History doesn’t quit, but leaves its imprint across time. Thus, when our guest today, journalist and author Joshua Hammer says in his recent piece the New York Times Sunday Magazine, “The origins of the Rwandan genocide stretch back to Belgian rule,” he is being perfectly correct, but at the same time, he is selling history short.
Long before the Belgian colonizers took control of Rwanda and its southern and western neighbors, Burundi and Congo, there had been iconic and often violent conflicts between Hutu farmers and Tutsi herdsmen.
But it did take the Belgians and their typical 20th Century colonial strategies that turn conflict into genocide. According to the European invaders, the Tutsis were more “adaptable,” which soon translated into more educable, and eventually, more useful as instruments of colonial administration.
Institutionalized personal preferences hardened into systematic discrimination when the Belgians introduced identity cards that labeled people as either Hutu or Tutsi, even though hundreds of years, dozens of generations spent on the same soil left many people related to, or born of, representatives of both ethnicities.
Inaccurate, unfair, and powerful the label on your Rwandan identity card could seal your fate. If you were IDed as Tutsi, that was a big advantage as long as the Belgians were around. But once they left and Rwanda became independent in 1962, a new reality took hold. Hutus were a substantial majority of the population and many had long-standing beefs with the minority Tutsis.
By the 1990s, the Rwandan Hutu-Tutsi conflict had become an intermittent civil war, and Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana was under international pressure to find a peaceful way out. Returning to Rwanda from a peace conference in Tanzania, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. Who was responsible for the assassination has never been proved, but what happened within hours of the shoot-down became a world-famous nightmare. Hutu nationalists, many from Habyarimana’s family, unleashed a genocide in which radical Hutus slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and thousands of moderate Hutus.
Paul Rusesabagina considered himself a moderate Hutu because his father was Hutu and his mother was Tutsi and so was his wife, leaving him and his children in a deadly dangerous middle-ground.
As the genocide rolled on, Rusesabagina sheltered his family and close to 1300 other people, some Tutsi, some Hutu for almost 11 weeks in the international -class hotel The Milles Collines until a Tutsi militia defeated the Hutus and took control of the country and the hotel guests could safely leave. The story became a famous movie and Rusesabagina became a global hero. But in post-war Rwanda there was a greater local hero, the leader of the Tutsi army Paul Kagame. By the time the movie was released, 10 years after the 1994 genocide, Rusesabagina had become a vocal critic of Kagame. Today, almost 27 years after the mass murders, Rusesabagina is Kagame’s prisoner, on trial, charged with murder and terrorism, and as people choose sides, the defining distinction seems to be, Rusesabagina’s supporters are Hutu and Kagame’s are Tutsi.
The case shows that history doesn’t quit, but also that history and its conflicts, even if they seem almost diagrammatic, are rarely simple.
Joshua Hammer was born in New York and educated at Horace Mann and Princeton University, graduating with a BA in English literature. In 1988 he joined Newsweek Magazine as a business and media writer, transitioning to the magazine’s foreign correspondent corps in 1992. Hammer served, successively, as bureau chief in Nairobi, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Berlin, Jerusalem, and Cape Town, and also was the magazine’s Correspondent at Large in 2005 and 2006. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in the 2004-2005 academic year.
Since leaving Newsweek in 2006, Hammer has been a contributing editor at Smithsonian Magazine and Outside. He also writes frequently for the New York Review of Books, and has contributed often to GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and countless other US publications. He was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in reporting in 2003, and won the award, for his writing about the Ebola crisis in West Africa, in 2016. He is also the author of five non-fiction books, including The New York Times bestseller, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, which was published by Simon & Schuster in April 2016, and The Falcon Thief, published by Simon and Shuster in February 2020. Hammer lives with his partner and their eight-year-old son.