Scenes during Rwanda Civil War 1994

Cultural manipulation has been written into our history, over and over people have been enslaved, murdered, or dehumanized, based on race, religion, or social status.  What causes people to do these things?  How have people been manipulated to commit horrible crimes against humanity?  In many instances people have been influenced by their social environment to commit such atrocities.

The Rwandan Genocide began on April 6, 1994 when the president of Rwanda President Habyarimana, aircraft was shot down after this event authorities claimed that the Tutsi’s were to blame and ordered the extermination of all Tutsi’s.  Though this event triggered the events that took place, the preparation and organization began long before. 

The country of Rwanda was made up of primarily three socio-political groups, the Twa (1%), the Tutsi’s (15%), and the Hutu’s (84%).  The country of Rwanda is divided and prior to 1973 the country was known for, “ethnic discrimination and repression… [which] sometimes escalated into mass killings.” (Smueler 438)  In 1973 Habyarimana assumed the role of Rwandan president and began a campaign to ban Tutsis from participating in government. In 1990, a group of Tutsi rebels, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded the country to challenge the power of the Hutu majority.  President Habyrarimana began to allow further Tutsi influence in the Rwandan government causing members of the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (MRND) to begin to separate from the President.  The President’s plane was shot down four years later.  Authorities blamed the Tutsi’s and ordered that Tutsi’s and Tutsi supporters must be killed. (Smueler 438-439).

There were many signs of the chaos that might ensue after this fact, but the shear amount of bloodshed and pure animalistic behavior of the perpetrators was something that no one could imagine. Tutsis were torn down by hordes of Hutu’s and raped and murdered with machetes.  The rapid and organized nature of these murders led many to conclude that this genocide had been planned by the social elite; they soon became the face of the genocide, without direct involvement (Smeuler 441).  Who would participate in such heinous acts and how they could be persuaded to commit these atrocities?  Though little is known about the members of hate groups like the Interahamwe it is believed that most of the people targeted for recruitment were children in struggling families who had seen combat in the civil war.  As Smeuler, author of “Studying the Microdynamics of the Rwandan Genocide”, states “[The Interahamwe] …turned many of these youngsters into ruthless fanatics, driven by strong resentment against the privileged and rich and a fanatical zeal to set things right.” (442)

The genocide in Rwanda is just one example of many throughout history where human beings have been inspired to act in ways that most people would find morally repugnant. Why do people react so horribly? To understand this, we must first understand the eight stages of genocide and the inter-workings of these stages on the human psyche. The eight stages of genocide are classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination, and denial. Classification is distinguishing features about groups of people that cause separation, such as race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Symbolization is the acts of classifying people around you into different groups, racially, politically, spiritually, or otherwise, though this is generally not seen as particularly harmful unless it causes one group to dehumanize the other. Dehumanization when a group of people denies the humanity of another group. After, a group is dehumanized genocide is organized by the state, often using militias –as seen in the Rwandan genocide. Hate groups then continue to polarize hate groups with propaganda and media oppressing the dehumanized. The genocide is then prepared, the oppressed group is identified for extermination. Denial follows the extermination and is a sign of future genocide. (Stanton)

A study prior to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 provides measurable insight into the psychological workings of the human psyche for the first five stages of genocide. The experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, was designed to better understand the psychology of imprisonment, though the intent of this experiment was different it was a noticeable comparison for the guard’s quick progression of degradation and dehumanization of their peers as they felt out their new roles. From the first day the subjects portraying prisoners are arrested, stripped and given uniforms consisting of a long loose-fitting dress, or gown, with no underclothes as the main part of the uniform. In addition, prisoners must wear a chain on their right angle, loose fitting booties on their feet, and women’s nylon stockings are placed over their heads to simulate shaved heads. These were designed to degrade the self-worth of the prisoners and to assert that for the next two weeks they are no longer college students, they are prisoners. The guards were given military uniforms, Billy-clubs, and reflective sunglasses. This would further separate the guards and prisoners while providing a sense of anonymity and militarization to the guards and prisoners. (Zimbardo)

The Mock guards began to assert their authority over the prisoners, creating further tensions, some encouraged by Philip Zimbardo, like head counts at 2:30 in the morning, which “…served the function of familiarizing the prisoners with their numbers…. [and] provided a regular occasion for the guards to interact with and exercise control over the prisoners. (Zimbardo 5)” Guards become increasingly more strict punishing prisoners for rule violations, improper attitude toward the establishment, and toward fellow prison guards.

Within the first day of imprisonment the lines were clearly drawn between authority and prisoners and the mentality of oppressor and the oppressed; however, these were peers, similar in age groups, prior to the experiment. After, the first day of experimenting the prisoners staged a rebellion, which came as a surprise to Zimbardo. The newly oppressed teens began to taunt the mock guards, place the beds in front of their doors, they tore off their numbers, and head nylon caps. The mock guards gathered together and responded with force. Guards began to separate participants in the rebellion from those who did not participate in the rebellion, giving them preferential treatment. Then in a further attempt to break the unity that led to the rebellion, the mock guards assigned three prisoners, who were not involved in the rebellion, to the three cells. This breaking up of the unified prisoners made the prisoners more malleable, this furthered the prisoner’s acceptance of the environment as the prisoner’s experience worsened. (Zimbardo)

This marked a turning point for the guards who up until this point had seen this as an experiment began to see this as a situation and no longer allow for attitude toward them or the environment. Zimbardo remarks, “Every aspect of the prisoners’ behavior fell under the total and arbitrary control of the guards who were on any given shift. To go to the toilet became a privilege which the guard could grant or deny at his whim.”(7) The guards had stripped away the identity of their peers, and due to arbitrary labeling had denied them even the simplest of rights and courtesies. Zimbardo continues, “…the prisoners had to go to urinate or defecate in a bucket which was left in their cell [in some cases], and on occasion the guard would refuse to allow the prisoners even to empty that bucket. And soon the prison began to smell of urine and feces.”(7) Conditions continued to decline as the guards began to further and further dehumanize the prisoners.

After six days the experiment was called off, because of worsening conditions and further prisoner degradation; everyone was changed by the experiment. Zimbardo remarks that the prisoners accepted their predicament; guards began to assert further and further dominance; the primary consultant, an ex-con imprisoned for 17 years acted as a parole officer in a manner that he hated (Zimbardo); and Zimbardo did not remain impartial and began to see himself as the superintendent of a prison rather than an impartial social science experimenter as he should have (“Reflections”). All the dynamics in a non-controlled environment could have the potential to be catastrophic. Philip Zimbardo remarks, “I have seen a controlled and absolutely unambiguous demonstration that few people ever do — the way in which good, normal people can be turned into something else — rapidly, measurably, profoundly.” (“Reflections” 30-31)

In terms of the Rwandan Genocide in particular, and the phenomenon of mass murders throughout history. I believe it is important to have a greater understanding of the human psyche. Outside of the mass hysteria that accompanies these types of events, it is difficult for the average person to understand how they could possibly take place. We are all convinced that we would never allow such things to be done to other human beings, much less participate in the commission of violent crimes against others. As individuals and members of the human race we wish to believe that the people who commit these crimes are anomalies, but time and time again, average individuals in groups commit atrocities on other individuals in groups that do not fit into our understanding of human behavior. Studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment can allow for a greater knowledge on how people can possibly be manipulated, and how to recognize it.  

Annotated Bibliography:

Smueler, Alette. “Studying the Micro Dynamics of Rwandan Genocide.” The British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 50, no.3, Oxford University, 9 Feb. 2010, pp. 435-454
“Studying the Micro Dynamics of Rwandan Genocide” discuses the timeline of the Rwandan Genocide while also focusing on hate groups and their role in recruitment. The source also describes the tide of rising tensions in Rwanda in years prior to the Rwandan Genocide. This was used to provide further background on the chain of events that have led to genocides in history. I used it as the primary source to better understand and explain the events leading up to and during the Rwandan killings. This source is a journal published by Oxford University and must be properly vetted for factual inaccuracies prior to publication from Oxford.

Stanton, Gregory H. “The 8 Stages of Genocide”. Genocide Watch: The International Campaign to End Genocide, 1996.
“The 8 Stages of Genocide” is a list of terms that was published in 1996 recently after the Rwandan Genocide. This source not only gives a definition of all 8 stages of the Rwandan Genocide but further elaborates on each of the terms, providing valuable insight into each term as it is described in reaction to the Rwandan atrocities and other current and historical concerns. This source was used to provide insight into the understanding of the events that lead to a genocidal society. This source was written by the president of Genocide Watch and discuses general patterns seen in the Rwandan Genocide, and Genocide watch presented this source as a briefing to the U.S. State Department.

Zimbardo, Philip et al. “Stanford Prison Experiment.” Stanford University, Aug 1971, pp.1-15
“The Stanford prison Experiment” is a social experiment on life in prison. The text used from this source of the same name is the narration provided by the performer of the experiment based on his observation, his colleague’s observations, and video evidence. This source was used to demonstrate the social environment that caused people to dehumanize and degrade one another based on roles given to them. This source was published by Stanford university, it is an in-depth recording of the experiment as it happened, and there is video evidence supporting his statements documenting the experiment taken during the experiment for further review.

Zimbardo, Philip, et al. “Reflections on the Stanford Prison Experiment: Genesis, Transformation, Consequences”. Obedience to Authority Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm, edited by Thomas Blass Research Gate Publisher, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Jan 2000, pp. 193-228.
“Reflections on the Stanford Prison Experiment: Genesis, Transformation, Consequences” is a chapter from Obedience to Authority Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm written by Philip Zimbardo, Craig Hanley, and Christina Maslach to reflect on the Stanford Prison Experiment. This source helped me to better understand the events of the Stanford Prison Experiment, as it was experienced by those who performed the experiment, providing firsthand knowledge of the experiment. I used this source to provide a quote that summarized how I felt that social environments can negatively influence people. The source reflects directly on Philip Zimbardo’s experiment and is written by Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues.

Miller, Shari. “Church of England Investigates Bishop Accused of ‘Collaborating’ in Rwandan Genocide Who is Now a Parish Priest in Worcestershire”. Daily Mail, Daily Mail, 16 Feb. 2014.
A Photograph from this article was used, the ideas and content of this article were not discussed.