In terms of scope and savagery, few periods in history can compare to the 100 days between April and June in 1994 throughout the landlocked African nation of Rwanda.
The very lowest estimates state that half a million people died during the Rwandan Genocide, though the official governmental statistics top one million deaths. This was brutality on an unimaginable scale as ethnic tension gave way to murder at a speed that not even the Nazis managed to achieve.
The Rwandan Genocide was staggering on so many levels. It managed to draw in many in the population through a steady stream of propaganda that not only underpinned the idea of racial superiority but also the need to exterminate a sizable section of the population.
This was a dark story – let’s be honest, one of the very darkest – with its heinous roots stretching back through the disastrous colonial period and long before. This is a story of two groups, who had lived side by side for hundreds of years and who passed the baton of superiority and racial subjugation between them until it erupted into mass murder on a shocking scale.
The events that erupted in 1994 had been long in the making. The first known settlers in what is present-day Rwanda were the Twa, a group of aboriginal pygmy hunter-gatherers who settled in the area between 8000 BC and 3000 BC. This group remains in Rwanda today, but it was two other groups that the genocide was framed around, the Hutu, and the Tutsi, both of which arrived in the area much later, sometime between 700 BC and 1500 AD.
It’s not entirely clear just how distinct racial differences were, to begin with between the Hutu and the Tutsi. Some argue that the differences were more evident along caste lines with the Tutsi predominantly cattle herders while the Hutu farmed the land. Certainly, at this stage, there was nothing like the bitter hatred that would eventually explode towards the end of the 20th Century.
Over time, groups, or clans, became larger and larger, until Rwanda was composed of eight different Kingdoms by 1700, before eventually merging into the singular Kingdom of Rwanda by the mid-18th Century under a Tutsi King. At this point there began to be quite a clear ethnic divide between the majority Hutu and the minority, yet usually, vastly more powerful Tutsi, who controlled most of the more prestigious roles within the government and military.
This period before colonialism is important to mention, because, while the Germans and then the Belgiums certainly inflamed the situation to deadly proportions, these lines very much existed before their arrival.
At the Berlin Conference of 1884, in which haughty white Europeans carved up the African continent between them, Rwanda was placed under German control, and the new overlords heavily favoured the minority Tutsis for administrative roles because of supposed racial superiority. It must also be said that the Rwandan King at the time was not exactly anti-German and was more than happy to use their military power to his advantage when he saw fit.
Shortly before the end of World War I, Belgium took control of Rwanda and slowly began to impose a much more rigid system of racial segregation than had ever been seen in the country. Rwandans were required to carry identity cards that clearly stated whether they were Hutu, Tutsis or Twa, while the habit of dolling jobs and privileges to only one group – the Tutsis – picked up steam. Over eighty years before the horror of the Rwandan Genocide began, the seeds of resentment and hatred were being sown.
The Rwandan Revolution & Independence
By the 1950s, there was an air of change sweeping through Rwanda. The understandable resentment felt by the Hutu for the supposed racial inferiority now began to bubble to the surface. A Hutu emancipation movement that had begun after World War now began to bear fruit and there were a greater number of Hutus within the educated elite and even within the Catholic clergy.
But this was still small fry when you take into consideration the decades, and even longer depending on how far back you want to go, of subjugation by the ruling Tutsis. One of the biggest sparks of what would come to be known as the Rwandan Revolution was the attack on Dominique Mbonyumutwa, a Hutu politician, by Tutsi extremists on 1st November 1959. While Mbonyumutwa survived, and actually went on to become Rwanda’s first interim president after independence, rumours that he had been killed led to violence as Hutu groups sought revenge.
Suddenly there were attacks from both sides, with Belgium rulers either unwilling or unable to intervene. Elections held in 1960 unsurprisingly returned a huge Hutu majority and quickly led to the King being deposed and forced from the country. In 1962, the country was granted independence, but still, the violence continued with as many as 300,000 Tutsis fleeing the country.
By the 1980s and early 1990s, those who had fled began plotting their return under the banner of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). A series of military conflicts saw the RPF repulsed, while inside Rwanda a simmering distrust and hatred of the Tutsis led to a campaign known as Hutu Power – which can only be really described as horribly racist and the kind of propaganda that a certain moustached fellow from Austria would have been proud of. Under a document labelled the ‘Hutu Ten Commandments’ – the complete supremacy of the Hutu people was set in stone while calling for segregation of the two groups.
So as we reach the gates of hell, we find that Rwanda has come full circle. Those who had long been persecuted as lesser people now held the exact same belief but against the Tutsis. The smouldering powder keg was about to erupt.
The Roots of Genocide
It’s difficult to say exactly where and how far back the roots of the Rwandan Genocide go. Certainly, there had been hatred for some time, but the step from hatred to actively encouraging the attempted extermination of an entire group is a sizable one.
The shooting down of a plane carrying the Hutu President of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, on the 6th April 1994 may have sparked the genocide, but devious forces had been at play years before this. As early as 1990, huge amounts of machetes, razor blades, saws and scissors were imported into the country then distributed around the country under the shadowy guise of a civil defence network. This period also saw the formation and rapid expansion of militias throughout Rwanda, known as Interahamwe (those who stand together) and the Impuzamugambi (those who have the same goal). The military itself also ballooned, though with the RPF repeatedly banging on the door, this was perhaps at least understandable. However, this led to countless badly trained, over-eager recruits joining the military, many of whom were deeply ingrained with the Hutu Power ideology.
It’s clear that things had been escalating for several years and one of the clearest of such examples was that of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, a radio station that broadcast between 9th July 1993 to 31st July 1994. Now, in many ways, this could be considered your typical station that played music but also plenty of angry rants by journalists and politicians. Nothing strange there I hear you say, except that this radio station only ever had one angle. Day after day, night after night, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines broadcast exclusively anti-Tutsi propaganda – often referring to them as cockroaches.
So, things had been bubbling for years now but the volcano erupted with spectacular hatred on 6th April 1994 when the plane carrying Rwanda’s President was shot out of the sky as it prepared to land in Kigali. While the RPF were quickly blamed, the sources and reasons behind the attack have remained up for debate ever since. Take your pick between the RPF, and Rwanda’s current president Paul Kagame, and Hutu extremists who were actively looking to incite genocide.
In the following hours, moderate Hutus who had been looking to stabilize the ship were assassinated, including Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana, President of the Constitutional Court Joseph Kavaruganda, Minister of Agriculture Frederic Nzamurambaho, Parti Liberal leader Landwald Ndasingwa and his Canadian wife, and chief Arusha negotiator Boniface Ngulinzira – any hope of warding off complete catastrophe was fading.
The chaos that had been unfolding in Rwanda for years led to greater and greater calls for international intervention. When the RPF began streaming through the country in the early 1990s, they were eventually halted by two French parachute companies, who were there to protect French civilians on the ground – or so they claim. Over the years it had begun to be perfectly obvious that outside nations were willing to support the Rwandan government against the RPF, and while the French troops weren’t mandated to fight, their appearance in an area that coincidentally blocked the RPF was not a great surprise.
In early October 1993, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 872 which authorised UN Peacekeepers to enter Rwanda and restore order. Troops from Belgium, Bangladesh, Ghana, and Tunisia began arriving shortly after and for those inside the country who saw the way the country was sliding, it must have been a huge morale boost.
Yet things began to go wrong almost immediately. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) arrived in the country with a purely peacekeeping mandate, that came with plenty of words like, ‘monitor’, ‘assist’, ‘observe’ and ‘investigate’. Now, it must be said that UN missions are rarely given offensive orders. They are principally there to keep the peace and to add some international muscle when needed.
And in some places this works – but certainly not in Rwanda in the early 1990s. Shortly after the murder of the Rwandan President, ten Belgian UN soldiers who were escorting Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana were disarmed, tortured and killed.
7th April 1994
What began the following day, on 7th April 1994, is considered the most intense genocide of the 20th Century when deaths and time periods are taken into account, and it was done with a sickening level of organization and savagery. Overnight, checkpoints began appearing in Kigali and other cities, where soldiers and militia demanded to see everybody’s ID card which showed your racial category.
Those identified as Tutsis were often killed on the spot, their bodies dragged into ditches by the side of the road. Military leaders began spreading the news of the Presidents murder – along with an airtight assurance that the Tutsis were to blame – which was typically followed by orders to ‘begin your work’.
Lists of prominent Tutsis were handed out to the military and militias around Rwanda. Those on the death lists were meticulously tracked down and murdered, along with their families, but this was by no means just a small targeted campaign. While those doing the killing were eager to target politicians and well known Tutsis in the early stages, the net was opened almost immediately.
In more rural areas, where there was little to no military or militia, orders were often handed down from the government to local leaders, who in turn placed the responsibility for the murders on ordinary civilians. Such was the ideological brainwashing that had been going on for years, it wasn’t difficult to turn neighbour against neighbour. Those who refused to participate in the violence were often branded as Tutsis sympathisers and killed themselves.
What occurred over the next 100 days was almost unimaginable as anywhere between 500,000 and 1.1 million people died – most of them Tutsis, though that number did include roughly 30% of the Pygmy Batwa living in Rwanda.
As details began to emerge from the country in the first few days they were met with shock and disbelief. For many, it was difficult to comprehend that murder on such a scale was occurring and how well directed it was. The news of the mass killings sparked a macabre race against time as the RPF, renewed by the sickening events unfolding, began pushing south through the country. Quite unbelievably, instead of focusing on the well-armed army heading their way, Hutu militias and the army focused their attention on the remaining Tutsis. This wasn’t simply mass murder, it was a genocide.
The first definitive proof that a genocide was underway, came on 9th April when 110 people of Tutsi identity, including children, were killed in the Polish Pallottine mission church in Gikondo. Present at the site, along with native Rwandans, were Polish priests and two unarmed Polish UN observers, Major Jerzy Mączka and Major Ryszard Chudy who witnessed the Gikondo massacre by up to 100 militiamen. They frantically tried to call the UN base to send assistance but were told that similar cases were occurring throughout the area and that no UN soldiers could be spared.
And sadly this kind of story was repeated time and time again during the Rwandan Genocide. On 11th April, roughly 2,000 people were killed at the École Technique Officielle, a secondary school in Kigali, after UN soldiers assisting them were ordered to leave to help with the evacuation of foreign nationals.
Sexual violence exploded on a staggering scale with estimates of anywhere between 250,000 and 500,000 rapes occurring during this period. And I’m sorry to say, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Large numbers of men with HIV were released from hospitals and formed into rape squads that then effectively trawled the area for victims. If you need an example of just how bad humanity can get, it was these 100 days.
And if you need an example of just how utterly out of its depths the UN can be, it was also this period. While those on the ground certainly did what they could, their orders had effectively tied their hands. They could not intervene and often had to simply stand by as the slaughter unfolded.
There were a few factors that finally brought the genocide to an end in July 1994. To put it bluntly, those responsible were running out of victims. The rate and scope had been so wide, that after just 100 days, perhaps as many as two-thirds of the Tutsis in Rwanda had been murdered.
The other major factor was the bulldozing RPF who swept through the country with staggering ease. Such had been the focus on trying to eliminate the Tutsis from the country, the government, military and militants had allowed their enemies to stream with Rwanda with the assistance of neighbouring Uganda. During this time, the UN made numerous pleas for a ceasefire, which was rejected by both sides. The only thing that seemed to stop the killings in a territory was when it had been liberated by the RPF.
With their authority collapsing, the Rwandan government fled the capital to Gisenyi in the far northwest, but it did little to stem the tide. RPF forces took control of Kigali on 4th July and finally Gisenyi on 18th July.
With the Tutsis now back in control of the country, a huge exodus began, with as many as 2 million Hutu becoming refugees, mainly fleeing into the Congo or Tanzania. And for the sake of balance, it does need to be said that the killing didn’t stop there. Rwanda’s horrifying merry-go-round of violence had turned once again and now it was the Tutsis who began killing indiscriminately. Now, the number of murders during this period were nowhere near what had happened during the previous 100 days, but they certainly did occur, something the new Rwandan government were more than happy to brush under the carpet.
The Rwandan Genocide saw catastrophic failings on all sides that spread well outside the country. The United Nations proved to be little more than a glorified name and their presence in the country, along with their utter failings to protect the Tutsis, came under extreme scrutiny after the events. The United States, that once glorious beacon of hope and perhaps the only country that could have made a significant impact, wanted absolutely nothing to do with another African conflict so soon after their disastrous mission in Somalia which led to the deaths of 18 Americans. While the French were more willing to hide behind their shady desire to retain a French influence in the area than to try and use their political power to stop the genocide.
There is also the rather uncomfortable fact that when war was erupting in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, peacekeepers were deployed significantly faster and in much higher numbers than were ever considered in Rwanda. It seemed as if the rules for genocide in Europe, were vastly different than in Africa.
Nevertheless, this was always a Rwandan issue. Colonialism may have wrenched the Hutu and the Tutsi further apart than ever, but the thirty years between independence and the genocide was nothing short of bedlam that paved the way for what began in April 1994. This is the perfect example of what can happen when ethnicity can be manipulated for political and power gains. Remember, this was not black vs white, or African vs European. The Hutu and Tutsi have lived so side by side for hundreds of years, they share the same language and religion, and apart from a few supposed features, it can be difficult to tell them apart. Yet both of these sides, at very different times, were more than happy to stoke the fear of the supposed other, until it exploded into one of the worst genocides since World War II.