The Unanswered Question: Attempting to Explain the Rwandan Genocide

The Rwandan genocide -- in which more than 500,000 Tutsi were killed from April to July 1994 -- will be remembered as one of the seminal events of the late twentieth century. This Central African holocaust demonstrated that genocide is still possible five decades after Nuremberg. It also showed that politics in an African country can spiral downward to catastrophe with stunning speed, that African countries cannot always provide solutions to their problems, and that Western, especially American, declarations about a new interest in Africa are cheap talk. The killings, and the subsequent destabilization of the entire Great Lakes region, have justly attracted a tremendous amount of attention in the last seven years. Indeed, due to the work of individual scholars and investigative commissions sponsored by several Western countries, the Organization of African Unity, and the United Nations, we now know with some certainty who plotted the genocide (the Hutu-led government); how it was executed (by the army and by ordinary Hutu); what were the consequences; and, to some extent, until what point intervention could have stopped the killings.

Despite the thousands of pages devoted to the Rwandan genocide, however, we still do not have a good answer to the most basic question: Why? Why did tens of thousands (if not more) of Hutu citizens join with their government to kill their Tutsi neighbors, their Tutsi wives, and fellow Hutu thought to be Tutsi collaborators? Unlike the Nazi killings, the Rwandan holocaust was not an industrial process carried out by special units at the outskirts of the country. Rather, a large percentage of the Hutu population is individually guilty: machete-wielding Hutu civilians often massacred their own neighbors in and around their homes and churches. Although Rwanda's previous history was itself bloody, no one predicted the genocide. Indeed, even the Tutsi -- presumably the group with the greatest interest and the most information -- were taken by surprise when the slaughter engulfed them.

IDENTITY POLITICS

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis