The Rwandan genocide occurred between 7 April and 15 July 1994, during which members of the ethnic minority, Tutsis, were sought out and systematically slaughtered by armed militia and extremists belonging to the ethnic majority Hutus. Moderate Hutus and anyone suspected of sheltering Tutsis were also killed. Today, the Rwandan genocide is among the most well known examples of a systematically planned genocide based on long-standing ethnic divisions.
By 1994, Rwanda’s population of 7 million was divided into three ethnic groups, consisting of 85% Hutus, 14% Tutsis and 1% Twa. There is a long history of tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis, despite speaking the same language, sharing many traditions and living side-by-side. In 1899, Rwanda was colonised by the German Empire, but this only lasted a short period of time before the German empire’s defeat in World War I. Under a mandate from the League of Nations, Rwanda was absorbed into the Belgian colonial empire. Today, historians widely accept that the Belgian colonial authorities were responsible for racialising the ethnic differences between Hutus and Tutsis. The authorities favored the Tutsis and allowed them several educational and economic advantages; requiring all Rwandans to carry identity cards revealing their ethnicity – a practice which was to become deadly for the Tutsis during the genocide.
In 1962, Rwanda gained independence from Belgium and a Hutu-dominated government was set up. This post-colonial period was marked by ethnic violence and discrimination against Tutsis, causing them to flee the country and settle in neighbouring Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo). By the mid-1960s, about half the Tutsi population had fled, and had to remain in exile for the next three decades.
In the 1980s, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was formed by a group of Tutsi refugees in Uganda, who were trained in the ranks of the Ugandan army. These soldiers, led by Fred Rwigyema and his deputy Paul Kagame (current President of Rwanda) began planning an invasion of Rwanda.
1990-1994: Rwandan Civil War and the Hutu Power Movement
In October 1990, a force of over 4000 members of the RPF advanced into Rwanda, and France and Zaire quickly deployed forces to support the Rwandan army in repelling the invasion. The first phase of the war lasted for two years until a ceasefire was reached in June 1992 and the RPF (now led by Kagame) began negotiations with the Rwandan government in Arusha, Tanzania. Subsequently, the Arusha Accords were signed in August 1993 and a power-sharing agreement was reached, angering a substantial number of Hutu extremist leaders.
Ethnic tensions continued to grow during this period, with the Hutus accusing Tutsis of supporting the RPF and blaming them for the social, economic and political pressures that Rwanda was facing. After the RPF invasion, then-President Juvenal Habyarimana and other Hutu extremists exploited civilians’ fears to advance an anti-Tutsi propaganda campaign, known as the Hutu Power Movement. For example, a group of army officers and politicians founded the popular magazine Kangura, which published anti-Tutsi propaganda such as the Hutu Ten Commandments, which issued guidelines for ethnic separation and labelling any Hutu who married or defended a Tutsi as a “traitor”. A private radio station, the Radio RTLM, disseminated popular messages characterising Tutsis and their supporters as “subhuman” and “cockroaches”.
Violence continued to escalate against this background, as extremist leaders began secretly creating lists of Tutsi and moderate Hutu targets. They also began arming civilians with weapons such as machetes, and training youth militias – the most notable of which was the paramilitary organisation Interhamwe, who were to become the main perpetrators of the genocide. These militias carried out small-scale massacres during this period, which were claimed to be spontaneous and uncontrollable killings by the Rwandan government. The international law community characterised the violence as part of an internal conflict.
Assassination of President Habyarimana
On 6 April 1994, an airplane carrying President Habyarimana and the President of Burundi, Ntaryamira (both Hutus) was shot down when landing in Kigali (Rwanda’s capital), killing everyone on board. The perpetrators of the attack were disputed, and both RPF members and Hutu extremists were blamed.
The assassination proved to be the catalyst event that sparked the genocide, as the slaughters began within hours of Habyarimana’s death.
The Rwandan genocide
Hutu extremists immediately began killing any moderate political leaders in the government, such as the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana. This ensured that there was no moderate leader available to assume control of Rwanda in the ensuing power vacuum. Thousands of people were killed in their homes and streets, often by their own neighbours, and those who were caught helping the Tutsis were also sought out and killed. The militias, backed and equipped by government forces, erected checkpoints and barricades to screen the IDs of Rwandans which specified their ethnicity, thus allowing them to identify and kill Tutsis.
A number of Hutu civilians were also recruited and equipped with machetes, clubs and blunt instruments; and the authorities encouraged them to maim and kill their Tutsi neighbours and to destroy their property. A large number of killings in the countryside were carried out by civilians under orders by local leaders – there were even instances of Hutu husbands killing their Tutsi wives. Some priests and nuns have also been convicted of murder, as many victims were those who took refuge in their churches. Many Hutu civilians were also killed for reasons ranging from alleged sympathy with Tutsis, being journalists, or “appearing” to be Tutsis. The genocide also saw widespread sexual violence against both men and women. An estimated 250,000 – 500,000 women were raped during this period, with many being mutilated or kept as slaves.
Large groups of Tutsis and moderate Hutus fled to traditional places of refuge, including churches, schools and government buildings – but due to the involvement of Rwandan authorities and armed forces in the genocide, these quickly became sites of massacres. For example, more than 2500 Tutsis took refuge at the Ecole Technique Officielle (ETO) school in Kigali during the early days of the genocide, where Belgium UN troops were stationed. On April 11,1994, the troops withdrew from the school under orders to evacuate Americans and Europeans. Subsequently, Rwandan armed forces and militias entered and killed most of the Tutsis hiding there – and those who survived were taken to a gravel pit and immediately killed.
During the lead-up to the genocide, the international community labelled the Rwandan war and ensuing genocide as an internal conflict and largely discouraged intervention. International journalists on the ground also portrayed the conflict as a civil war, failing to highlight the intentional killing of civilians and the planned nature of the genocide. The US was determined not to get involved in the conflict, since a number of American troops had been killed during an incident in Somalia a year prior.
In December 1993, General Romeo Dallare, Commander of the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda, warned his superiors that there was a planned campaign of genocide due to occur. Throughout January 1994, General Dallaire continued to request a stronger mandate and an increased number of troops in Rwanda, but was repeatedly denied. After the killings began in April, the UN Security Council voted to reduce their peacekeepers from 2500 to 270, leaving General Dallaire with limited personnel and equipment, and almost no external support. Because most UN members evacuated after the genocide began, there were only a few humanitarian aid groups left.
Over the course of the genocide, an estimated 800,000 people were killed by extremists, and more than 200,000 people participated or were perpetrators of the killings.
The genocide was brought to an end when the RPF marched into Kigali and took control of the country on 4 July 1994. An estimated 2 million Hutu civilians (as well as perpetrators) fled into Zaire shortly after, fearing revenge attacks. These refugee camps were extremely crowded and squalid, leading to thousands of deaths from disease epidemics such as cholera and dysentery. Although set up by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the camps were controlled by many leaders of the former Hutu regime who had been responsible for the genocide.
This shifted the violence from Rwanda to DR Congo, as the RPF-led government in Rwanda and the Hutu militants in the camps were regularly launching cross-border incursions by 1996, sparking the First Congo War and later the Second Congo War in 1998. It is estimated that over 5 million people died in this conflict, which lasted until 2003 – violence in the Congo still continues today. The RPF and the Rwandan army has been accused of committing mass human rights violations and crimes against humanity in these wars – charges which Paul Kagame and the Rwandan government have denied.
Justice and accountability
In the international sphere, the Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), carrying out prosecutions and trials in Arusha. The ICTR delivered its first conviction on September 2 1998, accusing a town mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, of inciting and leading acts of violence. The ICTR is also known for a landmark case ruling, which prosecuted 3 journalists for using the media to spread hate speech, further inciting violence. Such a charge hadn’t occurred since the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. The ICTR has indicted 93 senior officials for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Within Rwanda itself, the broader problem of justice and reconciliation within the community had to be confronted. Over 40% of the population had either been killed or had fled; and the majority of those remaining had lost their families, witnessed killings or had participated in the genocide. Longer-term effects of the genocide included sexually-transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies as a result of rape, psychological problems and dire poverty. Hundreds of thousands of people (many of them ordinary civilians) were still awaiting trial. Subsequently, small community courts (known as gacacas) were set up across towns and villages. Until 2012, 12,000 gacaca courts met once a week across the country, and have tried over 1.2 million cases, attracting praise and international attention for successfully pursuing a campaign of reconciliation.
Today, the government has made it illegal to discuss ethnicity in Rwanda, with the aim of preventing hate speech and further bloodshed. President Kagame, who took office in 2000, has been hailed for transforming the country, encouraging economic growth and programmes to empower women. Rwanda holds two public holidays in remembrance of the genocide; and on 7 April, the government initiated 100 days of mourning to observe the 25th anniversary of the genocide. Although the government continues to face accusations of authoritarianism and human rights abuses in the DR Congo, it is undeniable that the government and civilians alike have made considerable efforts to rebuild the economy, infrastructure and create an inclusive community which downplays ethnic distinctions.
Rwanda genocide: 100 days of slaughter – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-26875506
Rwanda country profile – https://www.sahistory.org.za/place/rwanda#:~:text=The%20Belgian%20colonial%20occupation%20had,effect%20in%20Rwanda%5Bv%5D.&text=This%20violence%20culminated%20into%20the,in%20the%20killings%5Bvii%5D
Rwanda 1990-1994 – https://www.ushmm.org/genocide-prevention/countries/rwanda/case-study/background/divided-by-ethnicity
America’s secret role in the Rwandan genocide – https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/sep/12/americas-secret-role-in-the-rwandan-genocide
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Author: Nikita Nandanwad
Editor: Kelsey Greeff
Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik