On April 7, 1994, violence fuels the launch of what would become the worst episode of genocide since World War II: the massacre of an estimated 500,000 to 1 million innocent civilian Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Following the first wave of massacres, Rwandan forces manage to discourage international intervention with the murder of 10 Belgian peacekeeping officers. The Tutsis, a minority group that made up about 10 percent of Rwanda’s population, received no assistance from the international community, although the United Nations later conceded that a mere 5,000 soldiers deployed at the outset would have stopped the wholesale slaughter.
During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority in the east-central African nation of Rwanda murdered as many as 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority. Started by Hutu nationalists in the capital of Kigali, the genocide spread throughout the country with shocking speed and brutality, as ordinary citizens were incited by local officials and the Hutu Power government to take up arms against their neighbors. By the time the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front gained control of the country through a military offensive in early July, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were dead and 2 million refugees (mainly Hutus) fled Rwanda, exacerbating what had already become a full-blown humanitarian crisis.
Rwandan Ethnic Tensions
By the early 1990s, Rwanda, a small country with an overwhelmingly agricultural economy, had one of the highest population densities in Africa. About 85 percent of its population was Hutu; the rest were Tutsi, along with a small number of Twa, a Pygmy group who were the original inhabitants of Rwanda.
Part of German East Africa from 1897 to 1918, Rwanda became a Belgium trusteeship under a League of Nations mandate after World War I, along with neighboring Burundi.
Rwanda’s colonial period, during which the ruling Belgians favored the minority Tutsis over the Hutus, exacerbated the tendency of the few to oppress the many, creating a legacy of tension that exploded into violence even before Rwanda gained its independence.
A Hutu revolution in 1959 forced as many as 330,000 Tutsis to flee the country, making them an even smaller minority. By early 1961, victorious Hutus had forced Rwanda’s Tutsi monarch into exile and declared the country a republic. After a United Nations referendum that same year, Belgium officially granted independence to Rwanda in July 1962.
Ethnically motivated violence continued in the years following independence. In 1973, a military group installed Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu, in power.
The sole leader of Rwandan government for the next two decades, Habyarimana founded a new political party, the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (NRMD). He was elected president under a new constitution ratified in 1978 and reelected in 1983 and 1988, when he was the sole candidate.
In 1990, forces of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), consisting mostly of Tutsi refugees, invaded Rwanda from Uganda. Habyarimana accused Tutsi residents of being RPF accomplices and arrested hundreds of them. Between 1990 and 1993, government officials directed massacres of the Tutsi, killing hundreds. A ceasefire in these hostilities led to negotiations between the government and the RPF in 1992.
In August 1993, Habyarimana signed an agreement at Arusha, Tanzania, calling for the creation of a transition government that would include the RPF.
This power-sharing agreement angered Hutu extremists, who would soon take swift and horrible action to prevent it.
Rwandan Genocide Begins
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Habyarimana and Burundi’s president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down over the capital city of Kigali, leaving no survivors. (It has never been conclusively determined who the culprits were. Some have blamed Hutu extremists, while others blamed leaders of the RPF.)
Within an hour of the plane crash, the Presidential Guard, together with members of the Rwandan armed forces (FAR) and Hutu militia groups known as the Interahamwe (“Those Who Attack Together”) and Impuzamugambi (“Those Who Have the Same Goal”), set up roadblocks and barricades and began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus with impunity.
Among the first victims of the genocide were the moderate Hutu Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and 10 Belgian peacekeepers, killed on April 7. This violence created a political vacuum, into which an interim government of extremist Hutu Power leaders from the military high command stepped on April 9. The killing of the Belgium peacekeepers, meanwhile, provoked the withdrawal of Belgium troops. And the U.N. directed that peacekeepers only defend themselves thereafter.
Slaughter Spreads Across Rwanda
The mass killings in Kigali quickly spread from that city to the rest of Rwanda. In the first two weeks, local administrators in central and southern Rwanda, where most Tutsi lived, resisted the genocide. After April 18, national officials removed the resisters and killed several of them. Other opponents then fell silent or actively led the killing. Officials rewarded killers with food, drink, drugs and money. Government-sponsored radio stations started calling on ordinary Rwandan civilians to murder their neighbors. Within three months, some 800,000 people had been slaughtered.
An international school teacher asks a question: “What’s your own opinion on food scarcity in other countries?”
**An African student:** What’s food?
**A European student:** What’s scarcity?
**An American student:** What are ‘other countries’?
**A Chinese student:** What’s ‘my own opinion’?
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