A look at Rwanda’s genocide helps explain why ordinary people kill their neighbors

Rather than blindly obeying orders, perpetrators felt a sense of duty

Photographs of Rwandans killed in 1994 genocide

DUTY BOUND KILLINGS  Part of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, these photographs of Rwandans killed in a 1994 mass slaughter put human faces on an unimaginable tragedy. Many factors other than obedience to authorities drove some Rwandans to kill others.


A string of state-directed, targeted mass killings left a bloody stain on the 20th century. A genocide more recent than the Holocaust is providing new insights into why some people join in such atrocities.

Adolf Hitler’s many accomplices in his campaign to exterminate Jews throughout Europe have justifiably attracted the attention of historians and social scientists. But a 100-day spasm of unprecedented violence in 1994 that wiped out about three-quarters of the ethnic Tutsi population in the African nation of Rwanda has the potential to reveal much about how mass killings unfold at ground level.

There is no guarantee that a better, although inevitably incomplete, understanding of why certain members of Rwanda’s majority Hutu population nearly eliminated a Tutsi minority will prevent future large-scale slaughters. The research is worth the effort, though, especially in a 21st century already marked by massacres of hundreds of thousands of people in western Sudan’s Darfur region and in Syria.

Researchers have an advantage in Rwanda. When hostilities ended, Rwanda’s government gathered extensive data on genocide victims and suspected perpetrators through a national survey. And local courts tried more than 1 million cases of alleged involvement in the violence, making the case documents available to researchers.

Genocide studies have often split offenders into organizers — mainly political and community leaders — and “ordinary men” who kill out of blind obedience to central or local authorities and hatred of those deemed enemies. But the extensive data from Rwanda tell a different story: An individual’s willingness to take part in genocidal violence depends on many personal and social factors that influence whether and how deeply a person participates, says sociologist and Rwanda genocide researcher Hollie Nyseth Brehm of Ohio State University in Columbus.

Nyseth Brehm’s findings may not apply to some of Rwanda’s most avid killers, who eluded capture and fled the country as soon as hostilities stopped. But when it comes to the ordinary citizens swept up in the deadly campaign, involvement was not primarily about following political leaders’ orders to eliminate Tutsis.

New reports by Nyseth Brehm and others fuel skepticism about the popular idea that regular folks tend to do as they’re told by authorities. And a fresh look at a famous 1960s psychology study adds further doubt that people will blindly follow orders to harm or kill others.

In reality, only about 20 percent of Hutu men, an estimated 200,000, seriously injured or killed at least one person during the genocidal outbreak, estimates Rwanda genocide researcher Omar McDoom of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“Why did four in five Hutu men not engage in the killing?” McDoom asks. That puzzle goes against the ordinary man thesis that “implies there are no individual differences in genocide participation,” he says. He suspects participation hinged on personal motivations, such as wanting to defend Rwanda from enemies or make off with a Tutsi neighbor’s possessions. Social circumstances, such as living in high-violence areas or having friends or family members who had already murdered Tutsis, probably played a role too. Nyseth Brehm agrees.

Local triggers

Genocides often fester before exploding. In Rwanda, Tutsi rebels attacked the Hutu-led government and set off a civil war several years before mass killings started. A turning point came when unidentified forces killed Rwanda’s president, shooting down his plane on April 6, 1994. Over the next three months, the government orchestrated a massacre of Tutsis and any Hutus deemed friendly or helpful to Tutsis. Most scholars place the death toll at around 800,000, although estimates range from 500,000 to 1.2 million. Bands of Hutus scoured the countryside for their sworn enemies. Killings took place at roadblocks and in raids on churches, schools and other community facilities. Hutu women killed on a much smaller scale than men did, although they often aided those involved in the carnage.

In many parts of Rwanda, local authorities appointed by the national government recruited Hutu men into groups that burned and looted homes of their Tutsi neighbors, killing everyone they encountered, says political scientist Scott Straus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In his 2016 book Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, Straus describes how Rwandan recruitment efforts coalesced into a killing machine. Politicians, business people, soldiers and others encouraged Hutu farmers to kill an enemy described as “cockroaches” in need of extermination. Similarly, Nazis portrayed Jews as cockroaches and vermin.

Despite the Rwandan state’s best efforts to encourage nationwide Tutsi annihilation, local conditions shaped how the 1994 genocide unfolded, Nyseth Brehm reported in February in Criminology. She looked at 142 of the nation’s 145 municipalities, known as communes. Some experienced as few as 71 killings, while in others, as many as 54,700 people were murdered, she found.

Communes with the fewest killings were those that had the highest marriage and employment rates, Nyseth Brehm says. In those settings, mainly farming communities where people knew and trusted each other, most citizens valued a peaceful status quo and discouraged a descent into mass killing, she suspects.

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Curiously, violence was worse in areas with the largest numbers of educated people. That points to the effectiveness of anti-Tutsi teachings in Rwandan schools, Nyseth Brehm suggests.

Her study relied on data from a postgenocide survey, published in 2004 by Rwanda’s government, intended to document every person killed during the atrocity. Citizens throughout Rwanda told interviewers about individuals in their communities who had been killed during the outburst of slaughter. Reported and confirmed deaths were checked against records of human remains linked to the 1994 genocide. Comparisons were also made to Rwanda’s 1991 census.

However, any data on killings during mass violence, including from the Rwandan survey, will be incomplete, Nyseth Brehm cautions. So she also analyzed data from 1,068,192 genocide-related cases tried in local Rwandan courts from 2002 to 2012. Of particular note, although most nongenocidal murders in Rwanda are carried out by men in their 20s, the average age of accused genocide perpetrators was 34.7 years old, Nyseth Brehm reported in the November 2016 Criminology.

Hutu men in their 30s joined the genocidal fray as a way to fulfill adult duties by defending their communities against an outside threat, she suggests. Preliminary analyses show that perpetrators tended to cluster in families; if one of several brothers killed Tutsis, the others were far more likely to follow suit.

Additional scouring of court data indicated that Rwandans who had siblings convicted of genocide killings were especially likely to have murdered Tutsis themselves. In earlier interviews of 130 Rwandans, some who had killed Tutsis and others who hadn’t, McDoom similarly found that perpetrators tended to cluster in families.

Missing murderers

Unfortunately, the Rwandan genocide’s most prolific players have eluded both the law and science, says political scientist Cyanne Loyle of Indiana University Bloomington. Investigators have so far interviewed only a handful of the powerful “big fish” who orchestrated the genocide, plus several hundred people tried and imprisoned for genocide participation. Survey and court data are limited to killers who either stayed in Rwanda after atrocities ended or were caught trying to flee the country.

But perpetrators with the most blood on their hands traveled in bands, wiping out tens of thousands of people at a time before hiding abroad, Loyle says. For instance, local officials lured large numbers of Tutsis to a school near the town of Murambi, where Hutu militias used machine guns, explosives and other weapons to kill more than 40,000 people in just three days.

“Scholars have studied Rwandans who killed on the sidelines while a larger and deadlier campaign was under way,” Loyle says. “They have mistaken a sideshow for the main event.”

Perpetrators of colossal atrocities at Murambi and elsewhere were less powerful than the government’s genocide masterminds, Loyle says. These “murderers in the middle,” however, were better equipped and far more effective at killing than common folk who got caught up in events, she contends.

There are no good estimates of how many members of large-scale killing squads escaped Rwanda and now live elsewhere. From 15,000 to 22,000 members of the Rwandan army and local militia groups were at large in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near Rwanda’s border, in January 2003, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization.

Nyseth Brehm acknowledges the difficulty of accounting for genocide perpetrators who eluded justice. She and others, including Straus, have interviewed genocide offenders who stayed in Rwanda, often imprisoned for their crimes. Many of those who fled must have traveled in groups that murdered on a grand scale, she says. Those mass killers represent crucial missing data on who participates in genocide, and for what reasons.

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Vicious virtue

In interviews by Nyseth Brehm, McDoom and others, perpetrators listed many reasons for joining the 1994 killing spree — hatred of Tutsis, a perceived need to protect nation and family, a desire to claim a neighbor’s property or a decision to join a suddenly popular cause, to name a few. Blind obedience to brutal leaders was far from the only reason cited.

That finding conflicts with the late psychologist Stanley Milgram’s interpretation of his famous “obedience to authority” experiments. Milgram described those trials, in which volunteers were told to administer increasingly intense shocks to another person, as a demonstration of people’s frequent willingness to follow heinous commands. He saw the experiments as approximating the more extreme situations in which Germans had participated in the Holocaust.

Volunteers in “obedience to authority” experiments gave what they thought were shocks to “learners,” such as the seated man above. Most volunteers did so because they supported the scientific project, researchers now say. © 1968 BY STANLEY MILGRAM, © RENEWED 1993 BY ALEXANDRA MILGRAM. FROM THE FILM OBEDIENCE DISTRIBUTED BY ALEXANDER STREET PRESS
On closer inspection, though, Milgram’s study aligns closely with what’s known about Rwandan genocide perpetrators, says S. Alexander Haslam, a psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia.

In Milgram’s experiments, as in Rwanda and Nazi Germany, “those willing to harm others were not so much passive ciphers as motivated instruments of a collective cause,” Haslam says. “They perceived themselves as acting virtuously and doing good things.”

Although Milgram’s tests upset some volunteers, most participants identified with his scientific mission to understand human behavior and wanted to prove themselves as worthy of the project, Haslam and psychologist Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, conclude in a research review scheduled to appear in the 2017 Annual Review of Law and Social Science.

Milgram conducted 23 obedience experiments with New Haven, Conn., residents in 1961 and 1962 (SN: 9/21/13, p. 30). Most attention has focused on only one of those experiments. Volunteers designated as “teachers” were asked by an experimenter to continue upping the intensity of what they thought were electric shocks to a “learner” — who was actually in league with Milgram — who erred time and again on a word-recall test. Through screams, shouts and eventually dead silence from the learner, 26 of 40 volunteers, or 65 percent, administered shocks all the way to a maximum of 450 volts.

But experiments that undermined participants’ identification with the scientific mission lowered their willingness to deliver the harshest shocks, Haslam and Reicher say. Fewer volunteers shocked to the bitter end if, for instance, the study was conducted in an office building rather than a university laboratory or if the experimenter was not physically present. An analysis of data available from 21 of the 23 experiments finds that 43.6 percent of 740 volunteers shocked learners to the limit.

Participants were most compliant when an experimenter encouraged them to continue shocking for the sake of the experiment (by saying, “The experiment requires that you continue”), the psychologists add. Participants never followed the order: “You have no choice, you must continue.”

Milgram’s archives at Yale University contain letters and survey responses from former participants reporting high levels of support for Milgram’s project and for science in general. Many former volunteers told Milgram that they administered shocks out of a duty to collaborate on what they viewed as important research, even if it caused them distress at the time. Still, Milgram’s recruits often admitted having had suspicions during the experiments that learners were not really being zapped.

Milgram was right that his experiments applied to real-world genocides, Haslam concludes, but erred in assuming that obedience to authority explained his results. From Milgram’s laboratory to Rwanda’s killing squads and Nazi concentration camps, orders to harm others are carried out by motivated followers, not passive conformists, he asserts.

If anything, that makes genocide all the more horrifying.

This story appears in the August 19, 2017 issue of Science News with the headline: “Duty Bound Killings: Rwandan data offer a glipse of what drives people to take part in genocide.” 

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