In approximately 100 days between April and June of 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered by Hutu extremists. The extremists targeted members of the Tutsi minority community who made up approximately 15% of the Rwandan population, as well as any political opponents. With the twentieth anniversary this year, this article aims to provide a breakdown of this traumatic event in human history and the legacy of the slaughter on Rwanda today.

Nyamata Memorial SiteThe genocide was ignited by the death of the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana when his plane was shot down on the 6th of April 1994. Hutu extremists blamed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) while the RPF argued that the plane had been shot down by Hutus to provide an excuse for the impending violence. Regardless, within hours a campaign of violence spread from the capital throughout the country.

While the death of the president ultimately triggered the massacre, it was by no means the only cause of Africa’s largest genocide. Ethnic tension between the two groups had grown substantially and heightened after 1916 when the Belgian colonists considered the Tutsis to be superior, giving them more powerful jobs and educational opportunities compared to the Hutus. This resentment led to a series of riots in 1959 and subsequently, when Rwanda was granted independence in 1962, it was the Hutus who took the Belgian’s place in power. Over subsequent decades, the Tutsis became the scapegoats for every crisis. As a result, tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries and it was a group of Tutsi exiles who formed the RPF which invaded Rwanda in 1990. Fighting between the Tutsis and the Hutus continued until 1993 when a peace accord was signed between them. However, the aforementioned death of the Rwandan President reignited this tension and exploded in the form of the genocide.

The Hutu regime believed that the only way it could hang on to power was by wiping out the Tutsis completely. Immediately after the death of the president in 1994, in Kigali the presidential guard initiated a campaign of retribution. Weapons and hit-lists were handed out to militias, who went and killed all named enemies and their families. The violence was widespread and indiscriminate, neighbours killed neighbours and some husbands even killed their Tutsi wives. Radio propaganda urged people to kill the Tutsis, and an unofficial militia group called the Interahamwe was mobilised. The UN pulled out of the country after ten Belgian soldiers were killed and subsequently Rwanda was largely left alone by the international community during this horrific period.

The genocide ended when the RPF captured Kigali on the 4th of July 1994 and declared a ceasefire. Approximately two million Hutus fled across the border into DR Congo fearing revenge attacks. At first a multi-ethnic government was set up, with Hutu, Pasteur Bizimungu as president and Mr Kagame as his deputy who later was made president. Although the killing in Rwanda was over, the presence of Hutu militias in DR Congo led to years of conflict there causing up to five million deaths. Rwanda’s now Tutsi-led government had twice invaded its neighbour and declared wanting to wipe out the Hutu forces. Thus although the genocide ended in 1994 the tension between these two ethnicities persists.

Twenty years on, Rwanda cannot truly escape its past. While 800,000 people were killed during the genocide, a further two million were displaced and 200,000 were raped. As a result, Rwanda was left to deal with legacies including unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and Aids. Whilst two million people were tried in local courts for their role in the genocide and the International Criminal Tribunal has been set up in its aftermath, justice for the victims of the genocide appears impossible until today. The genocide has also caused a great deal of guilt within the international community who have poured aid into the country to help expand its healthcare, education and electricity. However, the victims of the genocide have been given very little formal assistance and more needs to be done to address economic, social and cultural legacies of the genocide so that victims can fully repair their lives. The fear of talking about ethnicity in Rwanda today could spawn ignorance, arguably preventing true reconciliation and merely masking the tensions. In this way, on the anniversary of the genocide we should recognise how this huge event Rwandan history has shaped the country and remains fresh in the minds of its survivors today.