The state of Rwanda is situated in central-east Africa, a small and relatively poor country that is currently in the headlines due to its involvement in the strife currently continuing in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda itself is a former German, and post-First World War Belgian, colony that gained independence on July 1st, 1962. There is a complicated background to the ethnic tensions within Rwanda that need to be discussed at the outset. The main ‘ethnic’ groups of Rwanda are the Hutu and Tutsi (there is also a minority of the Twa peoples that reside in Rwanda, constituting approximately 2% of the population). The groupings of the Rwandan people into Tutsi or Hutu stems from what originally were social castes, with the Tutsi originally being those who obtained more land or cattle. The Belgians were the first to actually establish firm designations for the Hutu/Tutsi groupings, favouring the minority Tutsis in their rule, and deriving their views ‘from an egregious nineteenth-century contribution of the nascent discipline of anthropology.’ (Jones, 2006, pp234-235) This anthropological view of the two groups saw the Tutsi as more ‘European’, and destined to rule. The introduction of compulsory ID cards in 1933 further codified the separation of Tutsi and Hutu as well as discrimination toward Hutus in every day life, causing Hutu resentment to grow throughout the colonial period.
There were calls for an end to Hutu subservience in 1957 with the publishing of a ‘Hutu Manifesto’. This manifesto laid the blame for Rwanda’s problems on Tutsi supremacy, and established a belief that the Tutsi were not really Rwandans at all, but rather an ethnic group that had migrated to Rwanda years before and usurped itself into positions of power. Tensions reached the tipping point in 1959, when the Rwandan king died in mysterious circumstances, and saw a group of Tutsi extremists blame his death on the Belgians and Hutus, and saw them attack a prominent Hutu leader. This attack saw a series of retaliations and pogroms against Tutsi families, which saw thousands killed and many more thousands fleeing the violence. Upon independence, Rwandan political parties were established along strict ethnic lines rather than political. Over the next 3 decades, Rwanda saw a series of pogroms and massacres of Tutsi, resulting in widespread displacement of people and large groups of Tutsi refugees across the border in Uganda.
In 1973, a year after a genocide of Hutu in the neighbouring state of Burundi, a military leader by the name of Juvénal Habyarimana seized political power in a coup. His regime focused upon a small knit group of northern Rwandan Hutu called the Akazu, who wielded power behind the scenes, increasing anti-Tutsi sentiments and cracking down on demands for democratic reform. With the Rwandan economy weak, there was growing civic tension during the later 1980s, and the onset of civil war in 1990 led to further problems for the Habyarimana regime. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had been founded in 1987 by Rwandan exiles based in Uganda, and their invasion in 1990 resulted in Habyarimana’s regime receiving French military assistance to prop up his regime.
The situation in Rwanda by the early 1990s was fragile. Hutu/Tutsi tensions were high due to the Burundian Genocide of Hutu in 1972, and the Tutsi dominated RPF invasions. In 1990 we see the publication of the ‘Hutu Ten Commandments’, advocating the extermination of Rwandan Tutsi; in 1993, the Hutu extremist RTLM radio station began broadcasting, with extremist Hutu propaganda flooding the airwaves, and fueling fears of the Tutsi as a ‘fifth column inside Rwanda’, ready to help the RPF. The word inyenzi begins to appear at this point to describe the Tutsi, meaning ‘cockroaches’.
Image 1: Members of the Interahamwe militia,
President Habyarimana was, by 1993, deeply involved in the Arusha Peace Accords, which looked to establish a peaceful settlement between the regime and the RPF. On his return from talks in Tanzania on April 6th, 1994, Habyarimana’s plane was shot down at around 8.30pm as it approached Kigali airport, killing both him and the Hutu president of Burundi. To this day, it is unknown who shot down the plane, but the situation was used by Hutu extremists to launch a campaign to exterminate the Tutsi. Within 45 minutes, the Presidential Guard had begun erecting roadblocks around Kigali, and the Akazu had begun plotting, despite openly engaging with the U.N mission in Rwanda to prove they were not staging a military coup. The Tutsi Prime Minister of Rwanda was then to make a radio broadcast to appeal for calm, but as she attempted to on April 7th, was murdered along with 10 Belgian U.N peacekeepers. The result was to see Western nations evacuating their citizens from the Rwandan tinderbox. This was in part affected by the death of 18 American and 24 Pakistani troops in Mogadishu the year before (portrayed in the film ‘Black Hawk Down‘).
RTLM initiated the subsequent widespread killing, calling for people to ‘clear the bush’. The Interahamwe militia (Habyarimana’s MRND political party militia, armed to the teeth with machetes and some firearms over the preceding 3 years) played a key role in the violence, but they were not the only ones complicit in the killing. Ordinary Hutu civilians were conscripted and composed the vast majority of the killers, and between April 6th and the third week of May, over 650000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians were butchered with machetes and firearms. Roadblocks were set up, where anyone with a Tutsi identity card, or even those deemed to look Tutsi, were hacked to death. Hutu death squads roamed the country, killing any Tutsi they came across, massacring entire villages; on April 20th, in the parish of Karama, about forty thousand people were killed in less than 6 hours. (Jones, 2006, p239)
As genocide spread across the country, the international community stood back and refused to become involved. After ensuring foreign citizens had been evacuated, the UN Security Council focused more on extracting UN troops rather than attempting to stop the killing. The UN military commander in Rwanda, General Dallaire, was left with a stunted force of 470 peacekeepers, defying orders and holding onto more troops than he was ordered to. Poorly equipped and thin on the ground, these soldiers managed to save thousands of lives, most famously those at the Hotel des Milles Collines (portrayed in the 2004 film ‘Hotel Rwanda’). Whilst the genocide continued, the rebel RPF forces fought deep into Rwanda. France proposed sending troops to intervene on June 17th, and by the 21st had troops massing on the Rwandan border with Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo). This rapid mobilisation of forces showed the capability of western nations to intervene, but the French merely established a safe zone in south-west Rwanda, further continuing their support of the Hutu regime, and allowing 2 million Hutu to flee into Zaire, as well as tens of thousands of those complicit in the killing. The refugee camps that were subsequently established provided bases for Hutu extremists to later continue their attacks, which would have severe consequences for various surrounding countries, particularly Zaire.
On July 4th, the RPF captured the capital, Kigali, effectively ending the genocide. Estimates suggest that more than 800,000 people were killed during the 3 months of the genocide. Many more were maimed, raped and displaced. Largely ignored by the West, the Rwandan Genocide places major shame on the international community, who largely stood by and watched as hundreds of thousands died in a flurry of violence. Furthermore, the large displacement of both innocent people and those who partook in the killing has caused widespread problems in
the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, where a war lasting 6 years between 1997 and 2003 led to the deaths of around 5 and a half million people. Although there is not enough space to get into detail about that conflict, the continued conflicts between Hutu extremists based in the DRC and the Rwandan government saw a forced change of regime in the DRC’s government, followed by fighting to secure its mineral and natural resources by countries including Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Uganda, Burundi, Sudan, Chad and Angola.
Main Points of this Blog:
- Despite the claim to never let something like the Holocaust happen again, the international community stood by in 1994 whilst more than 800,000 people died
- The use of propaganda to stir up a populace to become complicit in mass murder is shocking
- The mass murder in Rwanda happened a mere 18 years ago
- The genocide was one of the precursor events to what would bcome known as Africa’s World War, the Great War of Africa
Frank Chalk, ‘Hate Radio in Rwanda’ – HowardAdelman and Astri Suhrke, ‘The Path of a Genocide. The Rwanda Crisis from Uganda To Zaire’, (New Jersey: Transaction, 1999)
Jean Hatzfeld, ‘A Time for Machetes, The Rwandan Genocide: The Killers Speak’, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005)
Jean Hatzfeld, ‘Into the Quick of Life, The Rwandan Genocide: The Survivors Speak’, (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2005)
Paul Magnarella, ‘Justice in Africa: Rwanda’s Genocide, Its Courts and the UN Criminal Tribunal’, (UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2000)
Mahmood Mamdani, ‘When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda’, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001)
Linda Melvern, ‘A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide’, (London: Zed Books Ltd., 2000)
Linda Melvern, ‘Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide’, (USA: Verso, 2004)
Gerard Prunier, ‘The Rwanda Crisis: History of the Genocide’, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)
Paul Rusesabagina, ‘An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind Hotel Rwanda’, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006)
Peter Uvin, ‘Aiding Violence. The Development Enterprise in Rwanda’, (New York: Kumarian Press, 1998)