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Establishing a reliable toll of those killed in the genocide and its aftermath is important to counter denials, exaggerations, and lies. The necessary data have not been gathered but speculation about death tolls continues anyway, usually informed more by emotion than by fact. In July 1998, the Rwandan government announced plans for a census of genocide survivors.

Even the size of the Tutsi population in Rwanda on April 6, 1994 is debated. Demographer William Seltzer, who has studied the data, estimates the number as 657,000, a figure extrapolated from 1991 census data. Some critics assert that the number of Tutsi was underreported in that census and in the prior census of 1978 because the Habyarimana government wanted to minimize the importance of Tutsi in the population. Although frequently said, no documentation has been presented to support this allegation. The 1991 data show Tutsi as forming 8.4 percent of the total population. This figure seems to accord with extrapolations from the generally accepted census data of 1952, taking into account the population loss due to death and flight during the 1960s and the birth rate, which was lower for Tutsi than for Hutu.

Whether or not census data were purposely altered to reduce the number of Tutsi, the figures underestimated the Tutsi population because an undetermined number of Tutsi arranged to register as Hutu in order to avoid discrimination and harassment. Although many Rwandans know of such cases, there is at present no basis for estimating how many persons they represented.

Deliberate misrepresentation of ethnicity complicates assessing how many of the victims were actually Tutsi. At a reburial ceremony for a family slain during the genocide, the only two survivors, both priests, talked separately with our researchers. One maintained that his family was Tutsi but claimed to be Hutu while the other declared that the family was really Hutu, but was said to be Tutsi by neighbors who coveted their wealth. In addition to such cases of questionable identity, there are Hutu who were killed because they looked like Tutsi.

A U.N. expert evaluating population loss in Rwanda estimated that 800,000 Rwandans had died between April and July 1994, but this figure included those who had died from causes other than the genocide. Seltzer estimated the number of persons killed in the genocide as at least one half million. Professor Gérard Prunier estimated that 130,000 Tutsi were alive in July, but his figures did not include those in Zaire or Tanzania, perhaps another 20,000. If this number of 150,000 survivors is subtracted from an estimated population of 657,000 Tutsi, this leaves 507,000 Tutsi killed, close to Seltzer’s minimum assessment, and representing the annihilation of about 77 percent of the population registered as Tutsi. Using other data from Butare prefecture, our researchers computed an estimated loss of 75 percent of the Tutsi population in that prefecture. Based onthese preliminary data, we would conclude that at least half a million persons were killed in the genocide, a loss that represented about three quarters of the Tutsi population of Rwanda.

Estimates of persons killed at any one site vary widely, often by a factor of ten or more, perhaps because most have been made by untrained observers. At the parish of Rukara, for example, estimates ranged from 500 to 5,000. In 1995, a Rwandan government commission set the death toll at the Murambi Technical School in Gikongoro at some 20,000, a figure which some have since raised to 70,000, although the bodies exhumed there at the time of the 1996 commemoration of the genocide numbered in the range of 5,000. As many as 50,000 have been said to have perished at Bisesero, but a recent list of persons killed at that site totaled just over 5100 names. Similarly, some claim that 35,000 were slain in the Nyamata church, which appears to have a capacity of some 3,000.

Establishing the number of persons killed in the genocide will not help much in assessing the number of people involved in their execution. The circumstances of the crimes varied enormously: there were professional soldiers armed with machine guns or grenade-launchers firing into crowds, each of whom may have killed dozens, if not hundreds, of people, and there were groups of assailants armed with clubs or sharpened pieces of bamboo who jointly killed a single person. There can be no simple formula to assess how many killers murdered one victim or how many victims were slain by one killer.

The first estimate of numbers slain by the RPF was made by Gersony in his 1994 report. He concluded that the RPF killed between 25,000 and 45,000 persons in the months of April to August 1994. Seth Sendashonga, former minister of the interior and early member of the RPF, estimated that the RPF killed some 60,000 people between April 1994 and August 1995, with more than half killed in the first four months of that period. It seems likely, although not certain, that these estimates include persons killed in the course of combat, both civilians and militia.

Although our research indicates considerable killing of civilians by RPF forces during this period, including massacres and executions, we have too little data to confirm or revise these estimates. In any case, they appear more likely to be accurate than claims that the RPF killed hundreds of thousands of people from April to August 1994.

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