Red Cross / Flickr A father in Rwanda searches for his lost child, 1994.

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

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In This Review

When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and Genocide in Rwanda
Mahmood Mamdani
Princeton University Press, 2001
380 pp. $29.95

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