The Forgotten & Disregarded Rwandan Genocide

One of the most horrific episodes of the 20th century – the Rwandan Genocide.

Aug 5, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
rwandan genocide forgotten disregarded

 

The Western media did not prioritize the buildup and the clear signs of danger that were coming out of the tiny African nation of Rwanda during the civil war taking place there. A seemingly impotent United Nations stood by and did very little, virtually abandoning its troops on the ground and resigning the Rwandans to their fate.

 

In the news, it was just another civil war in Africa, but in 1994, over the course of a hundred days, the war became a genocide as hundreds of thousands of innocents were lost in one of the most depraved episodes of human history.

 

The Rwandan Genocide was a searing indictment of Western priorities and one of the greatest tragedies ever to befall humankind.

 

WARNING: This article contains disturbing images of death and violence.

 

The Origin of the Hutus and the Tutsis

rwanda map africa
A map of Rwanda and surrounding areas, via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

The two main groups involved in the Rwandan genocide were the Hutus and the Tutsis. There are various theories of the origin of the two tribal groups, and as yet, no hard evidence to support a single, solid story. Nevertheless, the popular theory is that the people who became the Hutu settled in the Great Lakes Region during the Bantu expansion millennia ago.

 

It is thought that the Tutsis originated from the northeast rather than the northwest, and it is proposed that the Tutsis were originally a Nilotic people who settled in Rwanda over 400 years ago, establishing a monarchy and ruling over the native population. Some academics, however, point out that this is possibly just a legend to justify racist practices. Rwanda’s history is largely undocumented. Today, centuries of intermarriage have blurred genetic distinctions, and the split between Tutsi and Hutu in modern times cannot be justified on any basis of genetics.

 

This split, however, still exists, and it existed in force for decades before the genocide began. This split was based mainly on perceptions exacerbated by a class divide. Before the Belgians took over, the Tutsis had ruled Rwanda since the 15th century. They were seen as aristocracy, while the Hutus were seen as commoners.

 

This image was exacerbated by terminology that classified Tutsis as pastoralists while many Rwandans were classified as Hutu simply because they grew crops instead of raising cattle. Many differences were created by colonizers in order to better differentiate societal or ethnic groups for ease of categorization in censuses.

 

Background to the Rwandan Genocide

belgium rwanda leaders
Grégoire Kayibanda (center), the first elected president of Rwanda, with Belgian and other African leaders in 1961; via AFP / Getty

 

The seeds for the genocide in Rwanda were laid by the Belgians many decades before. The colonial oppressors had little regard for the lives of their newly acquired subjects. Apart from committing genocide in the Congo, they engaged in policies of tribal categorization that created further divides between the Hutus and the Tutsis.

 

During the time of Belgian rule, Belgian authorities delegated power to the Tutsis, but a revolt in 1959 led the Belgians to grant power to the Hutus instead, who consolidated power by spreading (mis)information on the origins of the Tutsis, claiming that they were foreigners. In 1962, Rwanda gained independence along with neighboring Burundi, and three decades of festering hatred built up with sporadic violence between the two groups.

 

peacekeepres romeo dallaire
General Roméo Dallaire (right) made the UN aware of what was going to happen in Rwanda; from Roméo Dallaire via Canada’s History

 

In 1990, a civil war broke out as the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda from Uganda in a bid to take control of the government and end violence against the Tutsi minority. Within this context of war, the situation in Rwanda spiraled into an unresolvable vortex of ethnic hostility.

 

Hatred blossomed in the early 1990s, with dangerous statements being commonplace. Senior Hutu politician Leon Mugesera referred to the Tutsis as cockroaches – a textbook example of the dehumanizing speech that precedes genocide. The term spread among the Rwandan populace and became the preferred terminology by the perpetrators to refer to their victims.

 

Technically, the war ended in 1993 with the signing of the Arusha Peace Accords, a peace treaty and a power-sharing agreement. The government was supposed to become democratized, and it was intended for Tutsi exiles to be re-integrated into Rwandan society.

 

With the signing of the Arusha Peace Accords, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was created to oversee the implementation of the agreements.

 

romeo dallaire children
General Roméo Dallaire, whose warnings went unheeded and who continued to provide whatever help he could to the victims in Rwanda; via Facebook

 

In the months before the genocide, radical Hutus began stockpiling the weapons necessary to carry out acts of genocide. A catalyst to this was the establishment of the pro-Hutu radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), which espoused racist ideology, including the Hutu Ten Commandments, which dehumanized the Tutsis.

 

By the time the genocide started, all the signs were clear and went largely ignored by those who could have helped or even stopped it from happening. In January 1994, UNAMIR commander Canadian General Roméo Dallaire sent a report detailing the dangerous conditions in Rwanda, but his warnings went ignored. The UN sent no relief and made no attempt to stop the apparent intention of genocide.

 

The Rwandan Genocide

hutu victim sympathizer
A Hutu man mutilated by the Hutu Interahamwe militia who suspected him of sympathizing with the Tutsi rebels; from James Nachtwey, commissioned by Magnum Photos for Time

 

On April 6, 1994, the spark that would ignite the flame occurred. President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira were assassinated after their plane was shot down over Kigali International Airport. Both presidents were Hutu, and the backlash this incident created was chillingly well-organized. To this day, it is unknown who is responsible.

 

Armed gangs of militants began roaming the streets, killing moderate politicians in Rwanda’s capital Kigali. The prime minister, and legitimate successor to the presidency, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, was one of the victims. Within hours, any hope for moderate elements within Rwanda’s government had been eliminated, and the unimaginable could take place virtually unopposed by the government.

 

The “Interahamwe,” initially the youth wing of the governing National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development, began the killings under the direction of its leader, Robert Kajuga. Although many militia groups were not technically part of Interahamwe, the term became widened to include any groups involved in perpetrating the mass killings.

 

The targets were the ethnic Tutsi and the minority Twa peoples, as well as moderate Hutus identified or at least presumed to be Tutsi sympathizers.

 

victim bodies rwanda
The bodies of victims; from James Nachtwey for Time, via Time

 

Thousands of people fled to churches, where they presumed they would be protected, but ended up being betrayed by religious leaders. The speed at which people were being killed outstripped the rate of killing during the Holocaust, as roving bands equipped with automatic weapons and machetes methodically worked their way through entire neighborhoods. UNAMIR was not spared either. In addition to the Rwandan staff being targeted, ten Belgian paratroopers were found dead, prompting the Belgians to withdraw from the mission while urging other contributing nations to do the same.

 

The UN refused to send reinforcements, with the US and the UK vetoing the idea. Meanwhile, Dallaire and his team were forbidden from intervening with force. They did everything they could to save as many lives as possible, but it was a small drop in an ocean of rampage.

 

skulls victims rwandan genocide
The remains of those who sought refuge in a church are laid out as a memorial; via AP/ Ben Curtis

 

Instead, a new mission, UNAMIR II, would be created, but it would only arrive in Rwanda in May after months of killing had passed. By the time the 5,500 troops of the UNAMIR II mission arrived, around 800,000 people had been murdered, aside from the other brutalities, including many thousands of cases of rape and sexual abuse.

 

Amid the frenzy, the civil war had reignited, and troops of the RPF fought their way to victory to seize control of the government and end the killings. On July 4, 1994, they took Kigali. The mobs of killers had been pushed back across the border into Zaire, and with the help of troops of the UN, order was slowly restored to the ravaged country.

 

Reckoning

leon mugesera arrest
The arrest of Leon Mugesera, who played a significant part in inciting the genocide. He was taken into custody in 2012 – 18 years after the genocide; via AFP / Getty Images

 

To punish the perpetrators, courts were set up. Senior perpetrators were tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), while the Rwandan Gacaca courts tried suspects of lesser crimes. Millions of witnesses gave testimonies in mandatory hearings as whole communities came forth to tell their stories and corroborate evidence.

 

Many tried to escape their fate by fleeing and hiding, but hunts went on to find the high-level perpetrators and bring them to justice.

 

rwandan genocide memorial
Part of the Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali, via The Common

 

“The genocide in Rwanda should never, ever have happened. But it did. The international community failed Rwanda, and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret and abiding sorrow.”

– The UN’s Secretary General, Kofi Annan

 

For Rwanda, the pain is remembered in memorials and commemorative actions that honor the victims and condemn the violence. Today, Rwanda is still in the process of healing but has made great strides in reconciliation and has recovered economically to having one of the most promising futures of all the countries in Africa.

 

victims photographs memorial
Photographs of some of the victims, via the Financial Times

 

For Roméo Dallaire, the episode was one that would force him to become a bystander in one of history’s worst atrocities. He had PTSD, turning to alcohol abuse before finally recovering and taking a seat in the Canadian Senate, where he has fought tirelessly in humanitarian issues, advocating for aid to those affected by ethnic violence.

Author Image

By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.