Rwanda 1994: 100 days of brutal killing. A genocide faster than the Holocaust
Peter Sterančák / April 6, 2019
( 5 min read )
25 years ago, on April 6, 1994, the plane of Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down, killing everyone on board. The day after, on April 7, an apocalyptic genocide started to unfold in this small Central African nation. Over the course of the next 100 days, somewhere between 800 000 to 1 000 000 people have died, in the country with a population of 7 million. Six men, women, and children slaughtered every minute of every day for 100 days. Approximately, one out of every seven Rwandans was killed. That’s five times the rate of killing that occured during the Nazi Holocaust.
Yet, how much do we know about it in Europe? Who killed whom? Why? How was it even possible? Why is it important to remember?
The answer to the first question is a factual one: the Hutu population of Rwanda (instructed by the majority Hutu government) mass slaughtered the Tutsi population. For answers to the next questions, we have to delve deeper into the history of the nation, global politics and human psychology.
Two histories of Rwanda
The history of Rwanda is one of an arbitrary ethnic division between two groups: Hutu and Tutsi. In fact, they are not even distinct ethnic groups, but rather a form of social division. Historically, the Tutsi minority enjoyed privileges thanks to Tutsi kings mostly ruling the territory, although Hutus have always been the majority in Rwanda. This superficial division had been only further ethicized in the late 19th century by European colonizers: first the German Empire, and then Belgium. Germans and Belgians used the already existing hierarchy for their own advantage and favored the Tutsi population. Belgians went even further and forced Rwandans to identify as either Tutsi or Hutu in their ID cards.
After the World War II, the United Nations took over Rwanda and forced Belgium to prepare the country for independence and the rule of the majority (the Hutu population). Belgians quickly shifted their favor to the Hutu. A sudden promotion of equality between the Hutu and the Tutsi didn’t work as planned. The tension manifested over the next decades in frequent violent clashes between the two groups. The Hutu were ready to retaliate for decades of suppression under Tutsi rule, and the Tutsi feared it. In 1959, Hutus began killing Tutsis in a revolution that pushed them into the jungle, where many of them died of sleeping sickness. Many Tutsis fled to Uganda and conspired to overthrow the Hutu government in Rwanda, by means of guerrilla war fought on the borders. This cycle of violence continued even after Rwanda’s independence in 1961.
African version of the Nazi final solution
In 1990, a rebel group of Tutsi fighters (RPF) started a civil war that ended in a cease-fire in 1992. On April 6, 1994, the shot down of Habyarimana’s plane effectively ended the cease-fire. The Hutu media blamed Tutsi militia, and Tutsis blamed Hutus. Hutu hardliners soon seized the opportunity and killed all Tutsi political leaders and even moderate Hutu politicians (although, it was clear that they were preparing for genocide systematically for months before that).
What followed was an African version of the Nazi final solution. There were no concentration camps, no transports, and hardly many guns and, yet, elementary school teachers attacked their students. Priests hacked their parishioners to death, Hutu husbands killed Tutsi wives. Hutus were told that if they failed to kill, they would themselves be killed. They massacred their Tutsi neighbors, friends, children and even babies with machetes distributed by the government. Most of the Tutsi women were gang-raped and sexually mutilated before the killing. Only a few brave souls among Hutus helped to hide Tutsis or smuggle them out of the killing zone.
Dehumanization: The essence of all genocides
How was this evil massacre even possible on such a large scale? There are many aspects that enabled it to happen. Psychologically, the genocide was encouraged by media propaganda directed by Hutu hardliners. In a country that was marginally literate, the most powerful medium at the time was the radio called Mille Collines (Thousand Hills) Free Radio. As Robert Sapolsky stresses in his book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst: “The anti-Tutsi propaganda was ceaselessly dehumanizing, with the infamous pseudospeciation (characterization of the out-group as inhuman) of Tutsis being referred to only as “cockroaches”: “The cockroaches are planning to kill your children. The cockroaches will rape your wife and daughter. Stamp out the cockroaches, save yourself, kill the cockroaches”, the radio kept repeating every day. Sapolsky writes that dehumanization and pseudospeciation are the main tools of the propagandists of hate.
Global political failure and the dark legacy of colonialism
Politically, it was a monumental failure of the global community to intervene. The United States, France, the United Kingdom, the UN, and basically all powers shun away from even calling it a genocide while it was unfolding, despite the very vocal calls of Romeo Dallaire, the head of UNAMIR mission. When Belgians pulled out of the UN mission, he simply ignored the UN order to pull out. He stayed and, as a result, saved tens of thousands of people. Many other officials present in Rwanda at the time warned the world of the possibility of a giant tragedy before the genocide took place, but were largely ignored by authorities in the West.
Historically, the effect of European colonialism and the colonizers’ readiness to exploit arbitrary ethnic division for their own gains was another contribution of the “West” that led to the genocide. Many Western countries are only now grasping their responsibility. However, some of them (like Israel, for example) continue to deny their share of responsibility. The genocide was only stopped by heavily armed Tutsi rebel group (RPF), led by Paul Kagame, seizing the capital, Kigali. Kagame is since the president of Rwanda and, although employing many projects of reconciliation between Tutsi and Hutu, he is seen as authoritarian and many political observers fear that, when he loses power, the ethnic tensions can resurface again.
Can such an atrocity happen again somewhere else? Unfortunately, it has, whether we mention Sudan, Bosnia, or recently the Rohingya massacre in Myanmar. The unwillingness of the global community to intervene in countries where there are no natural resources to exploit, or a strategic military position to gain, is still apparent.
Our history too
To remember history is the only way to navigate ourselves in the present and have a better vision for the future, even when that history is not of “our (European) people.” However, the Rwandan genocide is also our history. It is the effect of European colonization and later, during the ‘90s, the ignorance of this historic responsibility. The hatred and pain have no borders, and in Europe, we’ve already seen with the recent “migrant crisis,” how ignoring the suffering of people elsewhere can sooner or later come to us in ways we have not anticipated.
Further useful media sources:
Books: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (Paul Gourevitch)
The problem from hell: America and the age of genocide (Samantha Power)
Shake hands with the devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda (Romeo Dallaire).