What not to call the genocide against the Tutsi

The Rwandan genocide. Rwanda’s genocide. The genocide in Rwanda. The Rwandan tragedy. Literally, the word “Rwandan,” used as a noun or as a modifier, denotes anything or anyone belonging to or of Rwanda, thus its ambiguity — an ambiguity that is a feature of every language. To understand the meaning of an ambiguous word or group of words, its context must be considered. For example, someone who knows little or nothing about the 1994 killings of Tutsis in Rwanda may infer from the phrase “the Rwandan genocide,” used without the truth of its historical context, that all Rwandans were victims of a genocide, which would also imply for the person that perpetrators were non-Rwandans. It is the ambiguity of the phrases “Rwandan genocide,” “Rwanda’s genocide,” “the genocide in Rwanda,” and “the Rwandan tragedy” that deniers of the genocide against the Tutsi have exploited to obscure the truth of what happened in Rwanda during the infamous 100 days in 1994, from June 7 to July 4, when members of the Tutsi group were being targeted for extermination.

If Hotel Rwanda, the movie that perhaps more than any other medium exposed the genocide against the Tutsi to the North American public and to the world in general, has rightfully been discredited for claiming that its hero, Paul Rusesabagina, “saved the lives of all one thousand two hundred Rwandan refugees who took shelter at the Mille Collines Hotel” despite the refugees’ testimonies to the contrary, the movie should nevertheless be credited for the research about the genocide that went into its making. In the movie, an announcer at the Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) says to his audience: “Good Hutus of Rwanda, beware. The dictatorship of the Tutsi cockroach is near. Watch your neighbor. Identify these cockroaches. Then rise up and stamp out this murderous infestation.” To the movie’s credit, nowhere in it is Rusesabagina, because of his Hutu identity, shown being hunted by the genocidal Hutu army or militia.

Early in Hotel Rwanda, a character playing George Rutaganda, who was Vice President of the murderous Hutu militia, is seen supplying the character playing Rusesabagina with beer when hundreds of machetes – the primary weapons during the genocide against the Tutsi — accidentally spill out of crates. “I am always glad to see you, Paul,” the character playing Rutaganda says to Rusesabagina. Later, a character playing Tatiana, Rusesabagina’s Tutsi wife, urges the character playing her husband to “call your friends in the [Hutu] army” to save a man who is about to be killed simply because he is Tutsi. She also says to him: “Your card says Hutu. Take our children, go and get the twins, pay money at the roadblocks. Get them out. Please.” Further, a character playing Fedens tells the character playing Rusesabagina: “Please, let us take Tatiana with us. You are Hutu, you will be safe.” Still in another scene, a character playing Rusesabagina’s wife begs him not to throw out of their house Tutsis who had taken refuge there. “Please. Let them stay ’til morning. The militia will not come here; they know you are a Hutu with influence.”

Yet, in a letter dated 26 September 2013 that Paul Rusesabagina wrote to Rabbi Shmuley and that was posted on several websites, he began it by introducing himself as “a Rwandan genocide survivor,” comparing himself to Elie Wiesel. Rusesabagina’s false self-identification aside, his use of the phrase “Rwandan genocide,” as it will become clear, was a deliberate choice of words to obfuscate the truth about the genocide against the Tutsi which, simply put, was that there was a government plan to exterminate all members of the Tutsi group

At a videotaped event at the University of Michigan, which was dubbed “the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide” and at which Rusesabagina was the keynote speaker, a student in the audience who seemed confused about the identity of victims of the genocide asked during the Q&A session: “How did the Hutu extremists know who was Tutsi and who was Hutu as many Hutu and Tutsi intermarried?” Rusesabagina’s long-winded non-response was, and I am quoting him verbatim: “That is a very good question. Because in 1994, we did not have a million Tutsis in Rwanda according to statistics. And yet, according to the United Nations, 800,000 people were killed, and according to the Rwandan government, 1,1740,000 people were killed, meaning to say that there is no one who can tell that this one is a Hutu or that one is a Tutsi. Most, many Hutus, Rwandans, were killed not only because of many other reasons. Maybe because of stories between neighbors, because of misunderstandings here and there…. So, people were not killed necessarily because they were Tutsis. This is then the whole problem. If you go to Central and Southern Rwanda, people have been mixing for generations and generations. Our parents were getting married around the 1900s, 1800s even. So, intermarrying, they were intermarrying. So many Hutus were killed. And according to statistics, maybe, many Hutus were killed more than Tutsis.”

Ruseseabagina’s invitation to speak at the University of Michigan was particularly telling considering that “the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide” event was sponsored and hosted by the University’s International Policy Center, which was under the directorship of Allan Stam. Five years earlier, Stam and Christian Davenport had co-written an article entitled “What Really Happened in Rwanda?” in which they published their field-research “findings.” They wrote: “We…found that many of the killings were spontaneous” and that Hutus and Tutsis alike played “the roles of both attackers and victims.” Further, they wrote: “In terms of ethnicity, the short answer to the question, ‘Who died?’ is, ‘We’ll probably never know.’ By and large, the Hutu and the Tutsi are physically indistinct from one another. They share a common language. They have no identifiable accent. They have had significant levels of intermarriage through their histories, and they have lived in similar locations for the past several hundred years.” In short, their “findings” that the killings were “spontaneous” negated the question of intent, which is the essence of a genocide. Also, what Stam and Davenport implied in their claim that Hutus and Tutsis were indistinguishable by virtue of their intermarriage was that there was no distinct ethnic group in Rwanda, thus no genocide.

Indeed, in claiming that Hutus and Tutsis were indistinguishable by virtue of their intermarriage, Stam and Davenport were being conspicuously and deliberately silent about the fact that prior to the genocide, all Rwandans had to have identity cards which classified them as Hutu, Tutsi or Twa, and that those identified as Tutsi were doomed to death. Identity cards aside, years of government policies of discrimination against the Tutsi since 1959 had made known to government officials and to the general population who was Tutsi and who was not. In every school, for example, teachers took roll calls to ensure that the number of Tutsi students did not surpass ten percent of the student population, as was required by the government. It is ironic that after “findings” of their ill-intended research became public, Stam and Davenport said that they were surprised when they were called genocide deniers, “even though our research documents that genocide had occurred.” Genocide studies have shown that their kind of obfuscation of the truth about genocide was not new. As Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, has stated, typical of many Holocaust deniers is their “claim that they do not deny that there was a Holocaust, only that there was a plan or an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people.”

That the University of Michigan’s International Policy Center, which was under the directorship of Stam, had “the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide” event dubbed thus and had Rusesabagina as the keynote speaker was no accident; it was a deliberate effort to perpetuate obfuscation of the truth about the genocide against the Tutsi. In a speech Rusesabagina gave at Birmingham Young University in 2008, he told his audience: “Words can be the best or the worst weapon in a human being’s arsenal, depending on what goal or objective we want to achieve.”  With his use of the ambiguous phrase “Rwandan genocide” and his self-identification as “a Rwandan genocide survivor,” he succeeded in denying the genocide against the Tutsi without much of the North American public and the world in general taking notice.

There was a time when phrases such as the Rwandan genocide, Rwanda’s genocide, and the genocide in Rwanda were conventionally used to denote the genocide that was committed against the Tutsi in Rwanda. The phrases were used with their historical context in documents by the United Nations and in titles of scholarly and well-researched books, for example Linda Melvern’s A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide and Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide and the International Community, Andrew Wallis’ Silent Accomplice: The Untold Story of the Role of France in the Rwandan Genocide, and Josias Semujanga’s Origins of the Rwandan Genocide. The phrases were also used in titles of genocide survivors’ memoirs, for example Frida Umuhoza’s Chosen to Die, Destined to Live: A miraculous escape from the Rwandan genocide and Immaculée Ilibagiza’s Led by Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide. Then, the genocide’s horrific images were so fresh in the memory of many that hardly anyone anticipated the ambiguity of the phrases would be exploited to deny the genocide against the Tutsi on the scale they have been used in recent years.

It would be naïve to think that the phrases will go away. There are, however, those who still use them innocuously, perhaps unaware that they have been abused for nefarious ends and also unaware that there is an unambiguous phrase for the killings that took place in Rwanda in 1994 during the 100 days they lasted, beginning on April 7 and ending on July 4: the genocide against the Tutsi.

About the Author
I hold a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa in the USA. For the last twenty years, I have been teaching literature at Alabama A&M University in the USA. Twice, I have been on a study tour of Israel's historical sites, first with Echoes and Reflections and later with the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights.
Related Topics
Related Posts