Rwandan Genocide

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Rwandan Genocide

"Priests, Doctors, and Teachers Turn Genocidal"

Book excerpt

By: Mahmood Mamdani

Date: 2003

Source: "Priests, Doctors, and Teachers Turn Genocidal" is an excerpt published in Sources of the Western Tradition, edited by Marvin Perry, et. al., and published by Houghton Mifflin in 2003. Originally published in When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, Princeton University Press, 2001.

About the Author: Dr. Mahmood Mamdani, the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University in New York, was born in Uganda. He earned a Bachelor's degree from the University of Pittsburgh, an M.A. and an M.A.L.D. from Tufts University Fletcher School of Law, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He has been the A.C. Jordan Professor of African Studies and the Director for the Center for African Studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He has also taught at the University of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania and at Makerere University in Uganda. Mamdani is the founding Director of the Centre for Basic Research in Kampala, Uganda and was the President of the Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa (CODESRIA), based in Senegal. His particular areas of interest are African history, politics, and international relations. He is the author of numerous scholarly works, including Iraq: Collective Punishment in War and Peace, and Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War, and the Roots of Terror.


Genocide is a crime unlike any other in that it has as an aim the destruction of an entire nation, race, or ethnic group. It requires a detailed and well-thought-out plan with the intent of complete annihilation of all individuals who are members of the target group, in an effort to cause the extinction of the undesired population. In 1944, Raphael Lemkin, then advisor to the United States War Ministry, first coined the term in an effort to describe the occurrences at the extermination and concentration camps under Hitler's regime during World War II. He endeavored to make a very clear distinction between war crimes and the crimes against humanity perpetrated during the Holocaust of World War II. Lemkin was the first to formalize the notion that genocide is not a war crime; its immorality renders genocide a crime against all humanity. War is amoral but characterized by religious dogma or political ideological differences—different goals, very different outcomes. If a group of persons, an entire race or culture of persons, is systematically exterminated simply because they exist, it is considered a crime of the greatest magnitude against humanity; it violates the fundamental belief that all humans have the right to exist and to develop within their particular social systems.


. . . [E]ven if we can never know the numbers of those who killed, there is no escaping the disturbing fact that many did enthusiastically join in the killing. The genocide was not simply a state project. Had the killing been the work of state functionaries and those bribed by them, it would have translated into no more than a string of massacres perpetrated by death squads. Without massacres by machetewielding civilian mobs, in the hundreds and thousands, there would have been no genocide. We now turn to the social underbelly of the genocide: the participation of those who killed with a purpose, for whom the violence of the genocide and its target held meaning. . .

Like the middle class of which they were a prominent part, priests were also divided between those who were targeted in the killings and those who led or facilitated the killings. Here, too, there was hardly any middle ground. A Lutheran minister recalled what the gangs told him: "You can have religion afterwards." Explaining why he walked around with a club, the minister told a reporter: "Everyone had to participate. To prove that you weren't RPF 'Rwandan Patriotic front, the Tutsi army', you had to walk around with a club. Being a pastor was not an excuse." Priests who had condemned the government's use of ethnic quotas in education and the civil service were among the first victims of the massacres. In all, 105 priests and 120 nuns, at least a quarter of the clergy, are believed to have been killed. But priests were not only among those killed, they were among the killers. Investigators with the United Nations (UN) Center for Human Rights claimed "strong evidence" that "about a dozen priests were actually killed." Others were accused of "supervising gangs of young killers. . . "

How could it be that most major massacres of the genocide took place in churches? How could all those institutions that we associate with nurturing life—not only churches, but schools and even hospitals—be turned into places where life was taken with impunity and facility? Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), a medical charity, pulled out of the University Hospital in Kigali after its patients kept disappearing. The British Medical Journal quote testimony of Dr. Claude-Emile Rwagasonza: "The extremist doctors were also asking patients for their identity cards before treating them. They refused to treat sick Tutsis. Also, many people were coming to the hospital to hide. The extremist doctors prevented many of these people from hiding in the hospital." A medical doctor, a member of the hospital staff, directed the militia into the hospital at Kibeho and shut off the power supply so that the massacre may proceed in darkness. Some of "the most horrific massacres occurred in maternity clinics, where people gathered in the belief that no one would kill mothers and new-born babies." "The percentage of doctors who became killers 'par excellence' was very high," concluded African Rights on the basis of extensive investigations. They included persons as highly qualified as Dr. Sosthene Munyemana, a gynecologist at the University Hospital of Butare, Rwanda's principal teaching hospital. "A huge number of the most qualified and experienced doctors in the country, men as well as women—including surgeons, physicians, paeditricians, gynaecologists, anaesthetists, public health specialists and hospital administrators—participated in the murder of their own Tutsi colleagues, patients, the wounded, and terrified refugees who had sought shelter in their hospitals, as well as their neighbors and strangers." In a sector as small as Tumba, three doctors played a central part. Of these, one was a doctor at Groupe Scolaire Hospital, and the other, her husband, was the health director for Butare. "Two of the most active assassins in Tumba" were a medical assistant and his wife, a nurse.

Close on the heels of priests and doctors as prime enthusiasts of the genocide were teachers, and even some human rights activists. When I visited the National University at Butare in 1995, I was told of the Hutu staff and students who betrayed their Tutsi colleagues and joined in the physical elimination. Teachers commonly denounced students to the militia or killed students themselves. A Hutu teacher told a French journalist without any seeming compunction: "A lot of people got killed here. I myself killed some of the children . . . We had eighty kids in the first year. There are twenty–five left. All the others, we killed them or they have run away." African Rights compiled a fifty-nine-page dossier charging Innocent Mazimpaka, who was in April 1991 the chairman of the League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights in Rwanda (LIPRODHOR) and simultaneously an employee of a Dutch aid organization, SNV, with responsibility for the genocide. Along with his younger brother, the burgomaster of Gatare commune, he was charged with the slaughter of all but twenty–one of Gatare's Tutsi population of 12,263. Rakiya Omaar pointed out that "several members of human rights groups are now known to have participated" in the killings, refuting "the notion that an independent civil society—of which the educated and the political opposition were the backbone—resisted the project of genocide."

That victims looking for a sanctuary should seek out churches, schools, and hospitals as places for shelter is totally understandable. But that they should be killed without any let or hindrance—even lured to these places for that purpose—is not at all understandable. As places of shelter turned into slaughterhouses, those pledged to heal or nurture life set about extinguishing it methodically and deliberately.

That the professions most closely associated with valuing life—doctors and nurses, priests and teachers, human rights activists—got embroiled in taking it is probably the most troubling question of the Rwandan genocide.


Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana (a Hutu) died on April 6, 1994, when members of the Tutsi extremist group the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) shot down his plane. On the same day, the RPF assassinated the Hutu prime minister of Rwanda, Agathe Uwilingiyimana. In the ensuing four months, the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi population claimed the lives of somewhere between 5,000 and 1.3 million individuals. Although there is lack of agreement on the exact death toll, there is universal consensus that the systematic extermination of the Tutsi population in Rwanda represented the single largest example of genocide in the era after the Cold War. As horrendous as the fact of the genocide's occurrence, in and of itself, what is even more incomprehensible is the fact that the genocide was perpetrated not just by the prevailing political regime, but was enthusiastically participated in by those commonly believed to preserve and protect life: clergy, medical practitioners, human rights activists, and teachers. Compounding the tragedy was the ennui of most of the "civilized world": the genocide was either watched from the comfort of living rooms across the globe, with little concerted public outcry, or remained undermentioned by the media or the national powers.

The development of the Hutu-Tutsi climate of strife and hatred, in many ways a metaphor for modern terrorist in-and-out group theories, had its origins in Rwanda in the thirteenth century. The Tutsi population, which make up about 15 percent of present-day Rwanda, migrated into the country from the Kenyan and Tanzanian grasslands of the north and progressively dominated the prevailing Hutu population (about 85 percent of present-day Rwanda). By the fifteenth century, Tutsi-dominated clans became chiefdoms. By the end of the nineteenth century, the sociopolitical and economic divisions between the Hutus and the Tutsis had reached a point where the pastoralist Tutsis held virtually complete domination over the agriculturally based Hutus. Tensions and strife escalated over time, and were significantly exacerbated with the arrival of the Belgians in Rwanda in the early part of the twentieth century. The Belgian colonialists systematically "fed" the Hutus the propaganda (called the Hamitic Hypothesis) that the Tutsis were the cursed "Caucasian" descendents of Ham, who was considered to be the son of Noah. Throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century, the Belgians strove to institutionalize the belief that the Tutsis were superior (as they were considered Caucasians, rather than native Africans, which the Hutus were stated to be). To further emphasize their assertions, the Belgians gave preference to the Tutsis in the educational and public sectors.

In 1959, Rwanda experienced a "Social Revolution," wherein the economically powerful Hutus, led by Gregore Kayibanda, proposed the segregation of the Hutu and Tutsi populations. This occurred just after Rwanda became independent of Belgian colonial rule. The growing cultural tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsis, worsened by the impositions of colonial rule, effectively set the stage for the genocide that would take place in 1994. Although there was a period of stability during the 1970s and 1980s, largely as a result of a robust economy in Rwanda, tensions began to simmer began Hutus and Tutsis at the start of the 1990s when the economy of Rwanda collapsed. When the Tutsi extremist group called the RPF (Rwandan Political Front) attempted a coup during their 1993 uprising, the Hutus, driven by both fear and small group psychology, became so fearful of a shift in political power (from Hutu domination to a return to Tutsi domination) that the governmental powers were easily able to create the massive backlash that became the Rwandan Tutsi genocide of 1994.

In a manner analogous to the Nazi genocide of World War II, the well-organized leaders were able to create an atmosphere of fear and hatred that had the result of mobilizing the common people, as well as members of the educated elite—doctors, priests, teachers, human rights activists—to enthusiastically, willingly, or even reluctantly, commit atrocities against friends, colleagues, and neighbors, as well as strangers.



Mamdani, Mahmood. When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton University Press, 2002.

Perry, M., Peden, J.R., and T.H. Von Laue. Sources of the Western Tradition. Volume II. 5th ed.. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Mamdani, Mahmood. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. Academic Literature, Pantheon Books, 2004.

Perry, M., Peden, J.R., and T.H. Von Laue. Sources of the Western Tradition. Volume II. 5th ed. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Web sites

Frontline: Who Were The Organizers. "Special Reports: The Rwanda Crisis." <> (accessed July 2, 2005).

Frontline: The World's Most Wanted Man: Genocide and War Crimes. "Special Reports: The Crime of Genocide." <> (accessed July 2, 2005).

Frontline: The Crime of Genocide. "Never Again: The World's Most Unfulfilled Promise." <> (accessed July 2, 2005).