Accounting for the Dead in the Rwandan Genocide

Based on his ROAPE paper, Luc Reydams writes that the post-genocide Rwandan government made it clear that foreign help with demographic and forensic investigations was neither appreciated nor needed, and proceeded with its own counts of genocide victims. This blogpost argues that the official death toll in Rwanda roughly doubled the number of genocide victims. Reydams provides insight into how history and myth has been created in the new Rwanda.

By Luc Reydams

One of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in post-colonial Africa is the Rwandan civil war and genocide of 1994. The war began in October 1990 when the armed wing of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda from neighbouring Uganda. The RPF was (and is) dominated by Rwandan Tutsi who had grown up in exile. A fragile, internationally brokered peace agreement held from August 1993 until 6 April 1994 when unidentified persons shot down an airplane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, the chief of staff of the Rwandan armed forces, and three cabinet ministers (all Hutu). The attack triggered the resumption of the civil war and the beginning of the genocide against the Tutsi. Both ended in July when the RPF routed the government army and Hutu militias loyal to it. Paul Kagame, the commander of the RPF, and a small group of former Tutsi exiles have ruled Rwanda ever since.

A UN Commission of Experts reported in December 1994 that ‘an estimated 500,000 unarmed civilians have been murdered in Rwanda. That estimate indeed may err on the conservative side for […] some reliable estimates put the number of dead at close to 1 million’. The new government, for its part, spoke of more than two million victims and soon made clear that it neither appreciated nor needed foreign help with counting. It rejected offers of international agencies to conduct a population survey and thwarted excavations of mass graves by investigators of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). The government also took over a census initiative launched by an association of genocide survivors, and proceeded with its own counts.

It should be noted that hyping numbers was part of the RPF’s communications strategy from the beginning of the civil war. Émigré circles in the early 1990s claimed that during and after the ‘Hutu Revolution’ (1959–1962) ‘several hundred thousands of Tutsi were savagely slaughtered’ and that the Tutsi diaspora had reached two million. In reality, between 10,000 and 14,000 Tutsi civilians were killed in the period 1959-1962 and Tutsi exiles in 1990 numbered between 500,000 and 600,000. I now turn to the two official censuses for which a report is available.

1996 Census: 1.2 million victims

Eric Rousseau was in his twenties when the genocide happened. The Belgian had befriended Rwandan exiles in Brussels and when they returned to Rwanda in 1994, he joined them, and his involvement with the new government began. Rousseau began working for cabinet minister Jacques Bihozagara, a cofounder of the RPF and former RPF representative in Belgium. Rousseau, who had studied marketing and advertising, proposed the creation of a Commission for the Memorial of the Genocide and Massacres. The plan was accepted and an inter-ministerial commission created. Except for Rousseau, all six members were Tutsi returnees.

The commission set out to identify massacre sites, count the victims and identify the perpetrators. Even with plenty of resources and expertise, just counting the victims would be a gigantic and time-consuming undertaking. Rousseau and his amateur team completed their field investigation in 56 days, and a month later the ‘Preliminary report on the identification of sites of the genocide and massacres that took place in Rwanda from April to July 1994’was ready.

It seems odd to distinguish between sites of ‘genocide’ and ‘massacres’ because what else is a genocide site than a massacre site? In Rwandan discourse, however, Tutsi were victims of genocide while Hutu who died in intra-Hutu violence were victims of massacres. Adding ‘massacres’ to the title, therefore, was a way to acknowledge Hutu deaths. The April–July 1994 time frame, on the other hand, excluded the tens of thousands of Hutu civilians allegedly killed by the RPF after it seized power.

As the principal author of the first official census report, Rousseau was called to testify before the ICTR: ‘We were able to get to an estimate based on the graves that we opened, the skulls that we counted, collation of testimonies. We arrived at an overall estimate [of] about 1.2 million’. When pressed by the defense about RPF killings of Hutu civilians, he replied that he had never heard about this before.

2000 Census: 1,074,017 victims

The 1996 census being ‘preliminary’, a new victim count was held in July 2000. The results were published in a report titled Dénombrement des victimes du génocide (Count of genocide victims). The title illustrates the shifting discourse about the events of 1994. By deleting the word ‘massacres’, Hutu victims are no longer acknowledged. All that happened in 1994 was a genocide against the Tutsi. The report states that the government has compiled a list of the names of all victims but that privacy laws prohibit publication. However, in Rwanda and elsewhere death (and birth) records are public, and the names of thousands of victims are engraved in the Wall of Names at the Kigali Genocide. The government’s concern for the privacy of the dead also cannot be reconciled with its policy of burying them in mass graves or publicly displaying their mummified bodies. The report speaks of a total of 1,074,017 victims, of whom 93.7% (1,006,354) Tutsi. The original census cards are kept under lock and key.

The government eventually settled on ‘more than a million’. The 2003 constitution opens by recalling ‘the genocide […] that decimated more than a million sons and daughters of Rwanda’. However, the 1996 and 2000 censuses present two major problems. Their tallies are far higher than the Tutsi population inside Rwanda in 1994. At the same time, they are far lower than the number of bodies reportedly buried at genocide cemeteries and memorials. The sections below discuss these inconsistencies.

Why ‘more than a million’ is impossible

A 1956 report from the Belgian colonial administration shows the following distribution for a population of 2,374,000: Hutu 82.74%, Tutsi 16.59%, and Twa 0.67%. Thus, in 1956 the number of Rwandan Tutsi stood at around 394,000. Importantly, ethnicity was based on self-identification. Since Tutsi enjoyed certain privileges, it cannot be excluded that a number of Hutu passed off as Tutsi. Therefore, 394,000 is a maximum population baseline.

The population more than tripled between 1956 and 1991, from 2,374,000 to 7,290,000 (including 50,000 foreigners). The increase corresponds to a net average annual growth rate of 3.2%. Surveys from 1970 and 1983 reveal that fertility rates of Hutu women were consistently higher than those of Tutsi women (see below).

Let us now briefly consider the turbulent pre- and post-independence years. The ‘Hutu Revolution’ of 1959–1962 and accompanying violence triggered an exodus of Tutsi elites to neighbouring countries. Among the first wave of refugees were an infant Paul Kagame and his parents. When in 1963 a band of Tutsi exiles invaded Rwanda to restore Tutsi rule, the government responded with brutal repression. Between 10,000 and 14,000 Tutsi civilians were massacred, causing a second exodus. A political crisis in 1972–73 triggered a third and final wave of Tutsi refugees.

Two independently commissioned studies calculated the size of the Tutsi diaspora in the early 1990s. Catherine Watson for the US Committee for Refugees arrived at ‘probably half a million’ in February 1991; or ±550,000 in April 1994 at a 3% growth rate. André Guichaoua for the UN Refugee Agency estimated the diaspora at ±550,000 in March 1991; or ±600,000 in April 1994 at a 3% growth rate. Gérard Prunier, on the other hand, counted 550,000 exiles in 1993 but 600,000–700,000 a year later. Whoever is right, these estimates undermine the claim of émigré circles that the Tutsi diaspora had reached two million.

As noted earlier, the average annual growth rate of the Rwandan population between 1956 and 1991 was 3.2% despite massacres and exodus. Health surveys suggest that the Hutu and Tutsi populations had different fertility rates. In 1970 Tutsi women had a ±17% lower birth rate than Hutu women; from the late 1970s until the mid-1980s the difference was ±31%. After 1987 the difference became negligible due to a ‘brutal decline’ of the overall fertility rate. Researchers concluded that ‘being Tutsi has no effect on fertility in the 1987–1992 period, while it has a negative and significant effect on fertility in both the 1982–1992 and 1977–1992 periods’.

It would be logical to infer that for a substantial period of time between 1956 and 1991 Rwanda’s Tutsi population grew at a lower rate than the Hutu. However, three caveats are called for. First, the lower birth rates of Tutsi were partially offset by higher survival rates. Second, the quality of the surveys is debatable. The 1983 survey was the first conducted by the then newly established National Population Office. Third, the surveys do not take into account intermarriage between Hutu and Tutsi. We do not know how prevalent it was and whether women in mixed marriages had the same fertility as their ethnic kin. The only thing we can be reasonably certain about is that the growth rate of the Tutsi population in Rwanda did not exceed that of Hutu.

Comparable data about the Tutsi diaspora do not seem available. Given that growth of the Rwandan population in the 1970s and early 1980s was among the highest in Africa, we can also be reasonably sure that the growth rate of the diaspora did not exceed that of Hutu in Rwanda. For the sake of my argument, I (liberally) assume that Tutsi in Rwanda and in the diaspora had the same growth rate as Hutu (3.2%) and that the total Tutsi population had increased from 394,000 in 1956 to around 1,264,000 in April 1994.

If we subtract 550,000 diaspora Tutsi (Watson’s figure) we are left with 714,000 inside Rwanda; 600,000 diaspora Tutsi (Guichaoua’s figure) leaves 664,000 in Rwanda. But if the diaspora counted 700,000 Tutsi (Prunier’s figure), then the number of Tutsi in Rwanda before the genocide decreases to 564,000. Assuming that 150,000–225,000 survived, the maximum number of Tutsi genocide victims is between 489,000 and 564,000. Thus it may be concluded that the official death toll is significantly inflated.

‘More than a million’ as propaganda

I submit that notwithstanding the government censuses, ‘more than a million’ is not an actual count but propaganda. There are interesting historical parallels in this regard between the RPF and the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale. The FLN fought a long and bloody war of independence from France (1954–1962), and in its aftermath murdered tens of thousands of native Muslim Algerians who had served in the French army. The RPF framed its struggle as a ‘war of liberation’ against what it considered a neo-colonial regime that perpetuated the divisions introduced by the coloniser; when the battle was over it reportedly killed tens of thousands of Hutu civilians. In Algeria the spoils of the war went to FLN cadres, in Rwanda to members of the RPF.

Post-war Algeria adopted a constitution with the following preamble: ‘The war of extermination waged by French imperialism was intensified and more than a million martyrs paid with their lives for the love of their country and liberty’. As in Rwanda, it is unclear how the Algerian government arrived at ‘more than a million’. The best scholarly estimates of Algerian deaths range between 200,000 and 300,000. In both countries the victors used the death of ‘more than a million’ countrymen and women to exculpate themselves and lay the foundation for radically new societies under their control.

Human remains exhumed and reburied

In the late 1990s the Rwandan government began progressively to exhume suspected mass graves and reinter any human remains found therein at designated genocide cemeteries and memorials. Individual identification and burial were not allowed because ‘For the state, the principal concern is the collective identification of victims […] as victims of the genocide’.

In 2008, RPF controlled media reported on the progress of the reburial project: ‘390 Genocide Memorial Sites have been set up across the country since 1994. Those sites accommodate remains of 1,002,755 victims of the mayhem while 851,756 others were buried in different cemeteries across the country. To these numbers should be added the remains of 97,567 people who have been identified but have not yet been given decent burial, bringing the total to 1,952,078 genocide victims’. The revelation gives a new twist to the government’s numbers game. If between 489,000 and 564,000 Tutsi died in the genocide and 1,952,078 human remains have been unearthed, then who are the ‘more than a million’ other victims? What is hidden behind this contradiction?


Casualty counts after a humanitarian catastrophe often are fraught with methodological and political pitfalls. In Rwanda the new government dominated by the victorious RPF soon made clear that it neither appreciated nor needed foreign help with counting the dead of the genocide, and proceeded with its own counts. Other than their final tallies very little is known about them. The processes were extremely opaque; lists of names of victims are kept secret; and reports, if published, are filled with data of questionable relevance. Information that would allow meaningful verification was left out, and data files are kept secret. The definition of ‘victim’ and the time frame of the conflict were revised to include some dead and exclude others.

The government eventually settled on ‘more than a million’ Tutsi victims, even though this number cannot possibly be reconciled with demographic data or, for that matter, with the number of victims reportedly buried at genocide cemeteries and memorials. The death of ‘more than a million’ Tutsi became the foundation of the new Rwanda and created the socio-political environment for the mass criminalization of Hutu. Between 2005 and 2012, popular Gacaca courts reportedly tried more than a million Hutu men and women. Thus the new Rwanda is built not only on the death of ‘more than a million’ Tutsi but also on the collective guilt of Hutu.

The full article in ROAPE, More than a million’: the politics of accounting for the dead of the Rwandan genocide’ is free to access.

Luc Reydams is based in the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, where he teaches international law, international organizations, transnational social movements, and the network society.

Featured Photograph: pictures of genocide victims at the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali, Rwanda (Adam Jones, 25 July 2012).


  1. Outstanding facts clearing the clouds that have for a long time covering this so called “genocide” of Tutsi ; ignoring the real genocide of millions Congolese not to mention the millions of Hutu killed in Tingi Tingi . Time will continue to clear and unveil what has been hiding for decades. Great job .


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