Anatomy of a Genocide
The Crown, the Church, Ethnicity, & the State in the Rwandan Crisis
by Kenneth W. Gunn-Walberg
How many women, men, and children were killed in Rwanda in the weeks following April 6, 1994? Three quarters of a million, a million, perhaps as few as half a million? What of those mutilated, men minus hands or legs, children bearing marks of the machete, women raped, maimed, and tortured? Why did it happen?
Rwanda is a small country with a population of roughly eight million people. When European explorers seeking the source of the Nile entered Rwanda in the second half of the nineteenth century, they encountered three groups of people with distinct roles. The state was embodied by the king, known as the Mwami, whose symbol was a sacred drum or kalinga. The minority, but dominant element, was that of the Tutsi, who raised cattle. The majority was that of the Hutu, predominantly agricultural, and the Twa, a sparse pygmoid people.
Societies are given life by myths, and in Rwanda myths have a special importance. One particularly salient myth is:
At the beginning of time, the first king of Rwanda came down from heaven. His name was Kigwa and he was to have three sons—Ga-Twa, Ga-Hutu, and Ga-Tutsi. He asked each to care overnight for a gourd filled with milk.
Ga-Twa became thirsty and drank the milk.
Ga-Hutu fell asleep and knocked the gourd over, spilling the milk.
Ga-Tutsi guarded the milk faithfully and was yet attentive when in the morning Kigwa came back.
Thus everyone’s social status was determined: Ga-Tutsi would be Kigwa’s successor. He and his people would own cattle and be excused from manual labor. Only if they worked for Ga-Tutsi would Ga-Hutu and his people be allowed cattle. Ga-Twa and his people would be allowed no cattle and would be outcasts.
For hundreds of years such was the social reality, and the two major groups lived an interdependent existence under the Mwami, who was considered above ethnicity. Both the Hutu and the Tutsi scorned the Twa as an insignificant but troublesome minority. In contrast, the present-day Mwami, His Majesty, King Kigeli V, believes there is but one people, the people of Rwanda. While they are predominantly Catholic and Christian, Kigeli believes that liberty for others, including his Islamic supporters, must be secured in the future.
Rwanda had been from time immemorial an independent state, but in 1897 there began sixty-five years of colonial control, first under the Germans, then under the Belgians after the former’s defeat in World War I. It should be noted that in the pre-colonial period social lines were not absolutely rigid. Intermarriage did occur, even sometimes with the Mwami himself. Rich Hutu could become Tutsi, and Tutsi who lost power and wealth became Hutu. Also, all Rwandans spoke one language and shared a single culture, as well as obeying a single ruler who was above the societal division.
The Germans were a respected and rather benign colonial power. The Resident recognized the Mwami as the paramount African ruler. As a symbol of this recognition, the Imperial German Government presented him with a document of sovereignty and a royal standard that he alone could fly. The Mwami and his chiefs retained jurisdiction over the people, with the right reserved for the Resident to intervene only in individual cases and to advise the African judges and suspend sentences when the punishment was deemed inappropriate to European concepts of culture and justice. The Mwami was recognized as owner of all property, although he could present his property as a gift, give it as a fief, and lease and sell it. Only the primeval bamboo forests in the region of the volcanoes were declared Crown land, belonging to the German East African government. The Mwami acknowledged the right of Christian missionaries to build settlements, but he could not be forced to sell a particular site on which he did not want a settlement.
By 1914 railways and commercial development in Rwanda remained a dream of the Germans. Even cattle wealth was rather an economic chimera, for the Tutsis were more devoted to the esthetics of cattle than to their economic value. For social and political purposes they bred cattle that were imposing yet elegant, with lyre-shaped horns, but that provided often bitter milk and were not desirable eating, being too lean.
With the WWI peace settlement Rwanda became Belgium’s reward for victory. By the 1930s Belgium had planted the seeds of future strife. The Belgian government believed the Tutsi to be different from and superior to the Hutu. They thus reserved higher education and positions of power for this elite. They also established a system of population registration, defining who was a Tutsi—about fifteen percent of the population—from the masses of Hutu and the small minority of Twa. This system obliged adults to carry identity cards giving group affiliation. Hence it became nearly impossible to change from one group to another. These cards solidified the privileges of the Tutsis. As Allison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch/Africa has indicated, what had guaranteed privilege in the colonial era would become a death warrant during the genocide.
Why did this occur? Earlier, the Germans, principally the Duke of Mecklenburg, a German explorer, had made some speculations as to the origins of the various groups. Eventually a consensus emerged that the Twa were the original people, that the Hutu came later, and that the last to arrive, the conquering Tutsis, were Nilo-Hamites—that is, descendants of Noah’s son Ham, from the Nile River, who eventually migrated from Ethiopia in the sixteenth century. Needless to say, this was highly speculative, and it is disputed by the claims of the Mwamis, who traced an unbroken dynastic line of over a thousand years.
To further buttress their theories, the Belgians brought in with their cultural baggage a set of nineteenth-century pseudo-scientific racial theories: craniology, anthro-metry, and phrenology. They busily measured noses, heights, and weights. Another and easier statistical measurement was also used: anyone with more than ten cattle was defined as being Tutsi, and a non-racial yet ethnic apartheid was thus instituted.
After World War II the winds of independence were blowing through Africa, and social democracy was permeating European statecraft. So too, an institution shared by both Belgium and Rwanda was being eaten by a deadly cancer, namely, liberalism, perverting the Roman Catholic Church. It is thus necessary to examine the policies of both Belgium and the Roman Catholic Church leading up to the genocide.
The White Fathers by 1904 had established five missions in Rwanda. The Mwami, according to the German Resident, was “thoroughly correct,” but some of his chiefs did not share his views. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church was to be ever more implanted in the “Kingdom of the Thousand Hills,” as Rwanda was affectionately known (although later it became known as the republic of a thousand aid officials). Great missionary bishops, notably Monsignor Cläas, evangelized the country. In the seminaries and colleges, the faith was taught, and fine native priests both Hutu and Tutsi acquired the historic faith, along with Greek and Latin and the spiritual and moral riches of the Christian West. In 1946 Mutara III, the half-brother of the present Mwami now in exile in Washington, D.C., consecrated Rwanda to Christ the King. For weeks, unforgettable festivities echoed through the hill villages. Tutsis and Hutus together rejoiced to see the royal authority they obeyed honoring Christ the King.
However, as the 1960s approached, the old order began to be subverted. After forty years of supporting the Tutsis, who were now leading the movement for independence, Belgium changed sides and backed the Hutu in the most underhanded and deceitful manner. King Mutara III was given a fatal injection by a Belgian doctor. The Belgian administration did not aid the Mwami’s attempts to suppress riots by the Hutu. In fact, they falsely accused the king of ordering the destruction of property owned by the Tutsis. Then came the coup d’état of de Gitarama against King Kigeli, Mutara’s successor, which was planned in Brussels and executed in Rwanda to abolish the monarchy. His Majesty had left Rwanda to attend independence celebrations in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There he was to meet with the Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, to brief him on the worsening situation. He was then refused permission by Belgium to return to his beloved country as Mwami; he could only return as a private citizen, without protection. But His Majesty did return. Risking his life to be with his people, he was smuggled into the country, only to be apprehended and escorted to the airport by the British Ambassador, Sir James Murray.
United Nations resolutions were ignored by Belgium, and finally independence came. President Kayibanda soon dismissed his token Tutsi ministers. Many thousands fled to neighboring countries. Thousands of others were killed. The monarchy, which had enjoyed general respect, was undermined and then destroyed. Belgium was responsible for creating vast reservoirs of hatred between Hutu and Tutsis. Then the world lost interest in Rwanda. In exile, His Majesty labored on for peace, reconciliation, and the resolution of the refugee crisis. He was the only Rwandan in the world not only without a tribe, but also without a country.
In Rwanda a new country was established. President Kayibanda’s formation had been as a deacon, and his theology had been based on Thomism and orthodox Catholicism, but later he became a disciple of revolution of a leftist Christian democratic sort, influenced by the faculty at Louvain and, in particular, by Marc Sangnier. A new generation was being influenced by others, like Monsignor Riobé, bishop of Orléans, who later died in strange circumstances. He had gone to Rwanda to indoctrinate young clerics in liberation theology. The principles of the French Revolution were melded with the alleged revolutionary ferment of the gospel. Once, in Paris, the Rwandan Minister of Public Education said to a historian of Rwanda, “We are merely following the example of your revolution. We are only at the beginning. We shall go all the way to the Terror.” The clergy, including the leading bishops and the president of the Episcopal Congress, were succumbing to the “cult of man” and “human progress.”
The new symbol of Rwanda was no longer the kalinga, but rather an ideology of the one-party state operating through tiers of political control and pass-laws (the need for traveling papers based on ethnicity) stricter than those existing in South Africa. The intelligentsia, the Church, and the state became an unholy trinity on the course to genocide. Ideas do have consequences. Rwandan historians, journalists, and sociologists put themselves at the service of a genocidally inclined political and military cabal. Members of the faculty of history at the University of Butare manufactured doctrines of Hutu ethnic supremacy that depicted all Tutsis as a malignant force that deserved to be excised once and for all. Radio Mille Collines, a private station operating with governmental approbation, broadcast these theories and later was to be the cheerleader for genocide. Politically at the heart of the genocide was what became known as Network Zero, a shadowy group of extremists controlling the interahamwe, as the militia was known, and the army.
On April 6, 1994, President Habyarimana died in a mysterious plane crash that was blamed on the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) but was most likely caused by Hutu extremists. Shrill calls for the elimination of all Tutsis were broadcast on radio and carried in print. The lines of political control mobilized the peasantry and the urban unemployed for murder. The weapon of choice was the common machete. His Majesty’s informants told him of the plans being made, and desperate attempts were made from his Secretariat in Nairobi, Kenya to warn the world. As early as 1992, a Ministry of Defense paper was circulated in Rwanda, entitled “Definition and Identification of the Enemy.” Also, the extremist Hutu journal Kungura had published the Hutu Ten Commandments, which had as their fourth article: “The Hutu ideology must be taught to every Hutu at every level. Every Hutu must spread this ideology widely. Any Hutu who persecutes his brother Hutu for having read, spread, and taught this ideology is a traitor.” On April 7, 1994, the rigorous efficiency of the Rwandan state effectively spread the message across the country.
What drove the masses to obey evil leaders at every level of society? Fear. There was fear of invasion from Uganda by the RPF. There was fear of being executed if one disobeyed orders, and there was endemic hatred and fear of all Tutsis, who had been literally portrayed as devils with cloven hooves. From April to June terror ruled. Perhaps the most accurate number of those killed is 850,000. Acts of heroism did exist, but they were few.
Blood also was on the hands of the United Nations, which had been aware of the preparations—as carefully documented by the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation—but particularly on the hands of France and its president, François Mitterand. His son headed the desk of African Unity at the Elysée Palace and was also a friend of the president of Rwanda. France supplied arms and military advisors to the government forces. Later, it was France that protected a security zone to which Hutu murderers and their propagandized masses fled, the latter to be used as a shield in the fetid campsite at Goma and elsewhere.
Why did France act in such a despicable manner? The answer is complex, but it relates to another tribal and ideological struggle, this time in Europe. The RPF was largely made up of Rwandan refugees and their offspring from Uganda, who spoke English. The French regarded the Hutu government as the protector of Francophonie in Rwanda, that is, French cultural and linguistic hegemony. The French had overthrown a monarchy and staged a revolution, and so, they believed, had the Hutus. The real tragedy was that Belgium was a monarchy, and it was, as has been observed, the government of a Catholic monarch that had been overthrown—that of His Most Catholic Majesty, King Kigeli V. It was not the revolutionary extremist Hutu who overthrew the monarchy. (Uganda, a Commonwealth member, was later to restore its kingdoms after the disaster inflicted upon the country by Idi Amin, and this precedent of its neighbor should be followed by Rwanda with resultant stability and social harmony.)
The failure of the United States to act to prevent or halt the genocide resides clearly in President Clinton’s lack of will. In March of 1994, three weeks before the killing began, His Majesty sought to brief Mr. Clinton on information he had received that the militia was making final preparations for the genocidal slaughter. His Majesty was refused a meeting with the President on the grounds that Clinton was otherwise occupied and an appointment was not possible. Moreover, the UN commander in Rwanda has stated that the genocide would not have occurred if he had been allowed to intervene (see The American Spectator, May 1998). Even more tragically, it can be said that President Clinton was proactive in fomenting the genocide, as it was the United States that prevented the Security Council from acting. Why the oversight committee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has failed to hold hearings on when and what President Clinton knew is an unanswered question.
As for the Catholic Church, its role will live in infamy. It was closely linked to the regime. Its archbishop belonged to the ruling party’s Central Committee and personally consented to the deaths of sixteen priests and a nun. Despite the fact that King Kigeli V is a most faithful Catholic, the papal nuncio in Washington has ignored requests for a meeting with His Holiness. Anglican bishops also were complicit in the genocide. All but one of the ten went into exile, four never to return. Only in May 1997 were they replaced. Ninety percent of the people are Christians, and sixty-five percent call themselves Catholic, but both the Catholic and Anglican Churches had aligned themselves with the ruling party as it hurtled toward genocide. When the genocide arrived, churches became death houses. At best, the church pleaded for a cease-fire that would have allowed the genocide to continue. At worst, it was active in the carnage.
Is there hope for the future? There is and it lies in the return of His Majesty, the Mwami, King Kigeli V. He is a Christian, a devout Catholic, and a friend of traditional Anglicans. He spoke against the planned genocide, and he has spoken against a return to old, European-foisted division and hatred among his people. The RPF military government’s days are numbered. At present there is a petition circulating within the expatriate Rwandan community and in Rwanda itself, calling for the return of His Majesty. Hutus and Tutsis are together coming to see His Majesty as a font of justice, the personification of unity, and the one person who can present a renascent Rwanda to the international community. He has called for his nation to enter the Commonwealth of Nations, headed by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. There must be peace and security, justice and economic development, but above all, there must be a return to the sacred and to the ideals of 1946, a Christian king under the King of Kings.
The Reverend Kenneth W. Gunn-Walberg is Priest-in-Charge of St. Thomas of Canterbury Anglican Church in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania. A graduate of the University of Manitoba, he also holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Guelph in Canada.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Anatomy of a Genocide” first appeared in the September/October 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.