Rwanda – 1994

Number of casualties: approximately 800,000 dead

Classification: Recognized genocide

Motives for the crime: ethnic origins, social conditions, political beliefs

The actors

Rwanda was a small, landlocked and densely populated state in eastern Africa. The three groups comprising the population were the Hutu (85%), the Tutsi (14%) and Twa pygmies (1%). They all spoke the same language, Kinyarwanda, and shared many cultural traditions, including customs, rules of marriage, and the ancestral faith in one God, Imana.

In ancient society (from the tenth to the fifteenth century), the Tutsi were cattle herders, warriors and often aristocrats (the Nyiginya royal dynasty that unified the country in the sixteenth century are descendants).

The Hutus were farmers who worked for the Tutsis in exchange for livestock and farms. Both groups fulfilled distinct political and socio-professional functions and peacefully coexisted within this balance of power.

In 1895, Rwanda became a German protectorate. After Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the League of Nations gave Belgium the task of administrating Ruanda-Urundi (the present territories of Rwanda and Burundi).

Relying on the Tutsi minority to govern their colony, the Belgians (notably religious communities) would ultimately tip the balance of power in their favour.

Meanwhile, a carefully cultivated myth, based on physical appearance and racial theories in vogue, began to change the face of Rwandan society: the Tutsi, allegedly of Ethiopian and Egyptian descent, were perceived as “feudal lords”, at once sophisticated and related to the “white” race, while the Hutus and their leaders were regarded as Negroid Bantu and “serfs”.

The result: the Tutsi minority accepted their right to dominate the Hutu without further regard for the common ground of their traditions. Over the years, the Tutsi and Hutu would identify themselves as distinct ethnic groups and behave accordingly.

The causes

After the Second World War, the rise of African nationalism would fuel Tutsi anti-colonialism and their desire to reclaim Rwanda. In response, the colonial government encouraged the Hutu majority to revolt against the Tutsi, now accused of feudalism and domination.

In 1959, when Tutsi Kigeli V became king, the Hutu, who regarded him as a defender of Tutsi privileges, unleashed a series of deadly attacks on the Tutsi. Bloodshed and a mass exodus would claim 200,000 victims.

The Tutsi king left the country in 1960. Shortly thereafter, a new republic was proclaimed after a referendum rejected the monarchy by a vote of 80%. In 1961, Parmehutu (the Party for Hutu Emancipation) won the election and Gregoire Kayibanda became president of the Republic of Rwanda. At the insistence of the United Nations Trusteeship Council, Belgium declared the independence of Rwanda on July 1, 1962.

President Kayibanda’s “Hutu social revolution”, driven by ethnic ideology, got under way and were soon celebrating the victory of the “majority” Aboriginal Hutu people, over the “minority” feudal Tutsi. What followed was a series of deadly clashes between Tutsi and Hutu, leading to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi. This conflict was compounded by regional and political rivalries between the Hutu of the North and South.

The military coup in 1973 brought Juvenal Habyarimana (a Hutu from the North) into power. His party, the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (NMRD), renewed segregation in favour of the Hutus: no Tutsi figured among the 143 mayors in the country, or headed any of the ten prefectures.

Tutsis forced into exile were forbidden to return and the 80,000 Tutsi refugees, expelled from Uganda in 1982 by the regime of Milton Obote, were ruthlessly repressed. The Tutsi who were still in Rwanda continued to suffer discrimination and persecution on the political, social and economic front.

In 1990, descendants of refugee Tutsi (and Hutu opponents) united to create the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Led by Paul Kagame, they ignited a civil war in Uganda that would last for four years.

On April 6, 1994, when the Hutu president Habyarimana was returning from a peace summit in Arusha, Tanzania, where there had been talk of power sharing between his government and the opposition, his plane was shot down by missiles.

On April 13, the interim Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and the Belgian soldiers who were trying to protect her, were all killed. Members of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, poorly supported by the international community, failed to curtail the murderous rage that began sweeping across the country. They withdrew, leaving Rwanda to its fate.

Justice and memory

The Rwandan Patriotic Front stood militarily triumphant in the war-ravaged country. The party responsible for the killings would attempt to blame the genocide on the entire population.

Terrified in turn, around two million Hutus fled to neighbouring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). They were hunted down by RPF troops and its allies led by Joseph Kabila of Zaire (who would overthrow the government of Mobutu). The climate of chaotic instability that reigned in the Great Lakes region resulted in nearly three million civilian deaths, necessitating the intervention of UN troops.

In 1994, the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, headquartered in Arusha, Tanzania. The trial would hear the cases of 71 accused.

Former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda was sentenced to life in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, held responsible for the plan to exterminate the Tutsi, has been behind bars since 1996.

Belgium, the former colonial power, set up its own court of international jurisdiction and a jury convicted four Rwandan citizens, who held no official functions at the time of the genocide, for their involvement in the crime.

A number of special courts were set up throughout Rwanda itself for the trials of the “planners and organizers of the genocide”. The court pronounced a hundred or so death sentences and thousands of prison terms. Nearly 130,000 people were imprisoned.

General amnesty was ruled out by the new government who instead set up a community justice system for conflict resolution (the gacaca jurisdictions) to try the “simple” perpetrators of the crime. These small traditional courts, where judges are selected from the general population, were designed for the application of a participatory and reconciliatory justice.

Ten years after the massacre, Rwanda attempted to prove “the involvement of France in the genocide”. The country was accused of providing weapons to the genociders and facilitating their escape by creating a “humanitarian security zone” in July 1994, as part of the Turkish military operation approved by the UN Security Council.

The United Nations, Belgium and former U.S. President Bill Clinton formally apologized to the Rwandan people for failing to intervene in time with the appropriate means.