April 6, 1994 – Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was assassinated, triggering a 100 day reign of terror during which approximately 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered by their fellow Rwandans.
From 1916 until 1962 Rwanda, a small country located in Central Africa, was a Belgian colony. Its population was made up of two main tribal ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. The Hutus were always the majority, accounting for up to 90 percent of the population. However, while Rwanda was under Belgian colonial rule, the small Tutsi minority was considered the educated elite and given most of the positions in the Rwandan colonial government by the Belgian authorities.
When Rwanda gained its independence 1962, the Hutu majority seized power and reversed the roles, oppressing the Tutsis through legal discrimination and acts of violence. As a result, over 200,000 Tutsis fled to neighboring countries and eventually formed a rebel guerrilla army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which opposed the Hutu government.
In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded Rwanda, initiating a civil war with the Hutu government of President Juvenal Habyarimana. In 1993 Habyarimana agreed to a cease-fire and power-sharing agreement with the RPF. This agreement was criticized by Hutu extremists who were opposed to sharing any power with the Tutsis. Some of these extremists called for the extermination of the Tutsis and secretly drew up lists of prominent Tutsis and moderate Hutu politicians to kill, should the opportunity arise.
In October 1993, Melchior Ndadaye, the popular Hutu president of the neighboring country of Burundi, was assassinated. Hutus in the region blamed Tutsis for the assassination, causing a rise in ethnic tensions in Rwanda. In response, a United Nations peacekeeping force of 2,500 multinational soldiers was sent to Rwanda to help keep the peace between the Habyarimana’s government and the RPF.
On April 6, 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by ground-fired missiles as it approached Rwanda’s airport. Tutsis were again blamed for the attack, and Hutu extremists used the crisis to begin their campaign to eliminate Tutsis and any Hutus who supported the power-sharing agreement.
The killing almost immediately. Armed Hutu extremists began assassinating prominent Tutsi military and government officials who were on their secret death-lists, along with moderate Hutu politicians. Within a few days the killings spread throughout the countryside. Hutu militia, armed with machetes, clubs, guns and grenades, began indiscriminately killing Tutsi civilians. In Rwanda, all citizens carried identification cards which specified their ethnic background. These cards now meant the difference between life and death; anyone carrying a card identifying them as a Tutsi would be immediately killed.
The small U.N. peacekeeping force was overwhelmed as terrified Tutsi families and moderate Hutu politicians sought protection with them. When ten U.N. soldiers from Belgium were captured, tortured and murdered by Hutus, the U.N. decided to abandon Rwanda and pulled out all of the remaining U.N. peacekeeping troops. The United States and other Western countries followed suit and began evacuating their own citizens from Rwanda. However, no effort was made to evacuate Tutsi civilians or Hutu moderates. Instead, they were left behind to deal with the rampaging Hutus on their own.
The Hutu, now without any opposition from the U.N., began to engage in a frenzy of genocidal murder. Hutu gangs roamed streets and villages all over Rwanda, clubbing and hacking to death defenseless Tutsi families with machetes anywhere they were found. The Rwandan state radio station, controlled by Hutu extremists, publicly encouraged Hutus to wipe out the Tutsi “cockroaches,” broadcasting names of targets and the locations of Tutsis in hiding.
The Hutu killers came from all walks of life. Some were professionals, such as journalists, doctors and teachers; others were unemployed Hutu youths and peasants who were happy to kill Tutsis just to steal their property. Hutus who had lived side by side with Tutsis for generations as friends now turned against their former neighbors, either pointing them out to the Hutu militias or joining in on the slaughter themselves. Reluctant Hutus were often forced by militiamen to kill their Tutsi neighbors or face a death sentence for themselves and their entire families.
As the slaughter spread, Tutsis tried to take refuge in churches. Unfortunately, these places instead became the sites of some of the worst massacres. In one case, at a church in the village of Musha, 1,200 Tutsis who had sought refuge were hacked to death by machetes in a single day. Hospitals also provided no safety, as wounded survivors would be dragged out to be finished off.
By mid-May, an estimated 500,000 Tutsis (out of a total Rwandan population of about 7 million) had been slaughtered. Bodies of the dead were commonly seen floating down the Kigara River into Lake Victoria. The killings continued at the average rate of 8,000 people a day.
At first, both the U.N. and the U.S. refused to call killings genocide, because under U.N. rules such a label would have required U.N. emergency intervention. Instead, the killings were simply called the result of a breakdown in the cease-fire between the Rwandan Patriotic Front and Hutu government. However, with international TV news reports depicting the slaughter, the U.N. finally agreed in June 1994 to send 5,000 soldiers to Rwanda. Given the long delay, unfortunately, these troops never arrived in time to stop the massacre.
Instead, salvation came from the Rwandan Patriotic Front, invading from neighboring countries soon after the genocide began. After gaining control of the countryside, the RPF was finally able to overthrow the Hutu government and halt the genocide in July of 1994. By then, however, an estimated 800,000 people, nearly all of them Tutsi, had been killed in the space of about 100 days.
U.S. President Bill Clinton, who did nothing to stop the carnage, later publicly blamed the genocide on leaders like himself “who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which [Rwandans] were engulfed by the unimaginable horror.” While Clinton’s apology may have made him feel better, the truth is that both Clinton and the U.N. were fully informed of the scope of the genocide from the moment the killings began, and yet chose not to get involved.