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The Events of The Rwandan Genocide

Updated on September 8, 2019
Hadia Malik profile image

I am doing my Bachelors in Peace and Conflict Studies from National Defense University Islamabad



Rwanda was a German colony before World War 1. Its origin was unclear as it was an ancient kingdom. Rwanda had two major ethnic groups living in that region:

  • Majority of Hutus which meant Peasant
  • A minority of Tutsis which meant Noble

Although they were not very different genetically and culturally, they were different on the basis of rank and status. The Tutsis owned the lands on which the Hutus worked. Tutsis were taller and had fairer skin due to the lack of work they did. During German rule, they were categorized as two different races with Tutsis clearly being the superior ones. The Tutsi king Mwami was a mere puppet of the Germans.

After World War 1, Rwanda was given to Belgium and it was incorporated into Burundi to make Rwanda-Burundi. After the incorporation, the Belgians started measuring the skulls and noses of Tutsis and Hutus and their ethnicity was marked on their identifications to separate the two races. Hutus were forced in coffee farming for the Belgians and Tutsis were left to administer them. In return, the Tutsis were given the liberty to enjoy their higher status.

However, things took a turn after World War 2 when the United Nations gave an order to Belgium to prepare Rwanda for independence and majority rule. This is where the problem came in, Majority was Hutus who had been ruled by the minority of Tutsis for decades. Suddenly Belgians shifted all their focus to the Hutus, preaching emancipation and equality. Tutsis were unwilling to give up their rule while the Hutus wanted it. In 1950 an independent Rwanda was inevitable, parties like:

  • UNAR: Fighting for Tutsi Monarchy
  • Parmehutu: fighting for Hutu rule

Hutus were enthusiastically willing to vote for a Rwandan republic which meant they would be given representation as well as their rights. Rwanda was near to exploding and when the rumour spread that Tutsis were murdering Hutus, it did.

Rwandan Revolution

In November 159, Hutus began rioting, looting and murdering, victimizing Tutsis. Mwami proposed counter attack however Belgian intervention ceased Mwami’s plans immediately. Belgians took back the control and started elections and referendum in 1961. Hutus voted overwhelmingly for their republic causing 300,000 Tutsis including Mwami to enter exile. Rwanda and Burundi broke apart and Tutsi refugees found themselves in either Burundi or up north in Uganda. Ugandan Tutsis fought several fights with Rwandan forces (FAR). There was a lot of rebel activity as the discrimination against the Tutsis increased.

Burundi was a stark contrast from Rwanda, they sought Tutsi military rule over their Hutu majority. This lead to the genocide of 200,000 mostly educated and political Hutus. Tutsis feared Hutus and Hutus feared Tutsis and this fear lead to a security dilemma between the two ethnicities thus killing each other.

In 1973, Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu leader, took control of Rwanda. Under his regime, all political activity was banned and Rwanda was considered a single state. He even made a very small effort to reconcile the two quarrelling groups but his efforts were met with outcries. No one had yet forgotten the Burundi genocide and thus no reform could take place under the moderate president. This left Rwanda as no home for the Tutsi however this didn’t stop men like Fred Rwigyema and Paul Kagame in trying to change that. They belonged to Rwandese Alliance for National unity inside Uganda. They participated in the Ugandan Bush War and their victory left them in high positions. Tutsis did not accept the life of refugees thus the Rwandese Alliance for National unity changed into Rwandan Political Front (FPR). FPR was designed to help Tutsis invade Rwanda and help them gain back their home, a home where most of these refugees weren’t born in.

Return To Rwanda

On October 1st, 1990, FPR invaded Rwanda and took FAR by surprise when they crossed the border. FPR was only able to push the FAR forces for a couple of days as commander Rwigyema was soon dead and the reason for his death was unclear. Paul Kagame, who at the time was studying in the US dropped his course and rushed back to fight the war. He became the new leader of FPR.

At this time thousands of French troops arrived, to protect their French nationals as they said. However, it was later found that since Rwanda was a francophone nation as it was once a Belgian and Uganda being a British colony. French wished to protect their French-speaking people for the survival and prospering of the language. French troops fought beside Rwandan forces against the FPR.

When Kagame arrived he found FPR nearly destroyed. He took nearly 2000 troops into the mountains where they were nursed to health and then taken back for combat. During that time Kagame sought out for funding for his guerrilla war.

As the New Year commenced, so did the warfare. FPR only took part in either offensive or guerilla warfare. Thanks to FAR and French troops president Habyarimana’s position was secure. However, soon the French threatened to withdraw, putting pressure on Habyarimana to promote equality and freedom in his country. The president would hold token concessions and allow oppositions that held no power.

Although there was an opposition that held power, his own wife Agathe Habyarimana who was a Hutu hardliner. She found the Akazu cliché, a group of powerful radicals. They spread propaganda against the Tutsis, spreading discrimination and violence, in return Tutsis turned to FPR more and more.

In 1992, when the country was in a state of civil war, Habyarimana once again announced the one party. This lead to violent protests in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Eventually, Habyarimana gave in to the notion of a multiparty cabinet and began negotiations with FPR for the first time ever. In July of 1992, there was a ceasefire and beginning of peace.

Pesky Peace

The negotiations that were supposed to be between the president, FAR and FPR were now happening between Kagame, Habyarimana and Akazu group. Kagame only wished to appease international onlookers so he did not appear as a relentless rebel. The Akazu, however, rejected any options of peace and the president only wanted to make sure he was keeping his job.

During this time Habyarimana had become scared of the Akazu. His with Agathe, along with people like Theoneste Bagosora had become very powerful and threatening. Habyarimana tried to purge their influence but this only enraged them more against the Tutsis and any moderates in this situation. Bagasora initiated self-defence militias around Rwanda, while Agathe found a thousand hills free radio station which only broadcasted hate speech against Tutsis and propagated the power of Hutus. In 1993 another killing spree broke out, thanks to Akazu’s propaganda. Kagame left the peace talks and FPR entered into open combat.

Arusha To Apocalypse

Over the 6 months, Rwanda’s dynamic had changed completely. The economy was wretched, FAR was weak and the FPR was strong. They arrived at Kigali, leaving paths of destruction behind them. Several war crimes such as abuse and rape were common. Educated and political Hutus were the most common targets. Thousands of Hutus fled as killings became more rampant. The French doubled their efforts and the Hutus of Kigali were prepared to die fighting if they had to. Kagame, however, did not attack, sending a message to the enemy to resume the peace talks. The international community convinced Kagame to withdraw from his gains and a large DMZ was opened between the two sides.

The threat of the PFR was less eminent but Habyarimana now felt Akazu breathing down his neck. This lead to him making several concessions to the Tutsis rather than any of the radicals. This lead to the Arusha Accords in August which talked about power sharing and unified armed forces and more was set for the public.

The United Nations was set to start a new mission under the Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, called UNAMIR. It was hoped for that Rwandan future was bright with a strong, mostly Belgian force but it was far from it. Bagasora left the accords to “prepare for the apocalypse”. Hutu power rallies became common, Guns, explosives and most common machetes were finding their way to the militias, courtesy to Akazu. UNAMIR saw the red flag clearly and proposed to find a final solution to the entire problem. However, they lacked support from the security council who said they were only to keep the peace not make it.

On April 6th 1994, president Habyarimana’s plan was shot down outside Kigali airport. No one knew if it was the FPR or the Akazu, the answer is yet not discovered. What was known by everyone was that all the peace had burned up in the wreckage of the plane.

Cut Down The Tall Trees

Immediately after the crash, Bagasora met with several other military officials in a crisis committee, a blatant attempt to seize the power. General Dallaire knew it and knew it would cause problems for the real successor, prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana. The prime minister was a complete moderate like the former president, thus a clear target for the Akazu. She insisted the UN assign her an escort to protect her from the chaos, which they did. The chaos was originally just an aggressive presidential guard but it soon became far worse than that.

A thousand hills free radio let out messages that Interahamwe knew well, “Cut the tall trees” indicating the murdering of Tutsis. The militias moved through streets in mobs and butchered all the Tutsis they could find. Whether they were friends, family or neighbours, nothing mattered and the FAR did nothing to put an end to this.

Unfortunately, UNAMIR was unable to do much because of the restrictions from the Security Council. Belligerency was to be avoided at all cost. The battle of 1993 in Mogadishu haunted the Security Council. 19 US soldiers died in the breakout with a huge political fallout. Compromising neutrality was a threat to every political party in Rwanda so UN Peacekeeping had to stay out of it. FAR, being one step ahead of the UN, wanted them gone. Their rogue soldiers overpowered the prime minister’s escort and forced them to surrender. They killed the woman and took 10 Belgian soldiers hostage, who were tortured before killed by machetes. Dallaire was helpless.

On April 8th, the international community finally responded. French, American and Belgian forces landed in Rwanda, evacuating expats. All Rwandan refugees were turned back. French took up some Rwandans, however only members of the Akazu, and they even left behind some supplies for the FAR. As the foreigners left, so did the forces that could have potentially stopped the genocide. Shortly after, members of the UNAMIR and Belgians left as well.

Dallaire and the Ghanaians stayed in Rwanda, giving in their all to end the atrocities, running the risk of being court marshalled. They genocide continued for a hundred days. Civilians armed with not much more than machetes were brutally efficient in taking lives. The massacre was paired with mass looting and rape, as instructed by the radio and supported by the FAR. Hutus believed that Tutsis were violent oppressors that needed to be eradicated for a peaceful Rwanda. However, with streets piling up with bodies, peace was far from sight.

Kagame had resumed the civil war almost immediately after the president’s departure but the FAR was too focused on carrying out genocide so it was not any real fighting force. FPR found it easy to paint an evil picture of the enemy. Every time UNAMIR suggested ceasefire, it was ignored. Some lucky Tutsis were able to make it behind the lines of FPR that had now surrounded Kigali. Using both psychological and physical warfare, the better-equipped but outnumbered FAR was defeated and Kigali was taken by FPR.

The genocide ended shortly after Kagame’s victory. 800,000 were left dead from the genocide alone. FAR, Interahamwe, Akazu and many other fearful Hutus fled to Zaire where they lived as refugees across the border.

More of The Same

After the civil war, things were much like they were in the 1960s, Hutus would attack from outside the border just as Tutsis once did and the Tutsis retaliated from within just as the Hutus once did. Kagame established himself as the new vice president of Rwanda but he held all the real power. FPR spread it’s propaganda as they repeated the atrocities of the genocide and the heroics for decades to come. Rwanda became about peace and reconciliation and Kagame made sure it lasted. However, FPR made sure its own war crimes were forgotten, and very little has been done to bring justice to these cases.

The decades of violence, tensions and wars left the country with 40% of its population gone and those who were left were severely traumatized. The genocide had become a very important aspect of Rwanda’s identity. The international community came out to apologize for not intervening as they were not aware of what was going one. However, it was too late as the entire dynamic of central Africa had changed and the road was paved for the worst conflicts Africa was ever to face: the Congo Wars.

Rwanda Today

Till the present day, Rwanda struggles to move on from the horrific past and forgive the unforgivable. The genocide took away the loved ones from hundreds of families as every 3 out of 4 Tutsis were killed. Women who were held captive and were raped continuously suffer from being infected by HIV. Fortunately, medication for the Virus has become very common and easily available for the survivors to use.

The Rwandans struggle to forgive the people who have done them wrong, a lot of which have forgotten it too. However, the survivors will never forget what happened to them and their loved ones.

Rwanda’s population has once again swelled to 11 million people, making it one of the most densely populated countries of Africa. This is significant because the genocide took away 40% of its population. Rwanda is agriculturally self-sufficient and only has the child malnourishment rate of 3.6%. Men and women are expected to live up to 60 years of age which is higher life expectancy than that in the neighbouring lands.

Economically and socially the country is thriving, Rwanda is considered one of the easiest nations in Africa to do business. It is also trying to become one of the cleanest countries in the world by working on pedestrian’s days, which is when cars are banned for a day every month. A concept in Uganda is the concept of umuganda or coming together in which people under 65 needs to indulge in community service.

However, there is little press freedom and censorship is imposed. Kagame is blamed for using anti-genocide laws to get rid of the opposition. Rwanda not only has humans rights issues but also has rampant corruption.

© 2019 Hadia Malik


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