The Rwandan genocide occurred during the Rwandan Civil War, from 7 April to 15 July 1994. Over a period of approximately 100 days, armed Hutu militias targeted members of the Tutsi minority group, as well as some moderate Hutu and Twa individuals, resulting in a devastating loss of life. Scholars widely estimate that between 500,000 to 662,000 Tutsis were killed.
The Rwandan Civil War began in 1990 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group primarily composed of Tutsi refugees, invaded northern Rwanda from their base in Uganda. The conflict unfolded over the next three years without either side gaining a decisive advantage.
In an attempt to end the war, the Rwandan government, led by Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana, signed the Arusha Accords with the RPF on 4 August 1993. However, Habyarimana’s assassination on 6 April 1994 disrupted the peace process and created a power vacuum.
The following day, genocidal killings commenced when Hutu soldiers, police, and militias targeted key Tutsi and moderate Hutu military and political leaders.
The genocide’s magnitude and brutality shocked the world, yet no country took forceful action to intervene and halt the killings. Most victims met their tragic fates in their own villages or towns, often at the hands of their own neighbors and fellow villagers.
Hutu gangs sought out victims hiding in churches and schools.
Machetes and rifles were the weapons of choice for the militia. Sexual violence was rampant, with an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women subjected to rape during the genocide. As the genocide unfolded, the RPF swiftly resumed the civil war, ultimately capturing all government-controlled territory and ending the genocide.
The government and perpetrators of the genocide were forced into Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The impact of the genocide was far-reaching and long-lasting. In 1996, the Rwandan government, led by the RPF, launched an offensive into Zaire, where exiled leaders of the former Rwandan government and numerous Hutu refugees were located.
This offensive marked the beginning of the First Congo War and resulted in an estimated 200,000 deaths. Present-day Rwanda commemorates the genocide with two public holidays, and “genocide ideology” and “divisionism” are considered criminal offenses.
While the Constitution of Rwanda states that over 1 million people perished in the genocide, the actual number of casualties is likely to hover between 500,000 and 1,000,000.
Prelude to the Rwandan Genocide: Colonialism and Division
The ancient land of Rwanda was initially inhabited by the Twa people, an indigenous group of pygmy hunter-gatherers who settled in the region between 8000 BC and 3000 BC. Astonishingly, these resilient individuals continue to call Rwanda their home to this very day.
Between 700 BC and 1500 AD, a series of Bantu communities migrated into Rwanda, clearing the dense forests to make way for agriculture. Among historians, there exist various theories regarding the nature of these Bantu migrations. One notion suggests that the initial settlers were known as the Hutu, while the Tutsi arrived later and formed a distinct racial group, possibly originating from Cushitic roots.
An alternative perspective posits that migration was a gradual and steady process, with neighboring groups gradually assimilating into the existing society, sharing striking genetic similarities with the established communities.
According to this hypothesis, the Hutu-Tutsi distinction emerged later. It was primarily a social class or caste division, where the Tutsi were cattle herders while the Hutu focused on agricultural pursuits.
It is important to note that Rwanda’s Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa peoples share a common language and are collectively called the Banyarwanda.
During the Berlin Conference 1884, Rwanda and its neighboring country Burundi were assigned to German rule. The German presence in Rwanda was established in 1897 through a strategic alliance with the Rwandan monarchy.
The German administration pursued a policy of governing the country indirectly by working through the Rwandan monarchy. This approach allowed for colonization to occur with minimal European military forces. Notably, the colonialists preferred the Tutsi community over the Hutu, as they believed the Tutsi to be of Ethiopian origin and racially superior (yeah).
Embracing the German military strength, the Rwandan king welcomed their presence and expanded his rule. However, during World War I, Belgian forces took control of Rwanda and Burundi in 1917, leading to a shift in colonial power.
From 1926 onward, Belgium implemented a policy of more direct colonial rule. While the Belgians did introduce modernization efforts to the Rwandan economy, Tutsi dominance persisted, resulting in the marginalization of the Hutu population.
In the early 1930s, Belgium introduced a lasting division of the Rwandan population by categorizing individuals into three ethnic groups based on a rigid class structure. The Hutu constituted approximately 84% of the population, followed by the Tutsi at around 15% and the Twa at a mere 1%.
Mandatory identity cards were issued to each individual, clearly labeling their ethnicity and race as Tutsi, Hutu, Twa, or Naturalized. While affluent Hutus had the opportunity to attain honorary Tutsi status in the past, the introduction of identity cards halted any further fluidity between these groups, transforming socioeconomic distinctions into fixed ethnic divisions.
Rwanda’s Problems Get Worse
The European colonizers played a significant role in reshaping and distorting the ethnic identities of the Hutu and Tutsi populations. Christian missionaries, in particular, propagated theories surrounding the “Hamitic” origins of the Rwandan kingdom, emphasizing the perceived foreign features and Ethiopian lineage of the Tutsi “caste.”
These mythologies laid the groundwork for the anti-Tutsi propaganda that emerged during the tragic events 1994.
A crucial turning point occurred on 1 November 1959 when Dominique Mbonyumutwa, a Hutu sub-chief, was attacked near his home in Byimana, Gitarama prefecture, by supporters of a pro-Tutsi party. While Mbonyumutwa survived the attack, rumors soon circulated falsely claiming his death. In response, Hutu activists unleashed violence against Tutsis, targeting both the elite and ordinary civilians, marking the commencement of the Rwandan Revolution.
The Tutsi community retaliated with their attacks. However, by this point, the Hutu enjoyed full support from the Belgian administration, which sought to dismantle Tutsi dominance. In early 1960, the Belgians replaced most Tutsi chiefs with Hutu leaders and organized mid-year commune elections, resulting in an overwhelming Hutu majority.
Subsequently, the monarchy was deposed, and a republic dominated by Hutus was established, leading to Rwanda’s independence in 1962. As the revolution unfolded, Tutsis fled the country to escape the Hutu-led purges. They sought refuge in neighboring nations such as Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Unlike the Banyarwanda, who had migrated during the pre-colonial and colonial eras, their host countries regarded these exiled Tutsis as refugees. They promptly began advocating for their right to return to Rwanda and formed armed groups that launched incursions into the country.
However, these endeavors proved unsuccessful and resulted in further reprisal killings, claiming the lives of approximately 10,000 Tutsis and exacerbating the number of Tutsi exiles. By 1964, more than 300,000 Tutsis had fled their homeland, enduring three decades of exile.
The Rwandan Genocide: War Brews Near
In 1990, the military took measures to arm civilians with various weapons, including machetes, and initiated the training of Hutu youth in combat. Officially presented as a program for “civil defense” against the perceived threat posed by the RPF, these weapons eventually became instruments of genocide.
A key development during this period was the formation of a paramilitary or militia force known as the Interahamwe (“those who stand together”) and the Impuzamugambi (“those who have the same goal”), orchestrated by the leaders of the Hutu Power movement.
These groups operated as auxiliary support to the police, gendarmerie, and regular army, effectively serving as accomplices in the mass killings. Recruitment for these militias primarily targeted Hutu individuals who had been internally displaced, and forced to leave their homes in the northern regions.
The Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi boasted a combined membership of approximately 50,000 individuals on the eve of the genocide. Additionally, Rwanda made substantial purchases of grenades and munitions in late 1990. In one notable transaction, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who would later become the UN Secretary-General, facilitated a significant arms deal while serving as the Egyptian foreign minister.
The Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) rapidly expanded during this period, increasing from less than 10,000 troops to nearly 30,000 within a year. However, the recruits often needed more discipline. Consequently, a rift emerged between the well-trained and prepared elite units, such as the Presidential Guard and the Gendarmerie, and the ordinary rank-and-file soldiers.
In March 1993, the Hutu Power movement began compiling lists of individuals deemed “traitors” who were targeted for execution. There is a possibility that President Habyarimana’s name was included in these lists, as the Coalition for the Defense of the Republic (CDR) publicly accused him of treason.
The Power factions believed that the national radio station, Radio Rwanda, had taken a more liberal stance and had become sympathetic to the opposition. They established a new radio station called Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) to counter this perceived shift.
RTLM specifically targeted young adults in Rwanda and had an extensive reach. Unlike newspapers that were predominantly available in urban areas, the radio broadcasts could be accessed by Rwanda’s predominantly rural farming population.
The format of the broadcasts mirrored Western-style radio talk shows, incorporating popular music, interviews, and active audience participation. The presenters employed crude humor and offensive language, in stark contrast to the formal news reports of Radio Rwanda.
Merely 1.52% of RTLM’s airtime was dedicated to news coverage, while 66.29% was devoted to journalists expressing their personal opinions on various subjects.
As the onset of the genocide approached, RTLM intensified its focus on disseminating anti-Tutsi propaganda. The station portrayed the Tutsi as a dangerous enemy seeking to seize political power at the expense of the Hutu population.
By associating the Rwandan Patriotic Army with the Tutsi political party and ordinary Tutsi citizens, they depicted the entire ethnic group as a unified threat to the people of Rwanda. RTLM went even further, employing the derogatory term “inyenzi” to dehumanize the Tutsi, likening them to non-human pests or cockroaches that needed exterminating.
Leading up to the genocide, there were 294 instances where RTLM accused the Rwandan Patriotic Army of committing atrocities against the Hutu, accompanied by 252 broadcasts calling Hutus to kill Tutsis. One chilling broadcast declared, “Someone must… make them disappear for good… to wipe them from human memory… to exterminate the Tutsi from the earth’s surface.”
By the time the violence erupted, the young Hutu population had been exposed to months of racist propaganda that portrayed all Tutsis as dangerous enemies who needed to be eliminated before taking control of the country. The RTLM’s role in the genocide earned it the infamous nickname “Radio Machete,” reflecting its direct involvement in inciting violence.
A study conducted by David Yanagizawa-Drott of the Harvard Kennedy School in 1994 found that approximately 10% of the overall violence during the Rwandan genocide can be attributed to this particular radio station. However, Gordon Danning, a researcher from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, raised questions about the assumption that media availability correlates with media consumption.
Throughout 1993, the hardliners orchestrated the importation of machetes on an unprecedented scale, surpassing the quantity required solely for agricultural purposes. Additionally, they procured other tools that could be wielded as weapons, including razor blades, saws, and scissors. These items were distributed across the country, ostensibly as part of a civil defense initiative.
The Rwandan Genocide Begins
On the fateful day of 6 April 1994, tragedy struck as the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu president of Burundi, was shot down while preparing to land in Kigali, resulting in the loss of all lives on board.
The responsibility for this attack remains disputed, with both the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and Hutu extremists being implicated. In 2006, after an eight-year investigation, French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière concluded that Paul Kagame, leader of the RPF, had ordered the assassination. However, an investigation conducted by the Rwandan government in 2010 blamed Hutu extremists within the Rwandan army.
In January 2012, a French investigation report was released, widely interpreted as exonerating the RPF, although some, like Filip Reyntjens, argued that it did not completely exonerate them. In a troubling turn of events, in November 2014, Emmanuel Mughisa, a former Rwandan soldier claiming to have evidence of Kagame’s involvement in the downing of Habyarimana’s plane, was abducted in Nairobi shortly after being called to testify at the French inquiry.
Mughisa’s case added to the list of Kagame’s opponents who had disappeared or died under suspicious circumstances. Despite the ongoing disagreement regarding the perpetrators, many observers agree that the attack and the subsequent deaths of the two Hutu presidents catalyzed the horrific genocide that followed.
In the wake of President Habyarimana’s death, a crisis committee was hastily assembled on the evening of 6 April. This committee included Major General Augustin Ndindiliyimana, Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, and other high-ranking army officers. Surprisingly, Bagosora, despite being of lower rank than Ndindiliyimana, assumed leadership of the committee.
The committee should have considered the legally designated successor, Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, which refused to recognize her authority. That night, Roméo Dallaire, the Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), met with the committee and insisted that Uwilingiyimana was in charge.
However, Bagosora staunchly rejected Dallaire’s plea, claiming that Uwilingiyimana did not trust the Rwandan people and lacked the capability to govern the nation. The committee justified its existence by arguing that it was necessary to prevent a power vacuum following the president’s demise.
Bagosora also attempted to convince UNAMIR and the RPF that the committee’s actions aimed to contain the unruly behavior of the Presidential Guard, which he characterized as “out of control,” and reassured them of the committee’s commitment to the Arusha agreement.
The horrifying genocide commenced the following day, with the perpetrators swiftly targeting key Tutsi and moderate Hutu military and political leaders who could have assumed control in the power vacuum left behind.
Checkpoints and barricades were erected nationwide to screen individuals using the national ID card, including ethnic classifications. This allowed government forces to identify and execute Tutsi individuals systematically.
Furthermore, Hutu civilians were forced to arm themselves with crude weapons such as machetes, clubs, and other makeshift tools. They were encouraged to commit heinous acts of violence, including rape, mutilation, and murder against their Tutsi neighbors, as well as looting and destroying their property.
Meanwhile, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) resumed its military offensive shortly after Habyarimana’s assassination. The RPF swiftly gained control over the country’s northern region and eventually captured Kigali approximately 100 days later in mid-July, ultimately ending the genocide.
During these tragic events and their aftermath, the international community, including the United Nations (UN) and countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Belgium, faced criticism for their inaction and failure to strengthen the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) peacekeeping force and its mandate.
In December 2017, media reports surfaced suggesting that the French government had allegedly supported the Hutu government after the genocide had begun, leading to further scrutiny and questions regarding international involvement and responsibilities.
Shortly after the death of President Habyarimana, the large-scale targeting and killing of Tutsi individuals solely based on their ethnicity commenced within hours. The crisis committee, led by Théoneste Bagosora, assumed control of the country and played a central role in coordinating the genocide.
Bagosora wasted no time in issuing orders to exterminate Tutsi, personally addressing groups of interahamwe (militia) in Kigali and contacting leaders in various regions via telephone. Other key figures involved in organizing the genocide on a national level included defense minister Augustin Bizimana, paratrooper commander Aloys Ntabakuze, and Presidential Guard head Protais Mpiranya.
Businessman Félicien Kabuga provided financial support to the notorious Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) and the Interahamwe, while Pascal Musabe and Joseph Nzirorera were responsible for coordinating the activities of the Interahamwe and the Impuzamugambi militia nationwide.
In Gisenyi prefecture, a stronghold of the extremist akazu group, military leaders were among the first to organize the killing. They gathered Interahamwe members and civilian Hutus, announcing the president’s death and falsely blaming the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi-led rebel group.
They then commanded the crowd to “begin your work” and showed no mercy, even to infants. The wave of violence quickly spread to other prefectures, including Ruhengeri, Kibuye, Kigali, Kibungo, Gikongoro, and Cyangugu on April 7th.
Local officials, acting upon orders from Kigali, spread rumors that the RPF was responsible for the president’s assassination and issued commands to eliminate Tutsi individuals. The Hutu population, who had been prepared and armed in the preceding months, adhered to the Rwandan tradition of obedience to authority and carried out these orders without question.
While the genocide is often portrayed as a sudden and coordinated event, alternative perspectives suggest it was the culmination of a series of local power struggles among Hutu factions. These intra-ethnic contests for dominance played a role in escalating violence.
Some argue that the worst atrocities could have been prevented if the international community had taken a more resolute stance and intervened, particularly during the earlier communal struggles.
From the remainder of April to early May, the killings in Rwanda persisted at an alarming rate. With the assistance of local populations, the Presidential Guard, gendarmerie, and youth militia continued their relentless campaign to exterminate every Tutsi in the country.
With the exception of the advancing rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) army, there was no opposing force to prevent or slow down the massacres. The domestic opposition had been eliminated, and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was explicitly forbidden to use force except in self-defense.
In rural areas where Tutsi and Hutu lived side by side and were acquainted with each other, Hutus easily identified and targeted their Tutsi neighbors. In urban areas where residents were more anonymous, the military and interahamwe (militia) manned roadblocks facilitated the identification process.
Each person passing through the roadblock was required to show their national identity card, which indicated ethnicity, and those with Tutsi cards were immediately killed. Many Hutus were also victims, targeted for various reasons such as alleged sympathy for moderate opposition parties, being journalists, or simply possessing a “Tutsi appearance.”
Numerous bodies were dumped into the Kagera River, causing significant damage to the Ugandan fishing industry as consumers feared consuming fish caught in Lake Victoria, which decomposing corpses could contaminate. The Ugandan government dispatched teams to retrieve the bodies from the river before they entered the lake.
How Did the Rwandan Massacre Take Place?
On April 9th, UN observers witnessed the massacre of children at a Polish church in Gikondo. That same day, 1,000 heavily armed and well-trained European troops arrived to evacuate European civilian personnel but did not stay to assist UNAMIR. Media coverage intensified on the 9th, with The Washington Post reporting the execution of Rwandan employees of relief agencies in front of their expatriate colleagues.
Butare prefecture was an exception to the widespread violence. Jean-Baptiste Habyalimana, the sole Tutsi prefect, and the prefecture dominated by an opposition party, managed to maintain relative calm until he was overthrown by the extremist Sylvain Nsabimana.
To overcome the resistance of the Butare population against killing their fellow citizens, the government airlifted militiamen from Kigali via helicopters and readily carried out the massacre of Tutsis.
Most victims met their fate in their own villages or towns, often at the hands of their neighbors and fellow villagers. The militia primarily used machetes to murder their victims, although some army units employed rifles. Gangs of Hutu extremists sought out victims hiding in churches and school buildings and brutally massacred them.
Local officials and government-sponsored radio broadcasts incited ordinary citizens to kill their neighbors, and those who refused were often executed on the spot. The choice presented was stark: either participate in the massacres or become a victim yourself.
One horrific massacre took place at Nyarubuye. On April 12th, over 1,500 Tutsis sought refuge in a Catholic church in Nyange, located in the Kivumu commune. Acting in collaboration with the authorities, local Interahamwe used bulldozers to demolish the church building.
The militia then used machetes and rifles to murder every person who attempted to escape.
The local priest, Athanase Seromba, was later found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) for his involvement in destroying the church. He was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.
In another instance, thousands sought shelter in the Official Technical School (École technique officielle) in Kigali, where Belgian UNAMIR soldiers were stationed. However, on April 11th, the Belgian soldiers withdrew, leaving the Rwandan armed forces and militia free to slaughter all the Tutsi refugees.
Rapes During the Rwandan Genocide
The genocide in Rwanda was marked by a disturbing and systematic use of sexual violence, a dark chapter in history that evokes deep sorrow. The Interahamwe and other perpetrators employed rape to advance their genocidal aims, sow division among the population, and inflict grave physical and psychological harm, particularly targeting Tutsi women.
Propaganda significantly dehumanized Tutsi women, portraying them as enemies aligned with Hutus’ adversaries and fueling their targeting. The brutality of the sexual violence, involving both male and female perpetrators, underscores the influence of propaganda in mobilizing individuals to participate in these abhorrent acts.
The suffering endured by Tutsi women and even moderate Hutu women, who were married to or harboring Tutsis, is a tragic reality. Testimonies reveal the horrifying experiences of survivors, shedding light on the complicity of those who either watched passively or coerced victims into further agony.
The prevalence of rape during the genocide, as attested by numerous accounts and reports, speaks to its widespread and systematic nature.
The deliberate strategy to infect Tutsi rape victims with HIV through the involvement of HIV-infected men recruited by the genocidaires adds an even more distressing dimension to these crimes. The calculated release of AIDS patients from hospitals to form “rape squads” with the intention of inflicting slow and agonizing deaths on the victims showcases the depths of cruelty reached during this period.
The infliction of sexual mutilation and violence on women and men further highlights the extreme brutality unleashed.
While it is challenging to establish precise figures, experts estimate that 250,000 and 500,000 women fell victim to rape during the genocide. These staggering numbers underscore the immense scale of sexual violence and its profound impact on the survivors and their communities.
The use of sexual violence as a weapon during the Rwandan genocide remains a harrowing and painful chapter in history. It serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need to prevent such atrocities and address the survivors’ enduring consequences.
The Role of the Church in the Rwandan Massacre
In April 1994, Pope John Paul II expressed his deep concern regarding the events unfolding in Rwanda. In a message to Rwandan Catholics on 9 April, he urged them to resist feelings of hatred and revenge, instead encouraging dialogue and forgiveness.
The Catholic Church acknowledges that genocide occurred in Rwanda but emphasizes that those who participated did so without the Church’s permission. However, the Church faced criticism in a 1999 report by Human Rights Watch, which faulted various religious authorities in Rwanda, including Catholics, Anglicans, and other Protestant denominations, for their failure to condemn the genocide.
Over time, it became evident that this accusation was not true in all cases. Some members of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy have been tried and convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for their involvement in the genocide.
Bishop Misago, accused of corruption and complicity, was cleared of all charges in 2000. On the other hand, many other Catholic and clergy members from different denominations sacrificed their lives to protect Tutsis from being killed.
Regrettably, some clergy members did participate in the massacres. Catholic nuns Maria Kisito and Gertrude Mukangango were convicted in 2001 for their involvement in the murders of 500-700 Tutsis who sought refuge at their convent in Sovu.
Witnesses testified that they directed a death squad to the victims’ hiding place and provided them with petrol to burn down the building. In 2006, Father Athanase Seromba was sentenced to 15 years (later increased to life imprisonment on appeal) by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Seromba’s role in the massacre of 2,000 Tutsis was revealed during the trial.
It was disclosed that he lured the Tutsis to the church under the false pretense of providing refuge. Once they arrived, he ordered the use of bulldozers to crush the refugees hiding inside the church. If any of them survived, Hutu militias were instructed to kill them all.
On 20 March 2017, Pope Francis acknowledged that while some Catholic nuns and priests in Rwanda were killed during the genocide, others were complicit in its planning and execution. This acknowledgment reflects a recognition of the complex and varied involvement of individuals within the Catholic Church during that tragic period.
Next, read about the Conspiracy Theories behind the Sinking of MS Estonia. Then, about the Wunderwaffe, Germany’s Secret Wonder Weapon Program.
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