Speaking before a packed room in the Elliott School Thursday night, a recent alumnus tried to answer why a historically peaceful nation like Rwanda erupted into violence in 1994, leaving an estimated half a million to a million people dead.
Omar McDoom, who received his master’s degree from the Elliott School of International Affairs, spent a year interviewing Hutus and Tutsis – the ethnic groups involved in the genocide. McDoom said he went to the continent to learn how the killing began and what drove the citizens to continue to take lives. After interviewing 104 people involved in the killings and 190 who were not involved, McDoom said a “combination of authority, security, and opportunity power lay at the heart of the killings.”
What separates Rwanda from other genocides of the 21st century is the speed with which violence overtook the country, he said. Many Hutus began killing immediately after the assassination of Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana in April 1994, McDoom said.
“The violence broke out after the assassination of the Rwandan president,” McDoom said. “Three-fourths of the Tutsi minority was removed in 100 days.”
McDoom said Hutus developed an “in-group solidarity,” an outlook where the demand for Hutu loyalty prevented people from speaking out against the violence directed at the Tutsis.
“Some would go out and kill Tutsis while at home hiding Tutsi neighbors and friends,” McDoom said, trying to explain the confused mentality that overtook the country. “There were not many places these killings weren’t happening.”
Rwanda differs from other sub-Saharan African countries in ways that could have contributed to the quick escalation of violence, McDoom said.
“Rwanda is the most densely populated country in sub-Saharan Africa,” he said. “[It has] only three minorities groups that are all relatively similar.”
During his speech, McDoom recounted his experiences interviewing prisoners who killed during the genocide. The individuals had been in a Rwandan prison for almost eight years.
“Some people were anxious to talk,” he said. “But no one would tell me exactly what they did.”
In many of the interviews, prisoners told McDoom they participated in the genocide because it made them feel powerful and made them believe they were protecting their fellow Hutus.
McDoom said one prisoner told him, “When I killed I became important and valuable.”
The event was hosted by The Culture in Global Affairs program, a part of the Elliott School of International Affairs.
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections and clarifications: (Sept. 22, 2009)
The Hatchet erroneously reported that Omar McDoom interviewed 140 people involved in the Rwandan killings. He interviewed 104.
In addition, The Hatchet reported McDoom said a combination of power, anger and cultural preservation motivated the killings. In fact, he said authority, security, and opportunity power motivated the killings. He also said some prisoners told him they participated in genocide because it made them feel powerful, not needed.
The Hatchet reported that the killings left 20 percent of Rwandan citizens dead. The actual figure is debated, but is estimated to be between 500,000 and 1 million.