Remembering Rwanda's Genocide

Apr 7, 2014 By Deepa Gopal
Deepa Gopal's picture

When we think about the worst 20th century crime against humanity, the Holocaust comes to mind. But as recently as 1994, another incident took place that shocked the world.

The Rwandan genocide, as it is called, tore apart families and destroyed entire communities. 800,000 people were killed in just 100 days in a brutal civil war.

Now, twenty years later, representatives from world nations gathered in Rwanda to mark this solemn moment in history that began on April 7, 1994. Wreaths were laid, and genocide survivors spoke of the horrors. Rwandan President Paul Kagame lit a flame that will burn for 100 days. The remembrance torch has in fact been touring Rwandan cities and villages for the past three months.

Kagame has blamed France for supporting the perpetrators during the genocide, and did not invite French representatives to join in the memorial. 

A Brief History Of Rwanda

The highlands of Rwanda were settled by native Hutu tribes who lived off the land by farming. Sometime later, a cattle-rearing people from the upper Nile region entered the highlands and settled among the locals. The two tribes co-existed peacefully, and people could move between the tribes - rich Hutus became Tutsis, while impoverished Tutsis became Hutus.

During waves of European colonization, Rwanda came under Germans first, followed by Belgian rule. To consolidate their power in this remote region of Africa, Belgian colonizers created a rift between the tribes by placing the minority Tutsis in charge. This led to exploitation and discontent among Hutus who made up roughly 85% of the population.

When Europeans withdrew from Africa, the stage was set for disaster. The Hutus created a manifesto declaring war on the Tutsis, and waves of uprisings saw many Tutsis flee to neighboring countries as refugees. These exiled Tutsis banded together to form the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) to reclaim their land.

The Nightmare Of 1994

Under international pressure, Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana agreed to negotiate with the RPF in a meeting in Tanzania. Just as Habyarimana was about to land in Rwanda after the meeting, two surface-to-air missiles struck his plane, killing him instantly. The death of Habyarimana - a Hutu, sparked the genocide.

Radical Hutus went door-to-door to homes of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, armed with machetes. The massacre was relentless. The United Nations withdrew its support staff, fearing for their safety. While the world waited to act and pass UN resolutions, nearly one million lives were lost in 100 days. Finally, the RPF, led by Paul Kagame, captured the country and brought an end to terror. 

Rwanda has come a long way, and is largely peaceful today. Kagame has been praised for pulling his country out of the worst violence the world had seen in decades. It is not known whether the assassination was an act by radical Hutus or the Tutsi-led RPF. But the incident is a reminder to the world that inaction is not a choice when innocent lives are being lost. 

Courtesy Slate, History.com