About the Rwandan Genocide

On 6 April 1994, the eyes of the world turned to the small, poor African nation of Rwanda. In the aftermath of the assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana, the ethnic Hutu majority began a deliberate, carefully orchestrated campaign to eliminate the Tutsi minority in any way possible.

There had been warning signs. The Tutsi were generally richer and more educated. When the Belgians gained control of Rwanda, they gave Tutsis all the positions of power. With Rwanda’s independence, Hutus took control of the government and, to say the least, held a grudge. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were isolated massacres of Tutsis. A system of ID cards was put in place in which one of the fields was “ethnicity.” In 1990, a Tutsi-dominated rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, invaded Rwanda from neighboring Uganda, triggering more animosity. The R.P.F.’s resilience spawned the nickname “inyenzi”, meaning “cockroaches.” Racial slurs, hate media and bigoted propaganda escalated tensions to the point where political parties were forming militias and practically waiting for something to ignite the powder keg that was Rwanda.

The spark, as it happened, came in the form of the assassination of Rwanda’s longtime president and racial hardliner, Juvénal Habyarimana. Who exactly fired the rocket that hit his plane as it came into land in Kigali is a mystery that has never been fully investigated. Though many assumed that it was the R.P.F., it is equally likely that it was a Hutu extremist angered by the president’s comparatively conciliatory policies. In any case, it took only hours for armed gangs to begin circulating through the capital with the names and addresses of all Tutsis in each district, knocking on doors and murdering those inside. In the following weeks the slaughter spread throughout the rest of the country, the weapon of choice being the machete.

Unamir, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, was unable to do much to help. The force had been sent in to enforce a peace deal with the R.P.F., and its mandate did not allow for any real fighting. Worse, when ten Belgian peacekeepers protecting the moderate prime minister were brutally murdered, the U.N. Security Council voted to reduce Unamir’s size by 90%, leaving Commander Roméo Dallaire with only 270 soldiers for all of Rwanda. Not until the genocide was winding down was an adequate force approved.

Through all this, the R.P.F. was advancing through Rwanda and scoring repeated victories against the Rwandan Army. In early July, they captured Kigali. Two weeks later, they forced the Hutu Power government into then-Zaïre, ending the genocide within Rwanda’s borders, though it continued outside. They appointed a Hutu president and a Tutsi vice president and stabilized the country. However, post-genocide Rwanda was the poorest country in the world and a land scarred by the events of the past hundred days. Its cities and economy were in ruins. Its streets, homes and fields were filled with the corpses of the estimated 937,000 victims. Those who survived were wounded, if not physically then mentally, for years to come.

There were several things which made the Rwandan Genocide especially horrifying, even in a century shared with Cambodia, Bosnia, Armenia and the Holocaust. For one thing, not only Tutsis were killed. The media invented the term “ibyitso,” meaning “accomplices,” for anyone who supported the R.P.F., sympathized with Tutsis or even simply disagreed with the hard-line ideology of the masses. Having a small nose or wearing eyeglasses was often enough to be murdered. Another thing was that the Rwandan media did not object to any of this. State-sponsored and private radio stations as well as several newspapers were in a large part responsible for prodding the nation in the direction of butchery. They did little to hide their opinions, running reports openly inciting people to “look at his [the Tutsi’s] small nose and break it,” and headlines like “What Weapons Will We Use to Eliminate the Cockroaches Once and for All?” written over a machete. The radio in particular was the most efficient way of connecting to many Rwandans, and it was the radio which, among many other things, warned people of invented atrocities to which they would fall victim at the hands of the R.P.F., creating a swarm of people running towards Zaïre ahead of the advancing rebels, contributing to a humanitarian disaster which is still not over.

Through all of this, the international community stood by and did nothing. The U.N. Security Council actually withdrew troops from Rwanda when the killing began, and gave Unamir a mandate which did not allow it to adequately protect civilians. Many also point to the United States as a power which could have done something. There were enough troops in Entebbe, Uganda, and other nearby bases to have several thousand troops on the ground fairly quickly. The U.S., as well as Belgium and France, did send troops in to rescue their citizens living in Rwanda, but not to help anyone else. Late in the genocide, a coalition of eight neighboring countries put together an intervention force, and only needed troop transports from Washington. The transports were approved, but due to red tape ended up sitting on an airstrip in Germany and never reaching their destination.

Rwanda, above all others, was a preventable genocide. There were so many warnings, so many opportunities to stop it, so many missed chances. Even after it was underway, much could have been done to lighten its effects but was not. The result was the most efficient mass killing in history after the atomic bombs, with one Rwandan dying every nine or ten seconds. Schools are careful to teach extensively the lessons of the Holocaust, but often give slim treatment to the lessons of Rwanda, which are in some ways more horrifying and in many ways more relevant. The 1994 genocide took place in a world very similar to the one we live in now, and many of the entities which watched it unfold and did nothing still exist largely unchanged. If we do not take these mistakes to heart and make sure that they never happen again, it means that they can.