rwanda-genocideThe Rwandan genocide is one of the heaviest moments in human history. An airplane crash in 1994 carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi provided a spark for an organized campaign of violence against the Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians across the country.

Approximately 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates were slaughtered in a carefully organized program of genocide over 100 days, making history as the quickest killing spree the world has ever seen.

Genocide Begins

Civil war broke out in Rwanda in 1990, exacerbating existing tensions between the Tutsi minority and Hutu majority. The civil war began when Rwandan exiles formed a group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and launched an offensive against Rwanda from their home base in Uganda.

The RPF, which was comprised of mostly Tutsis, placed blame on the government for failing to address the Tutsi refugees. All Tutsis in the country were characterized as accomplices of the RPF and all Hutu members of the opposition parties were deemed traitors. Despite the opposition forces reaching a peace agreement in 1992, political negotiations continued in attempts to achieve harmony between the Tutsis and Hutus.

On April 6th 1994, as Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana returned from a round of talks in neighboring Tanzania, he was killed when his plane was shot down outside of the country’s capital, Kigali.

Soldiers inspect the wreckage of the plane shot down April 6, 1994, killing Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira. Photo by Corinne Dufka/HRW

Soldiers inspect the wreckage of the plane shot down April 6, 1994, killing Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira. Photo by Corinne Dufka/HRW

Following the crash, the U.S. Deputy Assistance Secretary of State warned of “the strong likelihood that widespread violence could break out.”

The president’s death provided a spark for an organized campaign of violence against Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians across the country. In just a matter of hours, Hutu rebels surrounded the capital and took over the streets of Kigali. Within a day, the Hutus had successfully eliminated Rwanda’s moderate leadership. As the weeks progressed, Tutsis and anyone suspected of having any ties to a Tutsi, were killed.

The political vacuum enabled Hutu extremists to take control of the country. Detailed lists of Tutsi targets were prepared in advance and government radio stations called upon Rwandans to murder their neighbors. These specific lists included names, addresses and sometimes license plates. Through radio hate speech, people were encouraged to take the streets and exterminate those who matched the list.

The Power of the Radio

Reenacting a radio brodcast from Rwanda's Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) in a performance of "Hate Radio."

Reenacting a radio brodcast from Rwanda’s Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) in a performance of “Hate Radio.

The radio was utilized to not only list the location of specific Tutsis to be targeted, but to also justify the genocide. Radio hosts discussed discrimination the Hutus suffered under the power of the Tutsis. Strong connotations describing Hutus as slaves during colonization painted the Rwandan genocide as a type of slave rebellion. Radio stories were used to anger the Hutus and channel that anger into action. Radio was also used to dehumanize Tutsis by calling them “cockroaches,” making acts of violence against them seem less inhumane.

The extremist Hutus strategy turned into an extermination campaign as they began to encounter resistance from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi rebel group. The RPF fought back as the violence grew more severe, creating a toxic mix of both civil war and genocide. In response, the Hutus changed their strategy, believing if the opposition was completely exterminated, their majority power and status would be reassured and preserved. Thus, they set out to get rid of the Tutsis completely.

In addition to the brutal mass killings, systematic rape was also widely used as a weapon of war during the Rwandan genocide. The exact number is unknown, but it is estimated that between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped. It was considered another way to destroy the Tutsi ethnic group, through both the emotional pain (so the woman could “die of sadness”), and through the health problems that would be a result. Often times, women did not even have to succumb to the aftermath of rape as they were often immediately killed right after.

Over the course of the 100 days, the RPF began to make gains on both the battlefield and in the negotiations led by Tanzania. By early July, the RPF had control of the majority of the country. Fearing reprisal killings, hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled the country.

Who Are the Hutus and Tutsis?

Rwanda is composed of three main ethnic groups: Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. Nearly 85% of the population identified as Hutu, making it the majority group in Rwanda. Tutsi comprised 14% of the population and Twa made up 1%.

The colonial power, Belgium, believed that the Tutsi were superior to the Hutu and the Twa and put the Tutsis in charge of Rwanda. At the end of colonial rule, however, Belgium began giving more power to the Hutus. As the Hutus gained more leverage, they began to drive the Tutsis out of Rwanda and significantly lowered the population of Tutsis in the country.

Precursors to Genocide

Ethnic tensions existed in Rwanda for centuries, growing even more extreme after Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962. In the 1990’s, the Hutu political elite blamed the Tutsi population for increasing political, social, and economic problems in the country. They also associated Tutsi civilians with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel group.

Many Hutus resented the Tutsi, as they were typically considered the elite and had ruled the country for decades. As a result, they also feared the Tutsi and were determined to hold on to their own power. When President Habyarimana’s (a Hutu) plane crashed, Hutu extremists assumed it was the Tutsis who shot it down. Immediately, Hutus set out to destroy the entire Tutsi population and seek revenge on the power that had always been deemed the elite.

The Response

From the beginning, despite claiming to be caught unaware by the killings, the United States and international community knew of the danger and disorder in Rwanda. But no actions were taken to stop the killings. Months before the killing began, General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN Peacekeepers in Rwanda, sent a now infamous “genocide fax”, warning of an “anti-Tutsi extermination” plot.

The media covered eyewitness accounts and direct stories from missionaries who were unable to save their Rwandan friends from inevitable death. Stories hit the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, even with descriptions of six foot high piles of corpses. There were Defense Intelligence Agency reports that stated the killings were directly administrated by the government and intelligence memos that reported the ringleaders of the genocide.

The United States

rwanda-wapo-headlineDespite these reports, President Clinton specifically avoided calling the massacre genocide to avoid U.S. involvement. The Clinton administration held on to the idea that there were no U.S. interests in Rwanda, so it was not their place to intervene. They also believed that U.S. credibility would be diminished if they deemed Rwanda acts of genocide and then did not step it to intervene.

A senior U.S. official described the decision to not intervene in Rwanda as “a foregone conclusion.” Military intervention was not on the table for discussion; it was automatically concluded that the United States would not take part in stopping the Rwandan genocide.

The International Community

International leaders also refused to use their authority to challenge the legitimacy of the genocidal government. When disapproval was finally voiced, the perpetrators in Rwanda did not stop the killing. The whole world saw what was happening, yet refused to step in.

A UN peacekeeping operation (UNAMIR) was sent to Rwanda in April. The mission, however, failed to be sufficient and was extremely ill equipped. There was a lack of functioning vehicles and the ones that were available were hand-me-downs. Medical quickly supplies ran out with no money to restock and other supplies could rarely be replaced.

The United States was the main proponent in backing the UNAMIR’s exit of Rwanda. U.S. officials felt that a small peacekeeping mission would result in a large and costly war for Americans. Belgium joined the United States in calling for a full UN exit in April of 1994. The Security Council later voted in mid-May to send 5,000 troops back to Rwanda after reports that the genocide spread. However, by the time the force returned, the genocide had long been over.

Those in power at the time claim that the information available was overlooked in the confusion of the civil war and the rapidity with which the genocide unfolded. But newly released archived materials of discussions within the U.S. government and the UN Security Council suggest more could and should have been done to prevent and respond to the Rwanda genocide.

The Aftermath

When the killing stopped, the RPF established a coalition government with Pasteur Bizimungu (a Hutu) as president and Paul Kagame (a Tutsi) as vice president and defense minister.

The UN also reinstated and revamped the UNAMIR operation in Rwanda, which remained there until March 1996. UNAMIR provided humanitarian relief in the aftermath of the genocide.

The outflow of former genocidaire’s across the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo has had lasting effects that continue to reverberate in the region today.

The effect that the genocide posed on the people of Rwanda is immeasurable. The people were tortured and terrorized as they saw those they love die and feared the loss of their own life. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 children were orphaned, abducted or abandoned. Twenty-six percent of the Rwandan population still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder today.

In 1994, the United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), dedicated to bringing those responsible for the genocide to justice. Although slow-moving, the ICTR began trying and indicting perpetrators in 1995.

The United Nations conducted more than 70 tribunal cases and Rwandan courts have tried up to 20,000 individuals. However, trying individuals in courts proved to be a challenging process as the location of many perpetrators was unknown.

To deal with the thousands of accused and to foster reconciliation, the traditional community court system known as “Gacaca” was used, leading to over 1.2 million cases being tried. The ICTR has also determined that the widespread rapes committed during the Rwandan genocide may also be considered an act of torture and genocide on their own. The ICTR closed at the end of 2014.


“Rwanda can be a paradise again, but it will take the love of the entire world…and that’s as it should be, for what happened in Rwanda happened to us all – humanity was wounded by the genocide.”
– Immacuée Ilibagiza, Rwandan author