Rwanda, 1994— a painful memory that still torments the world. It haunts the many Tutsi and Hutu who lost their families, friends, lives, and, for some, moral identity. It weighs heavily upon the humanitarian workers as another black splotch in the repertoire of good intentions gone awry because of hopeless situations and insufficient efforts. It plagues the policy makers, who cannot escape the bitterness of failure that lingers as a brutal reminder of the weight of their duty and the severe consequences of stagnant, ineffective politics and poor decision making.
For those who weren’t directly affected by the tragedy, however, it remains a blur of horrible, fleeting images and facts too confusing to interpret and too awful to fathom. But twenty years ago this week an atrocious event began, one of the worst genocidal slaughters ever— and most of the world did nothing to stop it.
Ignorance might be bliss, but it is not exoneration.
In commemoration of this harrowing anniversary, we will revisit the events from April 1994 in Rwanda to honor those who lost their lives and to ensure that the world never allows such horror to happen again.
The following video from an Australian organization, RwandanStories, gives a succinct overview of the history of Rwanda and the issues leading up to the crisis.
The genocide was portrayed as “tribal warfare,” a climactic combustion that was the result of decades of tribal tensions and warring. But this grave oversimplification of the situation trivialized the seriousness of the conflict and reduced its significance in the eyes of the global powers, who had no interest in meaningless tribal squabbles.
In reality, the Rwandan Civil War was fueled by something much more sinister than ethnic tensions— cold-blooded politics.
In order to understand the complex issues that lead to such hate, we must go back to the origins of hostility between the Hutu and Tutsi people. The Hutu and Tutsi inhabit the Great Lakes region of Africa (including Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and what is now the Congo). The Hutu are the majority in Rwanda, and make up about 85% of the population. For most of their history, the two groups have coexisted in harmony, sharing the same languages and often intermarrying. Historically, the largest indicator of “ethnicity” was based on the fact that Tutsi people raised cattle and the Hutus were farmers. The differences were essentially based on class, not ethnicity.
Along with most of the wealth, the Tutsis held political power throughout the precolonial history of the region. Even so, the relations between the two groups were relatively stable, with a mostly cordial give and take and fluid mobility between the two classes of people. The “ethnic” discrepancies that we know of today were a colonial creation, fabricated through manipulation by Belgian and German colonizers, who saw the Tutsi as a superior, “more European,” ethnicity.
Using “race science,” the Europeans measured noses and skulls, familial wealth, and perceived sophistication to categorize people as either a Tutsi elite or Hutu peasant. This new classification, which was made official with the distribution of ethnic identity cards (which would play an important role in the later conflict), polarized the class divide under the ruse of ethnicity. As the colonizers encouraged Tutsi elitism and power, the Hutu people became increasingly oppressed and, consequently, resentful.
This building discontent came to a breaking point with the prospect of Rwandan independence. The oppressed Hutu majority organized a social revolution and regained political control, establishing a formal dictatorship in 1962. The power had shifted back to the Hutus, but the transition had been bloody, and animosity between the two groups remained as potent as ever. Hutu control was solidified further when Juvenal Habyarimana took control in the mid-1970s and his ruling party, the MRND (Mouvement Revoluntionaire et National pour le Developpement), enforced increasingly strict sanctions against the Tutsi people. Throughout the region, Hutu and Tutsi refugees migrated back and forth between borders of the neighboring countries of Uganda, Burundi, and Zaire, seeking a safe haven from the ongoing tensions. By 1980, some 480,000 Tutsis had been displaced from Rwanda and were demanding the right to return. President Habyarimana, however, warned the Tutsi refugees to stay out of Rwanda, citing overpopulation as justification for why they were unwelcome.
The political animosity stewed until 1990, when the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), a rebel party based in Uganda consisting of Tutsi and moderate Hutus and lead by Rwanda’s current president, Paul Kagame, initiated an armed struggle for political control that resulted in the Rwandan Civil War. The violent conflict, along with extremist propaganda and rumors, exasperated the existing tensions in the region. Finally, in 1991, a cease fire was agreed upon after French forces intervened on the side of the government. Then, through the efforts of neighboring governments and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the Arusha Peace Agreement was signed in 1993, offering the promise of potential peace in the region.
Now this is where we shall introduce UNAMIR, or United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, a peacekeeping mission created by the United Nations Security Council in October 1993 to ensure proper implementation of the Arusha Accords. The mission was headed by Cameroonian Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh and its Force Commander was Canadian Lieutenant-General (then Brigadier-General) Roméo Dallaire, who has since become famous for his outspoken criticisms of the UN and world powers for their lack of appropriate action during the genocide.
The mission’s official mandate was to:
“assist in ensuring the security of the capital city of Kigali; monitor the ceasefire agreement, including establishment of an expanded demilitarized zone and demobilization procedures; monitor the security situation during the final period of the transitional Government's mandate leading up to elections; assist with mine-clearance; and assist in the coordination of humanitarian assistance activities in conjunction with relief operations.”
In layman’s terms, this meant that UNAMIR could use its 2,500 soldiers to assist with the transition of the peace accord and offer humanitarian aid, but not to participate in the protection of civilians or engage in any military combat beyond self-defense. Initially, this limitation on the rules of engagement was acceptable, as both sides seemed committed to upholding the Arusha Peace Agreements.
As Lieutenant-General Dallaire spent more time in Rwanda, however, he began to doubt the sincerity of this supposed commitment to peace and political stability. Using information from several reconnaissance missions throughout the country and specific warnings from an informant, Dallaire sent what has now become infamously known as “The Genocide Fax” to UN Headquarters in New York. In it, Dallaire stated that he had reliable proof that the government was distributing arms to extremist groups and had begun registering all Tutsis in Kigali. This information, when combined with the increasing presence of anti-Tutsi propaganda (through radio broadcasts) and a general sense of increasing tensions, lead Dallaire to request permission to lead a raid on the arms caches in order to prevent a potential massacre. Unfortunately, his pleas were dismissed by the UN. For the next three months, UNAMIR struggled to establish control over the deteriorating political situation.
On April 6th, 1994, all hope of peace was shattered when a plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down over Kigali, killing both leaders. Hutu extremists immediately blamed the attack on the RPF, though adequate proof has never been established and some believe that Hutu extremists planned the assault themselves to ignite Hutu rage. The event was followed by an immediate eruption of violent demands for revenge by Hutus. Using the radio propaganda as fuel, hardliners within the presidential guard and the Interahamwe, an extremist Hutu paramilitary faction, initiated a retaliation against all Tutsi people, calling them “cockroaches” that could never be trusted and needed to be exterminated from the country.
Along with the militia, ordinary Hutu citizens armed themselves with machetes and contributed to the slaughter of their former neighbors and friends, either caught up in the surge of patriotic violence or forced into action under threat of being perceived as moderate Hutu traitors. Road blocks were set up and identity cards were checked to ensure no Tutsi escaped or, rather, survived. The violence was immediate and harsh, perpetuated by group mentality, wrath, fear, and alcohol. Tutsi and moderate Hutu men, women, and children were tortured, raped, and brutally massacred at an alarming rate, as a seemingly endless wave of violence reverberated through the tiny country.
Click here for a thought-provoking look at what kind of people became killers.
Because of the aforementioned rules of engagement, UNAMIR was essentially powerless to stop the killings. On April 7th, extremists attacked and killed moderate Hutu Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana. Along with the Prime Minister had been ten Belgian peacekeepers, who were assigned as bodyguards but had unclear directions about whether or not they could actually engage in combat. This uncertainty lead their commander to advise them to hand over their weapons. After doing so, all ten soldiers were brutally murdered, sending a clear message to the international community.
The deaths of the ten Belgians incited rage throughout the world, and Belgium immediately demanded the withdrawal of their remaining troops. Other nations soon followed, and UNAMIR was left with a bare-bones battalion of less than 600 soldiers. Lieutenant-General Dallaire was told to withdraw from Kigali, but he refused, incapable of abandoning the Rwandan people. He stayed and lead the soldiers in an agonizing attempt to save as many people as possible. It has since been estimated that Dallaire’s small force was able to save about 30,000 Rwandans from slaughter.
Here is a BBC story about one brave man who risked his life repeatedly to rescue many during the crisis.
The violence raged for a total of 100 days until the rebel RPF were finally able to seize control of Kigali in mid-July. The international community eventually reacted, but it was too little, too late; the massacre had already taken place.
Over 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, were brutally killed during the genocide.
Take some time to watch these videos with Rwandans who share their traumatic experiences. Be warned, these accounts are difficult to listen to.
The international community may have failed in 1994, abandoning a country in desperate need, but directing the blame to the appropriate party has proven difficult. Do we blame the United Nations, who was wildly ineffective in action and reaction? Do the major powers, especially the United States, deserve blame for blatantly ignoring the evidence and avoiding involvement? Should we blame the colonizers of the past for using and abusing an entire population, then leaving them in shambles? Or those same nations who continue to manipulate and scheme in the politics for their own interests with complete disregard for the consequences in Africa? Should the guilt be directed only towards the killers and bystanders, who let evil overtake their souls or stood by and watched it happen? What about the millions of people around the world who saw the news stories about the horrors but never demanded action from their nations? Could the world have avoided a genocide if any of these guilty parties would have behaved differently?
Unfortunately, there will never be any absolution for the events that took place in Rwanda in 1994. The journey was too complicated, with too many evil intentions, too much resentment that ran too deep, and too many missteps by too many people. We will instead have to settle with the renewed clarity that comes with hindsight and the benefits of change that accompany the brutal backlash of failure. It is now up to the world to use the Rwandan Genocide as a lesson and a call to action, a reminder of what can happen if we allow ourselves to choose ignorant bliss over humanity, and a motivator to stay informed about the crises those less fortunate around the world are facing today.
Let us honor those who were lost and those who lost loved ones by never subjecting another population to the same barbarity.
I strongly encourage you to pay homage to Rwanda by reading and researching more about the incredible heroism, unbelievable testimonies, and awful realities of what took place in Rwanda in 1994. There are endless resources available, both fiction and nonfiction.
For a complete overview and easily navigable website, check out the RwandanStories website, which holds a thorough collection of information and videos about the genocide, from history and testimony to justice and rebuilding. I would like to thank the RwandanStories organization for graciously supplying the many videos embedded throughout this posting.
You can also check out the many books about the Rwandan Genocide, such as the firsthand accounts of Lt. Gen. Dallaire in Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda or the survivor's tales in Immaculée Illibagiza’s, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. If reading doesn’t suit you, revisit old news clips and television specials online, or watch Hotel Rwanda or Shake Hands With the Devil. The stories are out there, and they often seem too incredible to be true. But they deserve to be told.
Let us all take a moment to remember the 20th anniversary of a genocide that changed the world.
- Bryanna Raiche