“Never Again…” by Ivy Helman

headshotEvery year, the Greater Lowell Interfaith Leadership Alliance, GLILA, sponsors an interfaith service on genocide.  During these services, the community gathers together to remember, to mourn, to heal, to honor and to work towards a world in which Elie Wiesel’s words, “Never Again!” ring true.  Three years ago, we focused on the Shoah and the year after that the Armenian genocide.  Last year it was Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and this year our focus is Rwanda.  Part of this preparation is self-education.  I would like to share with you a few of the things I have learned through my own research about the Rwandan genocide as well as some reflections on this difficult, yet extremely important topic.

In many ways, the Rwandan genocide is a direct consequence of colonialism as well as a United Nations’ failure to respond to warnings.  Before colonization, first by the Germans and then as a spoil of WWI for the Belgians, the Hutus, Tutsis, and Twa peoples lived in relatively peaceful coexistence.  Yes, there were acknowledged differences between the three groups based on caste-like descriptions, but they also all spoke the same language, practiced the same religion, intermarried, and co-existed together for a long time.  Generally, the Hutus who made up 85% of the population were the lower caste, so to speak, and were associated with labor and farming, while the Tutsis, 14% of the population, were the herders.  This occupation often generated more wealth and prestige than farming did, so Tutsis were also long associated with the elite in economic and political terms running small chiefdoms and the like.  According to Philip Gourevitch in We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, these were fluid categories of sorts where it was possible to become part of another group through the acquisition or loss of wealth (see page 47). 

Map from page 10 of Gourevitch's book.
Map from page 10 of Gourevitch’s book.

Belgian rule changed this situation when they issued ethnic identification cards in 1933, but colonialism introduced Rwanda to race theory, specifically the “Hamitic hypothesis,” which was first developed in 1863 by British citizen John Hanning Speke.  The Hamitic hypothesis suggested that civilization was developed in Rwanda through the direct help of the more “Caucasian-looking” Tutsis.  According to Speke, the Tutsis were the direct descendants of King David who had lived for centuries in Ethiopia.  The Hutus, on the other hand, were the descendants of Ham, the son Noah curses and supposedly the first black person.

According to Gourevitch, Rwandans embraced this myth as well.  The effects were that the Hutus developed a sort of inferiority complex that was only heightened when Rwanda gained its independence from Belgium starting in 1959 and being completed in 1962.  As early as 1959, Tutsis were experiencing massacres in large numbers at the hands of power hungry and slightly paranoid (one could say due to their inferiority complex) Hutu leaders.  This continued in 1960, 1961, 1963 and intermittently in between until the largest scale systematic massacre in 1994.  Over the course of 100 days from April 1994 through June roughly 800,000 Tutsis as well as Hutu oppositionists were massacred, their property was looted, their houses demolished, and hundreds of thousands of Tutsi women were systematically tortured and raped.  Many Tutsis looked for sanctuary in Roman Catholic and Seventh-day Adventist churches and many of these Christian clergy were later tried for crimes against humanity after they turned the away as those who sought sanctuary in holy places.

united nationsYet, in January 1994, General Dallaire, a French General, there as part of the UN mission after the 1988 civil war, had warned the UN with concrete first person testimony of this genocidal plan.  The UN responded in an absurd manner by telling Dallaire to report the news to the current Hutu president, Mr. Habyarimana whose government was part of the genocidal planning.  In addition, a number of international denials and troop withdrawals, as well as French intervention in June of 1994, not only accelerated the killings but also allowed for those guilty of the crime to flee the country and settle in border camps where they were quickly hit with cholera, pity, and the international humanitarian effort.  Many in the international aid community first thought the Hutu refugees were fleeing massacre, but they soon learned that those responsible for the massacre were in their midst.  The killers had become “refugees” receiving substantial international aid in terms of food, money and even weapons in the bordering region of Zaire.  The Hutu power movement was alive and flourishing supported and funded through this humanitarian aid.  While the official genocide was said to be over more or less by June of 1994, Gourevitch’s argument that it continued through the early part of 1998, in a significant way because of these “refugee” camps, is convincing.  In fact, the genocide continues today in the minds of the Rwandan people:  when the refuge camps were closed, many Hutus were encouraged to return home into the same communities where they had lived before–which terrified Tutsi survivors.

Courtesy of Women Make Movies, www.wmm.com.
Courtesy of Women Make Movies, http://www.wmm.com.

Unlike the Jewish community’s remembering of Shoah with the refrain “Never Forget,” the Rwandans according to Gourevitch have purposely tried to forget the past in order to live in the present.  Yet the genocide’s lasting legacy is strong because of the mental anguish of the survivors, the HIV positive status of thousands of rape victims, and physical scars from the machetes and hoes that failed to kill.  Yet, many are trying to make their stories known.  The Women Make Movies documentary “God Sleeps in Rwanda” illustrates this through women’s narratives of perseverance, determination and success despite torture, rape and their HIV positive statuses.  It’s hard to watch but well worth it.

In many ways, the story I have told here is much more complicated than I have space to describe it, but I hope I have given a general overview of the genocide.  I would be amiss not to mention one of the very important outcomes of what happened in Rwanda.  For the first time, the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu ended with a conviction that also described planned systematic rape as a crime against humanity.  (See the New York Times article from 5 September 1998 for more).  This was a first for the international community and a step forward in terms of the protection of women and girls during wars.

My research on Rwanda has left me with less hope in humanity and perhaps more cynicism about the ability of the international community to respond appropriately than I would have expected.  It also continues to bring up many complicated questions about race and ethnicity that I fear have no easy answers like: when will difference of ethnicity become celebrated rather than feared; how do we rid ourselves of the race science theories of the early to mid-1800s that have brought so much destruction and hatred; and why does Western apathy seem so blatantly tied to racism?  I just don’t have descent responses to these concerns.  If I did I would gladly share them with you.Interfaith-images

Finally, I know I’ll be approaching the GLILA planning process for our service on the Rwandan genocide from a different perspective because of all I’ve learned.  In so many ways, this process has made the genocide more personal.  Yes, I know this genocide did not happen to me, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t change me to learn about it.  Much of my family died in the Shoah, but it took place long before I was born.  I was 15 when the events in Rwanda took place.  In so many ways, the world has not changed, and the refrains I grew up with like “Never Again” and “Never Forget” still ring true.  As I help plan this commemorative service, those refrains will be in the forefront of my thoughts.  I hope that the service GLILA puts together for Rwanda instills in all of us a strong commitment to bring an end to genocide, racism, rape, and torture.  Perhaps that is the first step to “Never Again…”

Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Merrimack College.  Her most recent publications include:  “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).

Author: Ivy Helman

Jewish feminist scholar, activist and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic.

8 thoughts on ““Never Again…” by Ivy Helman”

    1. This is one of the clearest description I have read about colonial roots for current African problems. I would like to mention that General Dallaire is Canadian. Roméo Dallaire is a retired lieutenant-general, Senator (Canadian), and celebrated humanitarian. His story of frustration and the work he has done to publicise the Rwandan genocide is remarkable and well worth attending to.


  1. I am glad to see the Jewish community or part of it exploring other genocides. I have long felt that the idea that the genocide of the Jews in Europe is metaphysically unique has been manipulated to give the state of Israel cart blanche in foreign policy. Thanks for the post, I learned from it.


  2. Ivy, a depressing and insightful post. It really helped me understand the forces behind the Rwandan genocide: how the West created the conditions, and then helped the aggressors when they appeared in neighbouring refugee camps. I think that the media are also culpable, in not explaining more about the forces behind such atrocity, and highlighting the NGOs who are doing practical things to help both sides heal.

    It will help me better research and question the forces behind such calamities. The international aid agencies and UN appear powerless against political and military leaders intent on slaughtering whole tribes of people. Where are the peacekeepers, and where is the willingness to engage in dialogue, truth and reconciliation? Virtually absent, sadly.


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