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Rwandan Genocide

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The Rwandan Genocide was the 1994 mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Rwanda's minority Tutsis and the moderates of its Hutu majority. Over the course of approximately 100 days, from April 6 through to mid July, at least 500,000 people were killed. Most estimates are of a death toll nearer the 800,000 and 1,000,000 marks.

This genocide was primarily the action of two Hutu militia, the Interahamwe (the militant wing of the MRND) and the Impuzamugambi (the militant wing of the CDR). It was an eruption of the ethnic and economic pressures ultimately consequential after Rwanda's colonial era and the fractious culture of Hutu power. The Rwandan Civil War, fought between the Hutu regime (with support from Francophone nations of Africa, as well as France itself) and the rebel Tutsi exilees (with support from Uganda), after their invasion in 1990, was its catalyst. With outside assistance, in 1993, the Hutu regime and Tutsi rebels were able to agree to a cease-fire, and the preliminary implementation of the Arusha Accords. The diplomatic efforts to end the conflict were at first thought to be successful, yet even with the RPF (political wing of the RPA) and the government in talks, elites among the Akazu were against any agreement for cooperation between the regime and the rebels; to solve the ethnic and economic problems of Rwanda and progress towards a stable nationhood.

With a resurgence in the civil war and the support of the French for the Hutu regime against the Tutsi rebels, the genocide was to prove too difficult and volatile for the United Nations to handle. Ultimately, the invaders successfully brought the country under their sway, although their efforts towards a conclusion to the conflict were brought to a contravention after the French, under Operation Turquoise, established and maintained a "safe zone" for Hutu refugess to flee to, in the south-west. Eventually, after the UN Mandate of the French mission was at an end, millions of these people went across the borders, mainly to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The presence among the refugees of the genocidaires (see Great Lakes refugee crisis), on the border with Rwanda, was the cause for the First and Second Congo Wars, with clashes between these groups and the Rwandan government continuing even until today.

The UN's mandate states that they cannot intervene in the internal politics of any country unless the crime of Genocide was being committed. Unfortunately the United States refused to describe it as such. France, Belgium, and the United States in particular, still receive negative attention for their complacency towards the Hutu regime's activities and the potential for UNAMIR to save Rwandan lives. Canada, Ghana, and the Netherlands, did provide consistent support for the UN mission under the command of Roméo Dallaire, although it was left without an appropriate mandate for the capacity to intervene from the U.N. Security Council. Despite emphatic demands from UNAMIR's commanders in Rwanda, before and throughout the genocide, its requests for authorization to end it were refused and its interventional capacity was even reduced.


Map of Rwanda

In the fifteenth century the Tutsis were the rulers of most of today's Rwanda, with some Hutus among the nobility. Tutsis were a minority of the population, mostly herders, and the majority Hutus were mostly croppers. When the kings, known as Mwamis, began to centralize their administrations, they distributed land among individuals rather than agreeing for it to be held by the hereditary chieftains, who were mainly Hutu. Consequently, the aristocracy of Rwanda under the Mwamis were mainly Tutsi.

With Mwami Rwabugiri on the throne, Rwanda became an expansionist state. Its rulers did not bother to assess the ethnic identities of conquered peoples brought under their sway, simply labeling all of them “Hutu”. The “Hutu” identity, consequently, was to be a trans-ethnic one. Eventually, “Tutsi” and “Hutu” were seen to be economic distinctions, rather than particularly ethnic. In fact, there was social mobility between the Tutsis and Hutus, on the basis of hierachial status. One could kwihutura, or lose “Hutuness”, with the accumulation of wealth. Conversely, a Tutsi bereft of property could gucupira, or lose “Tutsiness”. Redistribution of land, between the 1860s and 1890s, resulted in its owners demanding manual labor in return for the right to occupy their property. This system of patronage, known as uburetwa, i.e. work for access to land, left Hutus in a serf-like status, with Tutsis as their feudal masters.

At the Berlin Conference of 1886, Rwanda and its neighbour Burundi, under a similar Tutsi-Hutu monarchial arrangement, were annexed by the Germans, with this state of affairs in effect until the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, when they were ceded to Belgium. The Belgians sought an explanation for the complex hierarchies they found in the colonies, and the simple distinction of Tutsi and Hutu, on the basis of race, rather than class, was theirs. The Belgians brought in identification cards for every Rwandan. These meant there was a continuation of preferential treatment for Tutsis over Hutus, on the basis of ethnic, rather than of economic, alignment.

A social revolution led by the Hutu nationalist party Parmehutu (Parti du Mouvement de l'Émancipation Hutu), in 1959, was the foundation of a Hutu-led republic of Rwanda, with independence in 1961. It was ultimately the first stage of the Rwandan Civil War. With the deaths of some 20,000 Tutsi, and exile of some 200,000 others, the Tutsi rebellion against the Hutu regime found its roots. Until the time of the genocide, there were sporadic killings of Tutsi citizens. In an official action between December 1963 and January 1964, roughly 14,000 Tutsis were killed after a rebel incursion into southern Rwanda. In 1973, with the political turmoil in neighboring Burundi, there was an influx of Hutus into Rwanda, while Grégoire Kayibanda, the founder of Parmehutu, and first president of the republic, and his army chief Juvenal Habyarimana began the institution of Committees of Public Safety, which led to several hundred deaths and an exodus of over a hundred thousand Tutsis from the country.

Civil war

The Tutsi refugee diaspora was by the late 1980s a coherent political and military organization. Large numbers of Tutsi refugees in Uganda had joined the victorious rebel National Resistance Movement during the Ugandan Bush War and made themselves a separate movement. This was similar to the NRM, with two parts, the political RPF and the military RPA. On the international stage this movement is known as the RPF.

In October, 1990, the RPF began their invasion of Rwanda to restore themselves within the nation. The journal Kangura, a Hutu counteraction towards the Tutsi journal Kanguka, active from 1990 to 1993, was instrumental in incitement of Hutu disdain for Tutsis, on the basis of their ethnicity, rather than their previous economic advantages. Hassan Ngeze, founder and editor of Kangura, published the widely read Hutu Ten Commandments, which called for the formal installment of Hutu Power ideology in schools, a strictly Hutu army, and included the commandment, "The Hutu should stop having mercy on the Tutsi."

In August 1993, the rebels and the Government of Rwanda signed the Arusha Accords, to end the civil war. The accords stripped considerable power from President Juvénal Habyarimana, who had been all-powerful. Most of the power was vested in the Transitional Broad Based Government (TBBG) that would include the RPF as well as the five political parties that had formed the coalition government, in place since April 1992, to govern until proper elections could be held. The Transitional National Assembly (TNA), the legislative branch of the transitional government, was open to all parties, including the RPF. The extremist Hutu Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), nominally controlled by President Habyarimana, was strongly opposed to sharing power with the RPF, however, and refused to sign the accords. When at last it decided to agree to the terms, the accords were opposed by the RPF. The situation remained unchanged until the genocide.

Preparations for the genocide

Government leaders were in communication with figures among the population, to form and arm militias called Interahamwe (meaning "Those who stand (fight, kill) together") and Impuzamugambi (meaning "Those who have the same (or a single) goal"). These groups, especially the youth wings, were to be responsible for most of the violence.

On January 11, 1994 Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire (UN Force Commander in Rwanda) notified Military Advisor to the Secretary-General, Major-General Maurice Baril of four major weapons caches and plans by the Hutus for extermination of Tutsis. The telegram from Dallaire stated that an informant who was a top level Interahamwe militia trainer was in charge of demonstrations carried out a few days before. The goal of the demonstrations was to provoke an RPF battalion in Kigali into firing upon demonstrators and Belgian United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) troops into using force. Under such a scenario the Interhamwe would have an excuse to engage the Belgian troops and the RPF battalion. Several Belgians were to be killed, which would guarantee a withdrawal of the Belgian contingent. According to the informant 1,700 Interhamwe militiamen were trained in Governmental Forces camps and he was ordered to register all the Kigali Tutsis. Dallaire made immediate plans for UNAMIR troops to seize the arms caches and advised UN Headquarters of his intentions, believing these actions lay within his mission's mandate. The following day headquarters stated in another cable that the outlined actions went beyond the mandate granted to UNAMIR under Security Council Resolution 872. Instead, President Habyarimana was to be informed of possible Arusha Accords violations and the discovered concerns and report back on measures taken. The January 11 telegram later played an important role in discussion about what information was available to the United Nations prior to the genocide.

The killing was well organized. By the time the killing started, the militia in Rwanda was 30,000 strong — one militia member for every ten families — and organized nationwide, with representatives in every neighbourhood. Some militia members were able to acquire AK-47 assault rifles by completing requisition forms. Other weapons, such as grenades, required no paperwork and were widely distributed. Many members of the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi were armed only with machetes, but these were some of the most effective killers.

Rwandan Prime Minister Jean Kambanda revealed, in his testimony before the International Criminal Tribunal, that the genocide was openly discussed in cabinet meetings and that "one cabinet minister said she was personally in favour of getting rid of all Tutsi; without the Tutsi, she told ministers, all of Rwanda's problems would be over." In addition to Kambanda, the genocide's organizers included Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, a retired army officer, and many top ranking government officials and members of the army, such as General Augustin Bizimungu. On the local level, the Genocide's planners included Burgomasters, or mayors, and members of the police.

Catalyst and initial events

On April 6, 1994, the airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu president of Burundi, was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali. Both presidents died when the plane crashed. Responsibility for the attack is disputed, with both the RPF and Hutu extremists being blamed. But in spite of disagreements about the identities of its perpetrators, the attack on the plane is to many observers the catalyst for the genocide.

On April 6 and April 7 the staff of the Rwandan Armed Forces (RAF) and Colonel Bagosora clashed verbally with the UNAMIR Force Commander Lieutenant General Dallaire, who stressed the legal authority of the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, to take control of the situation as outlined in the Arusha Accords. Bagosora disputed the authority, and Dallaire gave an escort of UNAMIR personnel to Mrs. Uwilingiyimana to protect her and to allow her to send a calming message on the radio the next morning. But by then, the presidential guard had occupied the radio station and Mrs. Uwilingiyimana had to cancel her speech. In the middle of the day, she was assassinated by the presidential guard. The ten Belgian UNAMIR soldiers sent to protect her were later found killed; Major Bernard Ntuyahaga was convicted of the murders in 2007. Other moderate officials who favored the Arusha Accords were quickly assassinated. Protected by UNAMIR, Faustin Twagiramungu escaped execution. In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, Dallaire recalled the events from April 7, the first day of the genocide:

I called the Force HQ and got through to [Ghanaian Brigadier General] Henry Anyidoho. He had horrifying news. The UNAMIR-protected VIPs - Lando Ndasingwa [the head of the Parti libéral], Joseph Kavaruganda [president of the constitutional court], and many other moderates had been abducted by the Presidential Guard and had been killed, along with their families [...] UNAMIR had been able to rescue Prime Minister Faustin, who was now at the Force HQ.


Skulls in Murambi Technical School

Numerous elite Hutu politicians have been found guilty for the organization of the genocide. Military and Hutu militia groups systematically set out to murder all the Tutsis they could capture, irrespective of their age or sex, as well as the political moderates. The western nations evacuated their nationals from Kigali and abandoned their embassies in the initial stages of the violence. National radio, with the exasperation of the situation, advised people to stay in their homes, and the Hutu power station RTLM broadcast vitriolic propaganda against Tutsis and Hutu moderates. Hundreds of roadblocks were put up by the militia around the country. Lieutenant-General Dallaire and UNAMIR were in Kigali, escorting Tutsis, and were unable to stop the Hutus from escalating their attacks. During this time, the Hutus also targeted Lieutenant-General Dallaire, and UNAMIR personnel through the RTLM.

The killing was quickly implemented throughout most of the country. The first to organize killings on the scale characterizing a genocide was the mayor of the northwestern town of Gisenyi, who on the evening of April 6th called a meeting to distribute arms and send out militias to kill Tutsis. Gisenyi was a centre of anti-Tutsi sentiment, both as the homeland of the akazu and as the refuge for thousands of people displaced by the rebel occupation of large areas in the north. While killing occurred in other towns immediately after Habyarimana's assassination, it took several days for them to become organized on the scale of Gisenyi. The major exception to this pattern was in Butare Province. In Butare, Jean-Baptiste Habyarimana was the only Tutsi prefect and the province was the only one dominated by an opposition party. Prefect Habyarimana opposed the genocide, resulting in the province becoming a haven of relative calm, until he was arrested and killed on April 19th. Finding the population of Butare lacking in enthusiasm for the killing, the government sent in militia members from Kigali and armed and mobilized the large population of Burundian refugees in the province, who had fled the Tutsi-dominated army fighting in the Burundian Civil War.

Murambi Technical School, where many victims were killed, is now a genocide museum.

Most of the victims were killed in their villages or in towns, often by their neighbors and fellow villagers. The militia members typically murdered their victims by hacking them with machetes, although some army units used rifles. The victims were often found hiding in churches and school buildings, where Hutu gangs massacred them. Ordinary citizens were called on by local officials and government-sponsored radio to kill their neighbors, and those who refused to kill were often killed themselves. "Either you took part in the massacres or you were massacred yourself." One such massacre occurred at Nyarubuye. On 12 April 1994, more than 1,500 Tutsis sought refuge in a Catholic church in Nyange, in then Kivumu commune. Local Interahamwe acting in concert with the priest and other local authorities then used bulldozers to knock down the church building. People who tried to escape were hacked down with machetes or shot. Local priest Athanase Seromba was later found guilty and sentenced to life in prison by the ICTR for his role in the demolition of his church and convicted of the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity. In another case, thousands sought refuge in Ecole Technique Officielle school in Kigali where Belgian UNAMIR soldiers were stationed. However, on 11 April 1994, Belgian soldiers withdrew from the school and members of the Rwandan armed forces and militia killed all the Tutsis who were hiding there.

There is no consensus on the number of dead between April 6 and mid-July. Unlike the genocides carried out by the Nazis or by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, authorities made no attempts to record deaths. The RPF government has stated that 1,071,000 were killed, 10% of whom were Hutu. Philip Gourevitch agrees with an estimate of one million, while the United Nations lists the toll as 800,000. Alex de Waal and Rakiya Omar of African Rights estimates the number as "around 750,000," while Allison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch states that it was "at least 500,000." James Smith of Aegis Trust notes, "What's important to remember is that there was a genocide. There was an attempt to eliminate Tutsis — men, women, and children — and to erase any memory of their existence."

UNAMIR and the international community

A school chalk board in Kigali. Note the names "Dallaire", UNAMIR Force Commander, and "Marchal", UNAMIR Kigali sector commander.

UNAMIR was hampered from the outset by resistance from numerous members of the United Nations Security Council from becoming deeply involved first in the Arusha process and then the genocide. Only Belgium had asked for a strong UNAMIR mandate, but after the murder of the ten Belgian peacekeepers protecting the Prime Minister in early April, Belgium pulled out of the peacekeeping mission.

The UN and its member states appeared largely detached from the realities on the ground. In the midst of the crisis, Dallaire was instructed to focus UNAMIR on only evacuating foreign nationals from Rwanda, and the change in orders led Belgian peacekeepers to abandon a technical school filled with 2,000 refugees, while Hutu militants waited outside, drinking beer and chanting " Hutu Power." After the Belgians left, the militants entered the school and massacred those inside, including hundreds of children. Four days later, the Security Council voted to reduce UNAMIR to 260 men.

Following the withdrawal of the Belgian forces, Lt-Gen Dallaire consolidated his contingent of Canadian, Ghanaian and Dutch soldiers in urban areas and focused on providing areas of "safe control". His actions are credited with directly saving the lives of 20,000 Tutsis. The administrative head of UNAMIR, former Cameroonian foreign minister Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, has been criticized for downplaying the significance of Dallaire's reports and for holding close ties to the Hutu militant elite.

The US government was reluctant to involve itself in the "local conflict" in Rwanda, and refused to even refer to it as "Genocide", a decision which President Bill Clinton later came to regret in a Frontline television interview in which he states that he believes if he had sent 5,000 US peacekeepers, more than 500,000 lives could have been saved.

The new Rwandan government, led by interim President Théodore 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. France, which felt the US and UK would use the massacres to try to expand their influence in that Francophone part of Africa, also worked to prevent a foreign intervention.

A French soldier, one of the international force supporting the relief effort for Rwandan refugees, adjusts the concertina wire surrounding the airport.

Finally, on May 17, 1994, the UN conceded that "acts of genocide may have been committed." By that time, the Red Cross estimated that 500,000 Rwandans had been killed. The UN agreed to send 5,500 troops to Rwanda, most of whom were to be provided by African countries. This was the original number of troops requested by General Dallaire before the killing escalated. The UN also requested 50 armoured personnel carriers from the U.S., but for the transport alone they were charged 6.5 million U.S. dollars by the U.S. Army. Deployment of these forces was delayed due to arguments over their cost and other factors.

On June 22, with no sign of UN deployment taking place, the Security Council authorized French forces to land in Goma, Zaire 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 arriving in areas only after the Tutsi had been forced out or killed. Operation Turquoise is charged with aiding the Hutu army against the RPF. The former Rwandan ambassador to France Jacques Bihozagara has testified, "Operation Turquoise was aimed only at protecting genocide perpetrators, because the genocide continued even within the Turquoise zone." France has always denied any role in the killing.

Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) renewed invasion

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) battalion of Tutsi rebels 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 resulting civil war raged concurrently with the genocide for two months. The nature of the genocide was not immediately apparent to foreign observers, and was initially explained as a violent phase of the civil war. Mark Doyle, the correspondent for the BBC News in Kigali, tried to explain the complex situation in late April 1994 thusly:

Look you have to understand that there are two wars going on here. There’s a shooting war and a genocide war. The two are connected, but also distinct. In the shooting war, there are two conventional armies at each other, and in the genocide war, one of those armies, the government side with help from civilians, is involved in mass killings.

The victory of the RPF rebels and overthrow of the Hutu regime ended the genocide in July 1994, 100 days after it started.


Refugee camp in Zaire, 1994

Approximately two million Hutus, participants in the genocide, and the bystanders, with anticipation of Tutsi retaliation, fled from Rwanda, to Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and for the most part Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo DRC). Thousands of them died in epidemics of diseases common to the squalor of refugee camps, such as cholera and dysentery. The United States staged the Operation Support Hope airlift from July to September 1994 to stabilize the situation in the camps.

After the victory of the RPF, the size of UNAMIR (henceforth called UNAMIR 2) was increased to its full strength, remaining in Rwanda until March 8, 1996.

In October 1996, an uprising by the ethnic Tutsi Banyamulenge people in eastern Zaire marked the beginning of the First Congo War, and led to a return of more than 600,000 to Rwanda during the last two weeks of November. This massive repatriation was followed at the end of December 1996 by the return of 500,000 more from Tanzania after they were ejected by the Tanzanian government. Various successor organizations to the Hutu militants operated in the eastern DRC for the next decade.

Wanted poster for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda

With the return of the refugees, the government began the long-awaited genocide trials, which had an uncertain start at the end of 1996 and inched forward in 1997. In 2001, the government began implementing a participatory justice system, known as Gacaca, in order to address the enormous backlog of cases. Meanwhile, the UN set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, currently based in Arusha, Tanzania. The UN Tribunal has jurisdiction over high level members of the government and armed forces, while Rwanda is responsible for prosecuting lower level leaders and local people. Tensions arose between Rwanda and the UN over the use of the death penalty, though these were largely resolved once Rwanda abolished its use in 2007. However, domestic tensions continued over support for the death penalty, and the interest in conducting the trials at home.

In March 1998, on a visit to Rwanda, U.S. President Bill Clinton spoke to the crowd assembled on the tarmac at Kigali Airport: "We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred" in Rwanda. Four years after the genocide, Clinton issued what today is known as the "Clinton apology," in which he acknowledged his failure to efficiently deal with the situation in Rwanda, but never formally apologized for any non-action by the U.S./international community.

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. In March 2000, after removing Pasteur Bizimungu, Paul Kagame became President of Rwanda. On August 25, 2003, Kagame won the first national elections since the RPF took power in 1994. A series of massive population displacements, a nagging Hutu extremist insurgency, and Rwandan involvement in the First and Second Congo Wars in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to hinder Rwanda's efforts.

Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire became the most well-known eyewitness to the genocide after co-writing the 2003 book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda describing his experiences with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Charges of revisionism

Graph showing the population of Rwanda from 1961 to 2003. (Data from U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization)

The context of the 1994 Rwandan genocide continues to be a matter of historical debate. There have been frequent charges of revisionism. Suspicions about United Nations and French policies in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994 and allegations that France supported the Hutus led to the creation of a French Parliamentary Commission on Rwanda, which published its report on December 15, 1998. In particular, François-Xavier Verschave, former president of the French NGO Survie, which accused the French army of protecting the Hutus during the genocide, was instrumental in establishing this Parliamentary commission. To counter those allegations, there emerged a "double genocides" theory, accusing the Tutsis of engaging in a "counter-genocide" against the Hutus. This theory is promulgated in Black Furies, White Liars (2005), the controversial book by French investigative journalist Pierre Péan. Jean-Pierre Chrétien, a French historian whom Péan describes as an active member of the "pro-Tutsi lobby," criticizes Péan's "amazing revisionist passion" ("étonnante passion révisioniste").

Political background

After its military victory in July 1994, the Rwandese Patriotic Front organized a coalition government similar to that established by President Juvénal Habyarimana in 1992. Called The Broad Based Government of National Unity, its fundamental law is based on a combination of the constitution, the Arusha accords, and political declarations by the parties. The MRND party was outlawed.

Political organizing was banned until 2003. The first post-war presidential and legislative elections were held in August and September 2003, respectively.

The biggest problems facing the government are reintegration of more than 2 million refugees returning from as long ago as 1959; the end of the insurgency and counter-insurgency among ex-military and Interahamwe militia and the Rwandan Patriotic Army, which is concentrated in the north and south west; and the shift away from crisis to medium- and long-term development planning. The prison population will continue to be an urgent problem for the foreseeable future, having swelled to more than 100,000 in the 3 years after the war. Trying this many suspects of genocide will tax Rwanda's resources sorely.

The current government prohibits any form of discrimination by ethnicity, race or religion. The government has also passed laws prohibiting emphasis on Hutu or Tutsi identity in most types of political activity.


  • Shake Hands with the Devil, a docudrama.
  • Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, a documentary.
  • Hotel Rwanda, a historical drama.
  • Shooting Dogs (called Beyond the Gates in the US), a historical drama.
  • Sometimes In April
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