How elites lay ground for the 1994 Genocide

Sectarian activities leading up to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi gathered momentum in the early 1990s when a group of elites cut out the umbilical cord of pretenses and started fanning ethnic hatred against Tutsis. At the National University of Rwanda, academicians and other members of staff, including top administrators, took to calling death unto the Tutsi.   
Innocent Kamanzi suspects his family was buried in this Ngororero District site. The New Times/ T. Kisambira.
Innocent Kamanzi suspects his family was buried in this Ngororero District site. The New Times/ T. Kisambira.

Sectarian activities leading up to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi gathered momentum in the early 1990s when a group of elites cut out the umbilical cord of pretenses and started fanning ethnic hatred against Tutsis.

At the National University of Rwanda, academicians and other members of staff, including top administrators, took to calling death unto the Tutsi. 

That some of the key masterminds of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi are the so-called elites is a given fact. These were people who held various influential positions in their respective communities.

Under this group we have politicians, opinion leaders, church leaders and academicians, who, instead of using their knowledge in building the country, some of them used their skills to systematically annihilate innocent fellow citizens.

One place from which one would have expected no death but which was rather turned into a major killing ground is the former National University of Rwanda, then the biggest and only public higher-learning institution in the country.

The university is located in the then Butare prefecture, which had remained calm while killings spread in other parts of the country, not many there had imagined that the ‘intellectuals’ as they were respectfully called could turn against their colleagues, students or neighbours and order their murder.

That might be the reason why some individuals, mainly students who were in recess for the Easter vacation and ignorant of the extermination plan at the university, fled back there when killings erupted in their home villages.

They all hoped that once at the university they would be safe. They were wrong.

The students and their Tutsi lecturers were hunted and mercilessly killed at the hands of their peers and colleagues who had spent days hatching the onslaught well before, according to testimonies.

According to witness accounts, several meetings chaired by the then vice rector, Dr Jean Berchmas Nshimyumuremyi, were held at the university during the period leading to the Genocide.

It is alleged that during the meetings, in which only selected individuals participated, participants discussed of the plan to kill Tutsis and drew lists of those to be killed.

Laurence Kanzayire, 60, a Genocide survivor who has worked at the university since 1979, recalls several incidents in which Tutsi students, and staff members were unfairly expelled from the university, particularly in the early 1990s when tensions heightened.

One such incident involved her brother who was pursuing a degree in medicine, and who would later be killed during the Genocide.

“I don’t recall any case of a Tutsi individual who was employed at the university after 1990. Rather, those who were employed became the target of unfair treatment from the management,” Kanzayire adds.

Bursts of gunfire 

Some months before the Genocide, Kanzayire recalls, a general meeting was held at the university football ground in which Tutsis were indirectly warned of the killings.

“At the meeting, many professors spoke harshly of the Tutsi and accused us of being agents of the Rwanda Patriotic Front. They said that time had come to wipe out the enemy (read Tutsis) before they (the enemy) kill you,” Kanzayire recalls of the meeting chaired by Dr Nshimyumuremyi.

After the meeting, Tutsis were left frightened and many started smelling something ominous in the oven.

But it was not until the visit of interim President Theodore Sindikubwabo in Butare and his infamous speech at the prefecture on April 19 in which he called for Hutus to stand up and ‘work’ (kill Tutsis) that killings started. 

Beginning late in the day of April 20 and continuing for the following days, eyewitnesses report hearing frequent bursts of gunfire, particularly from the university, before it extended to other areas of the town.

“Killings had started,” Kanzayire says. “Everyone started running for safety as the killings extended to other areas of (Butare) town.”

In the following days, soldiers joined hands with some students and staff members to hunt down Tutsi students.

Masterminds of Genocide

Current figures indicate that about 500 students and staff members at the university were killed during the Genocide. Today, a monument stands at the campus in their memory.

For survivors and historians, however, the role of some academicians, staff and former students at the Huye-based varsity does not end at the murder in cold blood of Tutsi students and employees at the campus.

Rather, they argue, it extends far outside the university, particularly in the neighbouring communities.

Kanzayire argues that if intellectuals had refrained from engaging in the killings, many peasants would not have participated in the Genocide.

“They [intellectuals] were considered role models within the communities and once people saw them committing the killings, they got a moral imperative to get involved,” Kanzayire says. “They set the pace and others followed.”

Survivors have named several PhD holders, medical doctors, professors, students and other staff members whom they accused of being behind the planning and execution of the Genocide at the university. 

Notorious among them is former vice-rector Nshyimyumuremyi, who was in 2009 sentenced in absentia to life in jail with special provisions by a Gacaca court in Ngoma Sector, Huye District.

However, The New Times could not track his whereabouts by press time.

Others include Dr Sosthene Munyemana (a fugitive living in France) nicknamed the ‘Butcher of Tumba’, Dr Ignace Bigirimana (said to be living in South Africa) and Dr Eugene Rwamucyo, a medical doctor (also living in France), among others.

Prof. Deo Byanafashe, a researcher and historian at the University of Rwanda, says the role of intellectuals in the Genocide is very clear.

The historian says they played a major role both in the planning and execution of the Genocide.

“They were particularly active in the preparation of the Genocide and mobilisation of people to kill [Tutsis],” Byanafashe says.

“They were active in the media, spreading message of hatred instead of preaching unity. We heard them on radios and read their writings in newspapers. Others attended meetings in which people were mobilised to kill.”

While the agitated population hacked each other to death, the intellectuals were seen in some parts manning roadblocks or commanding groups of militiamen. Others were active in identifying Tutsis to be killed, the academic argues.

Prof. Byanafashe says 20 years after the Genocide, academicians must continue to contribute to nation building.

One way he thinks they can give their contribution is to conduct research on various issues pertaining the country’s development and work to generate new ideas that could contribute to further spur the nation’s socio-economic transformation.

 

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