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The Rwandan Genocide


The historic Rwandan Genocide, organized by Hutu hardliners, resulted in the merciless murder of approximately one million individuals after a three months rampage in 1994. The casualties mainly consisted of Tutsis and their sympathizers. This tragic occurrence went into the annals of history as one of the devastating genocides since the Holocaust. Like a belief that had been cultivated for a long time, the Hutus maintained that the Tutsis wanted to oppress them. Therefore, they intended to preserve their power at all costs.

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In spite of the escalating ethnic strife that was evident in the country prior to the genocide, several peace agreements were made. These include the cease-fire agreement in 1993 and the preliminary adoption of the Arusha Accords. The onset of the genocide is believed to have been triggered by the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana in April 1994 while on a peace mission. The mass killings of Tutsis and pro-peace Hutus signified the end of the peace agreement, which was intended to end the war.

Role of colonialists

It is astonishing to note that the roots of this unimaginable experience can be traced to the country’s colonial experience. The Germans initially colonized and occupied Rwanda from 1894 to 1916. During the First World War, the Belgians occupied the country and governed it until independence in 1962. During this period, the Rwandans were under Belgian Trusteeship that divided the country along tribal lines. The rigid plan of racial classification segregated the residents of the country into three different groups.

These were the Hutu, Tutsi, and the Twa. Melvern notes, “The Hutu were the majority and they consisted of eighty-four percent of the total country’s population whereas the Tutsi and the Twa consisted of fifteen percent and one percent of the population respectively” (7-8).

However, before the Belgians came into the country, the three tribes were regarded as social groups instead of tribal groups. In the history of Rwanda, one was a Hutu if he was a farmer and a Tutsi if he was a herder (Spalding, 7). In fact, if an individual changed from practicing agriculture to rearing cattle, then the person changed from being a Hutu to a Tutsi.

After assuming control of the country, the Belgians put an end to the local posts of “land-chief.” This initiative by the colonialists limited the powers of the Hutus. The colonialists divided the Rwandans according to their races and migratory patterns. However, by the early twentieth century, the groups had intermarried and changed their racial inclinations. Therefore, they possess similar characteristics.

Consequently, the colonialists grouped them according to the number of cattle they had in which ownership of more than ten cattle guaranteed one to become an aristocratic Tutsi. The harsh colonial policy escalated the levels of communal cleavages in the country. The Belgians classic strategy of “divide and rule” established a foundation for the distinct social classes that would be present in the country.

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The colonialists regarded the Tutsis to be better in all aspects and granted them preferential status over the other ethnic groups. The Tutsis were perceived to be more ‘European’ because of their facial attributes and the way in which they handled themselves.

The colonialists’ racist ideals regarded the Tutsis to have good manners and more brainpower, which exceeded the levels that were natural among the Hutus and the Twas; therefore, they deemed that they reflected several characteristics of the white race. In the pre-independent Rwanda, the Tutsis were the greatest beneficiaries since they had the opportunity to get educated, embrace Christianity, and have good jobs.

Because of the fact that Rwandans value their history, this intervention acted as a catalyst for future resentment by the other tribes. Dissatisfied by their acquired low-level social status, the seed for hatred was sowed between the Tutsi elite and the Hutu commoners. Organizers of the mass killings in 1994 cleverly exploited the mistaken ideas of the country’s past. From these elements, which mainly misrepresented the Tutsi tribe, the Hutu hardliners fueled fear and hatred that escalated violence all over the country.

The Belgians proceeded with their attempts of escalating the Tutsi tribe until the 1950s when they were threatened with the end of colonial rule. Since the United Nations had monitored the behavior of colonial power, they pressurized Belgium to change its policy towards the country (Prunier, 47). The trusteeship system then started getting weak and more Hutus were allowed to take part in public life. The colonialists named quite a number of Hutus to influential positions within the government.

Many of them also gained admission to secondary schools. Moreover, the elections for the advisory government councils were closely scrutinized. Barely revolutionary, the drastic change of events scared the once-favored Tutsis. However, the treatment was not enough to make the Hutus be satisfied.

As the day of independence drew closer, the conservative Tutsis anticipated overthrowing the colonial regime before the establishment of the majority rule. On the other hand, as a demonstration of the historic cleavages between the two tribes, the radical Hutu anticipated gaining political authority before the Belgians left the increasingly polarized country.

The Hutu revolution

The social tensions that were increasing in the country between the two major tribes led to the Hutu revolution in 1959. The Twa did not actively engage in the conflict because of their small number as compared to the other tribes. This wave of violence caused the downfall of-of the Tutsi monarchy. The monarchy had been in existence for centuries and through its downfall, the Hutu exploited the opportunity to murder several members of the Tutsi tribe. Because of this, several Tutsis who felt threatened migrated to other nations within the region.

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Consequently, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a battalion of Tutsi rebels, was formed to protect the interests of the tribe in Rwanda. The RPF constantly organized raids against the Hutu government with the aim of creating increased tensions among the Hutu farmers. Nevertheless, the Hutu, in retaliation, persecuted the Tutsis who were still living their home country.

The situation became worse after the country gained independence in 1962 and the majority Hutus assumed power. They then reversed their roles and started to oppress the Tutsis. They achieved this by the use of a well-organized segregation system and acts of prejudice. During the genocide, Hutu extremists waved the flag that was used during the revolution. They did this in order to get irresistible response from their audiences.

Events prior to the genocide

In 1990, the RPF attacked northern Rwanda from Uganda and compelled the Hutu President, Juvenal Habyarimana, into signing a treaty. The treaty was intended to ensure that the Hutus and the Tutsis share power. The failure of the agreement led to the Rwandan Civil War. The Francophone nations of Africa, as well as France, were involved in this conflict. The RPF, which threatened war and political resistance against the Rwandan government, received a lot of support from Uganda.

The civil war immensely increased the ethnic tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis in the central African nation. This led to the rise of the Hutu Power ideology, which labeled the Tutsis as outsiders, invaders, and oppressors. Some politicians used this ideology to preserve their influence in the country.

Pressure on the Rwandan government to end the three-year-long civil war led to the preliminary implementation of the Arusha Peace agreement on August 4, 1993. However, as prospects of violence were still increasing, various leaders were engaged in peace meetings to restore order into the country. These include the Rwandan President Habyarimana and Burundi’s president Cyprien Ntaryamira.

However, the assassination of these two leaders while on a peace mission on 6 April 2010 is attributed to be the proximate cause of the genocide. This marked the end of the previous peace agreements and violence escalated all over the country, which resulted in the death of at least eight hundred thousand people in a period of one hundred days.

The role of media

The news media played a critical role in the mass killings, which were propagated by the Hutu hardliners. The government, in support of murdering the Tutsis, used the Rwandan print and radio media. The international media was also not left behind. This is because it either ignored or seriously misinterpreted the unfortunate happenings in the country. According to recent commentators, the print media is said to have initiated the anti-Tutsi and anti-RPF campaign. This was then taken on by the Hutu-controlled radio stations.

As Gourevitch, a reporter for the New Yorker notes “with the encouragement of such messages and of leaders at every level of society, the slaughter of Tutsis and the assassination of Hutu oppositionists spread from region to region” (115). As later investigations revealed, several leaflets were produced prior to the genocide, which was communicating all dealings with Tutsis and how Hutus were to relate to them (Grunfeld and Huijboom, 23).

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The state-owned newspaper Kangura even published articles referring to the Hutu revolution of 1959. Since at that time many Rwandans were illiterate, the radio was widely used by the government to convey vital information to the residents.

Radio Rwanda and Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) played a crucial role in inciting, mobilizing, and giving directions for murdering the Tutsis and their sympathizers. The media advanced their hate speech by using the lessons the people had been taught in school. The Hutu and the Tutsi were represented as very different people. The propagandists did not accept the idea that Rwanda was composed of a single people and they represented the tribes to be equally distinct “Bantu and “Nilotic.”

On the other hand, while the local media was advancing hatred among the Rwandans, the international media coverage of the genocide was misconstrued. As one reporter admits, “I have to admit that during the first few days, I, like others, got the story terribly wrong” (Thompson, 115). The international media failed to immediately recognize the scale of violence in Rwanda and draw the attention of the world to it; therefore, the world’s failure to stop the killings is also blamed on the media.

The role of outside actors

As the mass killings were going on in Rwanda, the international community seemed to be detached from the realities that were taking place on the ground. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) efforts to intervene in the conflict was futile. From the onset of violence in Rwanda, most of the UN Security Council members refused to be engaged in the Arusha Peace Process and then the mass killings in 1994.

When UNAMIR delivered an urgent message to the United Nations about the possible start of violence in Rwanda, its message was rejected (Gourevitch, 105). Belgium, being the last colonial power in the landlocked country, was aware of the genocidal intentions of the Habyarimana administration. When the mass killings started, ten of its soldiers, who were guarding the Prime Minister, were brutally murdered. This made it recall its soldiers, who initially formed the larger part of UNAMIR, back home.

From the onset of the Rwandan Civil War, France openly supported the Hutus in fighting against the Tutsis. For example, Gourevitch notes that “in 1994, during the height of the extermination campaign in Rwanda, Paris airlifted arms to Mobutu’s intermediaries in Eastern Zaire for direct transfer across the border to the genocidaires”(324). French equipped the Habyarimana regime in preparation for the genocide.

The French government has been accused of siding with the Hutus during the genocide. Before the genocide, the United States government had aligned itself with Tutsi interests, for example, Paul Kagame, the RPF leader, underwent military training in the country. When the mass killings were escalating, foreign intervention was crucial.

However, the U.S. supported the complete withdrawal of the UNAMIR forces, failed to refer to the events as “genocide” until one month later, refused to jam the extremist radio broadcasts, and failed to take concrete steps to end the escalating violence.

Effects of the genocide to neighboring countries

The events in Rwanda affected its neighboring countries in the central part of Africa. To begin with, since the Tutsi RPF was mainly carrying out its offensive from Uganda, it resulted in the loss of ties between Rwanda and Uganda. This is because the Hutus, who were out to exterminate the Tutsis, ruled Rwanda. As more Tutsis were being killed, many of them fled to the neighboring countries as refugees. This led to the altering of the ethnic composition of the countries.

Since some of them had adequate training in various fields, they exacerbated economic competition in the equally poor countries that they migrated to. The high number of people who were displaced obliged the region to make efforts in solving problems associated with refugees. Some of these problems are physical wounds, starvation, trauma, and mental problems.

Therefore, they had to increase the allocation of their resources to take care of this increased need. The events in Rwanda served as a lesson to the rest of the region. This enabled it to come to grips with reality in solving historic injustices that it has been harboring.

Was this genocide?

As Philip Gourevitch notes in his documentary-like book, the events that took place in Rwanda in 1994 can be termed as “genocide.” I totally agree with him in the position he has taken that the outcomes warrant the use of the term genocide. The United Nations has declared in the Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide of 1948, that genocide means, “Any acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such…” (Article 2).

As illustrated in the earlier sections of this paper, the Hutus were driven by an ever-ending intention to destroy the Tutsis. Gourevitch clearly points out that the acts were committed with intent, “The government was importing machetes from China in numbers…to give to civilians” (104).

On the other hand, other people claim that these events cannot be termed as genocide because they were no prior intention for the mass killings. However, several pieces of evidence strongly refute this position. The United Rights Watch points out that the mass killings were well organized (Des Forges, para.6).

Moreover, the testimony of the Rwandan Prime Minister given before the International Criminal Tribunal points out that the acts were done with the intent of destroying those who were opposed to the Hutu regime (Melvern, 1). The events that took place in Rwanda clearly indicate that genocide can take place anywhere in the world. This calls for enactment of policies that should aim at preventing the emergence of radical groups within the society.


The Rwandan genocide had its roots in the discriminatory practices that were being propelled by the colonialists. The Belgians classic system of rule increased the ethnic tensions in the country. The events that followed this escalated the tensions to even higher levels and eventually resulted in the merciless killing of approximately one million Rwandans.

The Rwandan media played a crucial role in advancing the hate message during the genocide. Even as violence was escalating in the country, the international community did not attempt to prevent more killings. The Rwandan genocide is a lesson to the whole world to act swiftly to avoid the repeat of the same in other parts of the world.

Works cited

Des Forges, Alison. “Leave None to Tell the Story.” Genocide in Rwanda. Human Rights Watch. 1999. Web.

Gourevitch, Philip. Tomorrow we wish to inform you that we will be killed with our families: stories from Rwanda. London: Picador, 1999. Print.

Grunfeld, Fred, and Huijboom, Anke. The failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda: the role of bystanders. Boston: Martinus Nijhoof, 2007.

Melvern, Linda. Conspiracy to murder: the Rwandan genocide. London: Verso, 2006. Print.

Prunier, Gerard. The Rwanda crisis: history of a genocide. London: Hurst, 1997. Print.

Spalding, Frank. Genocide in Rwanda. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2009. Print.

The United Nations. “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” United nations. 1997. Web.

Thompson, Allan. The media and the Rwanda genocide. London: Pluto Press, 2007. Print.

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