The Death Toll of the Rwandan Genocide: A Detailed Analysis for Gikongoro Province

By Verpoorten, Marijke | Population, July/August 2005 | Go to article overview

The Death Toll of the Rwandan Genocide: A Detailed Analysis for Gikongoro Province


Verpoorten, Marijke, Population


Though counting the number of victims of a genocide is a historical and political necessity, it is always an extremely hazardous exercise. Regarding the Rwandan genocide of 1994, none of the estimates produced until now were based on records held by the communes. Focusing on Gikongoro Prefecture, Marijke VERPOORTEN not only evaluates the number and the profile of genocide victims, but also describes the geographical pattern of killings. This difficult assessment is based on local population registers and census data and applies a rigorous approach which starts with a detailed analysis of the data sources. It confirms the highest death toll estimates.

Unrest started in Rwanda at the end of 1990, when the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) started launching attacks from Uganda. Intermittent hostilities and negotiations resulted in a power-sharing agreement between the government and the RPF. But on 6 April 1994 the plane carrying president Habyarimana was shot down. Thereafter, Rwanda descended into chaos. Within hours, the military, administrators, the Interahamwe militia(1) and ordinary people started to kill Tutsi, moderate Hutu and Hutu leaders from political parties rival to the president's party, the MRND (Mouvement révolutionnaire national pour le développement). Simultaneously, the war between the Rwandan army and the RPF resumed. A large percentage of the population took refuge in neighbouring countries. In July 1994 the massive killings came to an end(2).

During and after the genocide, many tried to estimate the number of casualties, first through body counting, later using demographic data. About 20 days after the start of the genocide, Human Rights Watch reported 100,000 casualties. Just a few days later, Médecins Sans Frontière (MSF) doubled this estimate. In May 1994, Radio Muhabura, the RPF radio, talked about 500,000 persons killed, and adjusted the figure downwards to 300,000 several days later. These figures were guesses rather than estimates, since they were not based on any systematic counting (Prunier, 1998, p. 262). After the genocide, the accuracy of the estimates did not improve. The UN report of November 1994 (UN 1994) took a safe range between 500,000 and one million victims. These figures include both Tutsi and Hutu.

Demographic data should provide a means to estimate the Tutsi death toll more accurately. The last population census prior to the genocide was conducted in 1991. This census reported 596,400 Tutsi living in Rwanda, representing 8.4% of the population. Based on an annual population growth of 3%, the number of Tutsi would have been 650,900 at the end of July 1994 (under the no-genocide scenario)(3). The next step is to obtain an estimate of surviving Tutsi. At the end of July 1994, head counting in refugee camps resulted in an estimated 105,000 Tutsi survivors. According to Prunier (1998, p. 265) 25,000 survivors who did not go to camps should also be added. Human Rights Watch (HRW, 1999, p. 15) adds another 20,000 surviving Tutsi in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Tanzania. This gives a total of 150,000 Tutsi survivors. By subtracting the number of survivors from the estimated Tutsi population under the no-genocide scenario, we obtain an estimate of 500,900 Tutsi killed in the genocide, a loss of 77.0% of the Tutsi population of Rwanda.

Many readers may question the estimates regarding the number of survivors. Indeed, we will probably never really know how many Tutsi managed to survive without seeking refuge in camps, and counting in the camps was also prone to error. Moreover, since it is no longer politically correct in Rwanda to talk about ethnicity, the latest census of 2002 does not provide information on the current size of the Tutsi population. Another problem is the reliability of the 1991 census. Two criticisms have been put forward. First, to avoid discrimination, an undetermined number of Tutsi registered as Hutu. second, the Habyarimana regime is said to have deliberately under-reported the number of Tutsi in order to keep their school enrolment and public employment quotas low.

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