It was twenty-nine years ago today that the Rwandan holocaust erupted after the plane carrying the President of the nation was shot down.
The Hutus used the death as an excuse to begin a nation-wide genocide against the minority Tutsis.
These are stories of survivors of the tragedy.
If we continue “othering” those who disagree with us, if we continue dividing and wishing to conquer, this is the road it leads to.
The Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was a deliberate, intentional and systematic mass-killing, which targeted the Tutsi population. In less than three months, one million men, women and children were killed, perhaps as much as three quarters of the Tutsi population of Rwanda.
While Rwandans were being massacred, only a three-and-a-half-hour flight away, South Africans were voting in their country’s first democratic election on 27 April 1994. Two countries, while geographically close, can too often choose very divergent paths.
How did the genocide happen?
Historically, Rwanda’s population was structured along social clans, which were then rigidly stratified by the colonial powers into three groups: Hutu (85%), Tutsi (14%) and Twa (1%). They spoke the same language (Kinyarwanda), lived on the same hills, went to the same Catholic churches and interacted socially and economically. However, the relationship between Hutu, Tutsi and Twa was complicated.
In 1885, when European colonial powers divided Africa amongst themselves at the Berlin Conference, Rwanda fell under German control. After the German defeat in World War I, Belgium took control and governed Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi, favouring the Tutsi, who were given privileged positions, power and wealth. Belgian colonial authorities required all Rwandans to carry identity cards that classified people by their ‘ethnicity.’
Colonial rule ended in 1959 and political parties were formed to contest Rwanda’s first elections. The victorious Hutu killed thousands of Tutsi, who faced ongoing discrimination and violence and thousands of Tutsi fled to nearby countries.
In 1973, the army chief of staff, General Juvénal Habyarimana, seized power and his regime continued to discriminate against the Tutsi. Meanwhile, Tutsi exiles in Uganda formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a group advocating for the return of refugees to their home country, by any means possible.
In the late 1980s, Rwanda experienced severe economic hardship when the global price of coffee collapsed. In addition, there was a heavy drought causing hunger in the country. People blamed the government, who in turn blamed the Tutsi.
In 1990, the RPF marched into Rwanda, which ignited a four-year civil war. Government-sponsored propaganda urged the Hutu to prepare for ‘self-defence’. Organised by extremist Hutu parties, youth militias spread terror across the country and thousands of Tutsi were killed in massacres. The most infamous of these militia groups was the Interahamwe (‘Those who attack together’).
In August 1993, President Habyarimana and the RPF signed a peace accord (the Arusha Agreement) that allowed for the return of Tutsi refugees and the establishment of a Hutu-Tutsi coalition government.
The United Nations deployed 2 500 troops to Kigali, led by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire to oversee implementation of the Arusha Agreement. President Habyarimana, facing fierce opposition from within his own party, stalled the finalisation of this agreement.
While flying back from Arusha on 6 April 1994, Habyarimana’s plane was shot down over Kigali by assailants who remain unknown to this day. This was used as a pretext to start the extremists’ genocidal plan. Tutsi were targeted across Rwanda, regardless of their age, gender, class or position. Before long, the violence had spread throughout the country.
Many Tutsi tried to flee to neighbouring countries but did not make it past the roadblocks where they were killed on the spot.
The genocide was characterised by extraordinary cruelty. Victims were often tortured before they were killed. Women were raped. Children were mutilated. In some areas, more than 95% of the Tutsi population was murdered.
Seeking safety, Tutsi congregated in churches and schools which later became sites of mass murder. They tried to resist, but their sticks, stones and rocks were no match for the genocidaires’ guns, grenades and machetes.
During the genocide, an estimated 200 000 Hutu carried out the murder. Thousands more committed crimes such as looting, rape, torture and destruction of property. The genocide was orchestrated by an authoritarian state that had total control of governmental and civil institutions. Many Rwandan soldiers, who were supposed to protect all civilians, participated in the killings.
They operated alongside the Interahamwe. Many ordinary men who faced intense pressure to participate, became perpetrators. Perpetrators acted out of envy, for material or opportunistic reasons. Others were motivated by fear. Some knew their victims personally — they were their neighbours, family members, friends and fellow churchgoers.
Perpetrators had been indoctrinated by racist ideology and propaganda, which, over the years, had demonised the Tutsi. Despite widespread participation of ordinary civilians in the genocide, not all Hutu were perpetrators. Many were bystanders, while some were rescuers. Hutu who tried to help Tutsi survive in any way, were seen as traitors by the genocidaires and could be killed alongside their families. Despite this threat, some individuals provided shelter, supplied food and safeguarded passage to neighbouring countries for those at risk.
Most rescuers started off as bystanders and had to make difficult moral choices when confronted with the killings. Some saved a single life, while others saved many. There were even those who saved some while also betraying or killing others.
The actions of these rescuers portray humanity’s capacity for courage even at a time of extreme peril. Unfortunately, their acts of conscience were the exception rather than the rule.
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