The “Rwandan Genocide” refers to the 1994 mass slaughter in Rwanda of the ethnic Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu peoples. The killings began in early April of 1994, and continued for approximately one hundred days until the “Hutu Power” movement’s defeat in mid-July. The genocide was carried out primarily by Hutu supremacist militia groups, co-perpetrated by the state government of Rwanda, the Rwandan Army, and Rwandan civilians in compliance with the “Hutu Power” movement. By its conclusion, at least 500,000 ethnic Tutsis were murdered, along with thousands of Tutsi sympathizers, moderate Hutus, and other victims of atrocity. Some estimates claim anywhere between 800,000-1,000,000 killed, with another 2 million refugees (mostly Hutus fearing the retribution of the newly-empowered Tutsi rebel government) packed in disease-ridden refugee camps of neighboring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and former Zaire.
Rwanda is a very small country (about the size of Maryland), located near the center of Africa, a few degrees south of the Equator. It is separated from the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire) by Lake Kivu and the Ruzizi River valley to the west; it is bounded on the north by Uganda, to the east by Tanzania, and to the south by Burundi. The capital, Kigali, is located in the center of the country. According to the 1991 national census, the total population of Rwanda was 7.7 million, with 90 percent of the population in the Hutu ethnic group, 9 percent Tutsi, and 1 percent Twa. The Rwandan Genocide itself began with mass killings in Kigali, but over the course of its 100-day duration, killing spread to all corners of the country.
The Rwandan genocide took place over a time span of only 100 days, between April and July 1994.
Hutu nationalist group Parmehutu led a social revolution which overthrew the Tutsi ruling class, resulting in the death of around 20,000 Tutsis and the exile of another 200,000 to neighboring countries. Rwandan independence from Belgium would follow in 1961, marking the establishment of a Hutu-led Rwandan government. The Tutsis remaining in Rwanda, mostly due to intermarriage or other family ties, would be discriminated against as racially “lesser” citizens by the new Hutu government. The RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) was formed in 1985 as a political group of Tutsi nationalist exiles who demanded the right to return to their homeland as citizens and an end to social discrimination against the Tutsi in Rwanda. The RPF rebels invaded Rwanda from neighboring Uganda in October of 1990, re-igniting Tutsi hatred throughout Rwanda. It was this act of Tutsi aggression, coupled with decades of discrimination and fear for a loss of power, that paved the way to genocide. Killed alongside the Tutsi people were those native Rwandan Hutu, who sympathized with their Tutsi neighbors and resisted by defending, hiding, or providing aid to their Tutsi neighbors. Moderate Hutus, many of whom refused to take action against their Tutsi neighbors, were also victimized in the genocide.
Most of the killing was carried out by two Hutu radical militant groups: the Interahamwe and the Impuzamugambi. Armed, backed, and led by the government of Rwanda (MRND), the Interahamwe are remembered today as the driving force of the genocide, comprised mostly of young Hutu men, brainwashed by the “Hutu Power” ideology. Springing from a separate political entity, the CDR, the Impuzamugambi was made up of members of the CDR’s youth wing. These forces were fewer in number than those of the Interahamwe. The “more-extreme” anti-Tutsi agenda of the CDR reflected on the Impuzamugambi; their killings were often regarded as less organized, and more vicious. The genocide was obviously supported by the Hutu-led government (MRND) and members of the Rwandan army: they armed and directed militias, dispatched killing orders, and even participated in the rounding up of victims themselves. The most unsettling co-perpetrators of the genocide, however, were those Rwandan civilians who collaborated with and supported the genocide. Many Tutsis and moderate Hutus were handed over and/or killed by their own neighbors, also bent on anti-Tutsi sentiment.
Unlike other genocides of the 20th century, the Rwandan genocide unfolded before the eyes of the national media. Journalists, radio broadcasters, and TV news reporters covered the events live from Rwanda, until the violence escalated to fanatical levels and all foreigners were encouraged to evacuate. In short, the world knew of the genocide from its first day up until its conclusion. Mark Doyle, a reporter for the BBC in Kigali, tried to explain the situation to the world in late April 1994 as follows,
“…you have to understand that there are two wars going on here. There’s a shooting war and a genocide war. The two are connected, but also distinct. In the shooting war, there are two conventional armies at each other, and in the genocide war, one of those armies, the government side with help from civilians, is involved in mass killings.”
UNAMIR, the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, was present on the ground throughout the course of the genocide. With disregard to the violence portrayed in the national media, France, Belgium, and the United States declined to send additional support, despite UNAMIR’s specific warnings to the U.N. Security Council in early 1994, describing the Hutu militia’s plan for extermination. The Security Council denied UNAMIR’s request to intervene, and in early April, the Belgian contingency of UNAMIR’s force were pulled out, due to the murder of ten Belgian soldiers. Almost overnight, 4,500 UNAMIR peacekeepers on the ground were reduced to a mere 260. Not until mid-May (approx. 500,000 Rwandans had already been killed) did the UN recognize that “acts of genocide may have been committed,” at which point the UN pledged to send in 5,500 troops and 50 armored personal carriers. This force, however, was further delayed due to continuing arguments between the UN and the U.S. army over the cost of the Armored Personnel Carriers. The genocide would be ended by the RPF overthrow of the Hutu Regime in July; the UN intervention never occurred. The state support for the genocide in Rwanda was no doubt one of its primary engines. The Hutu-led government provided arms, planning, and leadership for the militias. It also funded the RTLM “Hutu Power” radio broadcast, the primary source of “brainwashing” for the Rwandan civilians who also took part in the genocide.
Immediately following the RPF takeover, around 2 million Hutus (perpetrators, bystanders, and resistors to the genocide) fled into the neighboring countries to avoid potential Tutsi retribution. Thousands died of epidemics, which spread like wildfire through to overcrowded refugee camps. The refugee presence in Zaire, among other factors, led to the first Congo War in 1996 and the formation of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Due to worsening conditions in the DRC and Tanzania, more than a million Rwandan refugees would return home by 1997. Back in Rwanda, the fully regenerated “UNAMIR 2” assumed control until March 8th, 1996. They faced the enormous task of cleaning up a war-torn country side, and dealing with the bodies of more than 1 million victims of genocide and war. The “machete” would become a symbol, synonymous to the Rwandan genocide for its widespread use by untrained civilians, to hack their neighbors to death. With the return of the refugees, the long-awaited genocide trials could proceed. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, located in Arusha, Tanzania, began proceedings in 1996. As of Spring 2017, the Tribunal has indicted 93 individuals, and sentenced 62 persons guilty of war crimes, acts of genocide, rape, and the creation of “hate media.” Three criminals remain at large.
*Luke Walker of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies researched and wrote this description. CHGS is a partner of World Without Genocide. Updated 2/21/2017.
Download a one page PDF summary of this information here.
*This paper was written by Ina Ziegler, a University of Minnesota Alumna
On November 2, 2007, I had the honor of visiting the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. I attended with twenty-seven other university students as part of the International Honors Program, a study-abroad program focusing on issues of globalization. At the tribunal, we received an initial briefing about its purpose. It was created November 8, 1994, by the United Nations, to prosecute those responsible for orchestrating the murder of more than 800,000 Rwandans during that same year. The first trial began in January 1997; since then, twenty-seven judgments have been made, involving thirty-three accused persons. Twenty-eight were convicted, and five acquitted. Twenty-seven accused persons are being tried now, and eighteen indicted remain at large. This brings the total to seventy-eight indictments.
We were able to sit in on the trial of a man named Bikindi. Mr. Bikindi is a musician and performer, and he is accused of creating songs and dances that encourage people to kill Tutsis and commit other acts of violence. It’s a fascinating case and the decision will set a strong precedent for the future; it brings in issues of free speech, artistic license, and responsibility and accountability for artistic creation. It is also a reminder of the enormous power that music, dance, and other art forms have, and how that power can be exploited and used in dangerous and deadly ways.
During the portion of the trial we attended, Mr. Bikindi was being asked by the prosecutor about his ties to the government, and about a particular photograph which showed members of his dance troupe wearing uniforms of the interahamwe, the Hutu militia. A long discussion ensued, in which Mr. Bikindi argued at length about the meaning of the words uniform and costume, and whether the photograph therefore revealed that his dancers were part of the militia or simply acting, providing entertainment.
It was at that point that the reality of the situation overwhelmed me. I was sitting behind a soundproof glass window, looking at ten or twelve judges and court officials surrounding this one man, Mr. Bikindi, seated at the witness stand in the center. I was listening to an inane conversation about costumes versus uniforms, translated carefully and rapidly into my headset. Fifteen minutes later, I left the room and had pastries and coffee in the cafeteria. Is this justice? Is it really? Nearly a million people are dead. Will the conviction or acquittal of this one man, who has the confidence to sit in this place and quibble over semantics, really matter? The justice of this court can only be, at best, symbolic. And it is not that the symbols do not matter; they do, tremendously. Of course it matters that this trial is taking place; of course it matters that the rules of law, which are all we have, are being followed. Of course we have a desperate need for symbolic meaning, and this court offers that to the world, to humanity, in the best way that it can. If it is this or nothing, semantics or silence, I choose semantics. But it is not enough. It can never be enough. The only justice that would be enough is too great for me to fathom. It would indict all of us, every human being on this planet. Every person who has participated in or benefited from colonialism, which in many ways created this whole mess. Every person who killed another. Every person who supplied arms to combatants. Every person who remained silent when the genocide was happening. Every person who remains silent now, when it is still going on. The scale of guilt, of sin, is too great. No human justice can ever be great enough to encompass it. The blood of our brothers and sisters is crying out, to whatever God can hear, from the ground where our apathy, our greed, our silence, has spilled it, not just in Rwanda but in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guatemala, El Salvador, Vietnam, Laos, Bosnia, Germany, Poland, the United States—everywhere. No justice will ever be enough. I am left to wonder what, then, could possibly be great enough. We are here, and we have to survive somehow, with this burden. What can we do? I come to mercy—forgiveness—love. I don’t know if I have the right to use these words; my family has not been killed, or deported, or imprisoned. Would I still use these words if they had? I don’t know. All I know is that for now they are the only words I have. What else is there? I’m open to suggestions. Perhaps we can think about the words of Mr. Adama Dieng, the registrar of the tribunal. He shared with us a proverb from Senegal, his home: “A human being is a remedy for humanity.” The only remedy we have for the ills of this world is to be human, to feel and to love and to live. It is the only hope I have for the future. I hope that we can strive to reach the power behind the words of mercy, and love, and forgiveness; to find out what it means and to live it. We can strive to hear the voices that are crying out. We can strive to change those things that hurt us, that take away our humanity. What else is there? I see no other way to live.
*This paper was written by a World Without Genocide Associate
In 2008, I had the honor of visiting the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. I attended as part of a study abroad program that focused on Peace and Conflict Studies in the Lake Victoria Basin. Throughout the program, we visited refugee camps, met with organizations working toward reconciliation, and lived with families who had been affected by conflict. My host family in Rwanda fled to Southern Uganda during the genocide. My host family in Uganda lived in an IDP camp for seventeen years where their youngest son, my host brother, was kidnapped. He was forced into child soldiery for four years before escaping. These interactions taught me firsthand that there is no one more forgotten or neglected than an innocent civilian who is caught in the throes of violence. Sadly, often enough it seems that the same disregard applies when it comes to justice.
While at the courts, we spoke with Mr. Charles Phillips, the Senior Trial Attorney from the Office of the Prosecutor. Mr. Phillips tried several landmark cases during his time at ICTR, including a case involving Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the first woman to ever be tried for crimes against humanity and the first woman to ever be charged with using rape as a crime of genocide. While she did not actually commit the rapes, she abused her power as Minister of Family and Women’s affairs to incite the militia to rape thousands of women.
Hearing about the ICTR from a judge who had been involved from the beginning shed light onto the extreme importance of an international code of justice. The courts were an important step in establishing accountability and an international standard of acceptable behavior. They took strides to define rape as a tool of genocide, held key players responsible for organizing crimes during the genocide, and began the long process of overcoming an international indifference to genocide. However, Mr. Phillips also brought attention to the many intricate steps involved in actually determining superior responsibility, and in finding and keeping the witnesses necessary to prove someone guilty. These challenges are just a few examples in the string of difficulties that face the ICTR.
While sitting in on cases was fascinating, it was interacting with people outside of the ICTR that really provoked questions of what justice means in the context of genocide. Three big questions stood out at the time.
First, who actually benefits from the form of justice given by ICTR? Who does that justice serve?
In the case that I sat in on, the room for observers was completely full of people – and every single one of them was white. When talking about this later, my host father said that in Rwanda, people do not feel connected to the courts or know the outcomes of them because Arusha is too far away for Rwandese to travel to, and translated transcripts are not sent back or distributed. He questioned whether the international community might be benefiting more from Rwanda’s courts than he was as a Rwandese citizen.
With most of the people viewing the cases not part of the actual genocide, whose justice was it really? I wondered about my host family, and the kids I had met at refugee camps in Uganda. Does locking perpetrators up behind bars in these faraway cases actually mean anything to them? Does it give them closure or any sort of benefit? Maybe in the long term – with the conflicts in Eastern and Central Africa becoming increasingly interconnected, arresting the ringleaders of one genocide might very well help to prevent the next. Arresting Joseph Kony in Uganda will ultimately benefit people in Congo and Sudan as well. But what about the short term? What about an apology or assistance for the boy I met in an orphanage whose parents were killed in front of his eyes at the age of 4? He has lived his life as an orphan since then. What about the young woman who was raped, infected with HIV, and is now an outcast from society because the rape was perceived as her fault? They are the ones whose lives were destroyed, not the international community. The kids in orphanages and refugee camps will most likely never physically see the men who organized so many crimes against them. Will they be able to come to terms with being orphans simply because the men who organized the massacre killing their parents are in jail? What justice is served for every child who lost a parent, every family who lost years of life and education in a refugee camp, and every generation of lost children? Or can any system ever create adequate individual justice for what was lost? The Gacaca courts were an important step, but people still slip through the cracks. My host sister was scoffed at when she tried to present her case of being raped because a.)it was her word against a man’s, and b.) she was fourteen years old at the time and was accused of making the story up.
So first, who benefits from the justice?
The second question that came up was who should be held accountable or tried for the crimes committed, and who gets to decide that?
My dad was a criminal military judge for 28 years. Growing up I always saw his work as clear-cut. There were the good guys and the bad guys. The bad guys were always guilty. Sentencing them to years in jail was the clear solution. Those who were victims were therefore innocent, and could then live in peace when the perpetrators were imprisoned. But what happens once the distinction between victim and perpetrator is blurred, and the line between innocent and guilty is not so straight?
Before entering Rwanda, we visited a refugee camp in Uganda comprised of 95% Hutu refugees. The men and women in this camp dictated a completely different story of what had occurred during the genocide than that told by Tutsis. They also gave us a glimpse into the discrimination that currently faces Hutus today. In their stories they focused much more on the long history leading up to the 1994 genocide – on the widespread massacre of Hutus in Burundi – on the RPF invasion of Rwanda in 1990. According to the refugees, the violence was far from one-sided. One man showed us scars all over his head from an axe that a Tutsi official had cut him with. Another claimed that some of the piles of bones that were discovered and are now being memorialized were actually bones from mass killings of Hutus. They also said that today Hutus have no freedom of speech in schools or workplaces, that the term “survivor of genocide” brings only Tutsis to the minds of most people, and that every April for genocide remembrance month, only Tutsis are remembered. Moderate Hutus are given no place in the story. It is possible that this is all denial, and that the perpetrators are making excuses for their actions. It is also possible, however, that the division between victim and perpetrator is not as clear cut as we thought.
But if and when there is uncertainty in the distinction between perpetrator and victim, who has the right to decide which side attains justice and which side is tried? Is it simply because one side is currently in power? At the time I visited, not one Tutsi had been tried at the ICTR. Hutus were not allowed to make accusations at local Gacaca courts, and memorials failed to remember the moderate Hutus who had been killed.
Continuing along this vein, when the definition of perpetrator is blurred, at what point do we reach even further out to cast responsibility for the crimes committed? Should we hold colonists responsible for converting the terms Hutu and Tutsi from an economic differentiator into an ethnic divide? Tutsi was originally used to describe someone who owned 10 cows or more, and people moved easily between being Hutu and Tutsi based on their economic situation. Or should we blame the US media who played the O.J. Simpson trial over and over again on the news instead of sharing coverage with the genocide in Rwanda? What happens to the justice system when everyone has contributed to the genocide in some way? A close colleague of mine wrote an essay about justice after her time at ICTR. She wrote, “The only justice that would be enough is too great for me to fathom. It would indict all of us, every human being on this planet. Every person who has participated in or benefitted from colonialism. Every person who killed another. Every person who supplied arms to combatants. Every person who remained silent when the genocide was happening. Every person who remains silent now. The scale of guilt is too great. No human justice can ever be great enough to encompass it.”
The ICTR was not promised as the end-all answer to justice for everyone and every situation. But with so many uncertainties involved in international justice, the final question that came to mind from my time spent at ICTR was how can we proceed with justice when we do not know the whole truth?
After the abroad program I found myself not wanting to fully believe in anything I heard or experienced. There were so many sides to everything that it was overwhelming. It made me question whether anybody can ever believe in something concretely enough to devote his or her entire life to it and not have it be a lie. I even began doubting my own doubts, thinking that by even questioning the genocide’s story, and trying to study it intellectually, I was somehow taking away from the stories that people told. And that by trying to find facts rather than just absorbing the emotion of the genocide I was taking away people’s right to their own truths.
It is really difficult to see something you know needs to be resolved and want to help out so badly but feel like there is no solution. Such a feeling of uncertainty has almost driven me away many times. I remember thinking how easy it would be to pursue a lifestyle that ignores all of this inequity. I have a privilege to do that – but how could I live with that when I know that not everyone is in a situation to do that, and that because of our interconnectedness I would somehow be benefiting from others’ pain. Many people choose to take this life of privilege without looking back. It is so easy to do, and this is where greed comes in, this is where genocide and violence happens – in forgetting the other, in thinking only of oneself, of one’s own survival. But what would the world be like without the other? Don’t we all shape each other? Aren’t we all apart of each other? As my host brother said, “It seems key to always think about the other as your own…if you think about him and he thinks about you, then you have 2 people looking out for yourself rather than only 1, and soon the whole world is looking after each other.”
To me, justice is denying the option of turning the other way, acknowledging our own personal involvement in every situation, and working to end the negative ramifications of our individual actions. Above all, the experiences at ICTR and in Rwanda emphasized that we should always strive to question what is before us and to embrace those who are around us.