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A People Betrayed

The Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide

By Linda Melvern
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A People Betrayed by Linda Melvern

A People Betrayed (2000) is a masterful, in-depth look at the international community’s failure to intervene in one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes since the Holocaust. Through selfish and racist policies, the UN and its Security Council dithered  and denied its way through three months of genocidal slaughter. As a direct result of their inaction, an estimated one million civilians were brutally murdered.

Key idea 1 of 11

The racial classification of Hutu and Tutsi was calcified by European colonial practices.

In 1894, exactly 100 years before the Rwandan genocide, King Rwabugiri of Rwanda received German Count Gustav Adolf von Götzen. Unbeknownst to Rwabugiri, his domain had been “given” to Germany ten years earlier at the Berlin Conference, which carved up Africa for colonization by European powers. 

At the time, the mountainous, lush, and beautiful land of Rwanda was known in Europe as the “Switzerland of Africa.” It was a complex society with an intricate social order, rich oral history, and highly cultured court featuring poets, magicians, wine-stewards, and cattle-namers.  

King Rwabugiri was a military genius. Military conquest was a priority to the state, and Rwabugiri’s armies traveled widely with vast cattle herds. It was in his armies that the designation between Hutu and Tutsi first emerged. The elites in charge of the cattle were tall and thin, with angular features; they started to be known as Tutsi. Their servants, who were generally shorter with rounder faces, were called Hutu. 

Visiting Europeans, searching for justification as to why Rwandan culture should be so advanced, developed the theory that the Tutsi, a so-called “superior race,” had migrated from the Horn of Africa and had come to dominate the “inferior” Hutu. It was impossible for Europeans to imagine black Africans developing so refined a society without outside influence.

In the early twentieth century, as Germany became mired in World War I, the Belgians came to dominate the region. In 1933, the Belgian administration ordered a census to classify the population by ethnicity. Each individual was carefully measured and assigned an identity. This census introduced the idea that ethnicity could be determined based on physical appearance. And ethnicity guaranteed certain rights – under the Belgians, only Tutsi had access to education, administrative training, and government jobs.

Belgian rule was harsh, involving forced labor, beatings, and exploitation of the peasant population, which it designated as Hutu. Many of these peasants were conscripted for labor in the diamond mines in the neighboring Congo River Basin. It was these oppressive conditions that brought about the cohesion of the Hutu group – and, for the first time, the idea of a pure Hutu nation.

A manifesto in 1957, written with the help of a Belgian priest working in Rwanda, called for Hutu emancipation and the rule of the majority. Widespread rural anger encouraged an emerging Hutu nationalism. 

The overwhelming popularity of the manifesto laid bare an alarming fact: the Hutu majority now believed the European narrative that the Tutsi were foreign invaders who had enslaved and exploited them.

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