The Shocking Rwanda Genocide, a Modern-Day Holocaust

Rwanda Genocide mass graves
Rwanda Genocide mass Tutsi graves

We never think of Genocide as a modern event.  We’ve finally evolved beyond that as humans, haven’t we?  It’s what happened to the Armenians in World War I at the hands of the Turks, and the Jewish Holocaust in World War II at the hands of the Nazis.  But the Rwandan Genocide happened just 25 years ago.  In 1994, in just 100 gruesome days, nearly 1,000,000 people were slaughtered by ethnic Hutu extremists. They targeted the minority Tutsi community, as well as any unlucky sympathizers.

Instigated by Hutu nationalists in the capital of Kigali, the genocide spread through the country like a windswept wildfire, with shocking brutality.  Ordinary citizens were incited by “Hutu Power” militias to take up arms against their own neighbors. By the time the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) gained control of the country in July, nearly a million Rwandans laid dead.  2 Million Hutu refugees had fled the country.

How on earth could this have happened in modern times?

Rwanda is a small, central African nation, about the size of Denmark, located just south of the Equator. Its neighbors are the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west, Uganda to the north, Tanzania to the east, and Burundi to the south. In 1994, the population was about 7 million, 85 percent the Hutu ethnic group and 15 percent the Tutsi minority.  It was also one of the most densely populated countries in all of Africa.

In 1918 after WWI, Rwanda was made a Belgium Trusteeship by the League of Nations.  During this colonial period, the Belgians favored the minority Tutsis over the Hutus, causing decades of tension and resentment.  A Hutu nationalist revolution in 1959 forced over 300,000 Tutsis to flee to neighboring countries, making them an even smaller minority in Rwanda. After a United Nations referendum, Belgium granted Rwanda independence in 1962.

Ethnic and class violence continued, even following independence. The Tutsis remaining in Rwanda were now discriminated against as inferior people by the new Hutu controlled government. Ironically, they all spoke the same Bantu language and practiced the same Christian religions, established while they were a Belgian colony.

In 1973, a military coup placed General Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu, in power. He was the sole leader of Rwanda for the next 20 years. Habyarimana founded the political party of the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (NRMD). He was reelected in ‘83 and ‘88.  In all cases, Habyarimana was the only candidate on the ballot however.

In 1990, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), consisting of armed Tutsi rebels, invaded from Uganda.  A ceasefire in 1992 led to negotiations between Kigali leaders and the RPF.  Just a year before the genocide, Habyarimana agreed to a government that would include the RPF.  The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was established to assist in the implementation. This only infuriated Hutu extremists and, coupled with decades of discrimination and hatred, lit the fuse of genocide.

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying General Habyarimana and Burundi’s president Ntaryamira was shot down over Kigali, leaving no survivors. Who were the culprits?  Hutu extremists blamed the RPF and immediately started a campaign of killing Tutsis. The RPF blamed the Hutus, saying they shot down the plane to provide an excuse for the killings.

Within an hour of the crash, members of the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) and 2 Hutu militia groups, the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi, set up barricades in Kigali and started killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus.  The next day, moderate Hutu Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana and 10 Belgian Peacekeepers were also killed. This left a huge political vacuum, into which extremist “Hutu Power” militia leaders quickly stepped in.

The killing of the 10 UN Peacekeepers, provoked Belgium to withdraw nearly all its UN troops.

The mass killings in Kigali quickly spread into a wholescale slaughter of Tutsis in the Rwanda countryside. Armed by the NRMD, the Interahamwe, comprised mostly of young ‘Hutu Power’ men, were the driving force of the genocide.   ID cards had people’s ethnic group stamped on them, so it was all too easy. Militias with long machetes slaughtered Tutsi were they stood, leaving the bloodied corpses behind in streets and houses.

By April 18th, they’d killed most of the regional resisters. Any other opponents fell silent out of fear and allowed the killings to proceed. Hutu militias rewarded its killing squads with booze, drugs, money and women.  Long lists of Tutsi names were handed out by the military.  Militias then went house to house, dragged them out, and hacked them to death in the streets.  This included all family members, including children and the elderly.  The long-bladed machete became the Rwandan symbol of genocide.

Hutu extremists set up a radio station, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), which broadcast daily hate propaganda, urging Hutus to “Squash the (Tutsi) Cockroaches.” The names of prominent Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers to be killed were read out loud. Radio hosts reminded the Hutus of the slave-like discrimination they suffered under the elite TutsisThey called on ordinary Hutu civilians to arm themselves and murder their Tutsi neighbors.

“All Tutsis must perish They will vanish from this country.”  

RTLM broadcast

The genocide was supported by the army and government.  Civilian Hutus collaborated with the genocide and handed over their Tutsis, moderate Hutu neighbors and anyone who sympathized with them. And neighbors did in fact, kill neighbors.  Some Hutu husbands even murdered their Tutsi wives, saying they’d be killed if they refused. Even some Hutu clergy killed Tutsis who took shelter in their churches.

“You cockroaches are made of flesh.  We will kill you.  The graves are not yet full.”

RTLM broadcast

Where was the rest of the world while this massacre was going on?  Unlike the earlier genocides of the 20th century, Rwanda’s was broadcast internationally on television.  Journalists and reporters from dozens of networks and newspapers covered the events daily, including the BBC, CNN, Washington Post and New York Times.  So the world knew of this genocide from its first day to its last.  

After a year of losing troops in Somalia, the US did not wish to get involved in another bloody African conflict. Despite the press, the Clinton Administration avoided calling the massacre a “Genocide” to evade US involvement. They said that there were no US interests in Rwanda, so it was not their place to interfere.   Military intervention was never on the table.

The international community as well largely remained on the sidelines.   Despite UNAMIR’s warnings, the UN Security Council voted in April not to intervene, and instead pulled their forces out.   Almost overnight, 4,500 UNAMIR Peacekeepers on the ground in Kigali were reduced to a mere 260, providing the Tutsi no protections and the Hutu’s free reign to continue killing.

Not until over 500,000 Rwandans had been slaughtered did the UN finally recognize that “Acts of Genocide” had been committed.  The Security Council voted a month later in May 1994 to resupply more than 5,500 troops.  This was delayed however due to arguments over the costs and who would pay for it.  But by the time the UN force could mobilize and arrive, the Genocide was all but over. 

In their greatest hour of need, the world failed the people of Rwanda.”

Kofi Annan

The Tutsi RPF resumed fighting, and so a Civil War raged alongside the genocide. 100 bloody days later, on July 4th, the RPF forces finally gained control over Kigali and most of country. This time, more than 2 million Hutus now fled Rwanda for fear of Tutsi reprisals.  They crowded into refugee camps in neighboring Congo, Burundi and Tanzania. They left behind almost a million corpses.  Macheted bodies lay everywhere – in the streets, in the ditches, in homes.

Hutu's flee Rwanda as refugees
Hutu’s flee Rwanda as refugees

In just 3 months, by the end of the 100-day killing spree, over 800,000 had been slaughtered. An estimated 250,000 Tutsi women were raped, murdered, or taken away and kept as sex slaves.  It’s estimated that nearly 100,000 children were orphaned, abducted or abandoned. 26% of the Rwandan people still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) today due to witnessing the genocide.

Human rights groups say RPF fighters next killed thousands of Hutus in retaliation as they took power.  The RPF denies this. They established a coalition government with a Hutu president and a Tutsi VP, RFP leader Paul Kagame, who also served as the new Defense Minister.  General Habyarimana’s NRMD party was outlawed.  Now they faced the enormous task of dealing with the bodies of almost 1 million victims.

Mass graves were dug in every town and city.

After the RFP victory, UNAMIR finally returned; remaining there until 1996, as one of the largest humanitarian relief efforts in world history.  Due to worsening conditions in the Congo and Tanzania refugee camp, more than a million Hutu refugees returned home to Rwanda by 1997.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established as an extension of The Hague.  It was the first international tribunal since the post-WWII Nazi Nuremburg Trials.  Community courts, known as Gacaca, were created to speed up the prosecution of suspects.  12,000 Gacaca courts met weekly in towns across Rwanda, trying more than 1.2 million cases.  Their aim was to achieve both justice and reconciliation among Rwandans.

A new constitution in 2003 eliminated any reference to Hutu or Tutsi ethnicity. This was followed by Paul Kagame’s election as President, and the first-ever legislative elections in the country’s history.  He was re-elected in 2010 and again in 2017 by wide margins. The Genocide Trials continued over the next 15 years.  The Tribunal has indicted 93 Hutus and convicted 62 of war crimes, acts of genocide, and rape.

So what about Rwanda since?  The Tribunal closed at the end of 2015.  President Kagame has been hailed for transforming the devastated country by encouraging economic growth, including better healthcare and a new technological hub.  But his critics say he is also a repressive dictator and does not tolerate dissent or political opposition. 

The Oscar nominated 2004 movie, HOTEL RWANDA, depicts the efforts of Kigali Hutu Paul Rusesabagina, manager of the Belgian owned Hôtel des Mille Collines. His wife is a Tutsi and he manages to shelter other Tutsi refugees in his 4 star hotel, until they can be evacuated by a UN convoy.  American actor Don Cheadle portrayed him.

So could such an atrocity happen again, elsewhere in this world, today?  Say, in a deeply divided country, with decades of resentment between opposite sides, half the population angry and heavily armed, just waiting for the seeds of Fear and Hatred to ignite the flame of deadly violence yet again?  Let us certainly hope not, as it sounds all too familiar.

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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