In the early 1990s, Rwanda, a small but densely populated country in east-central Africa, was a hotbed of political and ethnic tensions.  Despite having existed in relative balance for centuries, differences between Rwanda’s two primary groups – the Hutus and the Tutsis – had become politicized, divisive, and occasionally violent in the 100 years since European colonization.  For a variety of reasons, ranging from the mundane to the horrible, these tensions led to a genocide in 1994 in which approximately 800,000 Tutsis (at least three-quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population) and thousands of moderate Hutus were killed with machetes and clubs in only 100 days.

Source (both images):  CIA World Factbook

     Although the Tutsis had always been a minority in Rwanda (~15% of the population), they were historically the land- and cattle-owners and enjoyed a relatively higher social, political and economic status than the majority Hutus, who historically farmed the land.  Despite this general distinction, however, intermarriage was common, group identification was fluid, and the groups shared the same language, religion (Christianity), and villages.   After WWI, the Belgians took advantage of and reinforced the Tutsis’ elite social and political status by using Tutsi leaders to administer Rwanda as a protectorate.  Calling on early 20th century European ideas of racial hierarchy, the Belgians favored the Tutsis as a superior “race” and introduced a strict system of ethnic identification.  As part of the anticolonial movement of the late 1950’s, the Hutus rebelled against both Belgian and Tutsi rule.  As Hutus demanded change, the Belgians shifted their allegiance to the emerging majority, and many Tutsis were forced to flee.  Beginning in 1962, Rwanda became a Hutu-ruled independent state in which Tutsis suffered systematic discrimination and periodic violence.  Tutsi exiles led attacks into Rwanda from neighboring countries in the 1960s and 1970s, and in 1988 formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which launched a civil war in Rwanda in 1990.

     Facing pressure to end the war against the powerful RPF, the Rwandan Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana signed a peace treaty agreeing to share power with the Tutsis, enraging Hutu extremists.  Monitored by a small UN peacekeeping force, the Rwandan government’s efforts to finalize and implement the agreement stalled for several years.  During this time, ethnic and political tensions grew, rogue army factions trained local Hutu militia, and extremist radio stations broadcast hate messages against Tutsis. 

Site of Ntrama Church massacre.  Photo by S. Chacon, 2006.
     In April 1994, just hours after signing the final power-sharing agreement, President Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali.  Amid conflicting accusations of responsibility, Hutu extremists began the organized killings of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.  Within days, the slaughter spread throughout the country, carried out not just by militia, but also by units of the Rwandan army and regular citizens spurred on by hate radio broadcasts, a sense of “civic duty,” or threats against any who did not participate.  In spite of pleas for help from Rwandans and members of the international community in Rwanda, the UN peacekeeping force was not authorized to intervene.  When ten Belgian peacekeepers were killed several days into the violence, the US and other countries began to evacuate all foreign nationals from Rwanda, and the UN pulled all but 250 of their troops out of Rwanda altogether.  
Remains of victims at Ntrama Church.  Photo by S. Chacon, 2006

     Just 100 days later, in July 1994, the Tutsi-led RPF gained control of the capital and established an interim government.  As the RPF advanced, millions of Hutus fled to neighboring Zaire and Tanzania, where victims, bystanders, and perpetrators alike crowded into squalid refugee camps.  Nearly a million mutilated bodies were left behind in the roads, fields, villages, churches and schools where they were slaughtered.

     The international community’s response to the refugee crisis was immense, but was complicated by cholera, starvation, and ethnic killings that continued to take place in the camps.  The UN Security Council formed an International Criminal Tribunal to identify and punish the leaders of the genocide.  In the late 1990s, millions of Rwandans returned to their country, and the government began the arduous process of refugee resettlement and identifying and prosecuting those who participated in the killing.  Today, although Rwanda seems to be a model of post-crisis development and stability under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, many lingering questions remain about whether justice and reconciliation are possible after such a horrific event.
Esther, a survivor of the genocide.  Photo by configmanager, 2010.