The horror of the Rwandan genocide

The story of Rwanda is full of horror. It is the kind that makes you question humanity in general. Genocide of over 20% of Rwanda happened and the international community refused to take notice of it. The end was catastrophic. Within 100 days the whole of Rwanda changed - while the world looked on. This is Rwanda's story. This is Rwanda's horror

According to the dictionary the word ‘Genocide’ comes from the Greek word geno- meaning family, -cide meaning killing. What it actually is, is a deliberate killing of people based on their ethnicity, religion or sometimes just their political inclination as well as other deliberate actions leading to the physical elimination of any of the above.  There exists a disagreement over whether the term genocide ought to be used for politically-motivated mass murders in general, but in common use it simply refers to the deliberate mass murder of civilians.

The Rwanda we see today is different from the one of only more than a decade ago. In 1994 it was a ravaged country which nearly everyone had written off as a ‘failed’ state. The ethnic cleansing in Rwanda was responsible by some estimates, for more than 500,000 people dying, and by others 100,000,000 – and just all of that in approximately 100 days, a 100 days of horror and murders.

Rwanda is a central African state, landlocked and bordered by Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Burundi. Rwanda is one of the few countries in the sub-Saharan Africa which was not an artificial creation of colonialism. The people of Rwanda speak a single language, Kiyarwanda, and comprise a single nationality, Banyarwanda - these consist of three groups, the Hutu, the Tutsi and the Twa. The Tutsis originally came to Rwanda from the Horn of Africa, where they soon subjugated the native Hutus and established a Tutsi monarchy and nobility, while relegating the Hutus to near feudal serfdom. However, these strict ethnic and class boundaries began to blur over time.

In 1890, Rwanda accepted German rule against it without any resistance and thus it became a part of the German East Africa in the late 19th century. A German administrative officer was assigned to Rwanda in the early 20th century but the then rulers had no authority over the dealings of the country and did not start an economic development. After the First World War, the League of Nations mandated Rwanda and Burundi to Belgium which is how it later became a UN trust territory under Belgium.

 According to the plan, Belgians, in the 1950s, encouraged the expansion of democratic political institutions but were resisted by the Tutsis who saw in them as a threat to the Tutsi rule. The Belgians governed the country through the Tutsis who represented the social elite, but withdrew their support when the Tutsis asked for independence. The colonists then sided with the Hutus which led to the Hutu rebellion of 1959. This led to thousands of Tutsis being killed and forced hundreds of thousands to flee.

In certain periods between 1959 and 1994 Tutsis were systematically discriminated against, and several massacres and expulsions of Tutsis took place. In the 1960 elections the Hutu party PARMEHUTU, Parti du Mouvement de l'Émancipation Hutu, won an unexpected victory, and shortly after which the Tutsi King was removed from power. Rwanda in 1961 was thus, a Republic and Grégoire Kayibanda, founder of PARMEHUTU, headed the newly independent state.

In 1978 a new constitution was ratified and Habyarimana was elected president. He was re-elected in 1983 and 1988. In 1988 over 50,000 refugees fled into Rwanda from Burundi. The children of the displaced Tutsis who went into exile in neighboring formed a rebel group known as the Rwanda Patriotic Front, RPF. A couple of years later, invasion from Uganda by the RPF forces was repulsed, but Habyarimana agreed to a new multiparty constitution, which was promulgated in 1991. The rebel force, composed primarily of ethnic Tutsis, blamed the government for failing to democratize and resolve the problems of some 500,000 Tutsi refugees living in diasporas around the world. The war dragged on for almost two years until a cease-fire accord was signed July 12, 1992, in Tanzania, fixing a timetable for an end to the fighting and political talks, leading to a peace accord and power-sharing, and authorizing a neutral military observer group under the auspices of the Organization for African Unity. A cease-fire took effect July 31, 1992, and political talks began August 10, 1992. In early 1993, after Habyarimana signed a power-sharing agreement, Hutu violence broke out in the capital.


On April 6, 1994, the airplane carrying President Habyarimana and the President of Burundi was shot down as it prepared to land at Kigali. Both presidents were killed. This was a kind of indication to the groups that signaled the start of their ethnic cleansing which started from the capital, from the killing of the prime minister and rapidly spread to other parts of the country.

The Hutu militias were armed and ready to kill; the identity cards specifying the ethnicity were now licenses to be killed. More than a hundred thousand people were killed only in the first three weeks of the massacre. The role of media in this situation cannot be denied, particularly by government sponsored radio stations which urged the people to kill them. With the pulling out of the international forces save a few, the killings took place round the clock. The Tutsi refugees who took shelter in the churches and missionary compounds were murdered ruthlessly. By the mid of May 1994, more than 500,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were slaughtered, their bodies strewn about on the streets. The RPF took the capital and on July 4th 1994 the war ended. The RPF took control of the country ravaged by genocide but it was all a bit too late, about 800,000 people had been murdered and 2 million displaced in the genocide which lasted 100 days.

The ambush on the ten Belgian soldiers gave the international community a free way to extract and evacuate their own personnel with no regard to the murder of the innocents on the ground. The UNAMIR, United Assistance Mission for Rwanda Nations, mission formed on October 1993 to aid the accords signed by the two parties and the process of peace, was in the end all but a viewer of the slaughter that took place.

Throughout the crisis, which spanned over a hundred days, the United Nations and United States sat silent on the issue labeling it as a ‘breakdown in the cease-fire between the Hutus and the Tutsi’. The UN General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, famously said, “For us, genocide was the gas chamber - what happened in Germany. We were not able to realize that with the machete you can create genocide”.  In all totality, the Security Council voted unanimously for the abandonment of Rwanda and whatever peacekeeping troops remained, they were pulled out, leaving only a couple of hundred soldiers for the entire country.

To say that the international community mismanaged the crisis culminating in the 100-day genocide would be an understatement. Though the international community responded by having one of the largest relief operations, the damage had already been done. More than 800,000 people had been brutally murdered and slaughtered and several thousands more displaced. The escalating costs of the peacekeeping operations led the UN staff and the members wanting success at a low cost, as did Belgium. When it asked for a stronger mandate it was rebuffed by the United-Kingdom and the United States which refused to support the anything else which might add to the cost. The genocide in Rwanda was thus a result of several elements which included the international community too.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy recently ‘acknowledged that Paris had made serious errors over the Rwandan genocide. His speech was carefully crafted where he talked about not using words and vocabulary to fiddle around, – but rather to indicate towards the unacceptable and demanded reflection from the international community as well as France. Previously both the US and Belgium have apologized for their failure to stop the bloodshed.

Could it have been avoided, no one knows, but everyone knows the part played by the international community for avoiding it could have been much greater.

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