In Just a Few Days in 1994, the Hutus of Rwanda Massacred 800,000 Tutsis More Than a Tenth

In Just a Few Days in 1994, the Hutus of Rwanda Massacred 800,000 Tutsis More Than a Tenth

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

In just a few days in 1994, the Hutus of Rwanda massacred 800,000 Tutsis – more than a tenth of Rwanda’s population – with guns, machetes, hammers, and spears. Most of the world watched the attempted genocide with horror but did nothing. After all, Rwanda is in Africa, and as a United Nations peacekeeper explains to the manager of the Hotel Des Milles Collines in Hotel Rwanda, most of the world thinks of Africans as dung.

Hotel Rwanda is based on the true story of how the hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), used cunning and bribery to save more than 1,200 Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus by protecting them in his hotel. Rusesabagina, a Hutu married to a Tutsi (Sophie Okonedo) is not the only hero of the piece. The UN peacekeeper (Nick Nolte) stands in for Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian general who led a tiny 500-man force credited with saving the lives of 20,000 Rwandans. Contemplating the horror taking place outside the hotel gates, one of Rusesabagina’s trusted employees asks: “Why are people so cruel?” Rusesabigina replies: “Hatred. Insanity. I don’t know.” Rusesabagina and Dallaire remind us that in an insane world, not everyone must succumb to madness.

Hotel Rwanda is a beautifully acted and heartbreaking movie. Because it unblinkingly shows the world its responsibility for failing to respond to genocide, it is worthwhile propaganda. But it is poor sociology because it leaves the viewer with the impression that “hatred” and “insanity” explain what the Hutus did to the Tutsis – or that one simply cannot know why people periodically kill one another in the name of ethnicity.

But we can know. Hutus and Tutsis existed as somewhat distinct ethnic groups for centuries before 1994. The Hutus were mainly farmers and the Tutsis mainly cattle herders. The Tutsis were the ruling minority yet they spoke the same language as the Hutus, shared the same religious beliefs, live side-by-side, often intermarried, and never came into serious conflict with them.

When the Belgians took over Rwanda in 1916, they made ethnic divisions far more inflexible than they had been. Now one had to be a Tutsi to serve in an official capacity, and the Belgians started distinguishing Tutsis from Hutus by measuring the width of their noses; Tutsi noses, they arbitrarily proclaimed, are thinner. It was a preposterous policy (not least because half the population of Rwanda is of mixed, Hutu-Tutsi ancestry) and it served to sharply increase animosity between the two ethnic groups.

Before the Belgians left Rwanda in 1962, they encouraged power sharing between the Tutsis and the Hutus but by this time the damage had been done. The Tutsis objected to any loss of power and civil war broke out. Tutsi rebels fled to Uganda, and when Rwanda proclaimed independence, the Hutu majority took power. Then, in the early 1990s, descendants of the Tutsi rebels, backed by the United States and Britain, tried to overthrow the Hutu government, backed by France and Belgium. (Western interest in the region is high because it is rich in minerals.) The 1994 genocide erupted when the plane of the Hutu president was shot down in mysterious circumstances, killing the president.

Belgium, the United States, Britain, and France must, then, bear responsibility for stoking the flames of ethnic conflict in Rwanda and not just for standing by when the conflict degenerated into genocide. While Belgium and the United States have at least apologized to Rwanda for looking the other way, most people continue to believe that the Rwandans alone are responsible for what transpired in their country in 1994. Unfortunately, Hotel Rwanda helps to reinforce that misconception.