10 Heartbreaking Facts About the Rwandan Genocide

In 1994, tensions between ethnicities erupted into all-out mayhem as Rwanda made headlines in the worst way.

Jan 10, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

rwandan genocide facts


Located in East Africa and known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, Rwanda has a rich history in the plane of human existence. However, as a political entity, it has a short and troubled existence, forever remembered in the global consciousness as the site of a devastating genocide. In 1994, two long-standing Rwandan ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi, went to war against one another. Resulting in up to one million deaths by some accounts, this conflict tore the country apart and left indelible impacts on its future.


1. Outside Influence Contributed to the Tensions

rwandan genocide belgian flag
The Belgian Flag, via AZ Animals


During the colonial era, Rwanda was an area of debate between the Germans, Belgians, and England, with all three countries wanting it in their possession. The Germans would gain control in the early twentieth century, only to lose it to the Belgians after World War I. As the Belgians increased their influence in Rwanda, tension grew as well.


The colonizers attempted to alter the traditional governmental structures that had existed in the area between the Hutu and the Tutsi. The Belgians also issued citizens identity cards, clearly distinguishing between ethnic groups and highlighting their differences. As changes such as alterations to the political process and socioeconomic resources took effect over the years, Rwandans found themselves with a problem: the Belgians had granted increasing political and economic power to the Tutsi, who were at the time the minority group, angering the majority Hutu.


Instability rose until the Belgians came to realize that the country was on the brink of warfare. In 1959, a state of emergency was declared, and troops were brought in to try and bring the country to stability. After a few years of tenuous work between the Belgians, Rwandans, the United Nations, and other related parties, Rwanda was granted independence in 1962.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


2. A Plane Crash Started the Massacre–And No One Knows Who Caused 

rwandan genocide habyarimana
Juvenal Habyarimana, via France 24


In April of 1994, an event that, to many, signals the beginning of the Rwandan genocide occurred. An airplane carrying the president of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, along with the president of neighboring Burundi, was shot down near the Kigali Airport. Both men, along with everyone else on board the plane, were killed. Who shot down the plane remains a mystery.


Of course, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, was the first to be blamed. However, some Tutsi blamed the Hutu extremists, believing they were responsible for removing Habyarimana in order to make the RPF look bad or in retaliation for Habyarimana’s recent participation in efforts for a more united Rwanda.


rwandan genocide hotel
The Hotel de Mille Collines, site of the famous movie adaptation Hotel Rwanda, where hundreds of refugees sheltered from the militia. It is still open to tourists today. Image via Go2Africa


The night of the plane crash, Rwandan armed forces and civilian military groups started going from house to house, killing ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutu sympathizers. The Prime Minister of Rwanda, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, was murdered in her home the next day, along with ten Belgian peacekeepers assigned to protect her. With the president’s death, responsibility for the country had fallen into the lap of Madame Uwilingiyimana, a moderate Hutu, and she refused to leave her home and go into hiding. When she was located, she willingly went with the military officers, hoping to protect her five children, who were also in the home. She was shot, and her body was sexually assaulted. Her children did manage to escape, though her husband did not and was also killed.


3. Radio Played a Major Role in Generating Hate

rwandan genocide machete
A Rwandan man carries a machete in May 1994, via Vox


Compounding existing problems, in July 1993, a major radio station in Rwanda began broadcasting propaganda and hate speech targeting Tutsis, moderate Hutu, Belgians, and members of the United Nations. This station was listened to by the public widely across Rwanda and is considered to have played a massive role in creating the atmosphere of racial hate that led to what came the following spring.


4. There Are More Than Two Ethnic Groups in Rwanda

rwandan genocide twa
The Twa people were often perceived to be sympathetic to the Tutsi, resulting in some of them becoming victims of the genocide. Image via Mongabay


Like many other countries in Eastern Africa, often called the “cradle of humankind,” Rwanda has a long history of human habitation. Three ethnic groups have long populated Rwanda, though one, the Twa, make up less than 1% of the population and traditionally lived deep in the forested areas. Only a generation ago, they were subsistence hunters. The two main ethnicities, the Hutu and the Tutsi, make up the majority of Rwanda’s population and are the center of the conflict in question. However, about 10,000 people, or a third of the Twa community at the time, were killed in the genocide. Another third became refugees. The Twa people consider themselves the forgotten victims of the Hutu/Tutsi clash, as no public memorials or recognition commemorates their massive loss.


5. The World Turned Its Back

belgian peacekeeper memorial site
The Belgian Peacekeepers Memorial in Kigali, where 10 Belgian peacekeepers died defending the Prime Minister, via Great Adventures Uganda


After the death of the Belgian peacekeepers who were defending the Prime Minister, Belgium began reducing its physical influence in the country, as did several other countries. It seemed as if the world was turning its back on Rwanda. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, or UNAMIR, which had been formed in 1993 to aid in peacekeeping between the RPF and the Rwandan government, remained but was reduced to only 270 personnel. Later, when countries began coming around and offering more help, controversy and scandal ensued. For example, French troops were accused of playing soccer while people were massacred, supporting Hutu militia, and even participating in the killing of Tutsi.


6. Methods of Murder Were Brutal

rwandan genocide skeletal remains
Skeletal remains of people who sought refuge at a church that now serves as the Ntarama Genocide Memorial in Ntarama, Rwanda, via Encyclopedia Britannica


The genocide raged throughout the summer of 1994. Neighbors killed neighbors; no one was safe. Men, women, children, and even babies of all ages were susceptible to murder by the roving gangs of military and civilian militia forces. It is estimated that about 200,000 people participated in the genocide, though some of these participants were likely unwilling.


rwandan genocide ntarama
Bodies were piled so high inside the Ntarama Catholic Church that it was impossible to open the doors after the massacre. Remains and personal possessions were left to rot. Photograph via Pieter Hugo Official Website


The methods of killing were often quite brutal, using whatever tools were handy. Machetes were commonly used to hack people to death. Civilian militias would set up roadblocks, traverse neighborhoods, and even attack churches in pursuit of victims. Rape was another common occurrence, and it is estimated that up to 250,000 women were raped during the course of the genocide. HIV-positive men were even sought out to deliberately infect victims with the virus and impose suffering on them long after the genocide ended.


7. Sexual Violence Became Recognized As a War Crime

rwandan genocide wanted poster
A wanted poster from the genocide, via the Council of Foreign Relations


Rwanda had years of reconciliation and repair ahead as it attempted to move forward. Not only was the country a mess with the loss of thousands of citizens, it was trying to repair itself politically and had been destroyed economically during the course of the genocide.


However, many felt it was essential to hold those responsible for the massacres accountable. The United Nations helped create the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, or ICTR, which held proceedings in nearby Tanzania. Though the court did not have the power to assign capital punishment, it focused on the leaders of the events and prosecuted their actions as war crimes. It was also the first international body to recognize sexual violence as a war crime. Offenders below the leadership level were prosecuted at the local level.


8. There’s a Museum With Preserved Bodies

rwandan genocide murambi memorial
The Murambi Memorial site in southern Rwanda is known for its graphic display of human remains. Twenty-seven thousand were killed here, with many of the bodies preserved with lime to become part of the memorial. Photograph via Peter Hugo Official Website


Although many genocide memorials populate Rwanda, none are quite like the Murambi Memorial site. The memorial is certainly shocking and was created so deliberately in order to quash genocide deniers and remind the world of the horror that occurred there not so long ago.


At this former school, thousands of Tutsis gathered, hoping to find safety in numbers. Instead, they were met with death as soldiers surrounded the complex and mowed them down. Very few survived, and the dead were buried in mass graves with help from the French. Later, hundreds of these bodies were disinterred, preserved with lime, and in May 2011, were presented to the public just as they had died. Some have looks of shock and horror on their faces, some clutch rosary beads in prayer, and others cradle babies or cover their faces. The bodies are laid out in rows on wooden platforms and are a stark, indelible reminder of the carnage that Rwandans faced in 1994.


9. Thousands of Offenders Have Gone Free

rwandan genocide mourners
Mourners at the 20th-anniversary commemoration of the genocide, via ThoughtCo


Prosecutions of genocide perpetrators would take place well into the twenty-first century. Though justice was seen as served in many cases, prisons became congested with the sheer volume of genocide participants. In March 2004 and February 2007, mass releases of thousands of men convicted of genocide-related crimes were orchestrated in the name of amnesty. It was said that these men perpetrated lesser crimes that they freely confessed to and asked for forgiveness.


rwandan genocide clothes
Looted clothing of genocide victims, via CNN


These people were released to live and work right alongside the fellow citizens they had been charged with attacking just years before, something that didn’t sit well with many people. Some believed that criminals were simply using this opportunity as a chance to get out of prison and hadn’t paid for their actions. Some citizens are forced to live alongside people who had killed members of their family and community just a few years before as if nothing had happened.


10. Recovery Has Been A Struggle

rwandan genocide mugangira
Emmanuel Mugangira, caretaker of the Murambi Memorial Site. His wife, five children, and eight siblings were killed here. Photograph via Pieter Hugo Official Website


In the meantime, the government and economy of Rwanda are slowly recovering, still decades later. Rwanda’s economy is overwhelmingly agricultural. Tourism has been a growing sector, especially in relation to the area’s rare mountain gorillas. Despite progressing growth and a decreasing poverty rate, the country still shows negative trade balances almost thirty years after the genocide.


Life in Rwanda over the past thirty years has been anything but easy. Rwandans continue to work through their legacy of pain and reconstruct their national identity while healing the wounds of the past and memorializing those who were lost during one hundred days of slaughter.

Author Image

By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”