The Rwandan Genocide represents one of the largest explosions of mass violence in modern history. Over the course of a 100 day period between April and July 1994, as many as a million ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu men, women, and children were slaughtered by members of the Hutu majority.
Rapes and subsequent outbreaks of HIV coupled with the mass migrations of Hutus after the genocide has had disastrous consequences for Rwanda and the Great Lakes region of Africa.
For its part, the Rwandan Genocide is seen as a total failure of the international community with accusations of many western powers that they sat idly by as it was carried out. These claims have led to a re-evaluation of the global response to mass atrocities like that in Rwanda and a reorganization of global efforts.
Rwanda before the Genocide
The Hutus and Tutsis have been the dominant tribes in Rwanda for centuries. It’s unclear which tribe came to Rwanda first, but evidence indicates the Hutus and Tutsis had settled in Rwanda at least 600 years ago and as long ago as 2700 years ago.
For much of the region’s history, the Hutu and Tutsi communities lived in relative peace, often trading with one another. Ethnic identity was seen as a fluid concept only to be later fossilized by Belgian introduction and insistence of identity cards.
In the aftermath of World War I, Belgium was given colonial control over what would be Rwanda. This saw the nation move from being a German province to a colony. After World War II, Belgium was mandated by the United Nations to oversee the path to the country’s independence. The Belgian government heavily favored the Tutsi minority, upsetting a delicate balance that had existed in Rwanda.
This same period also saw the Hutus begin consolidating their power, casting the Tutsis as a second class group. They expounded a racist ideology, initially propagated by Germany and later Belgium, that the Tutsis were a recent immigrant group and were inferior to the Hutu majority. This theory would be used to incite the genocide in 1994.
The Rwandan Revolution (1959-61) coincided with Rwanda’s independence and saw mass violence take hold of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Hutus and Tutsis were massacred. The conflicts ended with the Hutus keeping control of the country and Tutsi rebels fled to neighboring countries. They would return in 1990 when violence sparked again. A multinational effort led to the Arusha Accords, which brought relative peace to Rwanda. This peace would not last a year.
For more information on Rwanda prior to the genocide, check out:
- Rwanda: A Brief History of the Country: The politics and tribal interactions in Rwanda in the years preceding the genocide
- Life before the Genocide: Brief review of Rwandan history
- Rwanda: The Failure of the Arusha Accords: The failure of the international community and the Arusha Accords (George Washington University)
- When Victims become Killers by Mahmood Mamdani
Inciting the Genocide
In the months and weeks before the genocide began, Hutu radicals began compiling lists of potential Tutsi targets. In addition, the Hutu dominated government began stockpiling weapons, including machetes. These weapons would be the tools that carried out the genocide. In mid-1993, the Hutu radicals launched their own radio channel, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM). The channel would be used to incite hatred towards the Tutsi by using propaganda and racist ideology.
With the passage of the Arusha Accords, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was created. In January 1994, just weeks after arriving in Rwanda, the UN Commander sent a memo to the UN Security Council warning about the increase in violence between the Hutus and Tutsis. The warning went largely unheeded.
On April 6th, an airplane carrying Juvénal Habyarimana, the President of Rwanda, and the Burundi President, both Hutus, was shot down, killing both. The assassination was blamed on the Tutsi minority. The radical Hutu radio channel, RTLM, announced the deaths, urging the Hutus to attack the Tutsi population. The genocide would begin only hours after the assassination and shortly after Hutus attacked members of UNAMIR.
For more information about inciting the genocide, check out:
- The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda: The 1993-1996 United Nations peacekeeping mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR)
- Radio in the Rwandan Genocide: Radio’s role in inciting the genocide, including sample programming (Duke University)
- The Role of Media in Inciting the Rwandan Genocide: The use of media to incite the genocide (Minerva Center for Human Rights)
- The Rwanda File: Database of RTLM radio broadcasts from July 8, 1993 to July 31, 1994
Within a few hours of the assassination of the President, the Rwandan military, dominated by Hutu radicals, took control. In several cities across the country, they urged Hutus to kill every Tutsi they came across.
The effective use of propaganda created a Hutu population that followed instruction with deadly efficiency. The stockpiling of weapons meant that thousands of Rwandans were armed with machetes and other close quarter weapons.
Although the genocide’s timeline is considered to be April 7–July 15, the majority of the killings occurred within the first 6 weeks. An estimated 800,000 people were killed by mid-May. The accelerated pace of the killings even outpaced the Holocaust. The Rwandan Genocide is also noteworthy because of the lack of centrality accompanying it. Unlike the efficiency seen in the Holocaust or Cambodian Genocide, the killings in Rwanda were more reliant on individuals acting out orders from a central command. This often meant victims would have known their attackers personally, adding to gruesomeness of the genocide.
Tutsi women were specifically targeted for violence. Hutu propaganda had portrayed Tutsi women as being sexually available. This appealed to the Hutu desire to create an ethnically Hutu-homogenous state. Rape was systematic. After the genocide subsided, an outbreak of HIV swept through Rwanda, which continues to leave its mark on the country.
After mid-May, the killings began to slow. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi group initially blamed for the genocide, gradually took back significant parts of the country. By July, the RPF pushed the sitting government out of the country and the genocide finally came to a close. Today, the 4th of July is a holiday that commemorates the end of the genocide.
For more information about the genocide, check out:
- The Genocide Archive of Rwanda: Resource for photos, stories, and more about the genocide
- The Triumph of Evil: Stories, timelines, and additional readings (PBS Frontline)
- We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (1999) by Philip Gourevitch: Analysis of the genocide and its causes
Voices of Rwanda is dedicated to recording and preserving testimonies of Rwandans, and to ensuring that their stories inform the world about genocide and inspire a global sense of responsibility to prevent human rights atrocities.
USC Shoah Foundation institute for Visual History and Education is now a repository for visual history from the genocide in Rwanda.
Awareness of the Genocide
In many episodes of mass violence, there is some warning of impending violence. The genocide in Rwanda exemplifies this. The international community’s lack of willingness to intervene to prevent the genocide represents a complete failure of the UN and its mandate in Rwanda. Despite warnings from the UNAMIR commander, no relief was sent to the country. In addition, the use of Belgian troops for the UN mission violated UN regulations banning colonial powers from providing troops to missions in former colonies.
Once the genocide began, European powers sent troops in to pull out their citizens, but did not provide relief for UNAMIR or assist in helping end the violence.
For its part, the United States was slow to respond to the genocide. Although the United State sided with the Tutsi and provided support for the RPF, it would not allow US troops to be sent to Rwanda and advocated ending UNAMIR. The American inaction in Rwanda is largely attributed to the failure of the US in Somalia earlier in President Clinton’s term. The President and his advisers wanted to avoid another potential failure on the African continent. For his part, President Clinton would call his decision to ignore Rwanda one of his biggest regrets of his presidency. The lack of response from the US and other countries contributed to significant death toll.
For more information on the reaction to the genocide, check out:
- Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Roméo Dallaire: An account of the genocide from the 1st commander of the UNAMIR peacekeeping forces
- "The US and the Genocide in Rwanda 1994: Evidence of Inaction" by William Ferroggiaro: The failure of the US to intervene in the genocide
Justice and Accountability
Bringing justice to those responsible for the genocide was enormously difficult in Rwanda. More than two-thirds of the judges in Rwanda before the genocide had either fled the country or were killed. Less than 100 lawyers were still practicing in the country. This would have placed a heavy burden on any justice system, but there were an estimated 130,000 individuals who had been involved in the genocide and were awaiting trial. In the years after the genocide, trials were an agonizingly slow process. To speed along the process, Rwanda introduced the Gacaca courts. These courts were designed to carry some of the load for trials normal courts were too busy to handle. The local courts were instrumental in gaining a greater understanding of the truth behind the genocide as well as beginning the healing process. An estimated one million cases were heard at the Gacaca courts, with many people found guilty facing punishments like community service or monetary payments to victims.
In late 1994, the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) which was charged with investigating the events of the genocide and bringing charges against the individuals most responsible for it happening. As of the end of the year, the ICTR has indicted 95 individuals, including an interim Prime Minister of Rwanda and the two men who ran the Hutu radio station that had incited the genocide. The trials began in 1997 and were originally supposed to end in 2004, but changes to the court’s mandates have led to several extensions of its deadline.
For more information about justice and accountability following the Rwandan Genocide, check out:
- Rwanda’s Justice System: The various means used to bring perpetrators of the genocide to trial (United Nations)
- Gacaca Justice System: Rwanda Quest for Justice in the post Genocide Era: The Rwandan use of the Gacaca courts as an alternative to traditional trials
- The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda