Friday, April 17, 2009

A Sobering Reminder

Rwandan immigrant shares his stories of the 1994 genocide

When the Rwandan genocide began in earnest on April 17, 1994, Eugene Mbonyinshuti was just two days shy of his fifth birthday.

If Rwanda's Hutu militias and Interhamwe had gotten their way, he wouldn't have survived to see it.

Speaking recently about the genocide to his classmates at Welland Ontario's Notre Dame College, Mbonyinshuti provided a sobering reminder of the atrocity that unfolded in that country, much to the indifference of the so-called developed world and the United Nations.

“Local print and radio media fuelled the killings, while the international media either ignored or seriously misinterpreted events that were really happening,” Mbonyinshuti explained. “The local media used names such as exterminate all the cockroaches or kill all the snakes. A baby snake is still a snake. Kill them all.”

The Rwandan genocide was precipitated over ethnic differences that were largely inflated by Belgian colonists, who favoured Tutsis over Hutus because of their moderately lighter skin.

Prior to the arrival of Belgian -- and, previously, German -- colonists, it's generally believed that the Hutus and Tutsis were one people, and that the minor differences between them were exploited so the Tutsis could be used to control the Hutus.

“The two ethnic groups are actually very similar,” Mbonyinshuti continued. “They speak the same language and share the same culture, eat the same foods, worship in the same churches, study in the same classrooms and living in the same neighbourhoods.”

Indeed they did. And when the genocide turned really ugly, Tutsis were butchered in the very churches in which they worshipped alongside Hutus. Alongside the foreign governments and United Nations agencies that failed to substantively intervene in the atrocity was the Catholic Church, who failed to issue an edict condemning the carnage and those perpetrating it.

The general public consensus surrounding the genocide holds that it was largely the result of a mob mentality mobilized by inflammatory radio broadcasts which mixed Rwandan rock and roll music with hate propaganda.

According to Mboyinshuti, the truth is very different.

“The actual genocide was planned for many years, much like Hitler planned the killing of all the Jewish people. It was well planned,” he explained.

And, indeed, it had to be. Hutu militias and Interhamwe had brought weapons into the country and stored them in convenient caches. These weapons varied as widely as semi-automatic assault rifles to machetes.

Furthermore, these weapons were no secret. When UNAMIR commander Lt General (ret) Romeo Dallaire planned a raid to seize some of these weapons stocks, he was ordered to stand down by UN commanders.

Mboyinshuti expressed his admiration for Dallaire's commitment to trying to halt the carnage. When told to leave the country, Dallaire would not. "He refused. He stayed."

He also paid a tremendously deep personal price for doing what no western government would do: the right thing.

“There were unspeakable horrors,” Mbonyishuti said. “Little babies suffered the most, some of them were my little cousins. The babies were tossed against walls, others barbecued alive ... I know it is hard to believe, but what I don’t understand is why?”

It's difficult to understand how and why a genocide takes place. In his book Get 'Em All! Kill 'Em!, Bruce Wilshire offers a theorem of cultural mortal terror as justification for genocide -- explaining that, in many cases, an ethnic group perpetrating ethnic cleansing or a genocide do so because they perceive their victims as threatening to the ongoing survival of their culture.

Sometimes this kind of terror leads to distinctly irrational actions. In Rwanda, Interhamwe and Hutu mobs attempted to kill Tutsis on their way to being evacuated from the country.

If the genocide were being carried out under rational conditions, one would have expected that Tutsis leaving the country would have served Hutu purposes just as well as annhiliating them. Then again, genocides are rarely carried out under rational pretenses.

Even under the fear of extinction a genocide is difficult to justiy -- one has to remember that justification rests on a foundation of opinion, and thus cannot be accomplished objectively.

Eugene Mbonyishuti and his family arrived in Canada in 2008. It's unlikely that any of them will ever fully leave the Rwandan genocide behind them.

This is unfortunate for them, but very important for the rest of the world. The best way to ensure that horrors such as that which began in Rwanda 15 years ago today is to allow them to be forgotten.

The world needs these sobering reminders.


  1. April 17th is my eldest son's birthday. Today he turns 10. When he is older, I will tell him about another event that occurred on the day of his birth. Sad really, one wonders how many Rwandan children, all innocents, were deprived of reaching their 10th birthday's by those bastards who put hate before life.

    Guess when the time comes I will tell him that the happenstance of his birth on this date should always be remembered for what it is - a celebration of life (his life) that does not come without obligations to protect those who would be victims of others.

    Course it does not help that my eldest daughter's 13th birthday in on Monday, April 20th. Try explaining to your sweet soft sensitive girl why it doesn't matter. After she stayed up to watch 'Schindler's List' with myself and her mother last month - she is convinced more than ever that it really does matter. Monday she starts a 30 hour school-sponsored fast by Grade 7 students in honour of Africa's ongoing to famine to show how much some things do matter. Maybe there is 'balance' in the world after all? But she doubts it... and I have no easy answers...

    "Angel Babe," I say, "don't worry you and Adolf only share one thing - a date. it's no big deal."

    Dad!" she lectures, "that's not the point! The point is, that there are and were ever people like him to begin with! Sheesh, Dad don't you get it! The world is sick!"

    To which I respond: "Well babe, it can't be all 'sick', at least it's got people like you." She doesn't hear me. Her Ipod's already on...

  2. When people ask me why I'm cynical about human nature, I tell them about the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

    Now when people ask how I can stay hopeful for humanity despite events like this, I point to heroes like Paul Rusesabagina.

    Btw, Paul's been indoctrinated into the Badass of the Week site (, which apparently lists other figures like Rambo, Joan of Arc, and Horation Nelson. A small matter, but the author's parting lines on Paul was priceless:

    "The Rwandan Civil War was completely fucking nuts – conservative estimates suggest that over 800,000 people were killed in the span of just 100 days. Yet in the midst of this ridiculous insanity, one man – Paul Rusesabagina – managed to overcome the odds and save the lives of over a thousand people without even so much as lifting a firearm. And that, my friends, is what makes you a badass."

  3. I wish I were badass like Rambo.

  4. I prefer Miyamoto Musashi

  5. I'm more of a Hattori Hanzo kind of guy.


  6. If it's heroes with integrity we are talking, in no particular order, I lean towards: Lenny Bruce, Sitting Bull, Lester Pearson, Bob Marley, Castro, Big Bear, Gramsci, Peter Buxtun, Pete Seeger, U.S. soldiers Tom Glen & Ron Ridenhour (re: My Lai), Ovide Mercredi, Henry Hudson, Bob Dylan, John Martyn, Gordon Lightfoot, Raffi, Terry Fox, Malcolm Evers, Sam Champlain, and of course, Angus Young.


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