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Genocide in Rwanda
by Deborah George

Rwanda was the 20th century's fourth genocide, after the Turkish slaughter of Armenians in 1915; the Holocaust in Europe that killed 11 million Jews; and the millions who died under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Rwanda's special horror was the speed with which the killings took place—almost a million in just 100 days and the fact that so many ordinary people took part, either killing or aiding the killers in some way.

One Hundred Days

On April 6, 1994 an airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana crashed on the outskirts of the capital, Kigali. Rwandan Tutsis heard the news with dread. Within hours, Hutu leaders began issuing orders that the time for bloodletting had come. Members of Rwandan Armed Forces and the Interehamwe, a militia associated with the ruling MRND (National Republican Movement for Development and Democracy) began arriving at the homes of prominent Tutsis and moderate Hutus in neighborhoods around Kigali. That evening and the next morning, foreign diplomats and aide workers reported hearing screams and gunfire throughout the city. Several received terrified phone calls and pleas for help from Tutsi friends.

In the days that followed, the violence widened until the entire country was engulfed in a killing spree. People were hacked to death in their homes with machetes; gathered into athletic stadiums and killed with grenades and rifles and burned alive in churches. Over the next three months, with almost no interference from the outside world, nearly a million people were killed.

The killing spasm ended in late July, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front captured Kigali. This set in motion a great refugee exodus as Rwanda's Hutus fled across borders into neighboring Zaire (now, Congo) and Tanzania. Half a million died in cholera epidemics that struck the refugee camps. Hutu leaders in exile continued to direct raids on Rwanda conducted by former army and militia members who remained in the forests of Congo. The masses of Hutu refugees began to return home in 1996, with assurances by the new Tutsi-led government that there would be no reprisals.

How did it happen?

In the spring and summer of 1994, Western journalists scrambled to understand and explain the outlines of Rwandan politics and society—the Tutsi minority (15 percent of the population), a social group which had enjoyed privileged status under Belgian colonial rule and the Hutu majority (about 85 percent) that, with the ending of the colonial era in 1959, had risen up and taken power, killing thousands of Tutsis and sending thousands more into exile. For the next 30 years, the Tutsis themselves were subject to discriminatory laws and checks on their participation in government and education. In 1990, a Tutsi exile army called the Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded the country and, in 1993, UN peacekeepers arrived to oversee the implementation of the Arusha Accords that mandated a power-sharing agreement between Hutu and Tutsi.

The world now knows that Hutu extremists opposed to the Arusha Accords were laying elaborate plans—stockpiling weapons, creating lists of those to be assassinated, and launching a massive propaganda campaign demonizing the Tutsis as traitorous "inyenzi", cockroaches, to be exterminated. This all culminated in an efficient, centralized killing operation: the genocide was orchestrated by top government leaders. Local officials directed the killings, which were carried out by police, soldiers and militia who, in turn, were assisted by ordinary citizens.


In April, 1994, there were 2500 UN troops stationed in Rwanda to monitor the implementation of the Arusha Accords. When the killing began, the UN forces stood by, forbidden to intervene. After ten Belgian soldiers were killed, the UN force was cut to only 270. From the beginning, the U.S., under President Bill Clinton had argued strongly against a larger, more expensive peacekeeping operation in Rwanda.

Though no one could have foreseen the extent, there had been many warnings that large-scale massacres of Tutsis were being planned in Rwanda before April, 1994. Even after the slaughter began, the U.N. and the United States took care to avoid using the term "genocide" which would have allowed greater latitude in intervening and halting the killing. The U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher finally okayed the use of the term on May 21. The Rwandan government kept its place on the UN Security Council throughout the killings.

During a trip to Africa in March, 1998, President Bill Clinton touched down at the airport in Kigali and issued an apology for America's lack of action. In July, 2000 an international panel assembled by the Organization of African Unity condemned the United Nations and UN Security Council members France, Belgium and the United States as well as the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches for not doing enough to prevent or stop the genocide.

In November, 1994, the United Nations set up an International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania to try ringleaders and architects of the genocide. The tribunal has an annual budget of about $90 million. The trials have resulted in 8 convictions for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity including the conviction of Jean-Paul Akayesu, the first person ever to be found guilty of genocide in an international court and the first to be convicted of rape as a crime against humanity. One Arusha defendant was acquitted; dozens more are awaiting trial.

The Rwandan government has tried some 5,000 participants in the genocide. Most have been executed. Thousands more will appear before the "gacacas," a form of community tribunal, which began in June of this year. The gacacas are expected to last at least five years.

The Rwandan genocide triggered conflicts throughout the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. An untold number of people have been killed due to ongoing war between Rwanda and Congo, a war in which several other African nations have been embroiled. The Rwandan government is accused of substantial human rights abuses committed by its army attempting to route armed Hutus in western Congo.

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