Rwandan Genocide – Summary, Death Toll, & Facts
In 1994, armed group of Rwandan Hutus butchered close to one million people, with majority of those deaths inflicted upon the Tutsi minority group. The Rwandan genocide is reasoned to have begun in the Rwandan capital city of Kigali before quickly spreading to other parts of the east-central African nation.
In what was undoubtedly an ethnic cleansing of the Tutsi minority, the bloodshed was primarily fueled by highly inflammable words and speeches from leading Hutu community officials and extremist members of the ruling Hutu government. Hutu communities were incited to arm themselves and slaughter their Tutsi neighbors.
A Tutsi-led militia – the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) – ultimately took control of the situation. In addition to the over two million refugees that genocide created, human rights group estimate that the conflict claimed close to a million lives.
How did the Rwandan Genocide happen? And who were some of the ringleaders of the genocide? Below World History Edu presents all the gruesome facts about the Rwandan genocide, an indelible scar not just inflicted on Rwandans but on the entire human society.
Ethnic and political landscape of Rwanda before the genocide
From 1897 to 1918, Rwanda formed part of the German East African territory. Following the end of World War I, control of the country was placed in the hands of Belgium.
Due to the Belgian colonial government’s strong inclination to favor the Tutsi minority over the Hutu majority, who made up about 80% of the country’s population, tensions flared up. Much of that division was sown by the Belgian colonists, who made sure that the ethnicities of Rwandans were boldly written on the identity cards they made the Rwandans carry.
Tensions between those two ethnic groups peaked when some high-ranking members of the Hutu majority started calling for the systematic elimination of the influence Tutsi groups had in the country. For example, in 1959, a group of Hutus carried out attacks on Tutsis, forcing close to half a million Tutsis to leave the country. Less than two years later, a leading Tutsi chief committed himself to exile as Rwanda became independent under a Hutu-majority government.
In the three decades that followed, clashes between the Hutus and Tutsis would continue for quite some time, even though the country was led by a moderate Hutu military leader, Major General Juvenal Habyarimana.
It was not uncommon for the Hutus to accuse Tutsi ethnic of marginalizing the rest of the population. The Tutsis were scapegoated for every problem that plagued Rwandan. And quite frankly, the Hutu-led government used that to hide their gross mismanagement of the economy.
With every passing year of Habyarimana presidency and the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (NRMD), minority Tutsis felt more and more marginalized. In 1990, exiled Tutsi forces and armed moderate Hutu refugees known as the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) marched into Rwanda and caused a significant amount of chaos.
In response, the Hutu-led government rounded up scores of Tutsi residents they believed facilitated RPF’s invasion. Thousands of Tutsis were imprisoned and massacred. Tensions only calmed down after the RPF and government agreed to a ceasefire.
As a sign of his government’s commitment to the peace deal, Habyarimana agreed to set up a transition government with the leaders of the RPF. The August 1993 deal (at Arusha, Tanzania) with the RPF was met with enormous outrage from the far right Hutu wing, who considered Habyarimana a traitor to their cause.
How did the Rwandan genocide happen?
The Hutu extremists who wanted nothing than to see the overthrow of Habyarima had their wishes fulfilled when on April 6, 1994, Habyarimana perished in a plane crash in Kigali, the Rwandan capital city. Aboard the plane was also the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira.
Up to this day it is unclear which ethnic group shot down Habyarimana’s plane. What was apparently clear was that tensions between the two rival ethnic groups got to an all-time high following the plane crash.
As Hutus and Tutsis accused each other of bringing down the president’s plane, violence swept through Kigali. The Presidential Guard and armed Hutu militiamen mounted roadblocks across Kigali, wantonly apprehending and killing Tutsis.
The Hutu militias that perpetrated most of the earlier massacres were called the Interahamwe (“Those Who Attack Together”) and Impuzamugambi (“Those Who Have the Same Goal”). Tutsis weren’t the only victims of the early massacres, moderate Hutus were also slaughtered, including Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana.
Shivers were sent down the spine of the international community when 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed on April 7. Belgium quickly withdrew all its peacekeeping forces and suspended aid to the east-central African country. Other nations followed suit and evacuated its citizens in the country.
With moderate Hutu members either dead or arrested, the Hutu extremists took control of the capital in mid-April. International peacekeeping forces only had the mandate to defend themselves. For some reasons still unknown to this day, the peacekeepers could not step in to stop the senseless bloodshed, as violence engulfed Rwanda.
Full-scale ethnic cleansing begins
As violence and death spread across the country, there were a few local officials in the countryside that tried their hardest to shield and protect the Tutsis that lived in their districts. The ruling Hutu forces in Kigali made sure that made an example of Hutus that sympathized with the sufferings of the Tutsi. And so by the close of April that year, there was no one bold enough to stand in the way of the Hutu-led massacre.
To hasten the killings, Hutu leaders even incentivized the Hutu communities with drugs, money and alcohol to kill their Tutsi neighbors. Some Hutus committed those heinous crimes in order to appropriate the properties of their Tutsi neighbors.
On almost every Hutu-affiliated radio stations, Hutu leaders encouraged the civilian population to turn against their Tutsi neighbors. In just under a quarter of a year, more than 800,000 people died, mostly Tutsis.
Seeking to turn the tide in their favor, the RPF took the fight to the Hutu forces in the capital. Therefore, in addition to the ethnic cleansing that was going on across the nation, Tutsi-led forces battled against Hutus in what ultimately became a full-blown civil war.
It took the RPF less than a couple of months to drive out the Hutu government from Kigali; subsequently, other areas in Rwanda fell into the hands of the RPF.
Afraid that the RPF would carry out vindictive attacks against them, over two million Hutus crossed into refugee camps in neighboring countries, most of them fled into the Democratic Republic of Congo (known back then as Zaire).
Once Hutu forces had been neutralized by the RPF, a peace accord was set on the table. The RPF agreed to a power sharing deal that saw a Hutu – Pasteur Bizimungu – become president. The position of vice president was given to Paul Kagame, a Tutsi military leader and the commander of the RPF.
It was also agreed that Kagame would serve as the minister of defense. In effect, Kagame was the de facto leader of the country, even though he was the vice president.
As part of the peace accord between the RPF and the Hutus, the NRMD party was banned. Arrangements were also made for a new constitution, which was ultimately adopted a decade later, in 2003.
After President Pasteur Bizimungu was dismissed in 2000, Kagame became president, and in 2003, he was elected for a 7-year term. The former military leader would go on to get re-elected in in 2010 and 2017, making him one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders of the early 21st century.
Why was there no intervention from the international community?
As stated above, Belgium as well as other European nations pulled out from Rwanda the moment things got very tense. Ordinary Rwandans were left to fend for themselves in situation that called on them to either kill or get killed. Amidst all the bloodshed, the international community failed to act, or perhaps was too weak to take any concrete actions.
To make matters worse, a United Nations Security Council resolution, passed in April 1994, resulted in the removal of vital peacekeeping forces (i.e. the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda – UNAMIR). The UNAMIR came into Rwanda following the Arusha Peace Accord of 1993 in order to maintain order in the country.
With many of the UNAMIR forces gone, Hutu-led militia could go on the rampage slaughtering thousands of unarmed Tutsis. And once there RPF had taken control of most parts of the country, there was no peacekeeping force to stop them from carrying out retribution attacks against the Hutu civilian population.
It was perhaps too little too late when the Security Council agreed to send 5,000 troops to Rwanda in May, 1994. Some lives were saved by the separate U.N. French troops that made their way into Rwanda in June that year. Those troops were praised for their tireless humanitarian work around the southwestern corridor of the country. It was also alleged that some of the French troops lent a helping hand to a number of Hutu fighters as they fled the advancing forces of the RPF.
It remains unclear why the international community took so long to step in to end the bloodshed. When it had become apparently clear that the citizens of Rwanda were let down, some global powers tried to make amends by shipping tons of relief aid to the survivors of the genocide. The humanitarian efforts in the aftermath of the genocide would go down as one of the largest the world has ever seen.
Rwandan Genocide Court Trials and Convictions
In a bid to bring all the Rwandan genocide plotters to book, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was set up in the fall of 1994. Located in The Hague, the Netherlands, the tribunal was the first since the Nuremburg Trials of the mid-1940s. The goal of the prosecutors and investigators was to try persons that were in any shape or form in perpetrating the genocide as well heinous crimes against the Rwandan people.
The tribunal indicted some very high-ranking members of the Hutus as well as some from the RPF. The process was very daunting and complex, making the wheels of justice to grind very slowly. The prosecution process as further complicated by the fact that the whereabouts of some of the persons indicted remained unknown for quite some time. With mounting pressure from rights groups and global organizations, the prosecutors had to act fast.
Rwandan Genocide: the first conviction
In September 1998, after about four years of prosecution, the ICTR announced its first conviction. Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former teacher and then-mayor of Taba commune in Gitarama prefecture, was convicted for the role he played in inciting both civilians and the police in his commune to slaughter, rape and abuse Tutsis. Witness testimonies placed Akayesu as the local official who personally supervised the killings of Tutsis in Taba.
Led by Pierre-Richard Proper, Prosecutors argued that he stand trial for 15 counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. Akayesu was found guilty by the tribunal of 9 counts for the Rwandan genocide and other crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on October 2, 19998.
The tribunal continued trying several others accused of the genocide; in 2008, the tribunal convicted three former high-ranking members of the Rwandan military. The convictions were vital in helping the victims of the genocide take a step forward in the healing process.
Facts about the Rwandan Genocide
- Such was the scale and wave of the massacre that it took just about 100 days for an estimated 800,000 Rwandans to die.
- Everyone on board the plane that was carrying then-President Juvenal Habyarimana, and then-Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira died on the night of 6 April 1994. Both presidents were Hutus.
- It has been stated that some spouses had to kill their Tutsi spouse least they be killed by Hutu militias.
- The Tutsis that took refuge in churches ended up dying at the hands of Hutu militias, as some religious men revealed their hiding location. In some cases, the churches were blown up, or the Hutus lined them up and slaughtered their way through.
- The Hutu militias gave out weapons to local Hutu extremists to go around butchering people. They were tasked to “pick out the Tutsis like cockroaches”.
- It is interesting to note that the two ethnic groups – Hutus and Tutsis – are quite similar. Both speak the same language and have very similar traditions. Some local historians claim that the Tutsis can trace their origins to Ethiopia. Compared to the Hutus, the minority Tutsis are generally taller and thinner.
- Another shocking revelation of the Rwandan genocide was that as the violence swept through the country, some Hutu extremists dumped the bodies of Tutsis in rivers, hoping that their bodies will float back to Ethiopia.
- To spread their hateful propaganda, the Hutu extremists leaders established a radio station, as well as local newspapers. Often times, their targets or hitlist were announced on radio. Weapons and hit-lists were handed out to local groups, who knew exactly where to find their targets.
- According to human rights groups, the RPF pursued many of the Hutu militias all the way into neighboring DR Congo. The continued presence of those groups has devastated DR Congo and other neighboring regions to the extent that it claimed the lives of over five million people in the decades following the Rwandan genocide. Periodically, the Tutsi-led government in Kigali launch attacks in the DRC in a bid to force those Hutu groups away from the border regions.
- Leading RPF members, including Paul Kagame, have on several occasions blamed France for supporting the Hutu militias. France has categorically denied having any link or involvement in the carnage caused by the Hutus.
- The current Rwandan Constitution bans the people from talking about ethnicity. The government believes that this is to prevent a reoccurrence of the bloodshed.