This week marks the start of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Twenty years ago, beginning April 7th, 1994, well over half a million Rwandans were murdered in the span of 100 days by Hutu extremists.
About 85% of Rwandans are Hutus but the Tutsi minority has long dominated the country. In 1959, the Hutus overthrew the Tutsi monarchy and tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighboring countries, including Uganda. A group of Tutsi exiles formed a rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which invaded Rwanda in 1990 and fighting continued until a 1993 peace deal was agreed.
On the night of 6 April 1994 a plane carrying then President Juvenal Habyarimana, and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi - both Hutus - was shot down, killing everyone on board. Hutu extremists blamed the RPF and immediately started a well-organized campaign of slaughter. The RPF said the plane had been shot down by Hutus but to this day, the truth remains a mystery.
1. The genocide was based on tribal conflict.
As website Ubutera emphatically asserts, “There are NO TRIBES in Rwanda.” Tutsi and Hutu are socio-economic terms - Hutu originally describing the working class and the Tutsi being the wealthier elites.
Unlike other African countries, whose borders are the aftermath of European colonialism, Rwanda was a nation prior to colonization. Although a distinction was made between Hutu and Tutsi, these were neither tribes nor ethnic groups. Rather, as David Moshman points out, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was a fluid one, based on a combination of ancestry and socioeconomic status, including the ownership of cattle.
Rwanda was a single society in which Hutu and Tutsi lived among each other, spoke the same language, shared religious beliefs and intermarried. The Tutsi, comprising 15 percent of the population, were politically and economically dominant. Nevertheless, some Hutu attained some degree of power and economic success, and many Tutsi were as poor and marginalized as the majority of Hutu.
From the 1890s to the early 1960s, Germany and then Belgium reinforced Tutsi power as a means of controlling the country (i.e. colonial rule of ‘divide and conquer’). Thus, identity cards that distinguished Hutu from Tutsi became mandatory, requiring everyone to be categorized and making these categories official.
It’s been well documented that some of the earliest victims of the genocide, were not only Tutsi, but also Hutu Moderates (political opposition to Hutu Power).
Although there were moderates among both Hutu and Tutsi, extremists on each side undermined the claims of moderates on the other.
Going back to the early 1990s, the rise of a political movement calling itself Hutu Power defined Rwanda as a Hutu nation. As a result, Hutu extremists were targeting members of the minority Tutsi community, as well as their own political opponents, irrespective of origin. Accordingly, any moderate Hutu who advocated a vision of Rwanda for all Rwandans were seen as a threat to the movement and, thus, targeted and massacred by Hutu extremists.
3. The International community did not know until it was too late
Twenty years ago on January 11, 1994 General Roméo Dallaire sent his now infamous "Genocide Fax" to United Nations headquarters in New York. At the time Dallaire was Force Commander of the UN peacekeeping mission for Rwanda, UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda).
Three months before the genocide, Dallaire discovered that Hutu extremists were distributing stockpiled arms to militias. Weighing the evidence, Dallaire came to the conclusion that coordinated raids on these arms caches could prevent a potential mass slaughter. His fax informed UN headquarters that while such an operation was not without serious risk, and could be a deadly trap, it was necessary to act. The ‘genocide fax’ contained specific information provided by an informant. But approval to put down the threat never came.
Ending the fax was the only line written in his native French, which read: Peux ce que veux. Allon-y. (Where there is a will there is a way. Let's go.)
Outside of Dallaire’s fax, there were 7 other international human rights reports issued between 1990-1994.
4. Spontaneous rage over the shooting down of Rwandan President Habyarimana’s plane started the genocide. Hutu attacked Tutsi in retaliation.
There was opposition from Hutu Extremists against the President for agreeing to the Arusha Accords, which would have been signed had he not been murdered, says Ubutera. Among both Hutu and Tutsi, the killing of the president sent a fearful signal that the massacres would begin. In the 100 days that followed, extremists among the majority Hutus attempted to carry out a long-planned mission to exterminate the traditionally wealthier minority Tutsis.
Three months before a horrifying genocide that would claim over half a million lives in just 100 days, Dallaire discovered that ethnic Hutu extremists were distributing stockpiled arms to Interahamwe militias. A high-level informant had also revealed to him that, as Dallaire wrote in his fax, "he has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali" in preparation "for their extermination."
In January 1994 Kigali was a dangerous city. Anti-Tutsi hate speech was being broadcast on the radio. A civil war had led to a formal peace agreement, which UNAMIR was supposed to police, but it was already falling apart. Then President Juvénal Habyarimana was unable to confront Hutu extremists within his own government.
5. 800,000 people died within 100 days
The killing took place at such a fast pace that getting an accurate number of those killed was not the priority, notes the website Ubutabera, and yet many still claim 800,000 is ‘The’ number. Three weeks into the genocide, the Red Cross in Kigali estimated 250,000 had been killed. A week later, they said at least 500,000 had been killed. When BBC asked for numbers the following week, an overwrought Philippe Gaillard, head of the Red Cross’s delegation in Rwanda answered, “After half a million, sir, we stopped counting.”
Sources: Ubutera, Huffington Post, The World Post
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