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Understanding the 1994 Rwandan Genocide: Facts, Responses & Trials

The Rwandan Genocide that took place in 1994 remains an indelible stain on humanity’s conscience. Over the course of 100 days, an estimated 800,000 to 1 Million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered. Understanding the roots, unfolding, and aftermath of this dark chapter in history is essential to prevent similar atrocities in the future and to learn crucial lessons about the dangers of ethnic hatred.

Short Summary

  • The Rwandan Genocide was fueled by colonialism and deep-seated ethnic divisions between Hutu and Tutsi populations.
  • The assassination of both presidents triggered a mass slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, with an estimated 800,000 to one million killed in 100 days.
  • International inaction combined with post genocide recovery initiatives aimed at justice, healing & reconciliation have left a legacy that serves as reminder for the need for prevention & unity against future atrocities.

Roots of the Conflict: Colonialism and Ethnic Divisions

The seeds of the Rwandan Genocide were sown deep in the nation’s history, exacerbated by colonialism and longstanding ethnic divisions between the Hutu majority and minority Tutsis. Before the genocide, tensions escalated as the Hutu political movement gained strength, while some Tutsi leaders resisted democratization and the relinquishing of their privileges.

The unfolding of events that led to the horrendous genocide can be traced back to two key factors: Belgian colonial influence and the resulting pre-genocide violence and migration.

Belgian Influence and Identity Formation

During the colonial era, Belgium sought to exploit the existing social hierarchy in Rwanda, favoring the Tutsi minority and enforcing ethnic divisions. The Belgians implemented a divide and rule strategy, resorting to indirect rule by Tutsi elites. The introduction of ethnic identity cards further solidified these divisions, as they firmly established Hutu and Tutsi identities, which had previously been based on social status and wealth rather than ethnicity.

The Arusha Accords, a ceasefire and power-sharing agreement signed in August 1993, aimed to end the civil war and facilitate the integration of Tutsi exiles into Rwandan society. However, Hutu extremists resisted the peace agreement, arming paramilitary forces and conducting a hostile propaganda campaign against Tutsis.

Pre-Genocide Violence and Migration

In November 1959, a violent incident triggered a Hutu uprising, resulting in hundreds of Tutsi deaths and thousands of displacements. Ten attacks occurred between 1962 and 1967 in Rwanda. These attacks caused retaliatory killings of many Tutsi civilians, including Tutsi women, leading to waves of refugees. As anti-Tutsi violence escalated in the 1960s and 1970s, a large number of Tutsi refugees settled in other countries. By the end of the 1980s, 480,000 Rwandans, including Hutu civilians, had become refugees.

The Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) launched a military offensive against Rwanda from Uganda in 1990, initiating a civil war that heightened ethnic stratification and intensified Hutu ideology. This context of war fueled anti-Tutsi propaganda, portraying Tutsis as treacherous adversaries.

The Genocide Unfolds

On April 6, 1994, the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira triggered the Rwandan Genocide. The culprits of the assassination remain unidentified, but the event incited extremist elements of the majority Hutu population to launch a systematic slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Assassination Trigger

The assassination of both presidents created a power vacuum in Rwanda, leading to the annulment of the Arusha Accords and plunging the country into chaos. Despite ongoing debates on the true perpetrators of the assassination, the Tutsi minority was blamed, sparking an unprecedented wave of violence that rapidly snowballed into the genocide.

The Presidential Guard and Rwandan armed forces established roadblocks and barricades, and proceeded to perpetrate the massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Systematic Slaughter

The Rwandan Genocide was meticulously organized, with the use of machetes, guns, and explosives to carry out the mass killings. The Hutu-controlled government and allied militias perpetrated the massacre of an estimated 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus within a period of 100 days. The scale and speed of the slaughter were particularly shocking, as it was mostly carried out by individuals using rudimentary weapons under orders from local leaders.

The genocide left a lasting impact on Rwanda, with communities devastated, families destroyed, and survivors struggling to rebuild their lives.

International Response and Inaction

UN Peacekeeping Troops in Rwanda circa September 1994. Photo from personal collection of Prudence Bushnell.

The international community’s response to the Rwandan Genocide was marked by inaction and limited intervention. Many prominent figures expressed regret for the outside world’s lack of awareness about the situation and its failure to intervene to prevent the atrocities.

Among the factors contributing to this inaction were the United States’ reluctance to engage in another African conflict following the death of US troops in Somalia the previous year, and the withdrawal of Belgian and UN peacekeepers after the death of 10 Belgian soldiers.

UNAMIR and the United Nations

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was established in 1993 to assist with the implementation of the Arusha Accords, but its mandate and resources were insufficient to prevent the genocide. In April 1994, the United Nations Security Council voted to withdraw most of the UNAMIR peacekeeping operation, despite the warnings and requests for additional support from the UNAMIR commander.

It was not until mid-May, when the genocide was already well underway, that the Security Council voted to provide a more substantial force of over 5,000 troops. However, by the time these forces arrived in full, the genocide had already been concluded for months.

French Intervention

French intervention during the genocide, known as Operation Turquoise, was a double-edged sword. While the French-led humanitarian mission, authorized by the UN, rescued tens of thousands of Tutsi lives, it also enabled some of the perpetrators of the genocide, who were allies of the French during the Habyarimana administration, to escape.

Critics argue that the French intervention was too little, too late, and ultimately failed to prevent the continuation of the genocide.

Post-Genocide Recovery and Reconciliation

Beautiful rural landscape with agricultures terraces, Rwanda. Copy Space. Travel

Following the genocide, Rwanda faced the immense challenge of rebuilding communities, providing justice, and fostering reconciliation. After Rwanda gained independence, the new Rwandan government, led by the RPF, declared a policy of unity and reconciliation to address the immense physical and psychological damage caused by the genocide.

Numerous initiatives were launched to bring justice, healing, and reconciliation to the survivors and the nation as a whole.

RPF Takeover and Coalition Government

The RPF took control of the Rwandan government, establishing a coalition government and promoting unity and reconciliation. The new government, which replaced the former Hutu government, was committed to addressing the consequences of the genocide, including widespread devastation, the decimation of families, and the displacement of millions of people, including many Hutu perpetrators.

The government also sought to uphold the principles of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in the democratic republic.

Justice and Accountability: ICTR and Gacaca Courts

To bring justice to those responsible for the genocide, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and Rwanda’s own community-driven Gacaca courts were established. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was a watershed moment in international law. It marked the first ever interpretation of the definition of genocide as outlined in the 1948 Geneva Conventions, and also characterized rape as a method of genocide.

The Gacaca court system, on the other hand, served as a transitional justice mechanism that allowed communities to confront the perpetrators of violence and promote healing and forgiveness.

Healing and Reconciliation Initiatives

Organizations such as World Vision played a crucial role in facilitating healing and reconciliation in Rwanda. Its peacebuilding and reconciliation programs provided care for numerous orphaned children, supplied vital emergency relief to displaced persons, and assisted resettlement efforts.

The reconciliation process followed a specific model that included sharing personal experiences of the genocide, acquiring new techniques to cope with intense emotions, and exploring a path to forgiveness. These initiatives aimed to rebuild communities, foster forgiveness, and promote unity among Rwandans.

The Legacy of the Rwandan Genocide

The Rwanda Genocide left a lasting impact on the region and the world, illustrating the need for genocide prevention and awareness. The country has made significant progress in rebuilding and reconciling its communities, but the scars of the genocide remain.

The legacy of the Rwandan Genocide serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of ethnic hatred and the importance of fostering peace, understanding, and unity.

Regional Instability

The genocide contributed to regional instability, sparking conflicts in neighboring countries, and resulting in the displacement of millions of people and millions of deaths. The violence also caused a major humanitarian crisis that still persists in the Great Lakes Region.

The repercussions of the Rwandan Genocide demonstrate the need for international cooperation and vigilance to prevent future atrocities and to address the root causes of violence and unrest.

Lessons Learned and Genocide Prevention

The international community has since focused on learning from the Rwandan Genocide to prevent future atrocities and raise awareness about the dangers of ethnic hatred. The lessons learned include the importance of early action, the need to abstain from disputes concerning terminology, the significance of preventing divisiveness, and the responsibility to safeguard human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

By acknowledging the failures of the past and working together, we can ensure that history does not repeat itself.


The Rwandan Genocide stands as a tragic reminder of the dangers of ethnic hatred and the consequences of inaction. From its roots in colonialism and ethnic divisions to the systematic slaughter that unfolded, the genocide has left an indelible mark on history. While the international community’s response was marked by inaction, the lessons learned from this dark chapter can help foster peace, understanding, and unity in the future. Through justice, healing, and reconciliation initiatives, Rwanda continues to rebuild and heal, with the hope of never allowing such a tragedy to occur again.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Rwandan Genocide summary?

The Rwandan Genocide of 1994 stands as a reminder of the potential for mass violence and horror that is possible when groups are divided by ethnic hatred. In a matter of months, an estimated 800,000 Tutsi people were brutally murdered by their fellow countrymen, as Hutu extremists enacted a state-sponsored campaign of slaughtering the minority population.

This mass atrocity is one of the most devastating examples of the consequences of intolerance in the modern world.

Why did the Hutus hate the Tutsis?

The Hutus were facing discrimination and violence from the Tutsis who had historical power over them, which led to resentment and eventually hatred.

This deep-seated animosity caused the Hutus to lash out in anger and seek retribution.

How many people died in the Rwandan war?

In summary, it is estimated that around 800,000 people were killed during the Rwandan War in 1994. Of these, an estimated 500,000 to 662,000 were ethnic Tutsi minority victims of the state-sponsored genocide.

Is Hotel Rwanda Based on a true story?

Hotel Rwanda is based on a true story, with the plot being inspired by events that took place in Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali. The film depicts the bravery of Rwandan hotelier Paul Rusesabagina, who saved over 1,268 Tutsis and Hutus from genocidal forces outside the hotel’s walls.

His courage and selfless act of heroism are the foundation for the movie, making Hotel Rwanda a true story.

What were the main causes of the Rwandan Genocide?

At the core of the Rwandan Genocide were long-standing racial and ethnic tensions dating back to colonial rule, which had been exacerbated by centuries of violence, political instability, population growth, and social inequity.

These tensions had been simmering for decades, and were further inflamed by the political and economic policies of the Rwandan government in the years leading up to the genocide. The government’s policies of exclusion and discrimination against the Tutsi minority combined with the spread of extremist Hutu ideology.