How could it happen that the western world stood by and did nothing to stop the slaughter of over 800,000 human beings over 100 days? Even for a country with Rwanda's turbulent history, the scale and speed of the slaughter is unimaginable. It's even more difficult to understand because Rwanda's two main ethnic groups, the Hutus and Tutsis, are very similar. They spoke the same language, lived in the same areas, and held the same traditions. Today, twelve years after the start of the Rwandan genocide,it is important to look back at this horrific event in order to try and understand how something this violent and of this magnitude could have happened in the 20th century.
This excerpt gives the testimony of a farmer from Byumba Prefecture, in northern Rwanda. During the genocide, he was thirty-two and the father of one child, and he had had three years of primary school education. he confessed to participating in several attacks but not to killing anyone himself. He was sentenced to eleven years in prison. Here he describes how the violence started where he lived.
The massacres began after the crash of the head of state’s plane. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN? I was with my wife and a girl who had spent the night at my place. We were going to weed beans. It was morning. The head of state had died the day before, but I did not know that. Some youths arrived, where I was weeding. Thieves had stolen bananas during the night, in our cellule. They told me, “You will help us find the bananas that were stolen in our cellule.” I left with them. I left my wife in the field with the girl. We went to look for the bananas. We looked in our cellule. We didn’t find them. We entered a neighboring cellule. While we were looking, the president of the commune internahamwe came. He found us there, at the home of [name withheld], which was very close to the road. He was accompanied by a soldier people called “Colonel.” They were in a vehicle. The head of the interahamwe had a gun. He asked us all to come with him. He said, “The head of state is dead, and you, you're looking for bananas?” He told us, “We must look for the Tutsis no matter where they are. The others have already begun to work.” Among the people we were with were some Tutsis. We were with them when looking for the bananas. Then a group of attackers arrived. And a young refugee among them killed a Tutsi who was with us. When we saw he had just killed him, we were afraid. For me, it was the first time I had seen someone die. We wanted to run. The head of the interahamwe said that anyone who ran would be shot immediately. He put us in a line, and he marched us on the road. He put us in front; he was behing. He said, “Anyone who leaves this line will be shot.” Before we had gone a kilometer, [name withheld] left the line and ran. The head of the interahamwe shot twice, then he said, “Let’s continue.” We arrived at another house. When we got there, a man in our group said he was not Tutsi. So the head of the interahamwe said, “If you are not a Tutsi, you have to kill this person [indicating a man who was detained at the house]. The man from our group took a club and hit him several times.
- From Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide, photographs by Robert Lyons and introduction and interviews by Scott Straus