Kwibuka: Remembering the 1994 Rwandan Genocide

Sign Outside of Nyamata Memorial Church | Courtesy of Hyypolite For Peace Foundation
Sign Outside of Nyamata Memorial Church | Courtesy of Hyypolite For Peace Foundation

The Rwandan Genocide in 1994 unleashed 100 days of absolute terror. Between April 6th and mid July 1994, it is estimated that close to a million people, men, women, and children, were slaughtered, in their homes, on the streets, in churches, often by people they knew. Despite these massive human rights violations, international intervention was seriously inadequate. Though the United Nations had peacekeeping troops in Rwanda since October 1993, they were withdrawn after the start of the genocide rather than reinforced, enabling the extermination of a majority of the Tutsi population. Many factors played into this inadequate response, including a heavy reliance on the Arusha Accords to provide peace. However, without proper support, this promise of peace and transition to democracy, instead provided for the mobilization of extremists in the government to plan the genocide. First, internationally there was only a superficial understanding of the complex history of Rwanda and of the recent three year civil war. Few realized the complexity of Hutu and Tutsi relations that had been transformed first by German colonizers and then by the Belgians. Next, many Hutu who supported the Arusha Accords were killed or were targeted, this included the genocide’s first victim: the Prime Minister, who was Hutu, creating some serious confusion about the events on the ground in the first few days. Third, the masterminds of the genocide, the Rwandan Government with the Rwandan Army, had a seat on the United Nations Security Council and were able to construct a narrative in which they defined themselves as the ones under attack. Finally, one of the hardest issues to overcome was the combination of all of these into a perfect storm, especially when the United Nations and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, DPKO, sat on, and ignored, information they had received months earlier of the impending massacres.

The rift between Hutu and Tutsi was not always as defined. It had began more as a label of class and occupation rather than of distinctively separate ethnicity, with Hutu meaning farmers and Tutsi meaning shepherds or herders. In his book Re-Imagining Rwanda, Johan Pottier, a professor of social anthropology in London, states that before 1860 the context in which Hutu, Tutsi, (and Twa, less than one percent of the population), were used is unclear.1 This idea makes the concept of being one or the other, in terms of ethnicity, a modern construct. After 1860, the labeling of the people became more used under the Tutsi King Rwabugiri, when he began to implement two institutions: one of cattle ownership, ubuhake, and one of labor, uburetwa. This made the line between Hutu and Tutsi become more distinct as uburetwa fell only to those who were Hutu, though some Hutu of higher economic status were permitted into ubuhake. Nevertheless, this system allowed for upward mobility through marriage or alliances, as it was still about wealth and not ethnicity. Furthermore, there was cooperation within the leadership of districts, as one Hutu, a land chief, and one Tutsi, a cattle chief, were appointed. With help from an army chief, the men ran their distinct parts independently of each other and even relied upon the other for insight when needed. Unfortunately, the Belgians eradicated the tripartite structure in 1926, wrongly believing that it would en mass help the Hutu population. With the census in 1930, the divide was consolidated and printed on the identification cards where Hutu and Tutsi were used as an ethnic markers. Instead of helping Hutu, it took away the their voice in government. With Belgium supporting the Tutsi rule until independence, resentment of the rule by the Tutsi minority grew among Hutu. It was not until international pressure during the Hutu uprising in the late 1950s that the Belgians changed sides, fostering massacres which in turn caused many Tutsi to flee to Uganda.2

By the late 1980s, exiled Rwandans represented almost 60,000 people living in surrounding countries. With the exception of Tanzania, every where else refugees became the target of hostility because the land and services they received as taken away from the countries in which they were. After attempts of the refugees to return home, the Rwandan government claimed to be over populated and unable to take back the refugees in 1986, ultimately pushing them back into Uganda. In 1988, Washington D.C reaffirmed the refugees’ right to return home and negotiations began.3 Unfortunately, it was taking much longer than those in limbo wanted and they began their campaign to return home on their terms. With military experience from fighting within the Ugandan National Resistance Army, Tutsi, as well as some Hutu that had been exiled or fled, created the Rwandan Patriotic Front, RPF, and entered Rwanda in October of 1990, with the goals of “promotion of national unity and reconciliation, the installation of a genuine democracy, the establishment of an integrated and self-sufficient economy, the eradication of all forms of corruption and, quite significantly, relegating the question of repatriation of the refugees to sixth position.”4 The RPF was such a formidable foe, that the French, who helped educate, train, and in part fund the Rwandan Army, had staged interventions twice, once in October 1990 and again in February 1993, to push the RPF troops back. Ultimately, it was decided a diplomatic solution would avoid fighting against the RPF who had proven to be a force to be reckoned with.5 Eventually, this lead to the negotiation of the Arusha Accords, which outlined what was supposed to be the country’s transition to democracy. To support the transition of the government, United Nation peacekeepers were sent under Chapter VI of the United Nations Charter to maintain peace within the country and ‘secure’ the transition.

Roméo Dallaire’s Book in which he painstaking recounts his time in Rwanda | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This mission, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), was under the command of General Roméo Dallaire, a Canadian. A Chapter VI mandate allows for lightly armed, multinational, impartial peacekeepers with consent of the country whose sole goal was to observe the implementation of a successful transition to democracy.6 Unfortunately, with deadlines that came and went, discord among those in power in 1994, and inadequate support from the United Nations for UNAMIR, instead of fostering peace, the Arusha Accords allowed for time and preparation of the slaughter of Tutsi, as well as the moderate Hutu who supported power sharing.7

Building where ten Belgian UNAMIR Soldiers and Prime Minster Agathe were Massacred | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The situation devolved after President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in the night of April 6th to the 7th, in 1994. This was the signal the Rwandan Army and the Interahamwe, paramilitary forces, had been waiting for to bring terror to Kigali, the capital city, in the name of punishing those ‘responsible.’ In his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Roméo Dallaire, the Commander of UNAMIR, recounts the horrors of the first two days in the chapter “An Explosion at Kigali Airport” as calls poured into his command center begging for help. Government forces were going house to house slaughtering tens of thousands in the first few days. Because of roadblocks set up by those carrying out the slaughters, limited communication channels, and a lack of UNAMIR troops, reaching those in need of help was incredibly difficult and often impossible, especially following the killing of ten of the Belgian peacekeepers. A large proportion of the those killed in the first two days of the genocide were Hutu, including the Hutu Prime Minister Agathe Umilingiyimana, who was the legal successor to Habyarimana and an adamant supporter of the Accords. Dallaire believes that by the end of the second day, the majority of Hutu leaders that were in support of the Accords were dead, or for a few lucky ones, in hiding.8

One of the major obstacles in recognizing that this was in fact a genocide opposed to the continuation of the civil war, was Jean-Damascène Bizimana, the Rwandan Ambassador to the United Nations, who held one of the non permanent seats on the Security Council, as per the Arusha Accords. Not only did this allow him to construct an entirely different narrative of what was actually occurring on the ground, it allowed him to learn about the inner workings and intelligence of the Security Council’s plan for Rwanda to better execute the genocide. Furthermore, because Dallaire’s forces required approval for every mission, this allowed the génocidaires to always be one step ahead of UNAMIR.9

Girl walking through a Genocide Memorial outside of Kigali | Courtesy of NPR.org

Aside from the central role Bizimana was allowed to play on the UN Security Council as he framed the violence on the ground as the civil war, there were several other mistakes made by the United Nations in regards to Rwanda. Even before UNAMIR stepped foot on the ground, the UN attempted to keep the mission “small and inexpensive.” Before the start of the genocide, Dallaire went on a tactical mission for assessment of the situation on the ground, with the “ideal” recommendation for halting the violence and protect civilians being 5,500 people to cover the demilitarized zone, Kigali, to be observers, and full logistical support. Unfortunately, all that was able to be approved was 2,548 people, due to the lack of contribution of troops, with the United States, France and Russian “[insistent] that the mission would need a force of only five hundred to one thousand personnel.”10 As the genocide progressed, the numbers dwindled, as the Belgian force withdrew following shortly after the revelation of ten of their peacekeeper’s murders. With the Belgian withdrawal, the UN Security Council decided the best course of action was to remove the remainder of troops. General Dallaire fought to keep his contingent, but only 270 troops were ultimately left with him.11 Once on the ground, lack of supplies became yet another issue that General Dallaire and his team had to contend with. Not only was access to items such as ammunition, cars, and office supplies limited, but food and water became an issue soon as well, with the official funding of the UNAMIR budget not being approved until April 4, 1994, two days before the genocide and after almost five months on the ground.12 Furthermore, in Eyewitness to Genocide, Michael Barnett details the failure of Kofi Annan, Director of DPKO at the time, to share the warnings and reports of the events that General Dallaire had witnessed and informed him of.13 Annan continued to insist that the peacekeeping force remain impartial as required by a Chapter VI mandate in the UN Charter, even as more information of massacres poured in. This instance further demonstrates the negligence and failure of his office as the most important piece of evidence he failed to disclose to the UN Security Council was what is referred to as the Genocide Cable, which arrived at his office three months before the genocide began.14 In it, General Dallaire, using information from an officer within the Presidential Guard, outlined the training that had been spearheading behind the scenes. Jean-Pierre, the informant’s code name, had told them that he, as well as all of the men he trained, were instructed to use the lists of Tutsi they received so that when the time came, they could be “exterminated.” Furthermore, the forty groups of men were scattered within Kigali and could kill up to 1000 Tutsi in twenty minutes, using guns and other weapons, such as machetes.15 Instead of allowing General Dallaire to seize these weapons from their caches (or hiding places), as he requested, he was not only chastised for considering the seizure of weapons, Dallaire was also ordered to relay this information to President Habyarimana, whose closest advisors were part of the extremist faction planning the genocide, de facto signing the death sentence for many involved.16

The drastic reduction in force of UNAMIR proved deadly to those targeted by hate and rage. The genocidaires rampaged through the little country of Rwanda, killing on average 10,000 people per day for 100 days. Though they suffered great atrocities, Rwandans continues to heal and look towards the future, asking the world to take a stand against genocide in three ways: to remember, to unite and to renew. For the 24th Kwibuka, (photo below) or for remembrance, Rwandans work on forgiveness, but they refuse to forget, which is demonstrated in the video from Kwibuka 20. Instead, Rwandans unite among themselves and around the world with all people who were once targets of genocide.

After the worst brutality of which humankind is capable, Rwanda has been brought back to life by the strength, courage and hard work of its people.17

President Paul Kagame lighting The Flame of Hope at Kwibuka24 | Courtesy of KTPress.rw

 

  1. Johan Pottier, Re-imagining Rwanda: Conflict, Survival and Disinformation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2004, 12-13.
  2. Johan Pottier, Re-imagining Rwanda: Conflict, Survival and Disinformation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 13-15.
  3. Alison Des Forges, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwandan, Human Rights Watch, 1999, 118-119, 42.
  4. Jean-Paul Kimonyo, Rwandas Popular Genocide: A Perfect Storm. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2016), http://www.newtimes.co.rw/section/read/192.
  5. Roméo Dallaire and Brent Beardsley, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005), 62.
  6. Roméo Dallaire and Brent Beardsley, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005), 40-41, 70. and “Chapter VI.” United Nations. Accessed April 07, 2018. http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/chapter-vi/index.html.
  7. Celine Jacquemin, “Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony: Colonial and Post-Colonial Roots of the Rwandan Genocide” in The Roots of Ethnic Conflict in Africa: From Grievance to Violence edited by Wanjala S. Nasong’o, Palgrave Macmillan; Roméo Dallaire and Brent Beardsley, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005), 74, 80, 212-214.
  8. Roméo Dallaire and Brent Beardsley, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005), 221-262.
  9. Celine Jacquemin, “Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony: Colonial and Post-Colonial Roots of the Rwandan Genocide” in The Roots of Ethnic Conflict in Africa: From Grievance to Violence edited by Wanjala S. Nasong’o, Palgrave Macmillan; Roméo Dallaire and Brent Beardsley, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005), 195.
  10. Roméo Dallaire and Brent Beardsley, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005), 75-76.
  11. “UNAMIR.” United Nations. Accessed April 07, 2018. https://peacekeeping.un.org/mission/past/unamirS.htm.
  12.  Alison Des Forges, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwandan, Human Rights Watch, 1999, 100; Roméo Dallaire and Brent Beardsley, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005), 99-100.
  13. Michael Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 2.
  14.  Celine Jacquemin, “Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony: Colonial and Post-Colonial Roots of the Rwandan Genocide” in The Roots of Ethnic Conflict in Africa: From Grievance to Violence edited by Wanjala S. Nasong’o, (Palgrave Macmillan: 2015).
  15. Alison Des Forges, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwandan, Human Rights Watch, 1999, 118-119, 142.
  16. Roméo Dallaire and Brent Beardsley, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005), 146, 148.
  17. “Kwibuka 24 Lv.” Kwibuka. Accessed April 07, 2018. http://kwibuka.rw/.

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This Post Has 58 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Samire Adam

    Most of my knowledge of the 1994 Rwandan genocide come from movies such as Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April and also high school history class. This article still helped me learn a lot about the context and the severity of the genocide. I have read accounts of survivors and some state that years after the genocides, they still can hear the sounds of machetes scraping the ground. This article was extremely informative.

  2. Avatar
    Alexandra Lopez

    Reading this article made my heart ache for an event that I was not aware that had happened. It upsets me that events such as this can go on and I can be at school for nineteen years and not have heard about it once. No one talks about the cruel acts that have been done overseas and less what has been done in our own country’s past. The author created a connection and sympathy for me towards these people and I am glad they have seen hope and courage for their people. (reposted)

  3. Avatar
    Samantha Luckey

    This is an interesting article regarding a tragic event. The author was able to illustrate the heartbreaking history of the Rwandan Genocide, as well as, demonstrating the lack of international attention it received. I found this article to bring new light to this complex story. Overall, this author has allowed me to look at this subject with a new appreciation.

  4. Avatar
    Irene Astran

    I remember you speaking in our Peace and Violence class about how people reported to the United Nations and the United States just how many people could die at the edge of machetes and nobody listened. This makes me so incredibly uneasy that there are people in this world capable of such atrocities. It is even harder to know that so many forces knew of these concerns and stood by.

  5. Avatar
    Gabrien Gregory

    The Rwandan Genocide being such a prominently confusing and unkown (to Americans) topic, the author could have opened with more background about why the genocide took place, as well as who the subject groups were, such as the Hutu and Tutsi. For such a complex subject matter, I think the author did really well explaining the history behind this overall. The lack of response by the UN never ceases to amaze me, as well as the United States’s response, especially considering UN personnel do not carry weapons because they are peace officers – this is probably not the best course of action in a war zone. -Reposted from Aug. 20 on WP

  6. Avatar
    Arieana Martinez

    It is very easy for us as Americans to take for granted access and privileges that we have every day. For example, we have a country with armed forces who do everything they can to protect us and its citizens who know that they have a government who will do the very best to keep our country safe. The Rwandan Genocide is very disheartening and this article gave me a deeper look at this horrible occurrence that happened in Rwanda and how much I hope their government can one day get the support and resources they need to help their people to protect against the groups who make them feel less than. Great article

  7. Avatar
    Madison Guerra

    This was a very interesting article and i learned a lot more about this than i knew before. It is so sad and horrible to know what happened to all those innocent people. It was not fair to any of those innocent people by their government just because of the differences of the tribes.

  8. Avatar
    Gabriela Murillo Diaz

    Learning the extent of this genocide was disheartening. The conclusion however provided hope for such a sad story. That Rwandans stand alongside other nations and people who have suffered from genocide. The article was very sad, but well written. It was nice to learn about the problems in a different country because we focus so much on our own.

  9. Avatar
    Mariana Valadez

    I had never heard about this genocide before this article. The author does a great job in describing in depth what happened during this event. It is sad and impressive how many lives were lost during this occurrence. It is sad to know that there was lack of aid and many people couldn’t be helped. I was very interested in reading this.

  10. Avatar
    Donte Joseph

    I had learned some information about the genocide when I was in high school, but I honestly had no idea the extent of it all. I am really glad that I found this article so that I can feel in the gaps that I had not known prior. What still surprises me is the amount of lives lost and the lack of aid that people were willing to provide.

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