Genocide in Rwanda

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Genocide in Rwanda

Genocide is an end result of extreme prejudice (a negative attitude towards others based on a prejudgment about those individuals based on little prior knowledge or experience). Genocide is a planned, systematic attempt to eliminate an entire targeted population by murdering all members of that group. In the late 1930s and during World War II (1939–45), the Nazi army, under Germany's dictator, or ruler, Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), methodically rounded up and murdered over six million European Jews. This horrific episode in world history was a genocide known as the Holocaust. Nazis also targeted two other groups, gypsies and homosexuals, for elimination.

Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959) coined the term "genocide" in the early 1940s. Genos is a Greek word meaning race or tribe. The ending cide means "to kill." Lemkin, a Jew, fled the Nazi occupation of his homeland Poland in World War II but lost family members in the genocide.

Each genocide that occurs in the world results from issues and difficulties specific to the country where it takes place. However, all genocides have several characteristics in common: (1) racial hatred or long-standing prejudice against a particular group; (2) scapegoating, which means blaming a minority faction, or section, in a society for all of that society's problems; (3) characterization of a minority people as subhuman, unworthy of living; (4) an organized killing plan developed by officials within the country; (5) the means to carry out massive killings, usually involving the country's military; and (6) in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, an international community that turns away and does not intervene.

Beginning on April 6, 1994, and continuing through June of that year, a genocide took place in a small country in central Africa called Rwanda. Best estimates place the number of people murdered during that period at 800,000 to 850,000. The total population of Rwanda in 1994 was between 7.5 and 8 million people. The Rwandan genocide was aimed at the elimination of a group of people known as Tutsi, who made up about 14 percent of the country's population. Organized by factions within the Rwandan government, the attempted extermination of the Tutsi was carried out by a group of people called Hutu. Hutu comprised 85 percent of Rwanda's population and controlled the government. Individual Tutsi were not killed because they were poor or wealthy, criminal or law abiding, political or nonpolitical, lazy or hardworking, man, woman, or child, but because they were Tutsi. The international community labeled the turmoil a civil war and chose not to step in until it was too late.

For centuries in Rwanda, Tutsi and Hutu had lived side by side, often intermarrying. Yet in 1994 one group of ordinary poor people, the Hutu, were willing to exterminate their innocent neighbors and family members merely because they were Tutsi. Neighbors killed neighbors, teachers killed their students, and husbands killed their wives. The Rwandan genocide is partly traceable to issues of poverty, land scarcity, and overpopulation. Most importantly, deeply ingrained ideas of racial differences based on physical characteristics and long-standing bitter prejudice led a frustrated and desperate Hutu people, manipulated by their Hutu leaders, to murder hundreds of thousands of their Tutsi neighbors. This chapter describes how such prejudice took root and grew.


A country that establishes political and economic control over another country and sends citizens to settle in the new country.
One who takes a position on an issue that is beyond ordinary or moderate positions.
The deliberate destruction of a racial, religious, or cultural group.
A deep-rooted quality.
A negative attitude towards others based on a prejudgment about those individuals based on little prior knowledge or experience.
A group of people who share a distinctive physical trait.
A person who flees in search of protection or shelter.

Rwanda: land of a thousand hills

Known as the land of a thousand hills, Rwanda is neither a desert nor a teeming jungle, but a hilly country that lies entirely above 3,280 feet (1,000 meters). For centuries it had been protected from hostile tribes and slave traders by mountains, lakes, and marshes. Its temperature, rainfall, and soil were favorable to human habitation and farming. Rwanda resembled a giant garden. The fertile land supported high densities of people. Hutu and Tutsi lived side by side on the same hills. The dense population required a centralized, controlled social structure in order to organize and carry out everyday activities, such as farming, cattle grazing, and keeping order for the benefit of all.

The highly structured society had been headed by a king beginning at some point during the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. In the late nineteenth century just before European colonizers settled in Rwanda, the king was Tutsi leader Kigeri IV Rwabugiri (d. 1895). Although Rwandan kings were of Tutsi lineage, they did not force Hutu into a slave-like feudal system, a misconception commonly held in history. Instead, they oversaw a complex arrangement where Tutsi and Hutu worked together to sustain a livelihood based on farming and cattle grazing. The king appointed three chiefs for each hill. The chief of landholdings oversaw distribution of land, food production, and taxation. The chief of pastures oversaw cattle and grazing. The chief of men kept a watchful eye on relationships and recruited men for the king's army. Most chiefs were Tutsi but Hutu were also represented among the chiefs. Sometimes one chief might have certain responsibilities on more than one hill. The end goal of the complex system was to sustain all Rwandan families on each hill. Perhaps because it was the only way to maintain order in the densely populated land, the people for centuries had unquestioningly obeyed the king and their chiefs. This habit of strict obedience would play a large part in the 1994 genocide.

Three groups of people—the Hutu, Tutsi, and the Twa—lived in Rwanda. Hutu made up about 85 percent of the population and farmed the land. Tutsi made up about 14 percent of the population and were predominantly cattle herders. In the twenty-first century, most think Tutsi moved into the Rwanda hills sometime during the fifteenth century, most likely to escape famine. Historians and anthropologists (scientists who study human origins) have never reached agreement on the Tutsi's place of origin. The Twa, less than 1 percent of the population, lived by hunting and gathering natural foodstuffs such as roots, or worked in servitude for the king. The three were not separate tribes but shared the same language, worshipped the same gods, and shared the same culture. Intermarriage was common between the Hutu and Tutsi.

Germans arrive in Rwanda

On May 4, 1894, the first European, German count Gustav Adolf von Gotzen, came into the Rwandan kingdom. Rwanda had been previously shut off from the outside world by its landlocked remoteness. At the Berlin Conference of 1885, control of the African continent was divided among European powers so its natural resources could be developed to bring increased wealth to the European countries. Tiny, beautiful Rwanda was claimed by Germany to be part of its colonial empire. Germans knew nothing of Rwanda and sent von Gotzen on an information-gathering mission.

When von Gotzen arrived he found the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. He quickly observed that the three differed significantly in physical characteristics. The Twa were pygmies, very small, muscular, and hairy. The Hutu were generally short, but not pygmies. They had thick bodies with big heads, wide noses, and prominent lips. But the Tutsi were different. Tutsi were tall and thin with fine facial features, thin noses and lips, and straight, white teeth.

Manufacturing the great myth

Prior to 1894 the only Europeans to have ventured near Rwanda were British explorers John Hanning Speke (1827–1864) and Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890). They were partners in a 1857–58 expedition to explore the lakes of central Africa, hopefully find the source of the River Nile, and to study local tribes. They never entered Rwanda but located Lake Tanganyika southwest of Rwanda in February 1858. Speke then ventured east of Rwanda to Lake Victoria, which he believed was the source of the Nile. While trekking toward Lake Victoria, Speke encountered black people that he noted had a thin graceful stature. These were most likely Tutsi. In his 1863 report, Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, he presented his theory that the people he encountered were a superior ruling race that had conquered other inferior races living in the area. Speke merely made up his theory as it had no factual basis.

Late-nineteenth-century European anthropologists—along with most all Europeans—were very aware, even obsessed, with racial differences. They considered Caucasians (people of light skin color, commonly from European and Middle East ancestry) superior to any black-skinned group. German colonists who arrived in Rwanda were amazed at the kingdom's sophisticated organization. They believed blacks were savages and never could have produced such an organized society.

Expanding on Speke's thinking, the Germans and other Europeans who learned of Rwanda in the 1890s began building a variety of illogical theories that the fine-featured Tutsi were a superior race that invaded Rwanda in earlier times, conquered the Hutu and Twa, and were the people responsible for Rwanda's organized society. They spoke of the Tutsi as a worthy race that, aside from being black, had none of the Negroid features of the Hutu or Twa. Various theories claimed the Tutsi descended from superior stock in southern Ethiopia, or from the ancient Egyptians, or even from Tibet. The made-up theories became more bizarre, such as Tutsi came from the Garden of Eden (home of Adam and Eve in the Bible), or the fabled lost continent of Atlantis, said to have sunk beneath the sea during an earthquake.

Such theories resulted in the myth of Tutsi superiority. German colonizers stated that Tutsi were gifted with intelligence, boundless energy, natural leadership abilities, refinement in speech manners, and capable of self-control and feelings of love and goodwill. Hutu and Twa were both considered inferior races.

Due to intermarriage, not all Rwandans exhibited precise Tutsi or Hutu physical characteristics, but a mixture of both. Therefore, the German colonists set up physical standards to determine who was a superior Tutsi and who was an inferior Hutu. Their standards were based on nose width and length, height and weight, head width and height, and the shape of their eyes. The colonists manufactured two racial groups in a country that had never before recognized differences. Few in number and pygmies, Twa were ignored.

German placement of Tutsi and Hutu into the mythical categories was the first step, however unintentional, on the path to genocide one hundred years later. The myth became accepted as scientific truth. It greatly influenced both German and later Belgian views toward Tutsi and Hutu.

The myth had a major effect on Rwandan society. For the next sixty years, the Tutsi believed themselves physically and mentally superior, and racial prejudice against the Hutu was extreme. Hutu were deprived of all political and economic power and told they deserved their fate because of their alleged inferiority. This served to frustrate and quietly infuriate the Hutu. A social time bomb had begun ticking.

German colonizers instituted a system called indirect rule. The minority Tutsi were given most chief positions, educated and trained to privileged positions. Germans ruled through the Tutsi. Any punishment to keep Hutu in line was carried out by Tutsi, not the white colonizers. Hutu resented Tutsi, not the Germans who remained in the background.

Belgian colonial domination

Following the defeat of Germany by the Allied powers of Britain, France, Italy, Russia, and the United States in World War I (1914–18), Germany's colonies in Africa were divided between Britain, France, and other countries. Control of Rwanda went to Belgium. The Belgians began to further empower the Tutsi over the Hutu by putting only Tutsi into government jobs. The remaining few Hutu chiefs were replaced with Tutsi chiefs.

The Belgians introduced a forced labor system where every man, woman, and child had to volunteer a specific number of days each week to public projects. Public projects included building permanent structures, such as buildings and bridges, digging anti-erosion terraces, and maintaining roads. The Hutu despised the system; they were often forced to devote over 50 percent of their work time to public projects, taking away from time to grow food for their family. Tutsi were in charge of forcing Hutu to cooperate. Hutu strongly resented Tutsi treatment.

Becoming Christian

In the late 1920s, Tutsi realized that to be on best terms with the white men they had to become Christians, the main religion of the Belgians. Tutsi rejected their native worship practices called kubandwa and flocked to the Catholic Church, newly established in Rwanda by missionary European priests. Destruction of the native religion further destroyed existing cultural ties and connections with Hutu.

The Church immediately supported the Tutsi and from then on played an important part of Rwandan society and politics. The Church provided the only education in the country, and Tutsi were given priority.

Deep-rooted racial prejudice

Racial prejudice had become firmly established in Rwandan society. Most Tutsi were still poor peasants like their Hutu neighbors. However, they too believed the Tutsi/Hutu myth. No matter what the real characteristics of each and every individual, if a person was Hutu he was considered to be stupid, lazy, and dishonest. By merely being Tutsi, an individual was smart, hardworking, and trustworthy.

A clear social order of superior to inferior developed. At the top were the white colonizers: Belgium government officials and Catholic priests. Next in line were the Tutsi elite, then poor Tutsi, and finally all Hutus at the bottom. Few Tutsi had actually become part of the Tutsi elite. Elites are influential and powerful members of the highest social class. As such, they receive the best educations and accrue the most wealth.

After at least four hundred years of Rwandan history in which Tutsi and Hutu lived in equality, the European colonizers had successfully changed the course of the future by altering relations between the two groups. Rwandans had not always lived in peace before colonization; there were kingdom and family battles. But never were the battles simply between Tutsi and Hutu. By the late 1950s, that was the only way struggles were defined.

Hutu's rise

By the early 1950s, the Catholic Church had as many black priests, mostly Tutsi, as white priests. The educated black priests began challenging the European priests for leadership of Rwanda's Catholic Church. Likewise, the Tutsi elite in government leadership roles were challenging the white Belgian colonialists who still held top leadership positions in the country. These Tutsi elite wanted the whites out of Rwanda's government and church so they could declare Rwanda an independent country and rule without oversight of the Europeans. Both Belgian government administrators and the European priests felt their power threatened.

Fearing the Tutsi elite were about to take over control of the Church and government, the European priests and Belgian colonizers decided to raise the status of the Hutu that made up the majority of Rwanda's population. They then planned to use them to suppress and defeat the Tutsi elite. Once the Tutsi elite were removed from leadership roles in the government and Church, the colonizers and European priests intended to install Hutu into those roles. Uneducated and grateful to those in power for their rise in status, Hutu could easily be controlled so that colonizers and European priests would retain all real power in the country.

Carrying out their plan, the colonizers and priests began to incite Hutu against Tutsi elite by claiming they (Tutsi) were responsible for the miserable conditions in which the Hutu lived. With clear moral support and organizational help from the whites, Hutu in the late 1950s established groups for security and for economic and cultural advancement. World coffee prices were strong and Hutu's average family income rose. (Economically the country depended on its export crop, coffee, plus growing subsistence food for the population.) Hutu leaders emerged and the majority Hutu race began to revel in its newfound self-esteem and improved economic situation.

The 1959 revolution of the Hutu began in earnest when a Hutu chief was attacked and severely beaten by Tutsi on November 1. The situation exploded and fierce fighting between Hutu and Tutsi followed. Since Hutu and Tutsi had thought solely in racial terms for about sixty years since the European colonizers made up the Tutsi superiority myth, Hutu indiscriminately lashed out at all Tutsi, including the poor. Just like the Tutsi elite, they were hunted down and killed by the Hutu. Sixty years of Hutu racial hatred towards Tutsi suppression boiled over.

By mid-November amid the violence, Belgian government officials had lost control of the situation and began talking of self-government for Rwanda. Sporadic fighting went on as Hutus continued to hunt down and kill Tutsi. Hutu emerged as clear victors poised to take over the Rwandan government.

In 1960, Hutu began replacing Tutsi chiefs with new Hutu authorities called bourgmestres (legislators). Belgian authorities and Catholic priests supported the Hutu bourgmestres and helped them set up a provisional (transition) government. Bourgmestres formed the Parmehutu Party led by Grégoire Kayibanda (1924–1976). On January 28, 1961, over three thousand bourgmestres, almost all Hutu, declared the creation of the Republic of Rwanda. In September 1961 bourgmestres elected Kayibanda president of Rwanda. On July 1, 1962, Rwanda became formally independent, separate from Belgium.

Although European government control of Rwanda ended, the Catholic Church remained under the leadership of white European priests. The priests no longer supported Tutsi but instead supported and educated the Hutu, who posed no threat to their leadership. Rather than challenging the white priests, Hutu praised whites as their liberators from Tutsi.

Republic of Rwanda

In 1961, the Republic of Rwanda's population was approximately 2.8 million. About 15 percent, or 420,000, were Tutsi. Of those Tutsi, about 120,000 fled to refugee (person who flees in search of protection or shelter) camps in the neighboring countries of Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zaire (Congo). From both Uganda and Burundi, Tutsi tried to reorganize and periodically launched attacks into Rwanda. For revenge, Hutu officials ordered the slaughter of all remaining Tutsi leaders plus at least ten thousand other Tutsi still living in Rwanda. The violence finally slowed, then ended in 1964.

Kayibanda held power from 1961 until 1973. The president was responsible for the appointment of all leaders, even those at very low levels of local government. He, of course, appointed Hutus, who gradually became the new elites.

The government constantly promoted ideas consisting of three themes: the lofty human worth of being Hutu; the importance of following a moral Christian lifestyle as instructed by the Catholic Church; and the importance of hard work to better the country.

The overwhelming majority of the population worked long hours on the land and lived in poverty, yet never questioned the leadership of the Hutu government or the Catholic Church. Poor but proud, Hutu peasants were content with the idea that they were, each and every one, superior over any Tutsi. Most Tutsi who held positions of power prior to 1959 had fled to neighboring countries. The most wealthy had immigrated to European countries and the United States. Tutsi who remained in the country were poor farmers just like the Hutu peasants. The old way of unquestionable obedience to the local authority predominated and would be a major influence in the genocide to come.

Habyarimana regime (1973–94)

In the early 1970s, as Kayibanda began to age, calls for his replacement mounted among Hutu politicians. In a military coup, the Rwandan army overthrew the Kayibanda government in July 1973. Rwandan army commander Major-General Juvenal Habyarimana (1937–1994) took over the presidency on July 5, 1973. Habyarimana did not allow political parties but in 1974 created his own single party, the Movement Revolutionnaire National pour le Developpement (MRND). Every Rwandan citizen was required to be a member of MRND and to carry a residence identification card. On the ID card was printed where the person lived and whether he or she was Hutu or Tutsi. There were MRND leaders on every hill.

The first ten years of Habyarimana's regime appeared peaceful. However, there was strong ingrained racial prejudice against the Tutsi. Members of the Rwandan army were forbidden to marry Tutsi women. In the government, there were only two Tutsi parliament members out of seventy-one and one Tutsi government agency minister out of about thirty.

Hutu manipulation of foreign aid

In the 1970s, Rwanda's main source of income was from coffee exports. In addition to coffee income, foreign aid that had been nonexistent in the 1960s began increasing as the wealthier countries began programs of providing development aid to poor nations. While the country's economy appeared significantly improved, most of the incoming monies were controlled by the Hutu elite, including Habyarimana, his wife, her family, and close colleagues. They used the money to support extravagant lifestyles—expensive cars, travel, and land purchases from the poor peasants. The Hutu elite grew greedier and greedier while the poor grew more despondent.

It was difficult to recognize what was actually happening in the country. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) (international organizations providing money to developing countries), called Habyarimana's regime highly efficient and a model of development in Africa. With coffee export money and developmental aid increasing, the economic picture appeared greatly improved. The international organizations did not look beneath the surface. If they had, they would have found that almost all income went to Habyarimana's inner circle. The World Bank and the IMF granted more and more loans and grants to Rwanda.

By the mid-1980s, developmental aid from foreign countries and international agencies like the World Bank and IMF made up 70 percent of the Rwandan government's budget. Chief donor countries were Belgium and France. The United States was Rwanda's third-largest donor. Switzerland, Germany, and Canada also contributed. The money supposedly went to agricultural development projects to benefit all the people, most of whom were farmers. However, Rwandan government policy actually excluded peasants from economic benefit and favored the Hutu elite and foreign European assistants sent to help with projects. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, only 4 to 6 percent of aid was spent on rural development, even though 95 percent of the population lived in rural areas. Most development aid money went to the construction of elaborate houses and offices for the Hutu elite and their friends in the capital city, Kigali. The few development projects in rural areas began with big expensive houses for the foreign technical assistants.

Coffee crisis

In 1987 the International Coffee Organization (ICO), an international organization that fixed prices paid for coffee worldwide, began to dissolve as member countries began to not honor their commitments. World prices fell sharply. In June 1989 Rwanda's coffee income and, as a result, its economy was dealt a fatal blow. Under intense pressure from U.S. coffee traders who wanted to pay much less for coffee on the world market, the ICO became deadlocked and lost all control of world prices. By the end of 1989 coffee prices had dropped 50 percent. Retail prices for coffee were more than twenty times the price paid to African farmers as a tremendous amount of coffee wealth went to rich countries.

Since a large percentage of Rwanda's land had been planted in coffee, food for the people to live on was purchased from other countries. With substantially less income, Rwanda could not purchase enough food for its population. By 1990, 50 percent of the population was malnourished.

The Hutu elite, unwilling to give up their fancy lifestyles, cornered what export monies that did come in plus development aid monies. Within the Habyarimana regime there was bickering and in-fighting over money, while the majority of Rwandans sunk more deeply into poverty and hunger.

By the summer of 1990, the Habyarimana regime was being challenged by a number of factions. An increasing number of moderate Hutus in Kigali were unhappy with the greedy, corrupt Habyarimana government. They wanted to overthrow Habyarimana and install an honest Hutu leader who would look after the people. More radical Hutus, mostly within the Hutu elite group, wanted more and more of a share of monies and were angry that Habyarimana even listened to the moderate Hutu. It appeared the Hutu political system was about to collapse. Such a situation was just what Tutsi refugees whose families had fled Rwanda in the early 1960s were waiting for.

Tutsi refugees

In 1964 there were roughly 336,000 Tutsi refugees. They lived in Burundi (about 200,000), Uganda (78,000), Tanzania (36,000), and Zaire (Congo, 22,000). The total number of refugees by 1990 was between 600,000 and 700,000, increased by births and further migration out of Rwanda. Tutsi refugees reminisced about the Rwanda they remembered as a land of prosperity and hoped to return.

In 1979, the refugees had established the Rwandese Refugee Welfare Foundation (RRWF) to aid those in exile. The organization's name was changed several times and in December 1987 it became the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF was by then a Tutsi military organization intent on returning to and retaking Rwanda. Well-supplied with money from Rwandan Tutsi exiles that had reestablished themselves in successful careers in European countries and the United States, the RPF purchased weapons, planned multiple invasions from Uganda, and waited for the right moment to make a move.

Tutsi RPF advance

When it appeared the Hutu political system was about to collapse in 1990, about 2,500 RPF forces moved in. The RPF attacked on October 1, 1990, from Uganda. Kigali residents were terrified and convinced that the Tutsi RPF was ready to launch a full attack on the city. Over national radio the Minister of Defense told the general population to track down and arrest Tutsi infiltrators. In reality, this was an order to track down and kill any Tutsi.

The conflict appeared to have ended by October 30, 1990. Rwanda's regular army, the Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR), beat back the RPF and they retreated to their Ugandan strongholds. Contrary to appearances, the Tutsi RPF advance into Rwanda was the beginning of a four-year conflict.

Arusha Peace Accords

By 1992, President Habyarimana believed the only way to retain any power was to negotiate some sort of settlement with the RPF. Habyarimana decided to support a ceasefire and began negotiations in Arusha, Tanzania.

The peace agreement signed in Arusha on August 4, 1993, between Habyarimana and the RPF disbanded both the RPF and FAR armies, allowed the return of the Tutsi refugees, and agreed on government power sharing between the Habyarimana government and the RPF. Back in Kigali, many of the Hutu elite had no intention of abiding by the Arusha Accords and were planning their own extremist solution.

Planning of the genocide

The Hutu elite within the Habyarimana regime had benefited from forty years of controlling the government and incoming money from both coffee and foreign aid. Those same Hutu had no intention of allowing President Habyarimana to begin a real democratic process of sharing power with Tutsi.

The Hutu extremists believed they could carry out a scheme to take absolute control of the country. They planned to expel Habyarimana, murder moderate Hutu, defeat the RPF, and kill all Tutsi so as never to be challenged for power by the Tutsi again. They began by organizing anti-Tutsi extremists. In 1992, they formed the radical anti-Habyarimana, anti-Tutsi group, Coalition pour la Defense de la Republique (CDR). The CDR established a fiery radio station and several radical publications, which helped to incite the Hutu masses against all Tutsi.

By the early 1990s, the Hutu peasants had slid from poverty into misery. They were easily manipulated with racist hate propaganda to see the Tutsi as the source of all their problems. During 1992, not only did CDR membership grow but the numbers of anti-Tutsi extremists within the MRND and FAR increased by thousands. The FAR extremists established secret death squads made up of both soldiers and civilians ready and able to kill at a moment's notice when commanded to do so.

Using foreign development aid money, FAR, CDR, and MRND extremists established armed local militias of volunteer citizens, mostly poor, illiterate Hutu peasants. The militias were known as Interhamwe and Impuzamugambi. Both obeyed orders from leaders without questioning. Total acceptance of authority had been the nature of Rwandans in general for centuries. A process known as "Sensibilisation" became commonplace.


With each new RPF raid into northern Rwanda in 1992 and 1993, the increasingly organized extremist Hutu carried out retaliation by killing Tutsi civilians. To motivate local Hutu peasants to kill Tutsi, the local Hutu officials followed a set pattern known as sensibilisation.

Extremist authorities came to a village and told ridiculous tales that Tutsi were evil beings with horns, tails, hooves, pointed ears, and red eyes that glowed in the dark. Although hard for Americans to understand how, the Hutu peasants were long conditioned to believe what authorities said. Authorities also told Hutu peasants to fear all Tutsi, not just those connected with the RPF. Generally, an extremist official from Kigali came along to lend an air of importance and respectability to the meeting. The killing plan would be approached as if it was just another community work project, a job to do for the good of the people. Since calling the project a bloody massacre would be too harsh, the project was generally called "bush clearing." When the order to go to work came, the peasants carried out the killings as they would any other work order.

Genocide begins

On April 6, 1994, Habyarimana was returning to Kigali airport on his private airplane when two missiles were launched from just outside the airport. Directly hit, the plane crashed into Habyarimana's garden. All aboard were killed. The genocide started in Kigali within the hour.

The identity of Habyarimana's killer is not known. However, the president's assassination and organized start of the genocide within forty-five minutes of it strongly suggested the president's murder was planned by some faction of the Hutu extremists, perhaps extremists in the inner core of his regime. By 9:15 pm, the Interahamwe had set up roadblocks to prevent various Tutsi from fleeing their homes. Impazamugamhi search teams systematically searched Tutsi houses and killed all occupants. Hutu extremists had devised a systematic genocide plan as early as late 1992, complete with names and addresses of proposed victims. In the first hours of the genocide, well-known moderate Hutu in Kigali were murdered along with Kigali Tutsi. At the same time, the radical radio station was pleading for the Hutu population throughout Rwanda to avenge the president's death and kill the Tutsi before the Tutsi could kill them. The genocide had begun.

The final solution

For the Tutsi victims, there were no places to hide. The country was densely populated, leaving no wild country into which one could flee. Neighbors hunted down neighbors. One of the few hiding places was between the ceiling and roof of a house, but soon this became the first place to be checked. Churches proved poor hiding places and turned into death traps. The wounded in hospitals were lined up and killed. It was presumed if individuals were already wounded, they must be Tutsi. Victims were shot or, more often, hacked to death. Victims would sometimes offer their killers money to use bullets rather than machetes.

Eighty percent of deaths occurred between the second week of April and third week of May. Approximately 7,776,000 people lived in Rwanda. On April 6, 1994, approximately 930,000, 12 percent of the population, were Tutsi. By late July, only about 130,000 Tutsi survived—105,000 in refugee camps in Rwanda and neighboring Burundi and 25,000 still in Rwanda but not in camps. It is impossible to determine a precise number of persons killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The United Nations (UN; an international organization created to resolve conflicts in the world and provide humanitarian aid where needed) estimated between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people died in October 1994. In its November 1994 Final Report the UN backed off to the more conservative number of 500,000 killed. Within a few years further calculations by researcher Gerard Prunier published in his 1998 book The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide taken from the Rwandan census put the number between 800,000 and 850,000 killed. This estimate has been more universally accepted. These number included moderate Hutu killed during the genocide; however, their numbers varied wildly from 10,000 to 30,000.

RPF advance

What the Hutu extremists did not count on was the strength of the RPF. While Hutu militias occupied all their time murdering innocent and unarmed Tutsi, the determined, well-armed, and disciplined Tutsi RPF marched into Kigali by April 11 and began a month-long battle to take the city. RPF cut off roads to Kigali and on May 22 took over the airport. The RPF had taken Rwanda.

The RPF swore in their new Tutsi government July 19, 1994. The figurehead president was a Hutu but had supported the RPF. The real man in power was Tutsi RPF leader General Paul Kagame (1957–) who took the title of vice president. The combination of genocide and war had killed 10 percent of the population, left 30 percent in refugee camps, and the rest of the population in complete disarray.

International community's indifference

During the early 1990, Western powers remained almost entirely passive toward Rwanda's deteriorating human rights record and violent racism. From late 1993 onward, the governments of Western powers and the UN possessed information about an impending genocide.

Arms distributions to the Hutu populations, extremist anti-Tutsi propaganda, violent actions of militia groups, and government-supported massacres of Tutsi all increased. In January 1994, a high-ranking official of the anti-Tutsi Interahamwe militia informed the UN of plans to exterminate all Tutsi. The informant bragged his Interahamwe troops could kill one thousand Tutsi in twenty minutes. He also reported a plan to kill Belgian peacekeepers, hoping their deaths would result in withdrawal of any remaining foreign peacekeepers.

On October 5, 1993, the UN secretary general created the United Nations' Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR) to monitor the situation and protect civilians. UNAMIR had first been proposed by the Arusha Peace Accords. However, UN member countries revealed an unwillingness to send troops or provide resources to give UNAMIR muscle. Rwanda was not politically or economically important enough to any other country to justify the expenditure of sending in assistance.

UNAMIR troops, numbering only 2,548, began arriving in Rwanda in November 1993 but were virtually powerless. The troops witnessed and reported that the Rwandan government was arming Hutu peasants throughout the country. As the genocide began in April 1994, ten Belgian peacekeepers were killed as predicted in January. Belgian and French governments withdrew all their troops participating in UNAMIR by April 14. Western powers still refused to distinguish between a genocide and a civil war. As long as the action in Rwanda was considered a civil war, the foreign powers could ignore the slaughter (see box).

When the UN secretary general received reports on April 29 that 200,000 people had already been massacred, he asked for UNAMIR reinforcements. The United States blocked the reinforcements. With the recent U.S. military disaster in Somalia in October 1993 in which U.S. soldiers were brutally killed by Somalia militia in the Battle of Mogadishu, President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) argued that the UN could not become involved in every conflict in the world. The United States had no pressing national interest to be involved in Rwanda. The United States sent no help until July 1994 when President Clinton directed a humanitarian airdrop of life sustaining supplies and troops to distribute them.

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide

The General Assembly of the United Nations presented the first international human rights treaty to the world in December 1948. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was the United Nations's answer to the Nazi Holocaust in which six million European Jews and other targeted groups were murdered during World War II (1939–45). In signing the treaty, a nation declared it would cooperate with other nations to ensure genocide never happened again.

The treaty's fundamental intent was to make clear that if the threat of genocide loomed over a people, that threat concerned all humanity. The articles of the treaty defined genocide, listed punishable acts, stated that private individuals as well as rulers and officials could be tried, and declared that trials would be held within the country where the genocide took place or in an international court. As the 1994 Rwandan genocide began, nations of the international community, including the United States, refused to call the unfolding horror a genocide. Instead it was labeled a civil war so the 1948 treaty would not have to be invoked.

In a visit to Rwanda in March 1998, Democratic president Bill Clinton (1946–; 1993–2001) apologized for the United States and world community's lack of help in the crisis. Later, after he left office, Clinton remarked his biggest regret of his presidential years was not acting to prevent the Rwandan genocide.

International criminal tribunal for Rwanda

Following the genocide, the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to bring to trial those most responsible for the genocide. The ICTR moved slowly and inefficiently in bringing suspects to trial. The ICTR had only a handful of judges and the appeals court was far away in The Hague, Netherlands. In Rwanda the ICTR worked under primitive conditions frequently with no electricity. The Rwandan government was in constant conflict with the ICTR over who would try defendants, Rwandan courts or ICTR, and the death penalty, which ICTR refused to support. Between 1994 and the end of 2004, about sixty-three people, individuals who were accused of being genocide leaders, came under the ICTR process.

Despite inefficiency, the ICTR actions have had a few significant results. Over one hundred genocide leaders, including at least fourteen high-level suspects, remain free as of late 2004. Nevertheless, the international court prosecutors made it extremely difficult for them to reorganize. The ICTR obtained the first-ever international convictions of genocide and the first international conviction for rape (forcing another person to submit to sexual acts) as a war crime (any of various crimes committed during war and considered in violation of the rules of warfare). Furthermore, the ICTR judges and prosecutors are piecing together a factual historical record of the genocide. The successes came at a high cost, about $1.2 billion by 2005, with 872 paid staff members. The UN Security Council gave the ICTR a deadline of 2008 to complete trials and 2010 to complete appeals.

Aftermath in Rwanda

Shortly after the genocide, Kagame's government detained about 135,000 to 140,000 Hutu in Rwanda and accused them of participation in the genocide. The regular Rwandan courts were in disarray following the genocide. Kagame attempted to reorganize the judicial system so it could handle the thousands of detained Hutu. Still, the number of detainees overwhelmed the Rwandan courts and jails. Between 1997 and June 2002, the courts tried 7,211 persons. These trials resulted in 1,386 acquittals, or releases, and 689 death sentences. However, no executions occurred after 1998.

Ten years after the genocide, Kagame remained in control of the government, a Tutsi government. Of the approximately seven million Rwandans, one million were Tutsi. In 2004, Amnesty International, an international human rights watch group, reported that Rwanda was a tightly controlled country where opposition to the Kagame government was suppressed. Political opposition leaders faced harassment and arrest. There was no freedom of the press. Journalists criticizing the government were harassed, threatened, and detained.

Both Tutsi and Hutu were traumatized people. Whether an individual was a Tutsi survivor or Hutu who carried out horrible acts, all had been severely damaged by the genocide. In the end, both would have to come together as one people to heal the nation. By 2006 it was uncertain if this would be possible. Rwanda remained a very traumatized country in a very unstable part of the world.

For More Information


Berry, John A., and Carol Pott Berry, eds. Genocide in Rwanda: A Collective Memory. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1999.

Human Rights Watch. Rwanda: The Search for Security and Human Rights Abuses. April 2000, Vol. 12(1). Also can be found online at (accessed on November 7, 2006).

Kim, Sungmin. Genocide in Rwanda and External Influences: The Intermeshing of Colonial Racism, Development Aid, and Western Powers' Calculated Apathy. M.A. Thesis, University of Oregon, 2002.

Melvern, Linda. A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide. New York: Zed Books, 2000.

Prunier, Gerard. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. London: Hurst & Company, 1998.

Scherrer, Christian P. Genocide and Crisis in Central Africa: Conflict Roots, Mass Violence, and Regional War. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Twagilimana, Aimable. The Debris of Ham: Ethnicity, Regionalism, and the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003.

United Nations Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 935 (1994) on Rwanda. Final Report. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations, 1994.


International Campaign to End Genocide. (accessed on November 22, 2006).

PBS, and Helen Cobban. "Rwanda Today: The International Criminal Tribunal and the Prospects for Peace and Reconciliation." Frontline: Ghosts of Rwanda. (accessed on November 22, 2006).

"Rwanda." Amnesty International. (accessed on November 22, 2006).

"Rwanda." Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) World Fact Book. (accessed on November 22, 2006).

"Rwanda." Human Rights Watch. (accessed on November 22, 2006).