Genocide never happens by chance. Events in Rwanda, 1994, were no exception. For over a century the context of ethnic separation was set. For over thirty years divisions deepened and the political divide widened. For more than three years the struggle for power provided the excuse for those wishing to bring disaster.

When it finally happened, in the region of 1,000,000 people were murdered. And only the killers were prepared for the bloodshed. This was not tribal conflict or civil war. This was 100 days of genocide.

By the time of the genocide in 1994, media in the West often portrayed Rwanda as consisting of warring tribes. But this was not so. Indeed the extreme ethnic polarisation is a relatively recent development. Hutu and Tutsi and the smaller Twa minority have lived in Rwanda for many centuries. Hutu were largely agricultural people, Tutsi were predominantly cattle herders and the Twa, hunter-gatherers. They spoke the same language, Kinyarwanda, and there was no difference in religion or culture. Substantial intermarriage took place. By 1994 at least 25% of Rwandans had mixed ancestry. Ethnic differences were magnified during the colonial era, but they were already apparent during the reign of Tutsi King Kigeri IV Rwabugiri, in the late 1800s, who centralised his power and developed structures that allowed Tutsi domination.
No massacres took place between the Hutu and Tutsi before 1959. In fact it was more likely that hostility would occur within competing factions of the same group than between Hutu and Tutsi.

Rwanda became a German colony in 1895 and remained so until the First World War. In 1916 the Germans retreated, leaving Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi under Belgian control. The relative harmony that existed between the Hutu and Tutsi was soon eroded after the European colonists arrived.

As elsewhere in the colonies, early explorers and anthropologists developed racial ideas in Rwanda. Because the Tutsi were generally taller and thinner than many Hutu, they suggested that the Tutsi had originated from a superior “caucasoid” race in the Nile valley. According to these racial evolutionary theories, known as ‘Hamitic ideology’, Tutsi were more like the European whites. Compared to the ‘Bantu’ Hutu majority, Tutsi were considered more intelligent and hard-working.

It served the purpose of the colonisers to maintain a Tutsi King and create a ruling class. Although only a minority of Tutsi derived benefit from this elevated status, it was generally they, and not Hutu, who were given privileged positions.

The Belgian authorities formalised division between Hutu and Tutsi, introducing identity cards to Rwanda in 1932. When the cards were issued, 15% were identified as Tutsi, 84% as Hutu and 1%, Twa.

In the years to come this ethnic identity determined much of an individual’s opportunity in Belgium’s Rwanda. By 1957 most of the school places, 95% of the country’s civil service and nearly all chiefs and sub-chiefs were Tutsi.

The Church, Politics and Race

During the 1920s, the Church became the dominant institution in Rwanda. Initially, official racism favouring the Tutsi was endorsed by the church. Respected Bishop Mgr. Classe, advising the Belgian government in 1930, stated: “The greatest mistake this government could make would be to suppress the Tutsi caste. We will have no better, more active and more intelligent chiefs than the Tutsi…. The government must work mainly with them”.
Towards the end of colonial rule, the Church reversed its position to favour the Hutu. Mgr. Perraudin was strongly pro-Hutu, encouraging the drafting of the ‘Hutu Manifesto’ by Grégoire Kayibanda in 1957. This document demanded political authority be transferred to the Hutu majority.

Political Landscape

The death in 1959 of Tutsi ruler King Rudahigwa sparked a violent uprising of Hutu, who killed thousands of Tutsi. Many Tutsi fled to neighbouring states for refuge. Three years later, in 1962, Rwanda gained independence from its Belgian rulers. Its first government was led by Hutu nationalist Grégoire Kayibanda, founder of the Parmehutu, a ‘movement for emancipation of the Hutu ethnic group’. Democratically elected in 1961, he promoted Hutu consciousness and unity. Rwanda became a highly centralised state with a single party system. In response to the first attempts from Tutsi in exile to regain power, massacres of Tutsi were once more carried out. Again, thousands of Tutsi fled Rwanda in order to escape death. The notion of an internal enemy developed during this period; the word ‘Inyenzi’, meaning cockroach, was coined to identify the Tutsi population.

Against a background of further discrimination against Tutsi, General Juvénal Habyarimana seized power through a coup d’état in July 1973, restoring order. As in the First Republic, he created a one-party state, legitimising only his own party, the Mouvement Révolutionnaire et National pour le Développement (MRND). He declared that all Rwandans were members of his party.

The regime’s stability attracted development aid from the West, and the general environment was free of unrest or state-sponsored persecution. Then, in 1986, coffee prices collapsed. As the economy deteriorated, the ruling Hutu elite – the ‘Akazu’ – tightened its grip on available wealth and political power.

At the same time, international donors began demanding financial and democratic accountability. In June 1990, following a meeting with chief foreign patron François Mitterrand of France, Habyarimana declared that a multi-party system would be established.

In 1991 several new political parties were formed, including the Mouvement Démocratique Republicain (MDR), a moderate Hutu opposition party later singled out for extreme violence, and the Coalition pour la Défense de la République (CDR), formed by Hutu radicals linked with death squads that had begun to train for, and carry out, massacres of Tutsi civilians.

Habyarimana’s MRND was responsible for establishing the Interahamwe, a flamboyant Hutu youth militia that gained enormous popularity. Advocating ‘Hutu Power’ and ‘Hutuness’ at the expense of Tutsi lives, their message was reinforced and spread by an extremist media.

RPF Invasion

Seven hundred thousand Tutsi were exiled between 1959-1973 in neighbouring countries. The Tutsi refugees had children. Despite negotiations they were prevented from returning. Many became soldiers in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). On 1 October 1990, the RPF invaded northern Rwanda.

This civil war resulted in the internal displacement of 300,000 Hutus, many of whom were held in internal refugee camps. Habyarimana used the country’s right to self defence from an ‘invading army’ and consolidated his diminishing support internally and externally in his bid to fight the war.

Every Tutsi civilian in Rwanda was branded a member of the RPF’s ‘fifth column’, as ethnic divisions were deepened by the Rwandan government’s talk of Tutsi conspiracies.

French forces were sent to protect Kigali, and stayed to support the Rwandan army. The French military assisted in training paramilitary groups, which later carried out Habyarimana’s genocidal policy.

Massacres of Tutsi were carried out in October 1990, January 1991, February 1991, March 1992, August 1992, January 1993, March 1993, and February 1994. None of the massacres constituted spontaneous outbreaks of violence. Death squads such as the ‘Zero Network’ were formed in 1991 with the close cooperation of Habyarimana.

Peace Process

After the invasion in 1990 by the RPF, efforts were made to resolve the civil war. Belgium and France, in particular, pressured President Habyarimana to negotiate with his opponents. Reluctantly, he first formed a coalition government with opposition parties in Rwanda in April 1992. The coalition then agreed to start talks with the RPF, facilitated by Tanzania’s President Julius Nyerere in Arusha.

The Arusha talks were thorough in addressing the issues of the civil war; power sharing, ethnic integration of the armed forces, resettlement of displaced persons and arrangements for elections would, it was hoped, lead to peace and stability.

A ceasefire, agreed in August 1992, collapsed two months later. This was strengthened and signed again in August 1993. The peace agreements worked on the premise that once the civil war between the Government and RPF was resolved, then the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi would also end.

They did not take into account that growing ethnic division, not the war, was the greatest threat. Solutions for this underlying problem were more difficult to find.

Hutu radicals increasingly hardened their resolve against the peace process. Concerned that the Arusha Accords would lead to true power sharing, ‘Hutu Power’ groups continued to massacre Tutsi civilians.

Despite being a well thought out initiative that had short-term success, Arusha had the opposite consequences from those intended. In their quest for democracy and ethnic equity, the negotiations persuaded the Akazu that unless it took decisive action, its days in power were numbered. Certain Hutu Power factions found any loss of power unacceptable. The conclusion the Akazu reached led to the planning of all-out extermination of Tutsi and other opponents.

Within this fertile ground, the well-intentioned peace process was used by the Hutu movement to deepen the furrow of ethnic division, in which they rapidly sowed the seeds of mass murder.


Propaganda became an important tool in conditioning the Hutu majority for acceptance of and participation in atrocities against the Tutsi. Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines was a popular radio station, initiated by members of the Government to spread hate propaganda. Its popular tone masked the highly inflammatory message. When the genocide was underway, Radio Mille Collines was used to incite hatred, give instructions and justify the killings.

More than twenty papers and journals incited hatred toward the Tutsi. Kangura, one of the leading propaganda papers, suggested that Hutu needed to prepare themselves as the Tutsi were preparing a war that would ‘leave no survivors’. As early as December 1990, Kangura had published the ‘Hutu Ten Commandments’, which stated that any Hutu interacting with Tutsi neighbours and friends was a traitor.

Eve of Genocide

A sequence of events took place prior to the genocide which demonstrate the process underway:

On the 21 October 1993 Hutu president of neighbouring Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated in an attempted coup. In the resulting bloodbath, 50,000 Hutu and Tutsi were murdered in tit-for-tat reprisal massacres. Over 800,000 Hutu refugees fled to Rwanda, Zaire and Tanzania. Habyarimana used the event to demonstrate that Tutsi could not be trusted. Whatever action was to be taken against the Tutsi would be disguised as an act of pre-emptive self-defence.

By the 3 December a Rwandan Army officer informed the UN of a ‘Machiavellian Plan’. As early as 27 December, a Belgian intelligence report states that ‘the Interahamwe are armed to the teeth… waiting for the right moment to act.’

On the 11 January 1994, General Dallaire faxed UN headquarters with information provided by a Hutu Power informer, who disagreed with the planned anti-Tutsi extermination and the registering of all Tutsi living in Kigali. The informer reported that there were 1700 trained men in Kigali, all armed. He stated that some of these could kill 1000 people in 20 minutes.

Extracts of Fax from General Dallaire / UNAMIR / Kigali to UN in New York:

11 January 1994

Force Commander [Dallaire] put in contact with informant by very very important government politician. Informant is a top-level trainer in the cadre of interhamwe-armed militia of MRND.

He informed us… they hoped to provoke… a civil war. Deputies were to be assassinated upon exit from Parliament. Belgian troops were to be
provoked and if Belgian soldiers resorted to force a number of them were to be killed and thus guarantee Belgian withdrawal from Rwanda.
He is paid RF 150,000 per month by the MRND party to train Interhamwe. Direct link is to chief of staff RGF (Rwandan Army) and President of the MRND for financial and material support. Since UNAMIR deployed he has trained 300 personnel in three-week training sessions at RGF camps. Principal aim of Interhamwe in the past was to protect Kigali from RPF.

Since UNAMIR mandate he has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali. He suspects it is for their extermination. Example he gave was that in 20 minutes his personnel could kill up to 1000 Tutsis.
Informant is prepared to provide location of major weapons cache… it is our intention to take action within the next 36 hours…
[and recommend] the informant is evacuated out of Rwanda… Wednesday will give greatest chance of success… Peux Ce Que Veux. Allons-y. (Where there’s a will there’s a way. Let’s go.)

The Genocide

President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on 6 April at 8.30pm Kigali time.

Immediately, Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and other moderate ministers were barricaded into their homes. Within an hour of the plane crash, Hutu militia had set up road blocks to stop Tutsi or moderate Hutu escaping. The killing of prominent Tutsi who had been on death lists was carried out immediately by some 1500 elite members of the Rwandan Armed forces.

On 7 April, Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana sought protection with the UN. The Prime Minister and her husband were found by the Presidential Guard and both were murdered.

The ten Belgian UN peacekeepers protecting her were removed, tortured and shot.

Belgium recalled its UN troops. In parallel with their primary objective, the extermination of all Tutsi, the first wave of killing was instigated to secure the power base of the radical Hutu leaders, who took only several days to make their position safe. Their targets included moderate government members and opposition party leaders; moderate Hutus of significance; critical voices within Rwandan society including journalists, jurists and human rights activists.

Theodore Sindikubwabo became President. Jean Kambanda was appointed Prime Minister. From then on, Kambanda effectively took control of the genocide. By 11 April, five days after Habyarimana’s death, 20,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu had already been killed in Kigali alone.

From 12 April the focus of killing was on the Tutsi. Large-scale massacres took place in churches, hospitals, schools and village streets. Tutsi were made to dig large graves and were buried alive. Many sought shelter in churches. Grenades were thrown in, and then the killers would walk in and shoot or hack the wounded.
Machetes, clubs with nails, axes, knives, poles, grenades and guns were used. Achilles tendons were cut to leave victims writhing in agony, awaiting their forthcoming fate immobilised. Guns were available, but rarely used as they were considered a painless means of killing.

When they started macheting [the children,] the mothers fell to the ground. The interahamwe started beheading the women…. If they found someone was alive, down came the machete which ended their life. They could not see me…. soaked in blood, they thought I was dead.
Beatrice Umamwezi

The genocide was to be complete; no survivors were to remain. Fields, forests, swamps and hills were all searched for escapees and survivors.
The genocide started in Kigali, but quickly spread through the network of Prefects, Burgomasters and local administrators. The efficient system of local government, and the chain of command from central government, worked effectively. Threats were issued to all non-compliant Hutu, followed by the killing of a number of Prefects, Burgomasters, priests, nuns, professionals and officials who disobeyed the instructions.

Most Rwandans were members of the Catholic Church or other Christian denominations. The spiritual and moral leadership of the clergy was important in conditioning the response of Christian people to the incitement to kill. There were a small number of clergy who carried out heroic acts of goodness. However, the virtual absence of any denunciation from Christian leaders on the whole, demonstrated tacit support for the genocide from the Christian Churches. The only religious community that refused to participate was the small Muslim community.

Teachers betrayed their own students and in some cases even murdered them. Doctors often refused to treat wounded Tutsi or dismissed them prematurely. Hospitals were known hunting grounds for the killers, who knew that injured escapees were likely to go there.

The massacres are systematic in nature. Whole families are exterminated – grandparents, parents and children. No one escapes, not even newborn babies… the victims are pursued to their very last refuge and killed there.
U.N. Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, 25 May 1994

The World Watches

The reaction of the international community was typified by its evacuation of foreign nationals at the beginning of the genocide, the evacuation of Belgian UN peacekeepers and the reluctance of national governments and international bodies to commit resources to relieve the suffering of the victims.
General Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda – UNAMIR – cabled New York shortly after the plane crash and stated, ‘Give me the means and I can do more’.

Dallaire calculated that he needed 5,000 troops to contain the potential violence that could erupt. At that time he had 1,260 troops under his command. On 12 April the UN Security Council passed a resolution stating that it was appalled at the ensuing large scale of violence in Rwanda, which had resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, including women and children. However, the same meeting voted to reduce the UNAMIR force to 270 personnel and to limit its mandate.

Two weeks into the conflict, the Red Cross identified this as a tragedy on a scale rarely witnessed. Meanwhile, at this time Rwanda had a seat on the Security Council at the UN, and was even able to vote on issues pertaining to Rwanda, while its own government was carrying out the genocide. It was decided that the numbers of UN troops in Rwanda were to be scaled down. It was only a week after this decision was made that Secretary General Boutros-Ghali realised that the focus had to be on stopping massacres, not brokering a ceasefire between the genocidaires and the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

“When they said ‘Never Again’ after the Holocaust, was this just a statement or was it meant for some people and not for others?” Apollon Kabahizi

On 17 May, the Security Council agreed to establish UNAMIR II with 5,500 men and the mandate to use all necessary force. It also imposed an arms embargo on Rwanda.

A critical feature of UNAMIR II was the provision by the United States of armoured personnel carriers (APCs). The transfer of the 50 vehicles became bogged down in leasing, shipping, painting and sticker arrangements, to the extent that it took more than one month for them to arrive in Uganda.
The only soldiers that did arrive in Rwanda before the genocide ended were French military during ‘Opération Turquoise’, ostensibly to create a ‘safe area’ between the conflicting sides. France had played an active role in arming and training the Rwandan armed forces during the civil war and many members of the Hutu militia saw the French as allies. Initially introduced to stop killing, ‘Opération Turquoise’ provided a gateway into Zaire for Hutu, including killers, fleeing the advancing RPF.

Awareness of failure to stop the genocide resulted in the strong, if sometimes uncoordinated, international response of aid agencies to cholera epidemics that hit Hutu refugee camps in Zaire immediately afterwards. The convention of providing relief for refugees (among them killers in the genocide) served to salve a Western conscience troubled by the absence of political response.

Post-Genocide Justice

There is currently more than one justice process under way in Rwanda. International tribunal and domestic process both play a part in attempting to fight impunity in a land scarred by the memories of mass murder.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) began formal proceedings in November 1995. Based in Arusha, Tanzania, after four years of work, twenty-eight indictments were issued and only seven accused convicted. Two thousand cases have been disposed.

The ICTR is judging the main architects of the Rwandan genocide, but the bulk of the prosecution is left to the Rwandan national legal system. Rwanda passed a law specifically for the punishment of genocide in 1996. Despite the immense difficulties, the foundation is being laid to build trust and reconciliation.

Gacaca, meaning ‘Justice on the Grass’, is a blend of traditional and modern mechanisms in lower level tribunals, designed to reduce the vast caseload. Local tribunals, inspired by a traditional mechanism for local dispute resolution, have been introduced. These ‘meetings’ are convened whenever the need arises, and seek to restore social order by reaching a reconciliation which is acceptable and satisfactory to both parties. Gacaca was developed for settling community disputes and transgressions, not for judging genocidaires. Time will tell whether it can adapt to deal with such huge crimes.

“After 1994, the Tutsi want justice above all else, and the Hutu want democracy above all else. The minority fears democracy. The majority fears justice. The minority fears democracy is a mask for finishing an unfinished genocide.”
Mahmood Mamdani, Ugandan scholar


The end of the killing was not the end of the genocide. Its consequences will continue for several generations in the families and individuals torn apart by the murders. There were 7,000,000 people living in Rwanda before the genocide, about 930,000 Tutsi. At its conclusion, 85 % of the Tutsi had perished, and much of the Hutu population had fled to neighbouring countries.

Most Tutsi families that were resident in Rwanda at the time of the genocide were affected, with members of the family murdered, maimed, raped or psychologically overwhelmed by events. The country had been decimated by the violence, and rotting bodies were strewn across the countryside. Some 150,000 homes had also been destroyed.

Many parents had been separated from children; many children were orphaned. Five years after the end of the genocide, 300,000 children live in a household without an adult head, and over one third of all households are headed by a female, with no male adult in it.

Women and children are consequently dealing with the effects of the genocide, earning the household living and rearing the post-genocide generation.

Support for survivors from external sources has been ambient and minimal. The focus on development has been the stabilisation of the economy and political environment, with survivors largely left to arrange their own rehabilitation.

Post-traumatic assistance has been minimal, considering the vast numbers of people who witnessed multiple deaths of close family members.

There are three main groups in Rwanda today: surviving Tutsi, returning Tutsi (those who had been away for more than a generation) and Hutu.
It is true that most Hutu living in Rwanda today never murdered Tutsi, as the activists were a relatively small proportion of the 6,000,000 Hutu in Rwanda during the genocide. However, many would have known or played indirect roles. Reconciliation and trust between all three groups is therefore hard to foster, as there are such discrepancies in their experiences.

Denial of the genocide is already a feature of the cultural environment, as many Hutu see denial as an effective means to avoid guilt by association. This only serves to inflame resentment from the survivors and other Tutsi, for whom the genocide is now an unavoidable feature of their cultural, political and social context.

“Look at these human beings, with their wounds hidden in the silence.” Yolande Mukagasana

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