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Rwandan Genocide

This article should be The Rwandan Genocide was a massacre of an estimated 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis at the hands of Hutu militias. It was the worst genocide since the Holocaust.



Almost every country in Africa, and the world in general, is made up of a mix of ethnic groups and there is much debate as to why Rwanda, and its southern neighbour Burundi, have been so wracked by interethnic violence when others have not.

Some blame it on Belgian colonialism. Belgium controlled both nations from the end of the First World War until independence in 1962. Belgian colonialism, in Rwanda and Burundi as well as the Belgian Congo, was of unmatched brutality and incompetence. Many have accused the Belgian system of leaving its colonies utterly unprepared for independence, and all three have had violent and unhappy histories since independence. The portion of the Great Lakes region controlled by Britain in western Tanzania and Uganda has not been marked by the same violence.

Another school of thought argues that the violence in the region is a result of the same European theories of race that lead to the Holocaust. Unlike the other mixed states of Africa Rwanda was considered, by Europeans, to be on the border between Blacks and the more noble Hamites. Tutsis were viewed as Hamites and Hutus as inferior Bantus. This ingrained racism was reversed upon independence when the majority Hutus took to viewing the Tutsis as foreign invaders and not true Rwandans. Similar divisions have lead to violence in other parts of northeast Africa, most notably in Sudan.

Others see an economic explanation for the violence. The Great Lakes region, with rich soil and a more temperate climate because of its altitude, is one of the most densely populated parts of Africa. This has lead to a great deal of competition for scarce land and resources. Slaughtering the Tutsis is thus seen as an attempt by some Hutu to gain more land.


Rwanda is one of the few states in Africa to closely follow its ancestral borders. The Kingdom of Rwanda, controlled by a Tutsi royal family, ruled the region for as long as recorded history. While the upper echelons of this society were largely Tutsi, racial divisions were not stark. Many Hutu was among the nobility and significant intermingling took place. The majority of the Tutsi, who made up 15-18% of the population, were poor peasants.

This area was colonized first by the Germans in 1894, who were evicted by the Belgians in the First World War. The Europeans tended to simplify matters; they transformed a majority Tutsi elite into a solely Tutsi elite, with position in society determined by race.

In preparation for the Belgian pull out, elections brought the Hutu nationalist party PARMEHUTU to power in 1959. They launched a program of advancing the power of the Hutu majority. The former favourites of the west rapidly became viewed as feudal overlords who were rightly ousted in favour of rule by the Hutu majority. This lead to a downplaying of the violence that was associated with this process. Some 20,00 Tutsi were killed and another 200,000 fled to neighbouring countries.

After independence PARMEHUTU established a one party rule based upon Hutu nationalism. In 1964 and again in 1974, pogroms erupted where large numbers of Tutsi were killed and more forced into exile.

In 1973 Juvénal Habyarimana seized power in a military coup, ousting PARMEHUTU, but continuing to rely on Hutu nationalism to stay in power.

Prelude to Genocide

Another source of mounting tensions in 1990, were the grumblings of the Tutsi diaspora in refugee camps ringing the nation. Those Tutsis who had been exiled over the years were now coming together in an organized manner. The exiled Tutsis, however, demanded recognition of their rights as Rwandans; including the right of return. These Tutsis, organized as the Rwandan Patriotic Front, under Paul Kagame. On October 1, 1990 RPF forces invaded Rwanda from their base in neighboring Uganda. The rebel force, composed primarily of ethnic Tutsis, blamed the government for failing to democratize and resolve the problems of some 500,000 Tutsi refugees living in diaspora around the world.

The Rwandan government portrayed the invasion was seen as an attempt to bring the Tutsi ethnic group back into power, and the world was largely sympathetic to them. The violence increased ethnic tensions as Hutus rallied around the President. Habyarimana himself reacted by immediately instituting genocidal pogroms, which would be directed against all Tutsis and against any Hutus seen as in league with Tutsi interests. Habyarimana justified these acts by proclaiming it was the intent of the Tutsis to restore a kind of Tutsi feudal system and to thus enslave the Hutu race.

The war dragged on for almost two years until a cease-fire accord was signed July 12, 1992, in Arusha, Tanzania, fixing a timetable for an end to the fighting and political talks, leading to a peace accord and power sharing, and authorizing a neutral military observer group under the auspices of the Organization for African Unity. A cease-fire took effect July 31, 1992, and political talks began August 10, 1992. Relations continued to be strained, and the Tutsis remained oppressed.

During this period the rhetoric of Hutu nationalism escalated. Radio stations and newspapers describing the Tutsi as subhuman, and containing veiled calls for violence became widespread as radical Hutu groups amassed weapons. The nation became increasingly polarized as neighbourhoods became exclusively populated by only one group.


On April 6, 1994, the airplane carrying President Habyarimana and the Cyprien Ntaryamira, the President of Burundi, was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali. Both presidents were killed when the plane crashed. The exact responsibility for this act is not known, but it was most likely by radical Hutu nationalists in the presidential guard.

As though the shooting down was a signal, military and militia groups began rounding up and killing all Tutsis they could capture as well as political moderates irrespective of their ethnic backgrounds. Large numbers of opposition politicians were also murdered. Many nations evacuated all their nationals from Kigali and closed their embassies as violence escalated.

The prime minister and her 10 Belgian bodyguards were among the first victims. The killing swiftly spread from Kigali to all corners of the country; between April 6 and the beginning of July, a genocide of unprecedented swiftness officially left 937,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead at the hands of organized bands of militias known as the Interahamwe. One such massacre occurred at Nyarubuye. Even ordinary citizens were called on by local officials and government-sponsored radio to kill their neighbors. Those Hutu who refused to kill were often killed themselves. The president's MRND Party was implicated in organizing many aspects of the genocide.

Most of the victims were killed in their villages or in towns, often by their neighbors and fellow villagers. The Interahamwe mostly killed their victims by chopping them up with machetes, although some army units shot and killed the Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In some towns the victims were forcibly crammed into churches and school buildings, where Hutu extremist gangs then massacred them. In many cases ethnic Hutu who opposed the killings or failed to take part in the massacres were themselves hunted down and killed. "Either you took part in the massacres or you were massacred yourself." said one Hutu who was forced to take part.

The RPF battalion stationed in Kigali under the Arusha accords came under attack immediately after the shooting down of the president's plane. The battalion fought its way out of Kigali and joined up with RPF units in the north. The RPF renewed its civil war against the Rwanda Hutu government when it received word that the genocidal massacres had begun. Its leader Paul Kagame directed RPF forces in neighboring countries such as Uganda and Tanzania to invade the country, battling the Hutu forces and Interahamwe militias who were committing the massacres. The resulting civil war raged concurrently with the genocide for two months.

For the next couple of weeks, many questionable decisions were made by the United Nations, which had a peacekeeping force in the country. Belgium and the UN withdrew almost all of their forces after ten Belgians were killed, leaving all of their Rwandans employees, mostly Tutsis, behind. The UN Security Council unanimously voted to withdraw its troops, with France and Belgium at the forefront, over the protests of the peacekeepers' top commander Canadian Romeo Dallaire. The new Rwandan government lead by self proclaimed President Sindikubwabo worked hard to minimize international criticism. Rwanda at that time had a seat on the Security Council and its ambassador argued that the claims of genocide were exaggerated and that the government was doing all that it could to stop it. Representatives of the Rwandan Catholic Church, long associated with the radical Hutus in Rwanda, also used their links in Europe to reduce criticism. France, which felt the United States and United Kingdom would use the massacres to try to expand their influence in that francophone part of Africa also worked to prevent a foreign intervention.

Finally, on May 17, 1994, the UN conceded that "acts of genocide may have been committed." At that time, the Red Cross estimated at least 100,000 deaths at the hands of the Hutu extremists, the majority of those being minority Tutsis.

By Mid-May, the U.S. attempted to take action by ordering 50 APCs; however, an argument ensued over their cost. At this time, the Red Cross estimated over 500,000 deaths.

French forces landed in Goma , Zaire, in June 1994 on a humanitarian mission. They deployed throughout southwest Rwanda in an area they called "Zone Turquoise," quelling the genocide and stopping the fighting there, but often only arriving in areas after the Tutsi had been forced out. The Rwandan army was quickly defeated by the RPF and fled across the border to Zaire followed by some 2 million refugees who fled to Zaire, Tanzania, and Burundi. The RPF took Kigali on July 4, 1994, and the war ended on July 16, 1994. The RPF took control of a country ravaged by war and genocide. According to official figures released by the government in 2004, 937,000 had been murdered, another 2 million or so had fled, and another million or so were displaced internally. France and Belgium refused to recognize the new government, but it was supported by the United States and Germany.

At the height of the conflict, United Nations employee Callixte Mbarushimana, a Hutu, took part in the murders of 32 people, including other U.N. employees.

The Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu regime and ended the genocide in July 1994, but approximately two million Hutu refugees - some who participated in the genocide and fearing Tutsi retribution - fled to neighboring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zaire. Thousands of them died in epidemics of cholera and dysentery that swept the refugee camps. The Rwandan genocide and presence of large numbers of refugees in the aftermath were major factors in the destabilization of Zaire, which plunged into chaos and civil war in 1998, with similarly horrible destruction and death: see Congo Civil War

The international community responded with one of the largest humanitarian relief efforts ever mounted. The U.S. was one of the largest contributors. The UN peacekeeping operation, UNAMIR, was drawn down during the fighting but brought back up to strength after the RPF victory. UNAMIR remained in Rwanda until March 8, 1996.

Following an uprising by the ethnic Tutsi Banyamulenge people in eastern Zaire in October 1996, a huge movement of refugees began which brought more than 600,000 back to Rwanda in the last two weeks of November. This massive repatriation was followed at the end of December 1996 by the return of another 500,000 from Tanzania, again in a huge, spontaneous wave.

Justice, reconciliation, reforms

With the return of the refugees, the government began the long-awaited genocide trials, which got off to an uncertain start in the closing days of 1996 and inched forward in 1997. In 2001, the government began implementation of a participatory justice system, known as "gacaca" in order to address the enormous backlog of cases. Meanwhile, the United Nations set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, currently based in Arusha, Tanzania.

Despite substantial international assistance and political reforms - including Rwanda's first ever local elections held in March 1999 - the country continues to struggle to boost investment and agricultural output and to foster reconciliation. A series of massive population displacements, a nagging Hutu extremist insurgency, and Rwandan involvement in two wars over the past four years in the neighboring DROC continue to hinder Rwanda's efforts.

On April 7 2004, the President of the General Assembly, Julian Hunte of Saint Lucia, told a commemorative meeting which included the participation of the Security Council: "What a pity it is that the deliberate killing of the President of Rwanda, together with the President of Burundi, would not have caused a nation to mourn, but instead would have resulted in 100 days of terror and violence, in full view of the United Nations and the world". (Source: UN News Centre)

External links

Arming Genocide in Rwanda

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45