Rwanda’s genocide of 1994

In Rwanda there are two ethic groups: the Hutu, which makes up the majority of the population, and the Tutsi, the minority. Tensions between these two groups have been going on for years, so was not surprising that their conflicts would eventually escalate drastically. Despite their differences, they were actually very similar. The two groups have shared the same locations as to where they choose to live, the traditions they follow, and also the language that they speak. At a glance, they look very similar; but Tutsis tend to be taller and slimmer than the Hutus.

Paul Kagame

Hutu dislike for the Tutsi came about when the Belgians, who once dominated the region of Rwanda, considered the Tutsis to be superior to the Hutus. The Belgians gave the Tutsis better education, and even granted them better jobs than the Hutus. In 1959, a series of riots broke out in Rwanda. Many fled to Burundi, Tanzania, and also to Uganda.1 Unfortunately, 20,000 Tutsis were killed during the riots. In 1962, Belgium relinquished its power over Rwanda, and it was given its independence. The second President of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, who had been a dictator in power since 1973, and who was also a Hutu, began to lose popularity when the Hutus took over the government and the economy weakened. This is when Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, founded the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to try and overthrow the president. After much violence, the two sides, the RPF and Habyarimana, signed a peace accord in mid-1993. But on April 6, 1994, the President’s plane was shot down, killing both Habyarimana and the President of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira; and things started to go badly wrong in Rwanda.

After the plane was shot down, the preexisting tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis quickly flared up. No one knows who shot the plane down, but the Hutus quickly pointed the finger at the Tutsis. Conflict between the two neighboring tribes was nothing new in the central African nation of Rwanda, but the downing of the president’s plane was the final straw for the Hutus. Paul Kagame was accused by the leaderless Hutu government for being responsible for the plane crash and death of Habyarimana.2 Kagame denied this accusation and said that he had nothing to do with it, but news of the death of President Habyarimana spread across the country.

Shortly after the start of Rwanda’s genocide, Rwanda’s government initiated a campaign of retribution, and began to target Tutsis. In just hours, recruits from Hutu groups, government soldiers, and militias were sent to kill the Titus population, a Tutsi-minority tribe living in Rwanda. They were given radios to help them coordinate target groups of people. The recruits were sent into Tutsi cities where they started killing any Tutsi in sight with automatic weapons. For over the one-hundred days, more and more Hutus joined the killing squads, either by force of the government or voluntarily. They started to use machetes, spears, knives, and also masu, which is a thick club with nails sticking out of it. It even got to the point where everyday objects were used.3  They would have screwdrivers, bicycle handle bars, and hammers in one hand, and in the other a radio waiting to hear their next directive. They blew up churches where the Tutsi people were going into hiding to protect themselves, but the churches turned into death sites, trapping those inside when the churches were set on fire. Citizens of the Hutus were even being forced to go and kill the Tutsi people. They were given offers of food and money, and even told that could take the land of a Hutu if they killed them.

Rwanda church

American President Bill Clinton did little to stop the massacre, even ignoring the obvious warnings about the killing that would take place after Habyarimana’s plane had crashed.4 Even other countries, like France and Belgium, along with the United States and the United Nations, knew what was about to occur, and wouldn’t take the initiative to try to stop it. For weeks these countries refused to use their moral and political authority to go against the genocidal government of Rwanda. The United States could have done much more to help out a country that was in need. Even a little bit of help would have been something, and maybe a significant number of people wouldn’t have lost their lives. While the American Congress was looking to the President to take action, Clinton was looking to the United Nations to take action. Since nothing was being done, sadly the killing just continued.

The only reason the genocide in Rwanda ended was because of the determination of the RPF. They fought back against the killing squads, and defeated the government’s soldiers. When they took control, Paul Kagame became the Vice President and Minister of Defense. With everything said and done, 800,000 Tutsi men, women, and children were killed from roughly 200,000 participants.5 There were 75,000 children that became orphans. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Tutsi women were raped, resulting in around 20,000 children being born as a result. The HIV virus and AIDS were used as another weapon, with 67% of the women that were raped being infected. If someone would have stepped up before this all unfolded, this would have been prevented and so many people wouldn’t have lost their lives or experience life changing events.

  1. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell (New York: Basic Books, 2002) 342-347.
  2. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell (New York: Basic Books, 2002) 335-339.
  3.  Encyclopedia of Political Communication, 2008, s.v. “Rwanda Genocide, Role of Media,” by Frank Wittmann.
  4. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell (New York: Basic Books, 2002) 353-361.
  5. Anna-Marie de Beer and Elisabeth Snyman, “Shadows of life, death and survival in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide,” Tydskrif vir Letterkunde vol. 52 issue 1 (Autumn 2015): 18.

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This Post Has 69 Comments

  1. Avatar

    This article truly depicted the severity of the Rwandan Genocide and the saddening events that came with it. The fact that so many lives were lost from all different generations, truly breaks my heart and the fact that any nation, especially US, if they could have intervened who knows how this event would have played out. Would we have lost more people, less people, would there even be a difference?

  2. Avatar

    I found it saddening how massive and needless the waste of life was during the Rwandan Genocide. America’s hesitant action during the conflict is honestly one of the most disappointing actions in the last 30 years. The US government was looking towards others to do something rather than just taking the initiative to prevent further violence. Hopefully the Rwandan people can come together and take steps to prevent such detestable actions from taking place in their nation in the future.

  3. Avatar

    I knew of the Rwandan Genocide but not full details. Its sad to see how tensions between the two ethnic groups of Tutsi and Hutu escalated to this point. What makes this tragedy worse is the lack of response from both the U.S. and the U.N. By the time they bothered to do anything, it was already too late and thousands had suffered. I never knew that Rwanda was a Belgian colony prior to statehood.

  4. Avatar

    I think this article was well written. I really liked how you were able to tell a story and teach us the culture of these people. It really upsets me how the UN and America did nothing to stop these people from being brutally killed, raped and harassed. It was devastating to hear that 75,000 children became orphans and 65% of women raped contracted HIV. That was not okay. The US should have done something to stop that monstrosity. I understand that it is easier said than done, but there is no excuse to not try to help them when they were defenseless and did not do anything wrong.

  5. Avatar

    It is a shame many countries just sat back and watched this happen. The American government was waiting for Clinton, but Clinton was waiting for the UN to take action. With this sort of situation, action would never be initiated. This reminded me of a documentary I saw on this quite a while back and I cannot believe such a horrific event is not well known.

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    previously I’ve had to read the Rwandan genocide. this was a horrible thing that happened in history. this event claimed the life of many. it is saddening that no one did anything to help stop the horrific events that were happening.

  7. Avatar

    This incident is saddening to remember. Thousands of men, women, and children were killed everyday by the hands of their rivals, and nobody did anything to stop it. It is sickening to think that another country could have helped even a little bit. Many children were orphans and HIV rates went high. I am relieved that it did end though, although a little late. This article was written well along with the statistics and facts given to provide a true article and not a fabricated one.

  8. Avatar

    The Rwandan Genocide is a horrific and tragic event that unfortunately embodies just what horrors the human race is capable of. I actually didn’t the know that the events of the genocide occurred because of Belgian colonialism. Its saddening to think that we would still see the effects of European imperialism more than two centuries after the end of the colonial era.

  9. Avatar

    It seems like the fight for equality and respect is being fought all over the globe, but with so many causalities is any of it worth it? The sacrifices they all made is unfathomable. One point of this genocide is just how few Americans know of it. How is it I had never even heard of this holocaust level event?

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