Nikolay Epplée: Reflections on the Rwanda genocide

13 November 2022

by Nikolay Epplée

Nikolay Epplée is an independent researcher working on international memorial culture and on memory of Soviet state terror and the author of The Inconvenient Past: Memory of the State Crimes in Russia and Other Countries. He has published extensively on memory issues in Vedomosti, InLiberty, Colta, and other Russian media. See also Wilson Center.

Source: Facebook


I have read Ivan Krivushin’s book A Hundred Days in the Grip of Madness [Sto dney vo vlasti besumiya] about the Genocide in Rwanda in the spring and summer of 1994. I’ve read a whole lot about Rwanda but here everything was brought together in concentrated form. It is perhaps the most painful thing I’ve had to read in my life. I’m going to summarize the important bits. (It is the processes of engaging with the aftermath that are my primary interest in the history of genocide but it’s impossible to deal with the consequences of events without becoming acquainted with the events themselves.) 

An emotional point to begin with, a minor one, but still. It acts as a powerful basis for comparison. And yes, that’s a terrible argument: it’s pointless and, to some extent, inhumane to compare tragedies, each one is beyond compare BUT (broken water dam meme). And when as we follow the latest news in Russian politics, we are wont to exclaim that “there’s no end to it”, we should not go on about that “no end” if we haven’t read about Rwanda (and Liberia and so on and so forth). The well-known story of Pauline Nyiramasuhko, Minister for Family Welfare and the Advancement of Women, speaks volumes. Addressing those assembled to embark on the work of the Interahamwe (Hutu people’s militia units, mainly responsible for the slaughter of the Tutsis), she urged them “above all to rape women before killing them” while in another instance she transported petrol for the Interahamwe in her own car so that Tutsi women could be doused in it and set on fire. The Minister for Family Welfare and the Advancement of Women! Or again when the Interahamwe were butchering old men, children, babies and pregnant women and then paused for prayer (well, they were decent Christians after all, they couldn’t not pray) and then carried on. Are there still questions about any end to it? 

Overall, there are lots of hair-raising stories about the church. Rwanda is one of the most Christianized countries in Africa, the large majority being Catholics (I really don’t know what that says about Christianity). And church structures there were fairly closely enmeshed with the state. And when it all started, the church and its representatives had fairly little independence and everything split along ethnic lines: Christian Hutus, including clergy, behaved like mindless thugs i.e. they slaughtered Tutsis. Churches had traditionally been sacrosanct, places where the victims of carnage sought sanctuary in large numbers. But on this occasion all boundaries were broken and it was precisely in churches and monasteries that the bloodiest reprisals took place. There was even one episode, for example, in which a mindless thug of a priest got into a bulldozer himself and razed to the ground a church in which his fellow believers were hiding. 

And yes, when it was all over, a very marked exodus of the faithful began, primarily from the Catholic Church and, to a lesser extent, the Protestant Church, in favour of the Pentecostalists and there was also a very conspicuous rise in the number of Muslims (the imams attempted fairly consistently to resist the slaughter and refused to differentiate along tribal lines).

The example of Rwanda shows very vividly how great a role is played by the authorities in releasing a people’s basest passions. Human beings are, of course, weak and sinful creatures but they are innately disposed to obey their superiors – their bosses, the authorities, the law.  And, when all these structures are telling them “you may”, that’s when human beings, and especially en masse, turn into real demons. In other words, the authorities and politicians have incomparable opportunities to turn people into monsters. What’s more, it’s also very clearly evident that to do so, the authorities are not at all obliged to call for killings and rape (the media can do that). It is enough for them to keep silent when asked to comment on a criminal incident or to give a vague response. This is immediately and unequivocally regarded as permission to continue and to escalate the acts of lawlessness. As for the many years of comment by the authorities and specifically the president that “this is not our remit, go to court”, this is exactly what sanctioning crimes looks like and exactly how participation in them is interpreted in law. 

The case of Rwanda is a very vivid illustration of the role of propaganda in leading up to violence and setting its wheels in motion. The infrastructure didn’t allow normal TV broadcasting to develop or newspapers to be distributed in the country. Moreover, the population was largely illiterate and so a single radio station, One Thousand Hills Free Radio, became almost the only mouthpiece of those behind the genocide. And it played an immense role in turning the inhabitants of the country into unhinged crazies, thirsting for the blood of their neighbours and only recently their friends. There is a well-known study (there again Krivushin doesn’t mention it and doubt has recently been cast on its findings) that found that more people have been convicted of murders in those parts of the country with undulating terrain that the radio signal could reach than in those the signal couldn’t reach. That is to say, the radio literally turned people into killers. All the station’s staff received life sentences and gave a great many interesting interviews. �

There is also an important mention that (because there are, nonetheless, certain universal human concepts of good and evil and boundaries) the official rhetoric of civil servants and some of the media attempted even so to draw a veil over incitements to commit murder. It was called “working”. “Do your work”.  Familiar, isn’t it?  “Work, brothers!” A shout-out to Margo [Margarita Simonyan, RT editor-in-chief] and the whole gang.

Finally, the case of Rwanda clearly demonstrates how the mobilization of the masses works. It can only advance and, if the process is underway, a politician who attempts to pull the plug will immediately be crushed beneath the wave he himself summoned up. There were many examples in Rwanda of perfectly moderate officials who knew what was what turning into killers because, as the bloody madness increased, each person who was simply not taking part became the enemy and even standing aside after a well-known event was no longer possible – you either killed or were killed. Here too a great many parallels may be drawn with what is happening just now. 

And this is a particularly spine-chilling example of inaction by the whole world, in full view of which hundreds of thousands of people were being massacred. Because states, and especially those whose intervention could be effective, are dependent on their citizens’ public opinion while those citizens didn’t give a hoot about a country in central Africa. (Krivushin draws a very telling parallel with the situation regarding the former Yugoslavia when the world media and countries’ leaders couldn’t sleep for worrying about acts of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia while at exactly the same time the Hutus were finishing off the Tutsis.) But also because there is generally no mechanism for “interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states”. Again, the parallels are obvious.

And to continue the theme, a big and important question is no longer for the politicians but for all of us, so to speak. How come the genocide in Rwanda, during which the pace at which people were annihilated exceeded that of the Holocaust, has not become an even partially comparable cultural trauma for humanity? Well, it’s understandable: the middle of Europe is one thing, some savage country in the middle of Africa is quite another. The question is clearly rhetorical.

Translated by Melanie Moore

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