“Rwanda can be a paradise again, but it will take the love of the entire world…and that’s as it should be, for what happened in Rwanda happened to us all – humanity was wounded by the genocide.” – Immacuée Ilibagiza, Rwandan author.
The Rwandan genocide remains one of the heaviest, tragic and saddest moments in human history. Approximately 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu were slaughtered in a carefully organized genocide for over 100 days, making history as the quickest killing spree the world has ever seen.
This week marks 25 years since the start of the genocide in Rwanda, so the world has spent some time reflecting on one of the most horrifying — and most defining — events in post-Cold War history. At a harrowing event, commemorating the over two decades since the 1994 bloodbath, the genocide survivors sat side by side embracing hope and trying, desperately trying, to understand the conflict, their country torn apart and their lives once ruled by terror. The Rwandan music, melodiously playing in the background, washed over throngs of people, who gathered to pay tribute to those who were victims of the unfortunate incident.
Who Are the Hutus and Tutsis?
Rwanda is composed of three main ethnic groups: Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. Nearly 85% of the population identified as Hutu, making it the majority group in Rwanda. Tutsi comprised 14% of the population and Twa made up 1%.
The colonial power, Belgium, believed that the Tutsi were superior to the Hutu and the Twa and put the Tutsis in charge of Rwanda. At the end of colonial rule, however, Belgium began giving more power to the Hutus. As the Hutus gained more leverage, they began to drive the Tutsis out of Rwanda and significantly lowered the population of Tutsis in the country.
Ethnic tensions existed in Rwanda for centuries, growing even more extreme after Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962. In the 1990’s, the Hutu political elite blamed the Tutsi population for increasing political, social, and economic problems in the country. They also associated Tutsi civilians with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel group.
Many Hutus resented the Tutsi, as they were typically considered the elite and had ruled the country for decades. As a result, they also feared the Tutsi and were determined to hold on to their own power. Tensions had long simmered between Rwanda’s Tutsi and Hutu tribes. “The genocide was a culmination of four decades of bad politics and ethnic injustices,” explains Pastor Antoine Rutayisire, 55.
Europeans — first the Germans, then the Belgians who colonized Rwanda in 1916 — set the stage for hate. The Belgians introduced identity cards in the 1930s, dividing people by tribe — Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa, a hunter-gatherer group. Before, all had thought of themselves as Rwandan.
Although the Hutus were the majority, the Belgians favored the Tutsis, considering them a superior tribe based on supposed physical differences. Intermarriage between the tribes muddied the waters, making it difficult to assign identity. To simplify the process, a child was classified based on the tribe of his or her father. If a person didn’t know which tribe he was from, it was determined by how many cows he owned. More than 10 cows meant you were a Tutsi.
Tutsi kings governed Rwanda until 1959, when King Mutara III died. During that year, the peasant farmers began what would be called the “Hutu revolution,” which culminated in abolishing the monarchy. The ensuing civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis cost 150,000 lives, including Antoine’s father, in 1963. Antoine was 5. “I know how you feel when you hate people and have to live with them,” he says.
Many Tutsis fled to Burundi and neighboring countries. By the mid-1960s, half the Tutsi population lived outside Rwanda. Hutu leaders took power, and the government began to spread a message of hate against the Tutsis, using extremists on the radio to call upon the Hutus to attack and kill Tutsis, whom they called cockroaches.
The Historical Outlook
Civil war broke out in Rwanda in 1990, exacerbating existing tensions between the Tutsi minority and Hutu majority. The civil war began when Rwandan exiles formed a group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and launched an offensive against Rwanda from their home base in Uganda.
The RPF, which was comprised of mostly Tutsis, placed blame on the government for failing to address the Tutsi refugees. All Tutsis in the country were characterized as accomplices of the RPF and all Hutu members of the opposition parties were deemed traitors. Despite the opposition forces reaching a peace agreement in 1992, political negotiations continued in attempts to achieve harmony between the Tutsis and Hutus.
In 1993 President Habyarimana of Rwanda was forced to sign a power-sharing agreement with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (a Tutsi-led multi-ethnic force that began a coup in 1990), this allowed equal access for both ethnicities to participate in the political process in Rwanda. This could have been the time of redemption for a previously divided state, plagued by inter-ethnic violence for half a century. However, as history tells us this did not happen.
On April 6th 1994, as Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana returned from a round of talks in neighboring Tanzania, he was killed when his plane was shot down outside of the country’s capital, Kigali.
The president’s death provided a spark for an organized campaign of violence against Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians across the country. In just a matter of hours, Hutu rebels surrounded the capital and took over the streets of Kigali. Within a day, the Hutus had successfully eliminated Rwanda’s moderate leadership. As the weeks progressed, Tutsis and anyone suspected of having any ties to a Tutsi, were killed.
Twenty-five years down the memory lane, the country is still recovering from one of the worst massacres in history, many culprits are still at large and victims are struggling to find peace and coping with their pain.
We must not forget what happened during those three months of 1994 and we must remember that similar things still occur around the world, where hundreds of thousands of people are persecuted and executed while the international community stays silent.
A year after US troops were killed in Somalia, the US was determined not to get involved in another African conflict. The Belgians and most UN peacekeepers pulled out after 10 Belgian soldiers were killed.
The French, who were allies of the Hutu government, sent a special force to evacuate their citizens and later set up a supposedly safe zone but were accused of not doing enough to stop the slaughter in that area.
Unlike earlier mass killings, such as the Holocaust, the international community had advance evidence of the coming genocide. Once it launched, they had evidence of where it was going, and still did nothing.
Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who commanded the small UN observer force tasked with implementing the peace agreement, heard the Hutus were planning genocide in January 1994. He informed the higher-ups at the UN, but wasn’t permitted to act.
Even after the genocide began, and the evidence of slaughter became undeniable, the international community did nothing. The United States actively discouraged the UN Security Council from authorizing a more robust deployment.
In hindsight, there’s a good chance the UN could have done something. General Dallaire believes that, with an extra 5,000 troops and a stronger UN mandate, he could have saved “hundreds of thousands.” The failure to intervene, which Bill Clinton calls one of the greatest regrets of his presidency, catalyzed the modern movement in favor of humanitarian military intervention to prevent genocide. Two major Obama administration officials — Susan Rice and Samantha Power — became converted to the cause of humanitarian intervention in part due to America’s inaction in Rwanda.
In 2000, Paul Kagame, former Tutsi leader of the RPF, became president and remains in power today. President Kagame has been hailed for transforming the deplorable, devastated country he took over through policies which encouraged rapid economic growth. He won a third term in office in the most recent election in 2017 with 98.63% of the vote.
The Kagame government was allegedly reported to have invaded the Democratic Republic of the Congo twice with the intention of destroying the some two million Hutus who have lived in hiding there since 1994. While the genocide has ended, tension between the two groups still runs deep and simmers just below the surface.
However, Kagame’s government is described by his critics as an ethnic autocracy. Tutsis (who make up 10 percent of the government) staff most official positions, especially in the military. Kagame has supported murderous foreign militias, like the M23 in the DRC, and may have been complicit in revenge killings.
The RPF, now in power in Rwanda, embraced militias fighting both the Hutu militias and the Congolese army, which was aligned with the Hutus. The Rwanda-backed rebel groups eventually marched on DR Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, and overthrew the government of Mobutu Sese Seko, installing Laurent Kabila as president. An estimated five million people died as a result of the conflict which lasted until 2003, with some armed groups active until now in the areas near Rwanda’s border.
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