frontline online: the triumph of evil
philip gourevitch

He is the author of We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, an in-depth account of the Rwanda genocide. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing editor to the Forward. In the aftermath of the genocide he spent over nine months in Rwanda trying to understand how this extraordinary crime had come to pass, how it was organized, how the Western powers had stood by and watched it happen, and how Rwandans are living with its legacy.


...The political calculus from the White Houses point of view [was]  if they completely did the wrong thing in Rwanda, was there ever going to be a bill to pay for it, politically? Probably not. I think that they recognized that it was unlikely to cost them politically. And even if it would cost them morally, there would be few people around tabulating that cost and reminding them ...

What is the most significant thing to understand about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda?

In Rwanda, in the course of 100 days in the spring and early summer of 1994, 800,000 people were put to death in the most unambiguous case of state-sponsored genocide in an attempt to exterminate a category of humanity, a people, since the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews of Europe.

... What distinguishes Rwanda is a clear, programmatic effort to eliminate everybody in the Tutsi minority group because they were Tutsis. The logic was to kill everybody. Not to allow anybody to get away. Not to allow anybody to continue. And the logic, as Rwandans call it, the genocidal logic, was very much akin to that of an ideology very similar to that of the Nazism vis-à-vis the Jews in Europe, which is all of them must be gotten rid of to purify in a sense the people. There's a utopian element in genocide that's perplexing. But it is an effort to create community in the most strict sense of "us versus them," by literally eliminating them and bonding all of us in complicity, in the course of that elimination. The idea was that all Hutus should participate in killing of Tutsis. And there have been cases of mass political murder, there have been cases of massacres and genocidal massacres, but never a country and a society so completely and totally convulsed by an effort at pure, unambiguous genocide since the end of World War II, since the passage of the Genocide Convention by the United Nations in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Who are Hutus and Tutsis? ... Can you summarize the background to this genocide--the civil war, the cease-fire and the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers?

Rwanda's population essentially consists of two groups, the Hutu majority (roughly 85%), the Tutsi minority (roughly 15%). There's a tiny minority of Pygmies as well. Until the late 19th century, which is to say, until European colonization, Tutsis (the minority) represented the aristocratic upper classes; Hutus were the peasant masses. The Europeans brought with them an idea of race science, by which they took this traditional structure and made it even more extreme and more polarized into an almost apartheid-like system. And ethnic identity cards were issued, and Tutsis were privileged for all things, and Hutus were really made into a very oppressed mass.

In the late '50s, early '60s, at the time that the rumblings towards independence were taking place across Africa, what happened in Rwanda for independence was a Hutu revolution, in the name of majority rule, that reversed the system. It remained an apartheid, polarized ethnic state, except the Hutu majority now was in charge. And you had a Hutu dictatorship running through the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, and into the mid-'90s. Throughout that period, there was systematic political violence used against Tutsi to maintain this Hutu power.

That violence generated a huge outflow since the late '60s of refugees into neighboring states, so that there were hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Tutsis living in exile, in one state or another, on the border of Rwanda, not naturalized in any other country, and wishing to come home. The government of Rwanda refused to re-admit those who'd fled.

And in 1990, a rebel army appeared, somewhat unexpectedly on the scene, took the Rwandan government by surprise, launching an incursion from the north, from Uganda. And a civil war broke out that was waged sporadically on and off through '90, '91, '92, and into '93. In the areas that it was waged, it was essentially a border war with a large chunk of border involved, but it didn't engulf the entire country.

In '93, a cease-fire was arranged: ethnic power sharing, political power sharing, multi-party state, integration of the armies, and the return of the refugees. And the key to all of this, to see that these two antagonistic parties would do what they pledged to do, was that the United Nations peacekeeping force would be brought in--in the fall of 1993 ...

... It was agreed by both sides that it would be deployed to the country and would preside over the peace implementation and transfer of power to this new sharing government. To the Hutu extremists who formed the entourage around the Hutu dictatorship, President Habyarimana, the threat of peace was even greater than the threat of war, because it amounted to a defeat. It meant that they couldn't have a total victory. They faced suddenly the threat of sharing power, which was the one thing on earth that they couldn't stand sharing. It was against that backdrop that the U.N. peacekeeping force began to arrive, and to attempt to preside over the implementation of a peace which the president's men had no intention of allowing him to implement.

What's the distinction to you between civil war and genocide?

In a civil war, you have essentially two combatant forces. Sometimes they are fighting against one another. Sometimes civilians get involved as militia men or so. In a genocide, there is no political objective ... the idea is to eliminate what is perceived as a blood line. It means anybody who carries that blood must be eliminated. So it doesn't matter if you're a baby. In a civil war, a baby is not a serious enemy element. Here, it is, because 60 years from now, that baby could be an adult. Grandmothers on their last legs are considered to be eliminated. Pregnant women. "You must be careful," the Rwandans who were committing the genocide said, "to disembowel them and make sure the fetus in their womb was dead." That's what genocide is about.

Tell me more about the differences.

In early April of 1994, much of the reporting said, "The civil war has been renewed in Rwanda." But a civil war involves two or more armies fighting one another--a rebel army and a government army. And it means that soldiers fight soldiers. The objective is to defeat the other party. Quite often, because these are wars that are civil wars, they involved civilian populations being attacked.

But a genocide is a completely different thing. You often ignore the enemy army to go after the people that you have decided to call the enemy. So you've decided that the Tutsis are the enemy. And that means that instead of going to the front to fight the enemy, you go to a Tutsi's home to kill his children and his old mother, because the idea is to eliminate a blood line.

And furthermore, when one talks about civil war, one's talking about the internal affairs of a state, how foreign policy people look at such a thing. When one talks about civil war, foreign policy people will say, "Well, that's the internal affair of a foreign state. We don't get involved in other people's civil wars." But we've pledged to get involved in genocides, of course. So when you call it a civil war, it's a way quite often of ignoring that, in fact, what's happening is a systematic attempt to eliminate this blood line, an act of genocide, and one concerted and organized to involve the entire population.

In this case, was it a breakdown of a civil war, a breakdown of a cease-fire?

There's no question that after Habyarimana's plane was shot down and the genocidal massacres began in Rwanda, the civil war was also renewed. It was an act of war against the people of Rwanda by the now acting government of Rwanda, the genocidal government. Immediately, the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) returned to the field of battle and started its war again. And it was clear that that would happen.

So, of course, you had two things happening at once. You had a civil war and you had a genocide--much, I should say, as in World War II. You had World War II and you had the Holocaust, two separate events. And as we know, the two efforts often are odds with one another. So that trains that might supply the Eastern front during World War II were used instead to carry Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz. And troops who might have been fighting the RPF to win a civil war were instead diverted to oversee the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda.

Who was the interahamwe?

The interahamwe was a militia group recruited in the name of civil self defense, the idea being that the population should be prepared to defend itself against the enemy. This was a way of popularizing the war, making the war an affair of you and me. Every Hutu must consider himself attacked by every Tutsi, rather than thinking that the state was being attacked by a rebel army. So the interahamwe was recruited. Primarily there was a lot of unemployment in Rwanda in the early '90s. These were sort of village youth who [had] gone to the cities looking for work, couldn't find work, were recruited to this kind of youth culture of militia movements. And the interahamwe literally means "those who attack together." And it was through the interahamwe that a large part of the younger Rwandan Hutu males were recruited into the genocidal logic, the genocidal propaganda and into the movement of killing.

Who was the informant who sent the January 11th fax warning of the genocide?

The informant who essentially laid out for the United Nations force commander what was being planned in Rwanda, that an extermination was being planned of Tutsis, was a man who had first been a member of President Habyarimana's security staff (in other words, he was a top ranking military security official) and had now been hired through the president's political party (which was essentially indistinguishable from the apparatus of the state) to run an interahamwe militia training program for the city of Kigali, training Hutu combatants to kill Tutsi. And he tells in his information very clearly, that he thinks that his men could kill 1,000 Tutsis in 20 minutes.

What was so remarkable about this fax?

What makes this fax utterly remarkable is that it describes a program planned in the highest echelons of the state, in the president's court, to eliminate a part of his population. It uses the word "extermination." The fax says that the informant believes it is for their extermination. If you go around the U.N. and you say, "What's extraordinary about that fax?" they say, "We got a lot of faxes." If you ask them how many faxes they believe they've [received], say, in the last 50 years, since genocide became defined as a crime, that talk about a plan in the head of state's chambers to exterminate his people, I think that they can't really count them. They can't think of any. The answer is, this is extraordinary. It's utterly extraordinary language: the precision, the detail, the confidence in the tone of the fax. That the U.N. field commander trusts his informant is unmistakable.

It's really important to remember, the fax is not headed "Request to Take Action." It's headed "Request for Protection for Informant." The force commander presumes that it was okay to take action. And he says, "Look, my mission, my rules are to go out there and to seize these illegal arms caches. (Kigali was supposed to be a weapons-free zone under the U.N. mandate.) I'm going to go out and seize these arms caches. I know they're there. I believe my informant. What I want to know is how to protect him. This man has come forward at tremendous risk to himself. (He believed that his informant [was] at risk.) Tell me how to do that." And the U.N. said, "We don't know how."

Another thing that makes this a truly extraordinary fax is that everything in it came true. Now, U.N. people, in their own defense, at peacekeeping headquarters (now the secretary-general's office) will tell you, "Well, hindsight isn't a fair way of looking at this." Well, but all judgment of history has to be made in hindsight. And the fact is, here was a force commander saying he trusted the man. The man told a lot. What the man told proved to be entirely true, which is what the force commander thought. His judgment was confirmed. And instead, the informant was lost, so we never got to hear more from him. Because once he was denied protection, good-bye.

It's astonishing in this fax, too, that there is a threat to the peacekeepers. The fax announces a plan to shoot Belgian peacekeepers. That should really be special in U.N. headquarters because as we know in this day and age, one of the greatest fears of anybody who thinks about engaging in peacekeeping forces is having body bags come back ... and here's an announcement that: Guess what? The people that are planning to exterminate part of their population are also planning to set the thing in motion by shooting the mostly European mainstay of the peacekeeping force. That alone should make it an extraordinary fax even if one doesn't care about the extermination of Rwandans.

How did the U.N. respond to this fax?

Essentially, the response of the peacekeeping headquarters in New York at the U.N. headquarters was to treat this fax as a routine bureaucratic matter. It set off no special alarm bells that rang loudly. It was not disseminated. One sometimes can imagine if that fax appeared on the front page of all the world's major newspapers, on the TV and so forth. In other words, a lot of influence could have been exerted by leaking this fax and drawing attention to this crisis. No. It was treated as a routine bureaucratic matter. And the idea was: Let's just stick with the rules. We're not obliged to do anything in response to such information. What our mandate rules (and the U.N. loves to fall back on mandate rules) are, we should tell the president that there's a cease-fire violation been reported. And so the U.N. commanders were instructed to go to the president and tell him that they had this information about illegal arms caches and about rumors of a program to commit massacres, and to say, "Gee, this is against the rules of the cease-fire that we're here to enforce."

The absurdity of this is that essentially what they were doing is, they were being charged to go to the president and tell him that he had a leak in his own court, where the planning of a genocide was taking place, and to say, "By the way, we've been tipped off." Well, that would make the informant's position even more precarious than ever before. It would alert the president rather than punish him. It would just tell him, "Be careful." It's a little bit like the way we would say to Saddam, "We're coming to inspect. You get two weeks to move your stuff." And so the president was alerted to this ...

Why did they tell them not to go after the gun caches, and to tell the president ...

The interahamwe was a militia being run by the president's political party. It was being run by his cronies, by his business partners, by his colonels and generals. He was not always at the very command top of it, but he was totally involved in the circle of people who were planning these massacres, and who were plotting to scrap the peace process and seize power through massacres and through a war against the Tutsis rather than a war against the real military enemy.

So here's this president. And what does U.N. headquarters tell its commanders to do? Go tell him that we've been tipped off about this. Now, on one level I suppose the argument is: That's how these missions work. They treat a government as a government until it's overthrown. That's who they have to deal with. They deal in diplomatic terms. On the other hand, what it really constitutes is telling somebody who is plotting a massive crime against humanity that he should be more careful; he should watch his flank; he's got a leak in his operation. That's really what the information would compute as, in President Habyarimana's head. Make life precarious for the informant, guarantee that no more information will come to the U.N. through those channels ...

What happened to the president's plane, and what did that spark?

Throughout the so-called peace implementation period, President Habyarimana was under tremendous pressure from the extremists not to implement the peace process. He dragged his feet. He resisted. He did everything within his power to avoid it. On early April of 1994, he was called by regional presidents to various meetings. "Come on, you've got to get with the program and implement this peace deal. It's causing problems." He was flying back on April 6, 1994, from these meetings. He flies into Kigali, and as his plane descends towards the airport, it's hit by one or two surface-to-air missiles, bursts into flames, and crashes (almost mythically) into his own backyard of his palace.

Now, immediately the Hutu power extremist radio, starts blaming the rebels (the Rwandese Patriotic Front) for this. There has since been endless speculation about who did what. What's most clear is that the circumstantial evidence points to the fact that it was actually the extremists in the president's own entourage, who had often predicted that if he didn't comply with them and complied instead with the peace deal, he would be meeting his maker. They staged a coup within half an hour. Essentially, the government now became a government of unabashed Hutu extremists. It became a military coup, which installed a new sort of puppet government. And within the course of that night (the night of April 6th), the program of massacres that had been planned began to get implemented, first killing political oppositionists rather than singling out Tutsis by ethnicity. It was really focusing on those people who might cause the most political trouble. And members of the presidential guard were recruited and sent forth with lists as assassins. Massacres began to take place. And essentially what you saw is, the propaganda that went forth was, "They, the Tutsis, the rebels, have killed our president." So he was sacrificed, almost. It was the rhetoric of "Our beloved president was killed by them," when in fact everything indicates that they either killed him or certainly exploited his death within moments.

At that point, what role did national radio play?

Almost immediately after the peace deal was signed in August of 1993, and the U.N. force was commissioned, many of the people around the president and in the Hutu power leadership established a second radio station. Up until then, Rwanda had had one radio station, Radio Rwanda. Now they established a second major radio station with a powerful signal, called RTLM (Radio-Television Libre Milles Collines). And this became the genocidal radio. It was a radio dedicated entirely to entertainment and genocidal propaganda. And it was highly entertaining. It had pop music. It was very much in keeping with the kind of youth movement spirit of the militia movement. And people loved this radio station. It was very popular. And it mounted this increasingly virulent, exclusionary and exterminatory rhetoric in the period during the so-called peace implementation. Following the president's death, it became almost Genocide Central. It was through there that people were instructed at times, "Go out there and kill. You must do your work. People are needed over in this commune." Sometimes they actually had disc jockeys who would say, "So-and-so has just fled. He is said to be moving down such-and-such street." And they would literally hunt an individual who was targeted in the street. And people would listen to this on the radio. It was apparently quite dramatic. And it was a rallying tool that was used in a tremendous way to mobilize the population.

... To understand how powerful radio was, or how powerful the message was, it's interesting to contrast [to] neighboring Burundi, [which] has the same ethnic mix as Rwanda. The president of Burundi was a passenger on President Habyarimana's plane, and was also killed on the night of April 6th. But in that country, the U.N. leaders there helped organize the political leaders to plead on the radio for calm. So a message of calm was sent out, and people responded to that. Here, a message to lather up the population to kill was sent out, and the people responded to that.

What happened to the Belgian soldiers, and why? Was it intentional?

Throughout the period that UNAMIR had been in the country, the Hutu power propagandists (both on radio but especially in print, where it was easier for them to carry on because you had to read Rwandan) were saying, "You know, this U.N. force is in the way if trouble begins. If we want to go about our business, what are we going to do about this U.N. force?" And they'd been looking around, and they said, "You know, these U.N. blue helmets, they don't seem to have a lot of fighting strength. They tend to run away when the fighting begins." This was clearly declared in a number of articles that one can trace. And one of the things that had been also said in the famous fax of January 11th that was sent to peacekeeping headquarters is: When the president is attacked, so too we will attack a bunch of Belgian blue helmets who make up the mainstay of the U.N. contingent, and with the aim of forcing the Belgians, by killing some of them, to be afraid and turn tail and run away. And the whole force will then be withdrawn. It was clearly a plan.

Well, on the morning of April 7, 1994, after the assassination of President Habyarimana, as death squads and assassin groups were fanning out through the capital, hunting political oppositionists, they came to the prime minister's house. She was one of the main oppositionists that they were after. While they were there, ten Belgian blue helmets arrived to say, "Hey, what's going on," and to offer protection. Well, not only did they fail to protect her, but they were then taken captive by the military of the new genocidal government. They were taken back to a military base, and in the course of several hours they were tortured, murdered and mutilated. It was a shocking event. And as soon as they were released, within the week, sure enough, as the assassins had planned, the Belgians lost their appetite for this mission, and the force began to crumble.

What were the Hutus' intention by killing the blue helmets?

Remember that at the end of 1993 in Somalia, 18 American Rangers on a peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu had been killed, and their bodies dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, televised around the world. And the Clinton administration, which had come into office talking about a brave new era of peacekeeping and global intervention and policing, lost its appetite for peacekeeping very fast.

Well, the Rwandans who were planning a genocide, the Hutu extremists around the president, studied this sort of event very closely. They said, "Look, they come in here telling us what to do, these peacekeepers. They come in here with a good line of talk, but they don't have the strength to fight, and they can't stand body bags." They studied this. It was in their newspapers. It was in their plans. And they said, "If we kill some of them, they'll go away." That was in the fax that was sent to U.N. headquarters. It was predicted that they were planning to kill some Belgians. And sure enough, on the morning after the president's assassination, they killed these blue helmets. And it's clear from the script that they wrote in advance that what they wanted (the Hutu power leaders whose military killed these blue helmets) was to scare away the U.N. mission on the brink of the genocide.

What was the Clinton's administration's policy? How was it implemented through Madeline Albright?

Pretty much as soon as the ten Belgian blue helmets had been killed, the debate became: Should we beef up the U.N. force, or should we cut it back? The Clinton administration--and one should always remember that in the United Nations Security Council, the United States is essentially the 800-pound gorilla that sits where it wants and can bend others to its will. It's the great power. The Clinton administration's policy was, "Let's withdraw altogether. Let's get out of Rwanda. Leave it to its fate." The United States ambassador to the United Nations at that time was then Madeline Albright. And it was she who was in the wretched position of having to represent this position to the Security Council, and who did so very effectively.

Iqbal Riza [U.N.] said, "Certainly in the first few days, neither the people on the ground or we here knew that this was a planned genocide. We knew that fighting had resumed, and we all viewed it as a breakdown of the cease-fire." How would you respond to that? What did they know at U.N.?

It's clear that by the time that President Habyarimana was assassinated, there was plenty of information floating around U.N. headquarters to the effect that his entourage, the people around him, were eager to commit massacres against the Tutsis. There had been massacres--practice massacres, one could call them--throughout the '90s. They had continued. There were a lot of political assassinations in the months of early 1994. There was a lot of trouble. One had to effectively tune that out. One had to willfully ignore a lot of information in order to think that when the president's plane was shot down and violence returned to Kigali, that that violence was simply a resumption of the same old civil war, rather than a new order of political massacres. If nothing else, the purges on the first night and the first morning (during which, of course, the Belgians were killed), were of a thoroughness and extremity that had not been seen before. And those were not enemy forces.

So it's extraordinary at the least, that those who were charged with maintaining the Rwanda mission at the U.N. can now plead that they didn't recognize what was going on. Certainly, the wish that it was only a cease-fire violation, rather than the wish to see clearly how starkly it was in fact the fulfillment of all the predictions of extermination. It was that wish not to notice, I think, that prevailed.

They didn't put two and two together?

Riza basically told me when I spoke to him that, "Look, after the debacle of peacekeeping for Americans in Somalia, we here at peacekeeping headquarters knew that there was no major appetite to get involved in such missions," particularly ... in Africa. That was the climate. When I said, "Well, but did you share the information? Did you push it? Did you aggressively pursue this," the attitude was, "Well, we knew that they didn't want to do it." So there was almost an attitude of collapse. There was an attitude of "Why bother?" There was not a very aggressive point of view there ... it's essentially the plea that we didn't realize it was a genocide; therefore, we didn't respond to it as one. It's pretty appalling that it wasn't recognized.

One of the things that's so astonishing when one comes to this now and looks at this with any care, is how profoundly it was scripted ... when I say "profoundly," I mean how thoroughly it was scripted, how thoroughly it was announced, how thoroughly it was a genocide foretold, how thoroughly the signs were on the surface. They were on the radio. They were in the newspapers. You could buy them at any street corner. You could hear them at any rally. You didn't have to go looking. This was not a top secret program that was coming forward. It was something that was really quite conspicuously announced.

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