What Really Happened in Rwanda?
by Christian Davenport and Allan
C. Stam, Miller-McCune
www.truthout.org/, October 6,
In 1998 and 1999, we went to Rwanda and
returned several times in subsequent years for a simple reason:
We wanted to discover what had happened there during the 100 days
in 1994 when civil war and genocide killed an estimated 1 million
individuals. What was the source of our curiosity? Well, our motivations
were complex. In part, we felt guilty about ignoring the events
when they took place and were largely overshadowed in the U.S.
by such "news" as the O.J. Simpson murder case. We felt
that at least we could do something to clarify what had occurred
in an effort to respect the dead and assist in preventing this
kind of mass atrocity in the future. We were both also in need
of something new, professionally speaking. Although tenured, our
research agendas felt staid. Rwanda was a way out of the rut and
into something significant.
Although well-intentioned, we were not
at all ready for what we would encounter. Retrospectively, it
was naïve of us to think that we would be. As we end the
project 10 years later, our views are completely at odds with
what we believed at the outset, as well as what passes for conventional
wisdom about what took place.
We worked for both the prosecution and
the defense at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda,
trying to perform the same task - that is, to find data that demonstrate
what actually happened during the 100 days of killing. Because
of our findings, we have been threatened by members of the Rwandan
government and individuals around the world. And we have been
labeled "genocide deniers" in both the popular press
as well as the Tutsi expatriate community because we refused to
say that the only form of political violence that took place in
1994 was genocide. It was not, and understanding what happened
is crucial if the international community is to respond properly
the next time it becomes aware of such a horrific spasm of mass
Like most people with an unsophisticated
understanding of Rwandan history and politics, we began our research
believing that what we were dealing with was one of the most straightforward
cases of political violence in recent times, and it came in two
forms: On the one hand was the much-highlighted genocide, in which
the dominant, ruling ethnic group - the Hutu - targeted the minority
ethnic group known as the Tutsi. The behavior toward the minority
group was extremely violent - taking place all over Rwanda - and
the objective of the government's effort appeared to be the eradication
of the Tutsi, so the genocide label was easy to apply. On the
other hand, there was the much-neglected international or civil
war, which had rebels (the Rwandan Patriotic Front or RPF) invading
from Uganda on one side and the Rwandan government (the Armed
Forces of Rwanda or FAR) on the other. They fought this war for
four years, until the RPF took control of the country.
We also went in believing that the Western
community - especially the United States - had dropped the ball
in failing to intervene, in large part because the West had failed
to classify expeditiously the relevant events as genocide.
Finally, we went in believing that the
Rwandan Patriotic Front, then rebels but now the ruling party
in Rwanda, had stopped the genocide by ending the civil war and
taking control of the country.
At the time, the points identified above
stood as the conventional wisdom about the 100 days of slaughter.
But the conventional wisdom was only partly correct.
The violence did seem to begin with Hutu
extremists, including militia groups such as the Interahamwe,
who focused their efforts against the Tutsi. But as our data came
to reveal, from there violence spread quickly, with Hutu and Tutsi
playing the roles of both attackers and victims, and many people
of both ethnic backgrounds systematically using the mass killing
to settle political, economic and personal scores.
Against conventional wisdom, we came to
believe that the victims of this violence were fairly evenly distributed
between Tutsi and Hutu; among other things, it appears that there
simply weren't enough Tutsi in Rwanda at the time to account for
all the reported deaths.
We also came to understand just how uncomfortable
it can be to question conventional wisdom.
We began our research while working on
a U.S. Agency for International Development project that had proposed
to deliver some methodological training to Rwandan students completing
their graduate theses in the social sciences. While engaged in
this effort, we came across a wide variety of nongovernmental
organizations that had compiled information about the 100 days.
Many of these organizations had records that were detailed, identifying
precisely who died where and under what circumstances; the records
included information about who had been attacked by whom. The
harder we pushed the question of what had happened and who was
responsible, the more access we gained to information and data.
There were a number of reasons that we
were given wide-ranging access to groups that had data on the
100 days of killing. First, for their part of the USAID program,
our hosts at the National University of Rwanda in Butare arranged
many public talks, one of which took place at the U.S. embassy
in Kigali. Presumably put together to assist Rwandan NGOs with
"state-of-the-art" measurement of human rights violations,
these talks - the embassy talk, in particular - turned the situation
on its head. The Rwandans at the embassy ended up doing the teaching,
bringing up any number of events and publications that dealt with
the violence. We met with representatives of several of the institutions
involved, whose members discussed with us in greater detail the
data they had compiled.
Second, the U.S. ambassador at the time,
George McDade Staples, helped us gain access to Rwanda government
elites -directly and indirectly through staff members.
Third, the Rwandan assigned to assist
the USAID project was extremely helpful in identifying potential
sources of information. That she was closely related to a member
of the former Tutsi royal family was a welcome plus.
Once we returned to the U.S., we began
to code events during the 100 days by times, places, perpetrators,
victims, weapon type and actions. Essentially, we compiled a listing
of who did what to whom, and when and where they did it - what
Charles Tilly, the late political sociologist, called an "event
catalog." This catalog would allow us to identify patterns
and conduct more rigorous statistical investigations.
Looking at the material across space and
time, it became apparent that not all of Rwanda was engulfed in
violence at the same time. Rather, the violence spread from one
locale to another, and there seemed to be a definite sequence
to the spread. But we didn't understand the sequence.
At National University of Rwanda, we spent
a week preparing students to conduct a household survey of the
province. As we taught the students how to design a survey instrument,
a common question came up repeatedly: "What actually happened
in Butare during the summer of 1994?" No one seemed to know;
we found this lack of awareness puzzling and guided the students
in building a set of questions for their survey, which eventually
revealed several interesting pieces of information.
First, and perhaps most important, was
confirmation that the vast majority of the population in the Butare
province had been on the move between 1993 and 1995, particularly
during early 1994. Almost no one stayed put. We also found that
the RPF rebels had blocked the border leading south out of the
province to Burundi. The numbers of households that provided information
consistent with these facts raised significant questions in our
minds regarding the culpability of the RPF relative to the FAR
for killing in the area.
During this period, we confirmed Human
Rights Watch findings that many killings were organized by the
Hutu-led FAR, but we also found that many of the killings were
spontaneous, the type of violence that we would expect with a
complete breakdown of civil order. Our work further revealed that,
some nine years later, a great deal of hostility remained. There
was little communication between the two ethnic groups. The Tutsi,
now under RPF leadership and President Paul Kagame, dominated
all aspects of the political, economic and social systems.
Lastly, it became apparent to us that
members of the Tutsi diaspora who returned to Rwanda after the
conflict were woefully out of touch with the country that they
had returned to. Indeed, one Tutsi woman with whom we spent a
day in the hills around Butare broke down in tears in our car
as we drove back to the university. When asked why, she replied,
"I have never seen such poverty and destitution." We
were quite surprised at the degree of disconnect between the elite
students drawn from the wealthy strata of the Tutsi diaspora,
who were largely English-speaking, and the poorer Rwandans, who
spoke Kinyarwanda and perhaps a bit of French. It was not surprising
that the poor and the wealthy in the country did not mix; what
struck both of us as surprising was the utter lack of empathy
and knowledge about each other's condition. After all, the Tutsi
outside the country claimed to have invaded Rwanda from Uganda
on behalf of the Tutsi inside - a group that the former seemed
to have little awareness of or interest in. Our work has led us
to conclude that the invading force had a primary goal of conquest
and little regard for the lives of resident Tutsis.
As the students proceeded with the survey,
asking questions that were politically awkward for the RPF-led
government, we found our position in the country increasingly
untenable. One member of our team was detained and held for the
better part of a day while being interrogated by a district police
chief. The putative reason was a lack of permissions from the
local authorities; permissions were required for everything in
Rwanda, and we generally had few problems obtaining them in the
beginning. The real reason for the interrogation, however, seemed
to be that we were asking uncomfortable questions about who the
A couple of weeks later, two members of
our team were on a tourist trip in the northern part of the country
when they were again detained and questioned for the better part
of a day at an RPF military facility. There the questioners wanted
to know why we were asking difficult questions, what we were doing
in the country, whether we were working for the American CIA,
if we were guests of the Europeans and, in general, why we were
trying to cause trouble.
On one of our trips to Rwanda, Alison
Des Forges, the pre-eminent scholar of Rwandan politics who has
since died in an airplane crash, suggested that we go to the International
Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania to seek answers to the
questions we were raising. Des Forges even called on our behalf.
With appointments set and with Mount Kilimanjaro
in the distance, we arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, for our meeting
with Donald Webster, the lead prosecutor for the political trials,
Barbara Mulvaney, the lead prosecutor for the military trial,
and others from their respective teams. As we began to talk, we
initially found that the prosecutors in the two sets of cases
- one set of defendants were former members of the FAR military,
the other set of trials focused on the members of the Hutu political
machine - had great interest in our project.
Eventually, Webster and Mulvaney asked
us to help them contextualize the cases that they were investigating.
Needless to say, we were thrilled with the possibility. Now, we
were working directly with those trying to bring about justice.
The prosecutors showed us a preliminary
database that they had compiled from thousands of eyewitness statements
associated with the 1994 violence. They did not have the resources
to code all of the statements for computer analysis; they wanted
us to do the coding and compare the statements against the data
we had already compiled. We returned to the U.S. with real enthusiasm;
we had access to data that no one else had seen and direct interaction
with one of the most important legal bodies of the era.
Interest by and cooperation with the ICTR
did not last as long as we thought it would, in no small part
because it quickly became clear that our research was going to
uncover killings committed not just by the Hutu-led former government,
or FAR, but by the Tutsi-led rebel force, the RPF, as well. Until
then, we had been trying to identify all deaths that had taken
place; beyond confidentiality issues, it did not occur to us that
the identity of perpetrators would be problematic (in part because
we thought that all or almost all of them would be associated
with the Hutu government). But then we tried to obtain detailed
maps that contained information on the location of FAR military
bases at the beginning of the civil war. We had seen copies of
these maps pinned to the wall in Mulvaney's office. In fact, during
our interview with Mulvaney, the prosecutor explained how her
office had used these maps. We took detailed notes, even going
so far as to write down map grid coordinates and important map
grid sheet identifiers.
After the prosecution indicated it was
no longer interested in reconstructing a broad conception of what
had taken place -prosecutors said they'd changed their legal strategy
to focus exclusively on information directly related to people
charged with crimes - we asked the court for a copy of the maps.
To our great dismay, the prosecution claimed that the maps did
not exist. Unfortunately for the prosecutors, we had our notes.
After two years of negotiations, a sympathetic Canadian colonel
in a Canadian mapping agency produced the maps we requested.
As part of the process of trying to work
out the culpability of the various defendants charged with planning
to carry out genocidal policies, the ICTR conducted interviews
with witnesses to the violence over some five years, beginning
in 1996. Ultimately, the court deposed some 12,000 different people.
The witness statements represent a highly biased sample; the Kagame
administration prevented ICTR investigators from interviewing
many who might provide information implicating members of the
RPF or who were otherwise deemed by the government to be either
unimportant or a threat to the regime. All the same, the witness
statements were important to our project; they could help corroborate
information found in CIA documents, other witness statements,
academic studies of the violence and other authoritative sources.
As with the maps, however, when we asked
for the statements, we were told they did not exist. Eventually,
defense attorneys -who were surprised by the statements' existence,
there being no formal discovery process in the ICTR - requested
them. After a year or so, we obtained the witness statements,
in the form of computer image files that we converted into optically
readable computer documents. We then wrote software to search
through these 12,000 statements in our attempts to locate violence
and killing throughout Rwanda.
The first significant negative publicity
associated with our project occurred in November 2003 at an academic
conference in Kigali. The National University of Rwanda had invited
a select group of academics, including our team, to present the
results of research into the 1994 murders. We had been led to
believe that the conference would be a private affair, with an
audience composed of academics and a small number of policymakers.
As it turned out, the conference was anything
but small or private. It was held at a municipal facility in downtown
Kigali, and our remarks would be simultaneously translated from
English into French and the Rwandan language, Kinyarwanda. There
were hundreds of people present, including not just academics
but members of the military, the cabinet and other members of
the business and political elite.
We presented two main findings, the first
derived from spatial and temporal maps of data obtained from the
different sources already mentioned. The maps showed that, while
killing took place in different parts of the country, it did so
at different rates and magnitudes - begging for an explanation
we did not yet have. The second finding came out of a comparison
of official census data from 1991 to the violence data we had
collected. According to the census, there were approximately 600,000
Tutsi in the country in 1991; according to the survival organization
Ibuka, about 300,000 survived the 1994 slaughter. This suggested
that out of the 800,000 to 1 million believed to have been killed
then, more than half were Hutu. The finding was significant; it
suggested that the majority of the victims of 1994 were of the
same ethnicity as the government in power. It also suggested that
genocide - that is, a government's attempts to exterminate an
ethnic group - was hardly the only motive for some, and perhaps
most, of the killing that occurred in the 100 days of 1994.
Halfway into our presentation, a military
man in a green uniform stood up and interrupted. The Minister
of Internal Affairs, he announced, took great exception to our
findings. We were told that our passport numbers had been documented,
that we were expected to leave the country the next day and that
we would not be welcomed back into Rwanda - ever. Abruptly, our
presentation was over, as was, it seemed, our fieldwork in Rwanda.
The results of our initial paper and media
interviews became widely known throughout the community of those
who study genocides in general and the Rwandan genocide in particular.
The main offshoot was that we became labeled, paradoxically, as
genocide "deniers," even though our research documents
that genocide had occurred. Both of us have received significant
quantities of hate mail and hostile e-mail. In the Tutsi community
and diaspora, our work is anathema. Over the past several years,
as we have refined our results, becoming more confident about
our findings, our critics' voices have become louder and increasingly
Of course, we have never denied that a
genocide took place; we just noted that genocide was only one
among several forms of violence that occured at the time. In the
context of post-genocide Rwandan politics, however, the divergence
from common wisdom was considered political heresy.
Following the debacle at the Kigali conference,
the ICTR prosecution teams of Webster and Mulvaney let us know
in no uncertain terms that they had no further use of our services.
The reasons for our dismissal struck us as somewhat outrageous.
From the outset, the prosecution claimed it was not interested
in anything that would prove or disprove the culpability of any
individuals in the mass killings. Now, they said, the findings
we'd announced in the Kigali conference made our future efforts
Shortly after our dismissal, however,
Peter Erlinder, a defense attorney for former members of the FAR
military who were to be tried, contacted us. This was after several
others from the defense had also attempted to contact us, with
We had misgivings about cooperating or
working with the defense, the gravest being that such work might
be seen as supporting the claim we were genocide deniers. After
months of negotiating, we finally met Erlinder at a Starbucks
in Philadelphia, Pa. The defense could have made a better choice
for roping us in. Erlinder, a professor at the William Mitchell
College of Law, was an academic turned defender for the least
After we obtained lattes and quiet seats
in the back of the coffee shop, Erlinder came straight to the
point: He was, of course, interested in establishing his client's
innocence, but he felt it would help the defense to establish
a baseline history of what had taken place in the war in 1994.
As he explained, "My client may be guilty of some things,
but he is not guilty of all the things that any in the Rwandan
government and military during 1994 is accused of. They have all
been made out to be devils."
What he asked was reasonable. In fact,
he made the same essential offer the prosecution had: In exchange
for our efforts at contextualizing the events of 1994, Erlinder
would do the best he could to assist us in getting data on what
took place. With Erlinder's assistance, we were able to obtain
the maps we'd seen in Mulvaney's office and the 12,000 witness
statements. With this information, we were able to better establish
the true positions of both the FAR and RPF during the civil war.
This greater confidence of the location of the two sides' militaries
made - and makes - us more certain about the culpability of the
FAR for the majority of the killings during the 100 days of 1994.
At the same time, however, we also began to develop a stronger
understanding of the not insignificant role played by the RPF
in the mass murders.
About this time, we were approached by
an individual associated with Arcview-GIS, a spatial mapping software
firm that wanted to take the rather simplistic maps that we had
developed and improve them, thereby showing what the company's
program was capable of. Our consultant at Arcview-GIS said the
software could layer information on the map, providing, among
other things, a line that showed, day by day, where the battlefront
of the civil war was located, relative to the killings we had
This was a major step. In line with the
conventional wisdom, we had assumed that the government was responsible
for most all of the people killed in Rwanda during 1994; we initially
paid no attention to where RPF forces were located. But it soon
became clear that the killings occurred not just in territory
controlled by the government's FAR but also in RPF-captured territory,
as well as along the front between the two forces. It seemed possible
to us that the three zones of engagement (the FAR-controlled area,
the RPF-controlled area and the battlefront between the two) somehow
influenced one another.
In his book, The Limits of Humanitarian
Intervention, Alan Kuperman argued that given the logistical challenges
of mounting a military operation in deep central Africa, there
was little the U.S. or Europe could have done to limit the 1994
killings. To support his position, Kuperman used U.S. Defense
Intelligence Agency information to document approximate positions
of the RPF units over the course of the war. We updated this information
on troop locations with data from CIA national intelligence estimates
that others had obtained through the Freedom of Information Act
and then updated it again, incorporating interviews with former
RPF members, whose recollections we corroborated with information
from the FAR.
Our research showed the vast majority
of the 1994 killing had been conducted by the FAR, the Interahamwe
and their associates. Another significant proportion of the killing
was committed not by government forces but by citizens engaged
in opportunistic killing as part of the breakdown of civil order
associated with the civil war. But the RPF was clearly responsible
for another significant portion of the killings.
In some instances, the RPF killings were,
very likely, spontaneous retribution. In other cases, though,
the RPF has been directly implicated in large-scale killings associated
with refugee camps, as well as individual households. Large numbers
of individuals died at roadblocks and in municipal centers, households,
swamps and fields, many of them trying to make their way to borders.
Perhaps the most shocking result of our combination of information
on troop locations involved the invasion itself: The killings
in the zone controlled by the FAR seemed to escalate as the RPF
moved into the country and acquired more territory. When the RPF
advanced, large-scale killings escalated. When the RPF stopped,
large-scale killings largely decreased. The data revealed in our
maps was consistent with FAR claims that it would have stopped
much of the killing if the RPF had simply called a halt to its
invasion. This conclusion runs counter to the Kagame administration's
claims that the RPF continued its invasion to bring a halt to
In terms of ethnicity, the short answer
to the question, "Who died?" is, "We'll probably
never know." By and large, the Hutu and the Tutsi are physically
indistinct from one another. They share a common language. They
have no identifiable accent. They have had significant levels
of intermarriage through their histories, and they have lived
in similar locations for the past several hundred years. In the
1920s and 1930s, the Belgians, in their role as occupying power,
put together a national program to try to identify individuals'
ethnic identity through phrenology, an abortive attempt to create
an ethnicity scale based on measurable physical features such
as height, nose width and weight, with the hope that colonial
administrators would not have to rely on identity cards.
One result of the Belgian efforts was
to show - convincingly - that there is no observable difference
on average between the typical Hutu Rwandan and the typical Tutsi
Rwandan. Some clans - such as those of the current president,
Paul Kagame, or the earlier Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana
- do share distinctive physical traits. But the typical Rwandan
shares a mix of such archetypal traits, making ethnic identity
outside of local knowledge about an individual household's identity
difficult if not impossible to ascertain - especially in mass
graves containing no identifying information. (For example, Physicians
for Human Rights exhumed a mass grave in western Rwanda and found
the remains of more than 450 people, but only six identity cards.)
In court transcripts for multiple trials at the ICTR, witnesses
described surviving the killings that took place around them by
simply hiding among members of the opposite ethnic group. It is
clear that in 1994, killers would have had a difficult time ascertaining
the ethnic identity of their putative victims, unless they were
Complicating matters is the displacement
that accompanied the RPF invasion. During 1994, some 2 million
Rwandan citizens became external refugees, 1 million to 2 million
became internal refugees, and about 1 million eventually became
victims of civil war and genocide.
Ethnic identity in Rwanda is local knowledge,
in much the same way that caste is local knowledge in India. With
the majority of the population on the move, local knowledge and
ethnic identity disappeared. This is not to say that the indigenous
Tutsi were not sought out deliberately for extermination. But
in their killing rampages, FAR, the Interahamwe and private citizens
engaged in killing victims of both ethnic groups. And people from
both ethnic groups were on the move, trying to stay out in front
of the fighting as the RPF advanced.
In the end, our best estimate of who died
during the 1994 massacre was, really, an educated guess based
on an estimate of the number of Tutsi in the country at the outset
of the war and the number who survived the war. Using a simple
method -subtracting the survivors from the number of Tutsi residents
at the outset of the violence - we arrived at an estimated total
of somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 Tutsi victims. If we
believe the estimate of close to 1 million total civilian deaths
in the war and genocide, we are then left with between 500,000
and 700,000 Hutu deaths, and a best guess that the majority of
victims were in fact Hutu, not Tutsi.
This conclusion - which has drawn criticism
from the Kagame regime and its supporters - is buttressed by the
maps that we painstakingly constructed from the best available
data and that show significant numbers of people killed in areas
under control of the Tutsi-led RPF.
One fact is now becoming increasingly
well understood: During the genocide and civil war that took place
in Rwanda in 1994, multiple processes of violence took place simultaneously.
Clearly there was a genocidal campaign, directed to some degree
by the Hutu government, resulting directly in the deaths of some
100,000 or more Tutsi. At the same time, a civil war raged - a
war that began in 1990, if the focus is on only the most recent
and intense violence, but had roots that extend all the way back
to the 1950s. Clearly, there was also random, wanton violence
associated with the breakdown of order during the civil war. There's
also no question that large-scale retribution killings took place
throughout the country - retribution killings by Hutu of Tutsi,
and vice versa.
From the beginning, the ICTR's investigation
into the mass killings and crimes against humanity in Rwanda in
1994 has focused myopically on the culpability of Hutu leaders
and other presumed participants. The Kagame administration has
worked assiduously to prevent any investigation into RPF culpability
for either mass killings or the random violence associated with
the civil war. By raising the possibility that in addition to
Hutu/FAR wrongdoing, the RPF was involved, either directly or
indirectly, in many deaths, we became in effect persona non grata
in Rwanda and at the ICTR.
The most commonly invoked metaphor for
the 1994 Rwandan violence is the Holocaust. Elsewhere, we have
suggested that perhaps the English civil war, the Greek civil
war, the Chinese civil war or the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Civil_WarRussian
civil war might be more apt comparisons because they all involved
some combination of ethnic-based violence and the random slaughter
and retribution that can occur when civil society breaks down
Actually, though, it is difficult to make
authoritative comparisons when it remains unclear exactly what
happened in the Rwandan civil war and genocide.
Contemporary observers - including Romeo
Dallaire, the commander of the ineffective U.N. peacekeeping force
for Rwanda in 1993 and 1994 - claim that much of the genocidal
killing had been planned by the Hutu government as early as two
years in advance of the actual RPF invasion. Unfortunately, we
have not been able to gain access to the individuals who have
information on that score to either corroborate or to refute the
hypothesis. The reason? Convicted genocidaires who have been implicated
in the planning of the slaughter now reside out of contact with
potential interviewers in a U.N.-sponsored prison in Mali.
We wanted to put questions to these planners,
specifically to ask them what their goals were. Was the genocide
plan an attempt at deterrence, an effort that the FAR leadership
thought might keep the RPF at bay in Uganda and elsewhere? Did
the FAR government actually hope for war, believing - incorrectly
as it turned out - that it would win? Was the scale of the killing
beyond its expectations? If so, why do FAR leaders believe events
spun so badly out of control, compared to previous spasms of violence
in the 1960s, '70s and '80s?
Unfortunately, the U.N. prosecutors in
Tanzania told us they could not arrange a meeting with the convicted
planners and killers, but we were free to go to Mali on our own.
We were told we would probably get in to see the prisoners, but
the prison is in the middle of nowhere, in a country where we
had no contacts. We had to let go.
Even without access to convicted genocidaires,
we continued to piece together what had happened in 1994 with
the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation. The
grant allowed us to be more ambitious in our pursuit of diverse
informants who started popping up all over the globe, to refine
our mapping and to explore alternative ways of generating estimates
about what had taken place. While our understanding has advanced
a great deal since our first days in Kigali, it is hard not to
see irony in a current reality: Some of the most important information
about what occurred in Rwanda in 1994 has been sent - by the very
authorities responsible for investigating the violence and preventing
its recurrence, in Rwanda and elsewhere - to an isolated prison,
where it sits unexamined, like some artifact in the final scene
of an Indiana Jones movie.