A Formula for Genocide

Article excerpt

Pioneering journalist Philip Gourevitch has shown how Western race theory, arms, and money-combined with home-grown corruption-can turn a peaceful yet ethnically

complex nation into a charnel house.

This century's best organized genocide took place not in the death camps of Europe or the killing fields of Southeast Asia, but in the small African nation of Rwanda. Some 800,000 people were murdered in 100 days. This works out to 333 deaths an hour, or five and a half every minute, an astonishingly efficient operation, especially when you consider that most of the deaths took place in the first few weeks, and that lacking the more advanced weapons of destruction, the killers used only machetes, clubs, and small arms. The other astonishing thing is that many people both inside and outside Rwanda knew genocide was coming, but did nothing to stop it, and when global humanitarians did intervene, they helped not the victims but the killers. Rwanda was the graveyard for lofty moral assumptions by the so-called international community, and a lesson in how not to deal with Africa. Whether the lesson has been learned, however, remains doubtful. Africa still eludes the liberal mind.

Rwanda, landlocked, poor, and only slightly larger than Vermont, was home to some 6 million people. Demographic figures are suspect, but one estimate is that 84 percent were Hutu, while 15 percent were Tutsi, and 1 percent were Twa. The Twa, who are pygmies, were there first. Later the Hutus apparently moved in from the south and west, and the Tutsis from the north. No white man set foot in Rwanda, however, until 1894, when a wandering German count arrived at the Rwandan royal court. He found a king, or Mwami, whose death the following year led to political rivalries among the then dominant Tutsi clans, and, in 1897, provided an opportunity for Germany to raise its flag over Rwanda. Kaiser Wilhelm's agents worked with the Tutsis, and established a suzerainty.

The affinity for the Tutsis and not the Hutus was to be expected. In the European imagination the Tutsis were a lost race of warrior kings. Tutsis tended to be tall and slender, and Hutus short and stocky. Tutsis tended to thin lips and narrow noses, and Hutus to thick lips and flat noses. Tutsis also tended to have lighter skins than Hutus. Victorian race theory suggested the Hutus were children of Ham, whose progeny through his son Canaan were cursed by Noah: "A slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers." Pre-colonial Rwanda, though, was unaware of the Hamitic myth. Hutus were farmers and Tutsis raised cattle, but there were Hutu Mwamis and Tutsi Mwamis. Meanwhile Hutus and Tutsis intermarried, fought in the same armies, and lived in the same hillside villages. Whatever the differences between the two, Rwanda was a unified nation. It had one language, Kinyarwanda, one national god, Imana, and a patriotic devotion to the Mwami, whether he was a Hutu or Tutsi.

When the League of Nations handed Rwanda over to Belgium after World War I, the affinity for the Tutsis persisted. Indeed, buttressed by quack science and a dubious theology, it became the keystone of colonial administration. Belgian scientists measured Hutu and Tutsi physiognomies, and found that the median Tutsi nose, for example, was two-and-a-half millimeters longer and almost five millimeters narrower than the median Hutu nose. Clearly there was a nobility in the Tutsis that was absent in the Hutus. The Hamitic myth was officially enshrined; policy was joined to ethnicity.

In 1930 the Belgian Bishop of Rwanda warned that any attempt to replace Tutsi chiefs with "uncouth" Hutu chiefs "would lead the entire state directly into anarchy and to bitter anti-European Communism." In 1933 Belgium began a census that led to the issuance of ethnic identity cards that stipulated the bearers as Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa, even though Rwandans themselves could not always tell one another apart. Many Tutsis and Hutus did not fit the physical archetypes, and there were even modestly tall pygmies. …