Rwanda Genocide – April 6, 1994

A long-standing hatred of Tutsis by the Hutus exploded in extreme violence, killing more than half of the Tutsis.

When a radical group took power on April 6, 1994, the Hutu controlled government of Rwanda launched an extermination campaign against the Tutsis, the other tribal group in the country. Within the short time span of three months close to one million Tutsis were murdered, urged on by national radio broadcasts that kept shouting slogans such as “Kill them all,” or “Who will help us fill the half-empty graves?”

It is hard for people in North America’s multicultural society to understand how one cultural group can hate another so much that it is willing to completely exterminate it. The reason is that in Africa group rights and group loyalty are frequently the primary concern, not the individual and his or her rights and loyalties. In Rwanda, over the course of the thirty years since it secured independence from Belgium, there were recurring conflicts between the two main tribal groups. The events of 1994 were by far the worst. They were also the most barbaric actions seen anywhere in Africa in modern times.

Genocide, the deliberate destruction of an identifiable cultural group, is the name for the murders committed in Rwanda in 1994. These acts of genocide were not unique. Similar campaigns of violence against particular groups happened in many parts of the world in the course of the twentieth century. In Cambodia genocide took the form of a wholesale killing of the middle classes, in the area east of Turkey it was seen in the slaughter of Armenian citizens, and in the former Soviet Union millions of Ukrainian farmers were starved to death (see Ukraine catastrophe). Perhaps the best-known genocide of all was Hitler’s gassing of millions of Jews.

The Rwandan problem dates back to the time when the country was a colony of Belgium. The colonial administrators decided to favor the Tutsis as the better of the two tribal groups for administering the country’s affairs. The Tutsis were tall and good-looking, but they were a minority tribe and this angered the Hutus. Then, to make matters worse, the Belgians introduced identity cards in the 1930s on which the name and tribal identity was entered. Thus, differences between the two cultural groups were further emphasized with the Hutus feeling that they were permanently relegated to second class status in their own country.

This technique of creating tensions between different ethnic groups was a common ploy among the European colonial powers. They all did it as the results of such tensions made administration easier for them because the different groups became so busy fighting one another that they did not unite to fight the intruder from Europe. It was not fully realized at the time that this approach would lead to warfare when the colonial empires became independent nations. In the case of Rwanda the problem was worse than in most places. When the Belgians finally gave the country independence in the early 1960s they decided to switch and hand over power to the majority Hutu. The stage was set for terrible retribution.

Immediately after they took over the government, the Hutus launched attacks on the Tutsis, calling them foreigners who had invaded the state at an earlier time and now had no citizenship rights. This was a more extreme form of dictatorship than anything imposed by the Tutsis when they were in power and before long mass persecutions began. Within six months 10,000 Tutsis were dead at the hands of government troops. A majority of the rest, approximately 350,000 in all, fled into the neighboring countries of Burundi and Uganda. For the ensuing twelve years there was an ongoing civil war as the Tutsi diaspora which gave itself the name Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) launched armed incursions into their homeland from Uganda or Burundi.

Their efforts soon stopped, however, when they discovered that thousands of the Tutsis who had stayed at home when the mass exodus occurred were now being blamed for these attacks from without. In 1963, about 6,500 were murdered on this account and later another 10,000 met the same fate. Although the incursions stopped, their determination to return continued to grow even as the Tutsis became involved in the affairs of the countries to which they had fled. In 1979, a moderate group of Hutus took over the government and persecution of the Tutsis stopped but a general repatriation from Uganda and Burundi was not part of this new development. These Tutsis were still treated as foreigners.

Many individual Tutsis returned from exile. Others, in spite of the better conditions at home, stayed away. It was another fourteen years before the RPF in Uganda and Burundi felt able to launch a raid into Rwanda. They succeeded in driving the government troops back to within fifteen miles of Kigali, the capital of the country. Their success forced General Habyarimana the extremist head of the Hutu government to agree to peace with Paul Kagame, RPF leader. The Arusha Accord was the result and it defined the new structure of government. It provided for power sharing, the rule of law, and a transition process leading to democracy. A United Nations peacekeeping force under the command of the Canadian General Dallaire was sent to Kigali to give support to the new political system.

Substantial evidence exists to prove that, in spite of the Arusha Accord which he signed; General Habyarimana and his friends in government had been planning mass killings for some time in a desperate attempt to prevent any sharing of power. A United Nations report in 1993 described the murders that had occurred as a prelude to genocide. Perhaps if that document had been circulated, to those who arranged the peacekeeping contingent, the outcome might have been very different. The event that provided an excuse for a wholesale slaughter was the death of Habyarimana when his plane was shot down on April 6, 1994. There was no evidence that Tutsis had anything to do with this but that did not seem to matter. The attack made their planned genocide look plausible. Within hours of the plane crash the killings began. All the moderates in government were the first victims.

The campaign was urged on by government radio which declared day by day that it was the sacred duty of every Hutu to kill the Tutsis. Slogans such as “spare none, fill the empty graves” and “kill their babies or they will grow up and kill us” were typical broadcasts. Threats were even extended to Hutus who might hesitate to join in, telling them that they too would be killed if they failed to cooperate. Bullets were either too expensive to use or were just not available in sufficient quantities so machetes and farm implements became the instruments of slaughter. Raping, mutilating, burning, and hacking to death were the sights and sounds throughout the country for about three months. Acts of torture were commonplace.

Escape routes were blocked to prevent anyone escaping. Murderous bands hunted Tutsis day and night for more than three months while the Security Council and the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) conveniently ignored the problem, describing it as “Tutsis fighting Hutus and Hutus fighting Tutsis in some ancient blood feud.” It was no surprise therefore that the international community did not intervene at the time and that General Dallaire’s small contingent of troops was powerless to stop the violence. Added to these comments by leaders at the UN were the institutional weaknesses of that international body. The Rwandan ambassador remained in New York throughout the three months of genocide, insisting all the time that Hutu actions were in self-defense against the violent Tutsis.

Even though the scale of the massacre was becoming well known at the UN, protocol required that Rwanda’s ambassador be accorded the same respect given to representatives of other countries. Furthermore, at this time, Rwanda was a nonpermanent member of the Security Council so unanimous decisions against Rwanda could not be secured there at the heart of the UN. France added to the general confusion at the UN by insisting that the Hutus were the larger of the two tribal groups and they therefore, in the interests of democracy, should be given preferential treatment. France went further and supplied arms, through Zaire, to the Hutu militia in the middle of the genocide.

All this time, death squads rounded up large numbers of men, women, and children and forced them into churches and stadiums so they could be killed more easily. Grenades were thrown into these buildings, followed by tear gas. Those still alive could then be killed as they choked on the gas. Some Tutsis begged the peacekeepers to kill them so that they would escape the Hutu torturers. Hutu recruits were trained to use machetes, called pangas, for their bloody genocide. Rwanda is in a hot climate, close to the equator, even though it is mostly 3,000 feet above sea level, and the terrible work of slicing heads, hands, or legs was exhausting. Hutus decided that if they just severed the Achilles tendons, which connect the heel to the calf muscles, their victims would be helpless, unable to run away. They could then rest for a time before returning to the butchery. RPF soldiers, though a small minority, fought for their own survival and succeeded in killing or driving out of the country many of the Hutu death squads.

Rwandan women were subjected to sexual violence on a massive scale, perpetrated by both the infamous Hutu militia known as the Interahamwe and soldiers of the Rwandan Armed Forces. Political leaders at the national and local levels directed or encouraged both killings and sexual violence to further their political goal of destroying the Tutsis as an identifiable group. This goes far beyond the historic ravages of war and links up these atrocities with similar events in the Bosnian war (see Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, genocide). As will be seen later, it was the diabolical nature of sexual violence in these two places that led to recognizing them as crimes against humanity.

Testimonies from survivors confirm that rape was widespread with thousands individually raped, gang-raped, raped with objects such as sharpened sticks or gun barrels, held in sexual slavery, or sexually mutilated. Often these crimes occurred after their family members were tortured and killed and their homes destroyed. The Tutsi women were the almost exclusive targets in these attacks which were intended to dehumanize and subjugate the whole tribal group. Some Hutu women were also raped because they were married to Tutsi men or because they protected members of that tribe. The legacy of all they experienced is now compounded by the fact that they will be the key administrators in post massacre Rwanda. There will be few men.

On July 4, 1994, the RPF, aided by widespread disorder everywhere, achieved a total military victory and become the new government of Rwanda. Over the following few weeks close to two million Hutus fled the country and set up camps across the border in Zaire. For a time these camps in a place called Goma became the center of interest as various agencies tried to cope with outbreaks of disease, hunger, and armed conflict. The Hutus tried to reorganize for a return to Rwanda in the hope of regaining power but that hope was foiled by the actions of the government of Zaire that forced them out of its territory. Some did manage to get back to Rwanda but most were caught and they ended up in prisons that were already overcrowded.

International responses were slow in coming. When the world finally knew the extent of the killing a tide of sympathy and support turned toward the victims. The new Tutsi government was faced with the enormous task of resettling hundreds of thousands of refugees, reconstructing a devastated economy, and coping with the Hutus who had fled and were now coming back from Zaire. Out of a total population of eight million, more than a third had been either murdered or driven out of the country. Many of those remaining were dislocated within the country and innumerable lives were traumatized. Subsistence farming, the basis of the nation’s economy, was in disrepair and the only means of survival in the short term was foreign aid. Fortunately this was provided. Buildings and infrastructure generally were destroyed and financial and legal services were not available.

Within a few months of the new Tutsi-based government taking power, about 200,000 additional Tutsis returned from other countries and began to reclaim the homes they left thirty years earlier. These people had to be fed and housed until they could look after themselves and aid for this was forthcoming from western countries who were at last fully aware of the horror that had taken place. Hutus also had to be accepted back because they were not welcome as permanent residents of Zaire. There were tensions everywhere arising from the presence of the two tribal groups. From the Hutus about 130,000 had been arrested and were now imprisoned, awaiting trial, in cramped, often rat-infested prisons. In one of these places, sixty people were forced into a room designed for a few and the door locked. Next morning authorities found that twenty-four had died. They had suffocated in their fetid, hot, overcrowded room.

The United Nations Security Council created the International Criminal Court (or Tribunal) for Rwanda (ICTR) later in 1994 and set up its offices in Arusha, Tanzania. The chief prosecutor for this tribunal had his office at The Hague in Holland, from which place he made occasional visits to Arusha. The Appeals Court for ICTR was also set up at The Hague. These two logistic problems made it difficult for the tribunal to work quickly. A backlog of cases mounted and there was only a small budget available for hiring additional staff. Delays led to criticisms. Western governments made invidious comparisons between a similar United Nations Court on Yugoslavia (ICTY) without acknowledging the factor of distance from The Hague and the larger budget that ICTY enjoyed.

The early problems of the ICTR were matched by others as the work of the tribunal began. The enormity of the crime, unprecedented even in recent African history, created an atmosphere of fear in the course of the trials. Many witnesses were killed before they reached the trial location and some who were about to testify were threatened. An inadequate security system enabled the public to discover the names of those who were witnesses. One person who was called to testify lived in a small town where he owned a shop. A large car clearly marked with the United Nations’ black and while license plates was visible outside his home. Everyone in the village knew what was happening.

His wife was terrified and refused to give any information to the visitor from Arusha. She knew that other witnesses had been killed to prevent them testifying. Her husband was willing to talk though he too knew the danger of doing so. He asked for protection and was told that if he called the United Nations office he would receive protection. Unfortunately for him, the nearest telephone was twenty miles away. Even if the phone had been in his store it would not have made any difference. Two weeks before he was to travel to Arusha armed men forced their way into his home and killed him, along with his daughter, brother, and nephew. The tribunal now uses unmarked cars when they visit potential witnesses.

The United Nations terms of reference for the tribunal included strict procedures for the protection of witnesses and these were usually followed carefully during trials. Everything was done in camera and people were identified by a letter code rather than a name. Laudable as these rules were, they could not ensure secrecy for witnesses. Rwanda is the least urbanized country on earth. Virtually everyone lives in small rural communities where there are no secrets. When a person left home in a car from any one of these places, particularly when no reason for the trip was given, and traveled to another country, it was easy to find out who had been a witness. Two years after the tribunal’s work began, in the course of the calendar year 1996, over two hundred witnesses were murdered.

One of the biggest challenges to justice lay in the physical conditions of the prisons where suspects were held. In the weeks following the establishment of the new Tutsi government and the mass escape of Hutus into Zaire, almost any Hutu found in Rwanda was suspect. About 130,000 of them had been arrested—many of them on the basis of ethnic identity alone—and the prisons were overcrowded, unhealthy, and filthy. The temptation for prisoners to offer false but ostensibly valuable testimony was strong. If they were selected for the trials they gained access to the spacious and clean prison facilities at the United Nations compound in Arusha. There they would be fed well, given two complete outfits of clothing, and allowed access to a gymnasium, computers, and a library. The contrast with their hot, unhealthy holding cells could hardly be greater.

Quite apart from operational difficulties there were fundamental issues of justice in the rules governing the ICTR. No United Nations agency could sentence anyone to death. In addition, the tribunal had power to make plea agreements. The accused, provided they confessed before they came to trial, could receive lesser sentences. The Rwanda government did have the death penalty so, given its strong feelings, it wanted the maximum sentences for convicted killers. There was an immediate conflict between national and international jurisdictions. The Rwanda government tried by all means in its power to take charge of some trials rather than leaving them to the ICTR. Some neighboring countries, such as Ethiopia, which had arrested Hutu criminals, were persuaded to hand them over to Rwanda instead of the ICTR.

The familiar western pattern of justice where defense attorneys are allowed to question witnesses intensively created outbursts of angry opposition. Once a shouting match broke out as both a defense attorney and a witness called each other stupid. Members of the Tutsi-dominated government also criticized the actions of the defense, leaving the impression that they were more interested in revenge than in justice. A further occasion of tension between the ICTR and Rwanda’s government was the time limitations on the former. It was permitted to examine the events of 1994 only, but the government insisted that plans for the genocide go back several years.

Rwanda, as has been said, is now a country of women. About 70 percent of the population is female. These women face social stigmatization, poor health that often includes the AIDS disease, unwanted pregnancy, and poverty. They dare not reveal their experiences publicly, fearing that they will never be able to marry. Others, like the Tribunal’s witnesses, fear retribution from their attackers if they speak out. Furthermore, they suffer guilt for having survived and been held for rape, rather than being executed. An estimated 5,000 unwanted babies created their own series of crises. Some babies were abandoned by their mothers and others were killed.

As they tackle the problems of rebuilding the country, Rwandan women have to contend with laws that discriminate against them. They are second-class citizens in the legal structure of their country despite constitutional guarantees of full equality. Inheritance rights are not documented rights. That is, they are governed by custom. For example, women cannot inherit property unless so designated by some male who has the right to transfer it. Such a situation is meaningless in the wake of the massacre. Widows and daughters have no legal claim on the properties or possessions of their dead husbands or relatives. Neither can they receive pensions due to their male relatives.

There were some success stories that stood in sharp contrast to all the negative experiences at ICTR and in the Rwanda community generally. A former Rwanda mayor was successfully convicted of crimes against humanity on the basis of rape charges. Later the same level of conviction was accorded some of the soldiers involved in the Bosnian war. Four others Hutus were convicted of genocide and this carried a maximum sentence of life in prison. In Belgium, Rwanda’s former colonial master, two nuns and two others were found guilty in 2001 for helping the Hutu militias kill thousands of Tutsis in the 1994 massacre. One nun, a former Benedictine Mother Superior, was given fifteen years in prison and the second twelve years. The other two received comparable sentences.

This case made legal history because it was the first time a civilian jury convicted war criminals from another country. Belgium has a special law that permits this. During the three months of killings in 1994, around seven hundred Tutsi men, women, and children hid in a building at the convent’s health clinic. The nuns wanted to get rid of them so they brought cans of gasoline to the militias who had chained the doors to make sure that no one would escape. The militias then threw grenades through holes in the walls and set the building on fire.

The agonies of the genocide were still very much alive in the year 2001. In spite of all the worldwide recognition of what had happened, leaders of the genocide who had succeeded in hiding out in the former Zaire, began to send trained groups of young men back into Rwanda. The plan was to capture territory in local areas so that these locations could be used as staging points for larger ventures. Their numbers are steadily decreasing but probably as many as 30,000 still survive in the former Zaire, a country that wants to get rid of them but is too weak to do anything about it. In June of 2001 soldiers from the Tutsi-controlled government surprised and killed a band of 1,500 youths which had been trained by leaders of the genocide, and had infiltrated the northwest areas of the country intending to establish a base there. Tutsis now increasingly feel that their survival depends on themselves alone, not on the UN.

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