Top 10 Things to Know About the Rwandan Genocide

Rwandan Genocide
Genocidal murder and mass slaughter of roughly 1 million Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority.
Starts: 04/06/1994
Ends: 07/15/1994

Top 10 Things to Know About the Rwandan Genocide

The Rwandan Genocide was a mass murder committed by the Hutu majority on Tutsi and Hutu minorities. In about 100 days in the spring and summer of 1994, anywhere from half a million to a million Rwandans were killed in a genocide led by the Akazu, the Hutu extremist leadership. Their goal was simple: a Rwanda with zero Tutsi.

Centuries ago, Hutus and Tutsi were divided by class and clan rather than ethnicity. Hutus were generally peasant farmers, whereas Tutsi were cattle owners. Cattle ownership allowed Tutsi to become wealthy and politically powerful. When Europeans, specifically Belgians, came to Africa, they worked with Tutsi to institutionalize the divide: Hutus were deemed the lesser ethnicity based on facial structure and height. Aided by Belgian missionaries, the Tutsi forced Hutus to work but denied them governmental positions and higher education.

By the 1950s, Hutus’ resentment and anger boiled over in social revolution. Hutus, the majority, won all arranged elections and the oppressed became the oppressors. Tutsi, the fallen elite, fled Rwanda in droves. Over the next ten years, more than 20,000 Tutsi were slaughtered. When Tutsi exiles formed the RPF (the Rwandan Patriotic Front), the Hutu government responded with what would become the Rwandan Civil War. Anti-Tutsi propaganda by the Hutu Power Movement fueled designated murder campaigns of the Tutsi. When the country’s first Hutu president was assassinated, the belief that Tutsi were the enemy increased and the idea of a “final solution” emerged more strongly. Later, when an airplane carrying the next president was shot down, the divide between Hutus and Tutsi became even more heated, opening the stage for a full-scale genocide of the Tutsi people.

How could something like this happen, as recently as two decades ago? And what can be learned from it? Here are the top ten things you need to know about the Rwandan Genocide.

  1. It All Started Hours After A Mysterious Plane Crash.

The Rwandan Genocide began after a mysterious plane crash
The Rwandan Genocide began after a mysterious plane crash

On April 6, 1992, a plane carrying the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Hutu President of Burundi Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down in Kigali by a rocket attack. There were no survivors. While the true shooters have not been definitively discovered, both RPF and Hutu extremists were accused. The Rwandan government claimed Hutu extremists were the culprits. Regardless of who committed the crime, many would argue that this tragedy was the catalyst that led to outright genocide.

Less than half an hour after the plane crash, members of the presidential guard began shooting down Tutsi civilians outside the airport. Roadblocks put in place by Hutu militias served to identify Tutsi and even moderate Hutus who were then systematically slaughtered. The militias, known as the Interahamwe (meaning “Those Who Attack Together”) and the Impuzamugambi (meaning “Those Who Have the Same Goal”), were aided by the Rwandan armed forces in the killings.

The next day, the racist radio station Radio Television Libre Des Mille Collines (RTLM) claimed the RPF had shot down the plane and that Tutsi “cockroaches” must be “eliminated.”

Two days later, the killings of numerous moderate Hutus and Tutsi, including political leaders, opened the door for extremist Hutu Power leaders to take control of the government and military.

  1. The World Didn’t Listen.


The Rwandan Genocide could have been stopped but the world didn't listen.
The Rwandan Genocide could have been stopped but the world didn’t listen.

The international response to such atrocities was remarkably weak and disappointing.

Ten Belgian soldiers with UNAMIR, a UN peacekeeping operation, were tortured and murdered shortly after the plane crash. Because of this, Belgium withdrew troops. On April 8, General Romeo Dallaire asked to double his UNAMIR force to 5,000, but he was told not to intervene. The few UNAMIR troops positioned in Rwanda had to watch as people were killed in the streets, ordered not to help. By then, around 8,000 people had been murdered already. France and Belgium saved French and Belgian people via airlift in Rwanda but helped no Rwandans.

A week later, around 64,000 people had been murdered. Ninety percent of peacekeepers were withdrawn by the U.S. and UN Security Council, despite the Human Rights Watch’s call to deem the situation a genocide, which would require an official UN intervention. By April 21, less than 300 soldiers were present in Rwanda for UNAMIR. Of all UN members, only Czech Republic, New Zealand, and Nigeria voted for intervention in Rwanda.

When asked if the conflict in Rwanda was genocide, State Department woman Christine Shelley said, “the use of the term ‘genocide’ has a very precise legal meaning, although it’s not strictly a legal determination. There are other factors in there in well.” In other words, she evaded the question entirely.

Kofi Annan, head of UN peacekeeping, lamented, “Here we are watching people being deprived of the most fundamental of rights, the right to life, and yet we seem a bit helpless…”

In late June, the UN Security Council approved an independent French mission with 3,000 soldiers. By then, though, over 600,000 people had already been murdered.

By the end of July, anywhere from 800,000 to a million people could have lost their lives in what would come to be known as, without a doubt, a genocide.

  1. It Happened Extremely Fast.

Mass Graves of some of the 1 million or more individuals murdered during the Rwanda genocide. Butare, Rwanda.
Mass Graves of some of the 1 million or more individuals murdered during the Rwanda genocide. Butare, Rwanda.

Jorg Hackemann /

A brief history of the worst recorded genocides is as follows: Anywhere from 5 to 22 million people were killed in the Congo over a period of 23 years from 1885 to 1908 under Leopold II. Anywhere from 4 to 26 million people were killed during the Holocaust over a period of 12 years. Japanese war crimes during World War II resulted in 3 to 10 million deaths. In other words, most major genocides took place over a number of years.

The Rwandan Genocide, on the other hand, took anywhere from half a million to a million lives in only 100 days from April to July 1994. Militias killed Tutsi with machetes, grenades, and rifles. They also bulldozed and blew up the churches where Tutsi took refuge. Ordinary citizens were encouraged to kill their neighbors or forced to do so by the makeshift military. If they refused, they would be killed themselves. Violent uprisings rippled through cities, towns, and villages. Whereas Nazis carefully recorded death tolls, no such records were kept in Rwanda.

If the Rwandan government’s figures are correct at 1,174,000 people lost, this means 10,000 were murdered each day, 400 per hour, and 7 every minute.

  1. The Genocide Was Not Done In Secret.

The Rwandan Genocide's atrocities were very public
The Rwandan Genocide’s atrocities were very public

Nazi Germany was careful to keep the Holocaust under wraps for a very long time. Death camps were primarily kept in Poland, where most victims lived, tucked away from Germans’ sight. Corpses were purposely shaved before entering the crematoria in order to avoid the distinctive smell of burning hair. And when Nazi Germany reached the end of the war and sight of their defeat, they made great attempts to hide all evidence of their terrible work, destroying records and digging up mass graves. To this day, there exist Holocaust deniers who actually insist the mass killings never even occurred.

The Rwandan Genocide, on the other hand, had no cover-ups. The UN had been warned about the Hutu Power Movement and its destructive goals. The radios in Rwanda played anti-Tutsi propaganda loud and clear. The only attempt at hiding the massive bloodshed was the order to cover bodies in banana leaves, protecting them from aerial photography.

Whereas the Western news media is often criticized for its focus on negative news, in this case, it is criticized for its shocking lack of coverage. According to Allan Thompson, editor of The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, the OJ Simpson trial got more air-time than the genocide in Rwanda. At the beginning of the killings, in April and early May, there was zero reporting on the developing crisis. Only in July did the news turn its focus on Rwanda, covering the stories of refugees who had survived.

  1. Justice Is In The Works.

After the Rwandan Genocide, obtaining justice (if that's even remotely possible) has been a slow process
After the Rwandan Genocide, obtaining justice (if that’s even remotely possible) has been a slow process

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is an international court that the UN Security Council has started to try and punish those involved with the Rwandan Genocide. Since its conception in November 1994, the court has indicted 93 people and cost $1.7 billion dollars to run. Ninety-three individuals is a miniscule portion of the hundreds of thousands of people involved in the planning and execution of such massive killings. Many, including co-owner of Radio Television Libre Des Mille Collines (RTLM) Félicien Kabuga, have not been found and could still be in hiding in Africa or elsewhere.

The Rwandan government estimates it could take up to 200 years for the ICTR to fully deliver justice to the victims of this heinous and massive crime. Their alternative method to the ICTR was simpler, vastly cheaper, and more grassroots: the gacaca process. The gacaca process was a traditional court system in which local communities try their own people. Over a decade, nearly two million people appeared for such hearings. Confessions from criminals and forgiveness from victims’ families were encouraged.  As of 2012, though, the gacaca processes were halted due to criticism and accusations of being too disorganized and biased. Although it has taken longer than expected, the ICTR and Rwandan government are working to find peace and justice for the victims of the Rwandan Genocide.

  1. One Of The Largest War Crimes Was Rape, And Its Effects Were Long-Lasting.

Innumerable women suffer from HIV and AIDS due to the mass rape that occured during the Rwandan Genocide. A long lasting effect of the violence
Innumerable women suffer from HIV and AIDS due to the mass rape that occured during the Rwandan Genocide. A long lasting effect of the violence

According to the Human Rights Watch, hundreds of thousands of women were raped during the Rwandan Genocide. Nearly every female survivor of the genocide over the age of twelve was also a victim of rape. They were individually raped, gang-raped, attacked with objects like sharpened sticks and guns, mutilated with acid, and held as sex slaves. The use of rape as a tool of terror and torture was so rampant in Rwanda that the ICTR deemed rape an official act of genocide for the first time. The former mayor of Taba, Jean-Paul Akayesu, was the first person in history convicted of using rape as a tool of genocide. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Regardless of how many rapists are put in prison, though, the fact stands that the effects of these rapes are still being felt by Rwandans to this day. Thousands of women who were attacked and raped during the genocide now suffer from HIV or AIDS which was often purposely transmitted to them by known HIV-positive rapists. During the genocide, Hutu extremists released AIDs patients from hospitals and formed rape squads. Whereas many men were killed quickly by the murderers, many women were raped and then told they would die slowly and painfully, due to the AIDS that had been transmitted to them. More than 67% of women raped during the genocide are now HIV positive. Whereas the average for sub-Saharan Africa is 8% HIV positive, the Rwandans are 11% positive.

  1. The Radio Had A Lot To Do With It.

Inflamatory Radio programming incited much of the violence during the Rwandan Genocide
Inflamatory Radio programming incited much of the violence during the Rwandan Genocide

The ICTR sought justice for victims of the genocide by convicting men like Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean Bosco Barayagwiza, the leaders of Radio Television Libre Des Mille Collines (RTLM). Both men were charged with genocide, incitement to genocide, and crimes against humanity leading up to and during the Rwandan Genocide. Both were found guilty of these crimes. One might ask, a radio station? How much harm could that cause? As it turns out, a lot. The RTLM broadcasted anti-Tutsi propaganda and misinformation, spread fear of a Tutsi genocide against the Hutu, identified where certain Tutsi targets could be found, and encouraged genocidal action against Tutsi people.

On April 12, 1994, the RTLM broadcasted this message:

And you people who live…near Rugunga,… go out. You will see the cockroaches’ (inkotanyi) straw huts in the marsh… I think that those who have guns should immediately go to these cockroaches… encircle them and kill them…

Another broadcast threatened Tutsis outright:

You cockroaches must know you are made of flesh! We won’t let you kill! We will kill you!

According to the General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the peacekeeping operation UNAMIR, “Simply jamming [the] broadcasts and replacing them with messages of peace and reconciliation would have had a significant impact on the course of events.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. refused to cut off the Rwandan radio station due to difficulty, cost, and the issue of free speech and international law.

  1. A Magazine Published Anti-Tutsi Messages As Well.

Propaganda played a large part in the violence that occured during the Rwandan Genocide.
Propaganda played a large part in the violence that occured during the Rwandan Genocide.

The ICTR also sought justice against Hassan Ngeze, the director and editor of the newspaper Kangura. Ngeze was found guilty of genocide, incitement to genocide, and crimes against humanity for his publication. Kangura was just as instrumental as the radio station RTLM in forming hate in Hutus’ hearts towards Tutsi people. The magazine dehumanized Tutsi by comparing them to snakes and cockroaches that deserved to be exterminated.

As early as 1990, four years before the genocide, Kangura published the Hutu Ten Commandments. The Commandments included orders against marrying or even hiring Tutsi people. They insisted that all government, military, and educational jobs should be primarily held by Hutus. Tutsi were deemed dishonest, self-serving, and unworthy of pity.

Just as RTLM encouraged extermination, Kangura too published such messages:

Let us learn about the inkotanyi (RPF supporters) and let us exterminate every last one of them.

What tools will we use to defeat the Inyenzi (cockroaches) once and for all?

A cockroach gives birth to a cockroach… the history of Rwanda shows us clearly that a Tutsi always stays exactly the same, that he has never changed.

For those that were not well-read, the magazine also published racist and violent cartoons against Tutsi people who were deemed both bloodthirsty and promiscuous. Graphic cartoons illustrated Tutsi women in provocative poses with UN soldiers, highlighting their supposedly corrupt sexuality. Such images and articles worked to dehumanize, separate, and target Tutsi people and the Hutus who sympathized with them.

  1. The West Expressed Regret In The Aftermath Of The Genocide.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali said, “The failure of Rwanda is 10 times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia. Because in Yugoslavia the international community was interested, was involved. In Rwanda nobody was interested.”
Boutros Boutros-Ghali said, “The failure of Rwanda is 10 times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia. Because in Yugoslavia the international community was interested, was involved. In Rwanda nobody was interested.”

Many turned their backs on Rwanda as the genocide swept through the country. Afterwards, many of those same people expressed guilt and regret having let something so terrible happen to so many innocent people: women, men, and children alike.

As former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said, “The failure of Rwanda is 10 times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia. Because in Yugoslavia the international community was interested, was involved. In Rwanda nobody was interested.”

Commander of UNAMIR Romeo Dallaire wrote in his memoir Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda:

Could we have prevented the resumption of the civil war and the genocide? The short answer is yes. If UNAMIR [The UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda] had received the modest increase of troops and capabilities we requested in the first week, could we have stopped the killings? Yes, absolutely.

Dallaire himself had tried numerous times to no avail to convince the UN to send help. The failed mission left him depressed and suicidal.

Bill Clinton, president at the time, later called the Rwandan Genocide “one of humanity’s great failures” and “one of my personal failures.”

There were numerous warning signs of what was to come, overt messages of hatred being broadcast, and calls for help coming from Rwanda. Still, the world did not respond until it was too late.

  1. Rwanda Is Still Trying To Heal.

Rwanda and its people have a long road ahead and may never truly heal from the aftermath of the violence of the Rwandan Genocide
Rwanda and its people have a long road ahead and may never truly heal from the aftermath of the violence of the Rwandan Genocide

By the end of the genocide, Rwanda had been ransacked. Hospitals and government offices were emptied and destroyed. The capital and largest city in Rwanda Kigali had lost nearly 85% of its inhabitants. The entire country was covered in rotting bodies. 250,000 women had been widowed and 100,000 children had lost their parents. Today, adult men only make up 20% of the population of Rwanda. Nearly two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line, and many households are led by eldest children as young as the age of ten. A new word had to be invented to encompass the posttraumatic grief and stress of survivors of genocide: ihahamuke.

Rwanda is recovering from the 100 days of hatred and bloodshed. Villages, roads, and community buildings are being built up again. As ambassador of the Netherlands Paul Schonherr said, “What these people have achieved in the short time since the genocide is unbelievable… this is a terrific country.”

People who once killed their neighbors, Hutus and Tutsi, now live side by side. Ethnically divisive speech and governing have been outlawed. Rwandans hope to identify as unified Rwandans rather than Hutus versus Tutsi. Life expectancy in Rwanda has doubled since 1994 to over 60 years. Although Rwanda must take time for its citizens to heal physically and psychologically, the country has begun to rise from the ashes of the Rwandan Genocide.

The Rwandan Genocide had its roots in a division that was created over time. People who had centuries ago only been divided by labor as farmers versus cattle herders became further divided when Belgian missionaries institutionalized and highlighted their differences. By the 1900s, Hutus and Tutsi people had grown to consider themselves ethnically distinct and polarized. When the once-oppressed Hutus came into power through democracy, the Tutsi minority became the target of massive hatred, negative propaganda, and ultimately genocide.

Despite numerous urgent messages from Rwandan informants and UN peacekeeper Dallaire, the UN and its members failed to intervene. Racist, fear-mongering, and misinforming newspapers, magazines, and radio stations were allowed to continue broadcasting strong anti-Tutsi messages, ordering Hutus to target both Tutsi and moderate Hutus. Hutu extremists took over the country with machetes, guns, and other makeshift weapons, murdering and raping their own neighbors and ordering others to do so or lose their own lives. In only a matter of months, up to a million or more people were murdered.

Over two decades later, Rwanda is still healing. Those who failed to intervene must live with their guilt. Survivors must live without parents and family, with battered and scarred bodies, and with an injured country. In the wake of something as terrible as a genocide, the only form of positivity, the only way of moving forward, is of working together, creating connections, and allowing wounds to heal with time. As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” For those who died in and survived the Rwandan Genocide, we remember and we mourn.