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What led to the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda? First-hand accounts from survivors

By Jeremy Maron

Thousands of refugees carrying their belongings and walking along a long dirt road. Bright green grass and bushes flank the road.

Photo: Associated Press, Joao Silva

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What happened in Rwanda in 1994 seems almost incomprehensible. In just 100 days, government forces, militias and regular citizens carried out a genocide against the Tutsi social and ethnic minority population. An estimated 800,000 to one million Tutsi were killed, and mass sexual violence was committed against Tutsi women and girls. How could this have happened?

The genocide was the culmination of decades of division and incitement of hatred towards the Tutsi by extremists in the country’s leadership, which was controlled by members of the Hutu majority group. A deliberate process of positioning the Tutsi as a dangerous and inferior minority group, and even as less than human, set the stage for the genocide that was to come.

A colonial legacy of division

Tensions had simmered for decades between the Hutu and Tutsi populations in Rwanda. The region had operated under Belgian colonial rule from after the First World War until 1962. During this time, colonial policies fostered divisions between the Hutu, who made up the country’s largest ethnic group, and the Tutsi, who formed the second-largest ethnic group. The Belgians viewed the Tutsi minority as superior, and favoured Tutsi for leadership positions. This favoritism created ongoing and deeper tensions between Hutu and Tutsi.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, struggles for independence from Belgian rule gained strength in Rwanda. These struggles included violence between Hutu and Tutsi as the two groups sought power. In 1962, the nation achieved independence, with Hutu leaders assuming control of government. Many Tutsi were massacred. Others were forced to flee the country as the ruling government portrayed them as threats to Rwanda. The anti-Tutsi sentiments behind these attacks contributed to the conditions for the genocide that followed 32 years later.

Dr. Jean-Bosco Iyakaryeme describes his childhood memory of fleeing from his home to avoid attackers. It was the first time he realized he was Tutsi.

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By the mid-1960s more than 400,000 Tutsi had fled to neighbouring countries, such as Burundi and Uganda. Although concerted violent attacks against Tutsi began to wane later in the decade, prejudice and suspicion against the minority group remained.

Coup d’état leads to another exile

In 1973, a Hutu general named Juvénal Habyarimana seized control of the government. Habyarimana’s government reinforced anti-Tutsi and pro-Hutu sentiments. This led to another wave of violence directed at the Tutsi.

Jacques Rwirangira describes the extreme level of discrimination he and his family faced in the 1970s simply because they were Tutsi.

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Exiled Tutsi push for the right to return home

Throughout the 1980s, Tutsi who had been exiled from Rwanda to surrounding countries began pressing for the right to return to their home country. In 1990, a Tutsi rebel group known as the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda. This launched a civil war as the military responded with force. Anti-Tutsi sentiment began to increase in intensity as Hutu-dominated media painted the Tutsi minority as a threat to Rwanda.

Bonaventure Kalisa shares his memories of the beginning of the civil war in Rwanda, and how this set the stage for increased suspicion towards the Tutsi.

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Assassination leads to explosion of hostilities

After the civil war in Rwanda had raged for three years, Hutu President Habyarimana and the RPF signed a peace accord to cease the hostilities. Many Hutu extremists were critical of the agreement and continued to incite anti-Tutsi hatred.

United Nations peacekeepers, including Roméo Dallaire, the high-ranking Canadian military officer who commanded the peacekeeping force, warned that a massacre of Tutsi by Hutu extremists could be imminent.

Retired Lieutenant-General Dallaire recalls how Hutu extremists he called “hardliners” manipulated young people into believing that the path to a good future lay with them. After enticing them with food, music and sports, these extremists indoctrinated young people to hate the Tutsi, and prepared them to be active participants in targeting Tutsi when the genocide began.

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On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying President Habyarimana, as well as Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down. Extremist Hutus blamed Tutsi rebels for the attack, while Tutsi rebels denied it and blamed members of Habyarimana’s own government. The identities of those responsible for the crash are still unknown.

A Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel walking by the site of the April 6 plane crash which killed Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana.

Photo: Associated Press, Jean-Marc Bouju

What people need to know about the genocide is that it is one of those crimes that you can see coming … and when President Habyarimana's plane was shot down, knocked out of the sky over Kigali, we knew what would happen. We knew that was it for the Tutsis.

Jean-Bosco Iyakaryeme

The 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda

In the aftermath of the attack on President Habyarimana’s plane, extremist Hutus began a concerted attack against Tutsi in Rwanda. From April to July 1994, massacres were carried out by government forces as well as armed militia known as the Interahamwe. Participation in the genocide against the Tutsi was widespread as neighbours turned on neighbours, friends turned on friends, and even family turned on family. 

Members of Hutu militias went from house to house looking for Tutsi to kill. They set up roadblocks to stop people and force them to show their identity cards. The militants used the cards to identify Tutsi in order to kill them. Tutsi women and girls were also raped by government soldiers and militia members on a mass scale.

In addition to members of the Tutsi minority, moderate Hutus that refused to participate in the genocide were also targeted, as were members of an indigenous group in Rwanda known as the Twa.

Genocide survivors Dada Gasirabo, Régine King and Philibert Muzima remember being on the run and hiding during the genocide, and the intense fear they felt.

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Confronting a genocide’s legacy

The genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda finally ended in July 1994, when the RPF regained control of the country. In just 100 days, an estimated 800,000 to one million people were killed. In the genocide’s aftermath, many steps have been taken to pursue recovery and reconciliation. However, the scale and severity of the genocide places many obstacles on such paths.

Men handling coffins into a mass grave in December of 1996 in Rwanda, Africa. In 1994 Rwanda saw one of the worlds worst acts of genocide, with an estimated 800,000 to one million Tutsi civilians massacred by Hutu extremists leaving the country debilitated for decades to come.

Photo: Getty Images, Hutton Archive, Joe McNally

In Canada, members of the Rwandan-Canadian community have come together to offer solidarity support for genocide survivors and their families and to commemorate the genocide. They have also taken steps to pursue justice against suspected perpetrators to ensure they can be held accountable for their actions.

Professor Régine King talks about what she envisions justice to mean in the aftermath of the genocide.

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PAGE-Rwanda is an organization that started while the genocide was still going on, because members of the Tutsi community who were living here in Quebec saw on a daily basis the horror portrayed in the media, and they knew that … we need to get organized in order to help each other out, first to stay alive, but also to be able to help the ones who are going to survive, and also to be able to pursue justice.

Jean-Paul Nyilinkwaya, President, PAGE-Rwanda

Photo: CMHR, Jeremy Maron

The genocide against the Tutsi was over in roughly 100 days. But the brutal violence committed against this minority ethnic and social group was preceded by decades of hatred incited against them. They were presented as inferior to Hutu, and dangerous to the nation of Rwanda. This process of dehumanization and presenting the Tutsi as a dangerous “other” set the stage for genocide. This process reminds us of the need to be vigilant against propaganda that seeks to single out certain groups for persecution, portraying them as less worthy of human rights than others.

When we begin to hear speeches that dehumanize or treat people like animals, vermin, cockroaches, less than nothing, the alarm bells should go off … We begin to classify, to pit people against each other, us against them. These are signals that do not lie, and I think that at any stage that leads us to genocide, we need to find preventive mechanisms. So it's important to react quickly and not wait until the bomb explodes.

Jacques Rwirangira

Ask yourself

Have I ever been made to feel inferior because of an aspect of my identity?

How do I ensure my voice is heard when I see an atrocity happening outside my country?

Why is it important to remember historical atrocities?