The Rwandan Genocide began on April 7, 1994. Over the course of 100 days approximately 700,000 Tutsis were slaughtered along with 100,000 Hutus. I wrote about it recently to commemorate its beginning, and to reflect on the lack of moral courage among the world’s nations. Today, let’s continue our commemoration by going in-country.
What evil can possess a people to unleash so much murder? For perspective, note that nearly one tenth of Germany’s population was murdered in about four years during the Hitler era, averaging more than 4,100 murders per day. But Rwanda exterminated one in nine of its citizens in only 100 days. That comes to 8,000 murders per day. All in a country the size of Sweetwater county.
Don’t let foreign tribal names dehumanize these people. They were not soulless Hutus and Tutsis, surplus population. These were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, neighbors, uncles and aunts. They were shopkeepers, farmers, ranchers, students, young people in love, old people in bed, infants in the arms of mothers and once-laughing children killed before the eyes of their parents.
In Germany, the killing was carried out by uniformed soldiers. The average German had no blood on his or her hands. But in Rwanda, neighbors killed neighbors. So, not only did Rwanda have twice the number of victims per day, it also created vastly more murderers per day.
Also, unlike machine guns and gas chambers, the murders were not perpetrated at a distance. Guns were scarce. The Hutu government imported a half-million machetes to be distributed for the pre-planned genocide. Most of the 800,000 murderers were looking into the eyes of their victims, ignoring their pleas for mercy, and feeling the knife sink into flesh and break bones.
What does this do to the human psyche? To be killed is easy. All it takes is for someone to kill you. But what does it take to be made into a mass murderer? And how does a person live with himself afterward?
Human beings are not hard-wired for murder. Even though we all have the frightful capacity for it, common decency sets numerous barriers that keep us from devolving into animals. To create a country of machete-wielding murderers, those barriers need to be eroded systematically. In Rwanda, the government officials who were planning the genocide started long before the first day of killings.
Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) began operating on July 8, 1993. It received support from the Hutu-controlled government and even broadcast, initially, on government-controlled radio equipment. From the start, its mission was to stoke hate in the hearts of the majority Hutus.
Genocide planners began laying the foundation for RTLM a year before it began broadcasting. Its programming was calculated to gain a large audience of youth by broadcasting popular Zairean music. Then, it mixed incessant anti-Tutsi propaganda into the programming.
RTLM frequently spoke of Tutsis in sentences like, “You are cockroaches! We will kill you!” This hate-filled rhetoric was skillfully intermingled with sophisticated humor. It hardened hearts against Tutsis while maintaining a veneer of humor to deflect suspicion that it was actually grooming murderers.
This ought to stand as a sobering reminder that humor is a powerful tool for good and for evil. “Many a truth is spoken in jest” remains as applicable to Facebook memes as it does to late-night comedy. Humor is humanizing when it makes us laugh at ourselves. Humor is dehumanizing when it makes us laugh at others.
Entertainers should observe the difference. America once had people like Johnny Carson to release the day’s tension by a good, wholesome laugh. Today we are rarely invited to laugh at ourselves. Too much humor is designed to skewer ideological enemies.
We should answer not by controlling the airwaves, but by mastery of the on-off switch. Every laugh at the expense of our neighbor breaks down another barrier between our humanity and the murderer striving to unleash its cruelty. Think about that before sharing a meme or laughing at a joke. You are no different from the average Rwandan.
Once the beast is unleashed, its murderous rage is uncontrollable. It is undeniable that Hutu planners stoked the flames of hatred in order to wipe out the Tutsi minority. Already in March 1993 a group called Hutu Power began compiling lists of Tutsis to be killed. Four months before the killing started, the United Nations was told by an informer that a genocide was being planned at the highest levels of the Hutu government.
While the beast was let loose by Hutu Power, the Tutsi forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) did not remain unsullied. Even before they took over the presidential palace on May 23, 1994, reports were coming from Hutu refugees in Tanzania of RPF atrocities. In the end, tens of thousands of Hutu men, women and children were murdered by Tutsis.
The demon that tore apart Rwanda did not simply slink away. When the RPF won the civil war, the 100-day genocidal program came to an end, but not the killing. After a Tutsi, Paul Kagame, took over the government, there were ongoing reports of RPF atrocities. Most noted was the Kibeho massacre in 1995 where as many as 4,000 unarmed Hutus were shot.
Kagame dismissed these atrocities as rogue operations. That may or may not be true. Either way it is a reminder that once demons are loose in a society, they are not easily controlled. The devil is not subject to the power of machetes and guns. Governments are powerless against the restless evil that lies hidden in every human heart.
Evil is always crouching at your door asking to be let loose, just a little. It always promises that venting your spleen will let off enough steam to calm it down and put it back under your control. It is a liar. Don’t listen to these empty promises. Whether it wants you to vent your own spleen or someone else’s, its real aim is to control you.
To give evil reign is to give evil power. Evil will not be tamed by bloodletting. Rather, with every angry word or blow of the machete, it grows ever more untamable.
The words of God to Cain remain as true today as they were at the beginning of the world, “sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it” (Genesis 4:7 NKJV). The Rwanda genocide lays bare the gravity of these words.
It was not foreign troops that entered Rwanda to slaughter a ninth of its population. Individual Rwandans chose bit-by-bit to give sin and hatred a little slack. Eventually it led to the slaughter of over 800,000 innocent “Abels.”
God’s providence restrained the machetes after 100 days, but only God’s love can conquer the demons that started them swinging. Christ was crucified not to crush the people who don’t like you. He came to crush the devil who wants you and them both to become like him.
The power of Christ against the murderous devil is wielded in His Church, not in human government. Governments that value peace and community will encourage the Church to speak Christ’s word. Unwise governments will use their power to suppress it and will reap what they sow.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.