Remembering the Rwandan Genocide After 25 Years
On Sunday, Rwanda will start a week-long event that commemorates the 25th year since the 1994 genocide. The genocide, which began on April 1, resulted in deaths of roughly 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi and some Hutus, and countless injuries. For nearly 100 days in 1994, members of the Hutu majority tried to purge Tutsi, the second largest ethnic group in the country.
Those 100 days have left the world speechless. This week, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that those 100 days were some of the darkest chapters in recent human history, and cautioned against current trends of xenophobia and racism.
The Rwandan genocide stands out because of the widespread participation of violence. Neighbors hacked neighbors to death with machetes, the mainly used weapon. At the time, a person's ethnic identity was listed on their ID cards, so Hutu militia groups set up roadblocks where an immense amount of violence took place. Thousands of Tutsi women were taken as sex slaves or were brutally raped.
The genocide was triggered by the assassination of the then Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, whose plane was shot down. However, this was far from the only factor causing widespread violence to erupt.
Hutus, about 85% of the Rwandan population, had long been dominated by the Tutsi, who were favored by the Belgian colonial government. In 1959, the Tutsi monarchy was overthrown by the Hutus, causing thousands of Tutsi to flee to neighboring countries. While in exile, a group of Tutsi formed a rebel group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which invaded Rwanda in 1990. Fighting continued until a peace agreement in 1993. Just a year later, the president’s plane was shot down.
The genocide ended in the summer of 1994, when the Ugandan-backed Tutsi army arrived. The head of these forces, Paul Kagame, has been President of Rwanda since 2000. It is now illegal in Rwanda to use ethnic labels, and discrimination against someone based on their ethnic background is a crime punishable by a jail term. While Rwanda may appear to be exemplifying a triumph of reconciliation and peacebuilding, there are many issues that still linger.
Twa, the third and smallest ethnic group in Rwanda, was almost wiped out in the genocide. While many Twa would like their suffering to be recognized, Rwanda’s strict ethnic laws and the simplistic narrative of Tutsi vs Hutu that is perpetuated by the government prevents the Twa from speaking up. The Twa are the indigenous people of Rwanda and make up only 1% of the population. However, the genocide wiped out a third of the population and caused another third to flee the country.
Likewise, the international community’s late response to the genocide is still in question. French President Emmanuel Macron recently appointed a panel of experts to go through archives and investigate France’s role in the violence. In two years, a report is supposed to be made public. Before the president’s plane was shot down, France was a close ally of the Hutu-led Habyarimana government. The United States, the United Nations, and the former colonial power Belgium are also criticized for not intervening earlier.