. 

The French government continued to deploy its troops to Rwanda both before and after the genocide, and the government army highly depended on the foreign aid it had received to help in the fight against RPF. 

Despite the popular perception that only machetes were used to kill people, the arms that were imported from France played a pivotal role in the genocide. 

Kathi Austin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: “Much of the killing was carried out with traditional weapons and farming implements, including machetes, knives and hoes; however, the security forces often finished off the survivors seeking refuge in churches, stadiums, or school buildings with automatic rifles and grenades.” 

Austin added: “Between 1992 and 1994, Rwanda was [sub-Saharan Africa’s] third-largest importer of weapons behind Angola and Nigeria, with cumulative military imports totalling $100 million.” It is a claim that researcher and author Linda Melvern also echoed

France’s military support did not stop even during the genocide, despite the May 1994 UN arms embargo, which came a month and a half after the genocide began. 

JUNE 27: Training Of Young Rwandan Hutu On The Road To Kigali On June 27Th, 1994 - - French Soldiers Watching Young Hutus Training(Getty Images)

It wasn’t until towards the end of the slaughter, when the RPF advanced against the Rwandan army, that France decided to set up Operation Turquoise, a safe zone to help rescue civilians in southwest Rwanda. 

But Operation Turquoise failed to stop the slaughter and even helped those responsible escape. 

In Bisesero in the western province of Kibuye, nearly 50,000 people were killed by Hutu militias in the province with French soldiers nearby.

Harelimana said when the militias arrived, French troops left the civilians in their hands. 

The operation also allowed fully armed fighters to escape to Zaire, which is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

He said: “Instead of protecting the people who were being killed who are the Tutsis, they came and protected the government which was in place and they came and protected the Interahamwe militias who were in place killing the people”. 

Skulls of some 25,000 Tutsis (and some sympathetic Hutus) who were massacred inside the Nyamata Catholic Church and in the surrounding Kanzenze Commune.(Getty Images)

A genocide survivor, Eric Nzabihimana from Bisesero, told TRT World his personal experiences.

He said: “On the April 27 1994, when French troops came to town, I asked them if it was true they came to protect us. A French soldier said, ‘it is true that we came to protect you but we are not ready.’”

Nzabihimana continued: “They told us to hide and they will come to protect us after the three days.

“But they never came, within those three days, the militias killed women and children categorically.”

The United Nations is also accused of doing nothing except watching the killings. 

Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who commanded the UN peacekeeping mission, repeatedly warned the UN that the Rwandan government and the militias were planning a genocide, his cables were ignored and he was not given permission to intervene and prevent the killings. Former Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said the organisation is “still ashamed of” its conduct during the genocide. 

Even after the genocide began and evidence of mass killings became undeniable, the international community ignored the magnitude of the catastrophe. The US actively prevented the UN from taking a leading role by voting against deploying a robust UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda. 

It is clear that hatred among deeply divided people caused one of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind. But Western states and institutions during and after the colonial period, by interfering in Rwandan society, laid the foundations for the catastrophe. 

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to