Why Did the Perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide Show No Remorse?

A skull and belongings of a Tutsi victim, 1994.

In his classic work, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill provided a practical definition of what it means to have a bad moral character. Mill claimed: “Envy…Pride…Egoism, which thinks self and its concerns more important than everything else, and decides all doubtful questions in his own favor; ̶ ̶ ̶ these are moral vices, and constitute a bad and odious moral character.”[1]It is with this definition that one can define the Hutus involved in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide as men of bad character.

The Hutu perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide murdered willingly and for their own benefit. The imprisoned men Jean Hatzfeld interviews for his book, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, betray their façade of regret when they speak of forgiveness and attempt to justify their atrocious actions. These men, who are confined to Rilima Prison and seek pardon only as a means by which to alleviate their own discomfort, are weak in their faith and cowardly in their principles. Even more than weakness and cowardice, however, the killers lack an innate sense of remorse, which can be attributed to their egocentric nature. They admit to committing the actual genocidal acts, yet rationalize their deeds by placing the blame on politics, God, and even the victims. As Hatzfeld tacitly argues through the text of his interviews, the prisoners of Rilima are cowardly egocentrics. He bases his thesis based on the prisoners' lack of remorse, selfish ideas of forgiveness, and their inability to examine the atrocities, in which they willingly participated, from an introspective position.

Origins of Hatred

Juvenal Habyarimana, head of the Rwandan Army since 1973, was a Hutu who oversaw an total Hutu government. He excluded Tutsis from all positions of government and public service. Additionally, when Tutsis who had fled Rwanda during earlier massacres wanted to return to their native country, Habyarimana denied the request. His official position on the matter was that Rwanda was too overcrowded and could not economically withstand a surge of new citizens. In actuality, Habyarimana, who referred to Tutsis as the "Jews of Rwanda," and labeled them as alien invaders, did everything in his power to reignite ethnic hatred. On April 6, 1994, a plane transporting Habyarimana was shot down by two missles and the Hutu leader was killed. Immediately the Tutsis were blamed yet no evidence was discovered to support this claim. This event ignited the longstanding ethnic hatred the Hutus felt toward the Tutsis.

The inculcation of ethnic hatred at a young age is but one excuse used by the Hutu prisoners to justify their actions in the Tutsi genocide. Adalbert, one of the prisoners interviewed, claims that, “‘Hutu children grew up asking no questions, listening hard to all this nastiness about Tutsis.’”[2] It is fairly easy to concede that racial distinctions between different African peoples, fabricated by Europeans during the 19th century, played a distinct role in the formation of racial opinions held by various ethnic groups. That, however, must not excuse the violent incursions that ensued; carried out by Tutsis as well as Hutus. Limiting the argument to only the Hutu slaughter of the Tutsi in 1994, the question becomes one of action versus opinion. As Adalbert claims, as a young child he and other Hutu children were constantly subjected to racist ideology and hate speech, however, he admits to having Tutsi friends as a youngster, claiming not to notice any difference between the Tutsi and Hutu children with whom he played. By making this assertion, he shows that his actions, therefore, did not follow the doctrine of hate taught by his elders. That being the case, it follows logically that if a young child can overcome the cultural biases of his family and community, so too can an adult; presumably with more ease.

Placing Blame

Another prisoner with whom Hatzfeld spoke was Joseph-Désiré, a man sentenced to life in prison after the commutation of his death sentence. This killer echoes Adalbert’s assertion that exposure to discriminatory propaganda was the reason these Hutus became “‘contaminated by ethnic racism without noticing it.’”[3]This is undoubtedly true, however, opinions and ideologies cannot be used to excuse violent behavior. Rather than accept responsibility for his actions, Joseph-Désiré continually tries to deflect culpability onto those who taught him to hate. He goes further with this type of rationalization via thrusting the onus of guilt onto an accident of birth. He employs determinism and thus victimizes himself by claiming, “‘I was born Hutu, I did not choose this, it was God’”[4]Through this circular logic, he insinuates that God created him to be a Hutu and Hutus were created to kill Tutsis thereby placing the liability of murder at the hands of God.

Along this same form of cyclical argument, another prisoner deflects responsibility onto the Tutsi victims. Ignace, who was also a murderer within the gang interviewed, admits that he and the other killers thought of Tutsis as “‘cockroaches’” as they were seen as nesting insects who the Hutus had to “‘squash them hard to get rid of them.’”[5]Ignace candidly admits that Tutsis were not wanted and initially the Hutus had hoped to expel them from the land without having to resort to murder. He states that if the Tutsis “‘had agreed to leave…they could have gone and saved their lives.’”[6]He implies that by not leaving, the Tutsis “‘pushed’” the Hutus “‘toward the machetes’” and were complicit in their own slaughter.[7] As was the case with Joseph-Désiré, Ignace also paints himself as the victim while placing the burden of provocation squarely on the shoulders of the men and women he tortured, raped, and murdered.

Beyond Murder

As is the case with all genocides, destroying an entire population comes in forms other than murder. Rape is used as a show of power and as a means by which to elevate the women of the perpetrator group to a higher status. Torture is used to instill fear. Both of these means were employed by the Hutus in the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Map rwanda.png

According to all members of the interview group, the only order the Hutus were given was to kill. Those who participated in rape and torture did so freely of their own inclination and cannot rationalize those actions under the guise of obedience. When discussing rape, Adalbert intentionally uses a third person narrative when stating “‘they [emphasis mine] raped for a little while and then handed them over to be killed right afterward.’”[8]Pancrace, another killer confined in Rimila prison, matter-of-factly remembers that, “‘Torture was a supplementary activity…a distraction, like a recreation break in a long work day.’”[9]The long day of which he speaks involved many hours of hunting Tutsi prey, hacking people to death with a machete, and looting the villages of those they had just killed in order to profit from the Tutsi goods and supplies, of which the Hutu had been so envious. The strenuous days to which Pancrace alluded usually ended with excessive alcohol consumption.

As was common with the volunteer police battalions under the Third Reich, alcohol played a significant role in genocide. The majority of Germans who were conscripted to kill Jews in the ghettos of Poland;however, used alcohol as a means of desensitization and a method by which to cope with their murderous actions. Conversely, the Hutus partook of alcohol,primarily beer, in a celebratory manner. Élie, who was fifty-one when he began murdering Tutsis, unabashedly remembers gathering at the village cabarets and that “‘after the killings, there was time for friendship, and meeting with friends brought us light hearts…we shared drinks, we ate.’”[10]Reminiscent of the description of torture as a diversion from a strenuous work day, this killer also views genocide as a routine job and societal norm.

Though anything but routine, the Rwandan genocide did at times involve the entire community. Not only did the families of killers profit from the ensuing looting, the entire village voluntarily witnessed what one Hutu woman described as “torture shows.” Clémentine, whose Tutsi husband had previously fled, remembers the Hutu men returning from “‘an expedition, pushing a fugitive in front of them.’”[11]The Hutus then called everyone to the center of the square “‘to see the show,’” which consisted of the killers severing “‘the victims limbs, they would crush their bones with a club, but without killing them.’”[12]According to Clémentine, the victims were not immediately killed as the Hutus “‘wanted them to last.’”[13]This is but one of the many examples of the torturous evil that defies any and all rationalization. To claim an indoctrination of hatred as the basis for murder is an untenable argument and to maintain that argument as a justification for rape and torture is the fabrication of an odious mind. The manner by which these men view the idea of forgiveness; however, is the quintessential example of their egocentrism.

Forgiveness

The killers of Rwanda speak of forgiveness often, but only in the sense that they want to attain forgiveness as a formality in order to exonerate themselves. Ignace is “‘disappointed by all I have lost.’”[14]Another member of the gang, Jean-Baptiste, thinks he can return to his former “‘place in society.’”[15]On numerous occasions during Hatzfeld’s interviews, these murderers confuse forgiving and forgetting. They do not realize the depth of their actions and are aware only of the hardships they themselves must endure. Whatever hardships the prisoners face are as a result of their previous actions, which they entered into willingly. The unimaginable suffering endured by the Tutsi survivors is mentioned but once in the prisoners’ discussion of forgiveness. The prisoners look towards a peaceful future and the resumption of their lives prior to the genocide. The egocentrism of Fulgence, a devout Catholic who served as a volunteer deacon, is exposed when he compares the suffering of the prisoners to that of the victims and their families: “‘The others have gathered in many dead. But we, too, have met with perilous hardships in the camps and a wretched life in prison.’”[16]The sense of entitlement displayed by these men is matched only by their cowardice.

The years and even decades spent dehumanizing the Tutsis has played a part in the ability these Hutus have of victimizing themselves. By thinking of their Tutsi neighbors as "cockroaches" and creatures other than human beings, the prisoners can convince themselves that they are of a higher order, thereby making them deserving of forgiveness, while the Tutsis are labeled as less than human and are only a secondary concern.

Conclusion

The Rwandan genocide lasted one hundred days; April 6-July 18, 1994. In that short time, between 500,000-1,000,000 Tutsis were murdered. An additional 10,000 Hutus were killed for refusing to participate in the genocide of their neighbors, colleagues, and friends.

Genocidal studies continue to show that when faced with the task of murdering one’s neighbors, courage is often confused with cowardice. The 10,000 Hutus who were murdered by their fellow Hutus because they refused to slaughter Tutsis, were neither weak nor cowards; they were courageous people who had the strength to sacrifice themselves rather than succumb, through fear, to fabricated racial hatred. It was those who killed and soon devolved into sadists and rapists who were weak in their principles and hypocritical in their faith. The prisoners of Rimila were seeking forgiveness not because they were remorseful but simply because they were selfish. They were too cowardly to introspectively assess their actions and accept responsibility for their crimes. Admittedly, the only nightmares suffered by Joseph- Désiré where those that dealt with his death sentence. To chase an unarmed child through the forest while wielding a machete takes no courage. To deflect blame onto another for an evil act is not a sign of strength. To expect forgiveness from one whose life you destroyed is cowardly, weak, and egocentric; which is why nothing less is expected from the killers of Rwanda.

References

  1. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859; repr., Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002), 66.
  2. Jean Hatzfeld, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 216.
  3. Hatzfeld, 175.
  4. Hatzfeld, 144.
  5. Hatzfeld, 231.
  6. Hatzfeld,231.
  7. Hatzfeld, 231.
  8. Hatzfeld, 97.
  9. Hatzfeld, 129.
  10. Hatzfeld, 82.
  11. Hatzfeld, 132.
  12. Hatzfeld, 133.
  13. Hatzfeld, 133.
  14. Hatzfeld, 193.
  15. Hatzfeld, 193.
  16. Hatzfeld, 191-92.

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