The 1994 Rwandan Genocide and why it still matters

Rwanda is often described as an exceptionally beautiful country, with stunning landscapes, bright colours and a vibrant culture. Yet, when a Rwandan was told his country was beautiful, he replied: “Beautiful? After the things that happened here?”

Rwanda was the scene of a 100-day genocide, caused by conflicts between its two main ethnicities, the Tutsi and Hutu, resulting in up to 1 million deaths. Meanwhile the international community did nothing to help. What caused such a large-scale genocide? Why did nobody help? And why is all this still important today?

Rwanda is a small sovereign state in east Africa. It borders on Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. With around seven million inhabitants (estimates from 1994), the country is rather overcrowded. The population is composed of three ethnic groups: the Twa (1%), the Tutsi (15%) and the Hutu (84%).

The ethnicity of Rwanda’s original inhabitants is disputed, but they were either Twa or Hutu. Although it is unclear whether the Hutu or Twa were the native inhabitants, it is generally accepted that the Tutsi’s migrated to Rwanda over 600 years ago from Ethiopia. Since then, all ethnicities have shared language, traditions, land, the business of farming and have lived together more or less peacefully until 1916 when Rwanda became a Belgian colony. Belgium introduced identity cards, classifying people according to their ethnicity and proclaimed the Tutsi to be superior, causing hatred between the two main ethnicities. This eventually led to a series of riots in 1959, with 20,000 Tutsi casualties and many more fleeing to neighbouring countries. When in 1962 Rwanda became independent, a Hutu government was established, which soon began the suppression of the Tutsi. The Tutsi exiles that had fled to neighbouring countries formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to secure their return to Rwanda. In 1990, when Rwanda faced economic problems caused by population growth and lack of food, the RPF seized the opportunity and a civil war erupted. In 1993, after many uprisings, attacks, deaths and difficult negotiations, the RPF signed a peace accord with the president, establishing a multi-party constitution.

However, on 6th April 1994 the presidential plane was shot down. It is still unknown whether the perpetrators were Tutsi or Hutu extremists. Regardless, whoever shot down the plane, willingly or unwillingly unleashed a wave of mass slaughter.

The ensuing genocide lasted 100 days, from 6th April to mid July 1994. In those one hundred days between 800,000 and 1 million people were brutally massacred. As the targets were mainly Tutsi, they accounted for most of the deaths, though Hutus and Twa also killed in some instances. The organisers of the genocide were mainly Hutu military officials, politicians and businessmen, supported by a 30,000 man strong unofficial Hutu militia, Interahamwe (“those who fight together”) as well as local Hutu citizens. The aim of the radical Hutu was to eliminate the Tutsi population and they used machetes, axes, arrows, spears and clubs to do so.

Initially only Tutsi politicians were targeted, but soon the killing spread into the streets and across the country. Churches, hospitals and schools became theatres of mass murder. In one church the killing lasted for two days and only a single girl survived. Her name is Valeria. While her entire family was murdered, she pretended to be dead in a desperate attempt to survive. One man stepped on her head; another chopped her hand off. They considered her dead and left. Valeria lived for 43 days among the dead before she was rescued. She recounts that at night dogs would come and eat the corpses. Such scenarios became common throughout the country. Wherever one went there would be dead bodies in the street, piled on top of each other, grotesquely twisted and sometimes missing a hand or even their head. These people were hacked to death, shot, burned or drowned. The only reason: they had Tutsi written on their identity card. This went on for 100 horrific days. The genocide only came to an end when the RPF, who had fought their way from Uganda through to Rwanda, reached Kigali and overthrew the government.

Kigali Memorial Centre, commemorating victims of the 1994 genocide and raising awareness of the tragedy. 

Kigali Memorial Centre, commemorating victims of the 1994 genocide and raising awareness of the tragedy.

Throughout this time, although they were well aware of the atrocities, hardly any western power interfered. The question of why they stood by is a difficult and highly complicated one. The answer can be over-simplified by saying that every country only takes action in pursuit of its own interests. Politics are not a humanitarian exercise but dictated by self-interest and Rwanda did not have any immediate value to any of the Western countries.

After the torture and murder of ten Belgian soldiers Belgium, France, Italy and the US withdrew most of their forces from Rwanda. After the first two weeks, which bore witness to an appalling number of deaths, the UN reduced its peacekeeping force from 2,500 men to 200 men. Some politicians attempted to justify their inaction by claiming they did not know extensive the genocide was (which is doubtful), or simply by staying clear of the word genocide altogether, as acknowledging the horror of the situation would have put pressure on them to intervene.

The fact that the international community, which had the resources to intervene, shied away from doing so shows their on-going reluctance and inability to take responsibility for their mistakes. One of the main reasons for this genocide was the ethnic divide, an issue that can be traced back to the actions of the Belgians after 1916. Despite their role in the outbreak of the genocide, Belgium did little to help. This reluctance to help can still be found today, with many former European colonies struggling to establish a working government, civil service and appreciation of basic human rights, and the former colonizers doing little to help. Although, the former colonialist nations cannot be held solely responsible for current problems, they inarguably disrupted the countries’ natural development, first by making them a colony and later in the process of decolonization. Unfortunately, many of the problems, which exist in today’s Africa, are the product of European mistakes, yet only a few are taking responsibility for them. The fact that we live in a highly globalized and interconnected world should prevent us from simply turning a blind eye to atrocities committed in other countries. I acknowledge the difficulty in deciding whether a country is or should be allowed to interfere in the internal affairs of another country. Yet, if these problems were initially caused by that foreign country, sending help is not only necessary but to a large extent a moral responsibility.

Ignorance is the easy way out and creates deeply rooted issues, which can be vividly observed at the example of Rwanda. It is easy to turn a blind eye to problems in other countries, yet we no longer live in a time where this should be possible. In an increasingly interconnected world, we are all to some extent involved in crimes occurring in other countries. Human rights and peace are not exclusive to the “Western” world but are universal and we cannot continue to ignore that which is outside of our immediate lives and countries, especially when it is our countries that helped cause the issues in the first place.

It is our responsibility to help!

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