The Rwandan genocide occurred after years of ethnically motivated conflict between two groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis.
The majority, or 85 percent, of Rwanda’s population consists of Hutus, who historically have been farmers, while the ethnic minority, Tutsis were traditionally herdsmen and landowners. For over 600 years, the two groups worked together agriculturally. They now share the same language and culture and have often intermarried.
“People used to be Tutsi or Hutu, depending on the proximity to the king. If you were close to the king, you owned wealth, you owned a lot of cattle, you are a Tutsi. If you are far away from the king, you are a cultivator, you don’t own much cattle, you are a Hutu,” Congolese Professor and historian George Izangola said in an interview with Chalayne Hunter Gault in 1996.
A divide developed between the two ethnicities in the late 19th century, when European colonists introduced the idea of class consciousness and political divide to the area. The Belgians, who ruled the area that would later become Rwanda and Burundi, chose the Tutsis to maintain positions of political power because they considered them more aristocratic in appearance, causing ethnic instability. The colonists forced Hutus and Tutsis to carry ethnic identity cards and only allowed Tutsis to gain higher education levels.
When Rwanda gained its independence in 1962, the Hutu majority lashed out at the Tutsis, causing many to flee to neighboring regions, causing further ethnic instability in the area.
Tension erupted in the small country on Apr. 6, 1994, when a plane carrying the country’s President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down, killing everyone on board.
While it is still unknown who shot the plane, Hutus quickly accused the Tutsis. Within an hour of the crash, Hutu extremist militia groups began setting up roadblocks and barricades and initiated the slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The killings quickly spread throughout the rest of the country, leading to the Rwandan genocide.
Militias were given lists of government opponents, who were slaughtered along with their families. Neighbors killed each other along ethnic divides. Some Hutu men killed their Tutsi wives, fearing that they too would be killed if they refused.
The killings quickly spread throughout the small country, incited by local Rwandan radio stations broadcasting propaganda, a violation of international law.
“All those who are listening rise so we can fight for our Rwanda. Fight with the weapons you have at your disposal: those who have arrow, with arrow, those who have spears, with spears. We must all fight,” Rwandan radio hosts said during broadcasts, according to Peace Pledge Union, inciting others to participate in the killing. “We must all fight the Tutsis. We must finish with them, exterminate them, sweep them from the whole country. There must be no refuge for them. They must be exterminated. There is no other way.”
In 1994, over 800,000 people were massacred in Rwanda, in just 100 days.
From April to July 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic group, systematically targeted and killed members of the Tutsi ethnicity. At the time, identification cards had the ethnic group of each citizen on them, making it difficult for Tutsis to flee the area.
Militants killed Tutsis with machetes, grenades and rifles, blowing up or bulldozing buildings they attempted to take refuge in. Citizens of the nation were encouraged to take part in the carnage, those who refused were forced to participate by militia members or killed.
“I saw people killing each other; neighbors, family, and I didn’t understand what was happening,” businessman Daniel Nsenginmana, 31, said in an interview with Eyewitness News. Nsenginmana was only 9 years old when the genocide began.
“My family is mixed, my mother is a Tutsi and my father is a Hutu, so I’m a Hutu. When the genocide started I was at a flea market near my home and that’s where I saw people going crazy. It was spontaneous, Tutsis were being killed. My features, how I look, they expected me to be Tutsi,” Nsenginmana said in the interview. “They made me lie down and wanted to kill me. They measured my face and my nose and declared I was a Tutsi, but I was saved by someone in the crowd of killers. He knew my father and told them I was Hutu, so they let me go.”
Approximately 250,000 to 500,000 women were raped or assaulted during the conflict, according to the United Nations.
Many women survivors over the age of 12 were raped, gang-raped, attacked, mutilated with acid, or taken away and kept as sex slaves. These events led to rape being recognized as an act of genocide by the international court, according to BBC. Thousands of the women who survived these events are now suffering from HIV or AIDS.
The international response to the atrocities occurring during the Rwandan Genocide was small.
“The failure in Rwanda is 10 times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia. Because in Yugoslavia the international community was interested, was involved. In Rwanda nobody was interested,” former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said in an interview with PBS Frontline.
Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front gained control of the country through a military offensive in early July 1994, bringing an end to the Rwandan genocide.
The RPF established a coalition government after its victory. The country adopted a new constitution in 2003, eliminating the reference to ethnicity in the country.
An estimated 2 million people fled the country after the end of the genocide, creating a humanitarian crisis in neighboring regions due to the influx of refugees.
After the RPF victory, Hutu perpetrators of the violence, their families and supporters fled Rwanda, crowding into refugee camps in neighboring countries.
In October 1994, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established to prosecute the crime of genocide.
The ICTR first began indicting and trying high-ranking officials for their role in the Rwandan Genocide in 1995. The trials were held over a decade and a half, due to the difficulty of finding the suspects involved in the atrocities. In 2008, three former senior defense and military officials were convicted for their role in the violence.
The term genocide was not coined until after 1944. It is sparsely used to describe specific acts of violence, including the 1994 events in Rwanda.
A Polish-Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, first used the term to describe Nazi atrocities during World War II. He formed the word by combining the Greek word, geno, meaning race or tribe, with the Latin term, cide, for killing. It is now used to specifically describe violent crimes committed against a particular group or ethnicity, with the aim of completely destroying their existence.
– Lauren Lewis
Sources: About News, BBC 1, BBC 2, Eyewitness News, History.com, List Land, PBS, Peace Pledge Union 1, Peace Pledge Union 2, Peace Pledge Union 3, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum