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Essay: Exploring How Race ID Cards Played a Role in Rwanda’s Genocide

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Tags: Genocide essays

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The construction of racial identity in Rwanda originated before its era of genocide was socially built. Along with this, the preparing of militias, stockpiling of weapons, church involvement, and construction of the massacres by abhorring radio also played a role in the buildup of the genocide. Racial disparities were unmistakably classified between the progressive Hutus and the second-class Tutsis. The Identification of the cards themselves spoke this truth; unquestionably determining who might survive the hundred days of brutality and who might not (Frontline 3). This paper will investigate how the ethnic identity cards served as a critical factor in the rising of the Rwandan genocide. As well as why the international communities stood watched as the genocide in Rwanda unfolded without their interference, most specifically by major forces such as the United Nations (UN) and the United States.

Before colonization, Rwanda was inhabited by the Hutus and Tutsi along with a few other minorities. Germany was the first European nation to colonize Rwanda in 1899, indirectly ruling through the current King Rwabugiri. During the first world war in 1916, Belgium took control, a possession which then became official in 1919 under the order of the League of Nation. In this time Belgium ruled aberrantly, also rebuilding the framework of the ID card to expand ethnic division. Rwanda's population at the time consisted of two groups with the Hutus as the majority (generally 85%), and the Tutsis as the quasi-minority (generally 15%) along with a few other minorities. The Belgians brought about the practice of race science through which they took the conventional structure which made it extreme and polarized; an almost apartheid-style system (Gourevich: Frontline 3). When ethnic identity cards were issued, and Tutsis benefitted the most because it countless privileges, while Hutus were a very oppressed mass during the era.

Decades before the genocide the Hutus managed to take control of the government after gaining independence from the Belgians in the late 1950s. The new change in power brought fear into the hearts of the Tutsi population that caused Tutsi masses to migration to neighboring countries. Tutsi refugees who resided in the neighboring African countries formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)rebel group. The rebels made their way back to Rwanda even though they were unwelcomed resulting in the initiation of “the civil war that began with the RPF invasion in 1990” (Mamdani 4). Out for revenge, the Tutsi minority was believed to have killed Juvenal Habyarimana, the Rwandan Hutu President: But no one is certain as to whether the act was committed by Tutsis or Hutus. The assignation of the Rwandan Hutu President was used as an excuse to initiate the violence.

The genocide perpetrated by the Hutus lasted roughly 100 days. During which about 500,000 to one million Tutsis and Hutus’ supporters died (Gourevich: Frontline 3). Belgium enforced ID cards used as a significant tool to distinguish between the Tutsis and the Hutus. While the Belgians ruled, the ID cards were used as a “system of inflexible ethnic classification, including using a modern science strategies as means to estimate the size of the noses and cranium (Longman 6). The Belgian forced ID card framework was the culminate way to physically, and in this way irrefutably, recognize the Tutsis from the Hutus. The ID cards were made to highlights the physical distinction between Tutsis and the Hutus. Hutus were heavier, shorter, and darker in complexion while the Tutsis were lean, tall, and fair in complexion. During this era, fair complexion was given special attention at checkpoints, which increased discrimination in the Hutu controlled state. This shows how Belgium was able to further the distance the two groups. ID cards became part of Rwanda’s identity which made the Hutu authorities, also known as employees of the state bureaucracy intentionally profile their victims based on their ethnic status; “Once cards are mandatory, then they may be used to harass visible minorities” (Lyon, Bennet 2). It was compulsory to carry an ID card at all times (Lyon, Bennett, 2), Rwandans had no choice but to identify themselves before law enforcement (2), and failure to do so would lead to “suspicion and risk-based targeted searching”.  The cards functioned almost like a passport in that they were used as a “monopoly in the means of movement” (Lyon, Bennett, 2). The genocide in its nature was well organized and not an unpredictable or wanton butchering, as often depicted. There was almost road blockage on every street corner. A tactic implemented to stop and ask people to show their ID cards so they may pass through the gate. After verifying their identity as enemies of the state, Tutsis were murdered on the spot. This demonstrates how the government used ID cards to promote the killings. In addition, Tutsis getting killed at Hutu checkpoints, Hutu were also ordered to turn over their ID cards to the government. “According to one witness, Nizeyimana regularly received these cards from his men as they reported on the progress of the killings. They often appeared at his house shortly after a volley of gunfire was heard and handed the cards to the captain with the report” (Forges 1). This was the administration's plan to destroy and displace the identity of the perished victims.

Furthermore, the ID cards were physiologically used to distant the killers from their victims. The mass support of the slaughters of 1990 into 1993 and the genocide in 1994 was based out of fear.  Mamdani confirms this theory by stating, “This is why one needs to recognize that it was not greed–not even hatred–but fear which was the reason why the multitude responded to the call of Hutu power the closer the war came home. Hutu Power extremists prevailed not because they promised farmers more land if they killed their Tutsi neighbors–which they did–but because they told farmers that the alternative would be to let RPF take their land and return it to the Tutsi who had been expropriated after 1959" (Mamdani, 4). This showcase how it conditioned the perpetrators to feel alienated because they couldn’t relate to their victims making it right in their eyes.

The atrocity that were committed on the Tutsi people during the genocide sent shockwaves across the world. United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) Force under Commander Dallaire was stationed in Kigali, with a mission to negotiate a peace treaty with the Rwandan government and RPF rebels. However, Commander Dallaire forewarned the UN through an informant, about the extermination being planned against the Tutsis. A man who was a top ranking military official hired to run an Interahamwe militia training program in the city of Kigali, training Hutu combatants to kill Tutsi. The man informed the commander that his men can indeed slaughter at least 1,000 Tutsis in less than 30 minutes (Ghosts of Rwanda – Frontline). Commander Dallaire recalls how his “reports [about the genocide] seemed to keep vanishing into the abyss of non-action in New York” (Dallaire,7). Additionally, the UN secretary Kofi Annan advised him not to take any action because his mission did not grant him authority to engage in any form of violence. Some members of the security council claim that there was no briefing about any the plans of genocide.  In fact, UN commanders instructed Commander Dallaire to inform the president about a possible leak of information about illegal arms caches and about rumors of a program to commit massacres” (Dallaire 7). It was absurd to suggest that the commander inform the Rwandan president who was possibly involved; as if they wanted the president to go unpunished.

Despite the leaked information about the possibility of genocide, UN staff spoke of it as a “civil war” and argued for the need to obtain a ceasefire (Des Forges 1). UNAMIR Force Commander Dallaire remembers how his “reports [about the genocide] seemed to keep vanishing into the abyss of non-action in New York”. Moreover, US President Clinton’s blaming of the UN for the dead US rangers in Mogadishu (Somali) created pressure on the Secretariat. The United States didn’t intervene because it wasn’t in their best interest to help the people of Rwanda simply because there was nothing to be gained.  Also, UN staff were determined to avoid another peacekeeping failure, due to concerns that this could mean the end of UN peacekeeping (Des Forges 1). Barnet explains the truth behind why UN failed of act “it is virtually impossible to exaggerate the impact of Somalia on the UN. […] What would later be dubbed ‘the shadow of Somalia’ was omnipresent, casting a dark cloud across the headquarters, […] directing future practices” (Barnet 9).  The UN justifies its lack of intervention prior to days before the genocide by saying and I quote “While the UN staff were “hard-working and honorable individuals”, their bureaucratic minds made them believe that they were acting reasonably in withholding important information from the ground in order to save the future of peacekeeping (Barnett 9).

Two weeks into the genocide the UN security council decided to withdrawal UNAMIR personnel from Rwanda at the request of Belgium after ten Belgian peacekeepers deaths. The UN security council voted in favor to return the troops back home which meant to there was decreased in UNAMIR’s troops by 90% to 270 troops (Frontline 3). In the field, UNAMIR was poorly armed to stop the killings due to “constant pressure by the Security Council on UNAMIR to save money and reduce the involvement of their peacekeepers” (Dallaire 7). The only time Commander Dallaire was permitted to use force other than during self-defense, was when he was requested to help with the evacuation of foreign nationals between April 7 and 10 (Frontline 3). This shows that Western states simply put the lives of white people above that of Africans. Also, UNAMIR did not have sufficient resources, especially after the Belgian peacekeepers were withdrawn: “UNAMIR does not have heavy weapons systems, ammunition, let alone secure transport. […] Troops […] were very tired and sickly because of the lack of proper food and medicine” (Dallaire 7). This meant that the UNAMIR had to watch helplessly as people were being slaughtered right before their eyes however they able to save about 30,000 Tutsi and Hutus’ fleeing from the extremist Hutu group (Frontline 3).

The introduction of Belgium’s indirect rule in Rwanda caused exclusivity to be effectively refashioned into an ethnic division. They use ethnic features to characterized individuals but it made the Hutus feel inferior. Over time this gap prolonged the separation between Hutu and Tutsi, blooming into hatred. In the end, the Hutu turned their hate for Tutsi to commit an atrocious crime such as a genocide however the international community could have prevented it but they failed to stop it. Rather they withdrawal all personnel out of Rwanda when the genocide started because the “shadow of Somalia” undermined peacekeeping mission. This shows that Genocide Convention of 1948 abandons its legal responsibilities. This lack of political will led the failure of the Security Council, which had the responsibility for international peace and security (Neil 5). Be that as it may, it shows that we ought to do better as people and learn to embrace other’s differences.

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