The Rwandan Genocide

This… was not written ‘so that it will not happen again’, as the cliche would have it. This… was written because it almost certainly will happen again.

                                                                                         Anne Applebaum

Twenty two years ago, in the spring and early summer of 1994, an estimated eight hundred thousand men, women and children were systematically butchered in Rwanda. Despite the fact that the killings were mostly carried out using machetes, the death rate was several times greater than the speed at which Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. As author Philip Gourevitch has pointed out, the Rwandan genocide was the most rapid mass killing since the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   

The trigger for the genocide was the shooting down in Kigali, on April 6, of Rwanda’s Hutu dictator President Juvenal Habyarimana. The question as to who killed the President has long been a source of bitter controversy, but a recently published report lends credence to the theory that Habryarima was killed by his own henchmen. Just eight months before, the Rwandan President had signed a peace agreement with the rebel Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front, the RPF, and had been widely denounced by Hutu extremists for having sold out.

The immediacy with which the genocide began is stunning. An interim government, composed of a clique of Hutu extremists under Colonel Theoneste Bagasora seized power, and promptly set about liquidating the opposition and exterminating the Tutsi population.

Within an hour of Habyarimana’s death, roadblocks had been set up all over Kigali and Tutsi’s, who could be identified only by the ethnic designation on their national identity cards, were already being hacked and shot to death on the streets. Moderate Hutus, lists of who had been prepared in advance, were also among the first to be murdered.

The following day, in a pre-planned operation, Hutu soldiers rounded up ten Belgian United Nations peacekeepers and killed and savagely mutilated them. Their action achieved its intended outcome, when Belgium decided to withdraw its soldiers from Rwanda. Belgium’s action sent a strong signal to the genocidaires that they could step up the killings.

As the days turned into weeks, the military and interahamwe trekked from house to house, marking out the homes of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Drunken and drugged interahamwe youth were bused from one massacre site to the next, while garbage trucks drove around collecting corpses.

In response to the initial killings by the Hutu government, Tutsi rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, stationed in Kigali under the terms of the peace agreement signed the previous year, resumed their war against the Hutu regime.

The failure of the international community to intervene meant that the genocide was only brought to a halt, after 100 days of slaughter, by the advance of the Tutsi rebel army.

As the RPF advanced, a mass exodus took place as Hutus fled to neighbouring countries. By July, several million Hutu refugees, including many of those responsible for the killing, were massed in refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania.

The international community then finally sprang into action – by sending international aid to the perpetrators of the genocide.

The Passivity of the World’s Powers

The failure if the international community to intervene to stop the genocide has been a particular focus of attention since 1994. Severe criticism has been levelled in particular at the behaviour of the United Nations, the United States, and France.


The United Nations ignored clear warnings that preparations for genocide were under-way and withdrew most of its forces when the killings began. On April 21, amid press reports of some 100,000 dead in Rwanda, the Security Council voted to slash UN forces to 270 men. Most of the U.N. troops were evacuated by April 25 – abandoning many Rwandans who had sought shelter from U.N. forces to their certain deaths.

The U.N. then ordered its remaining forces not to intervene when genocide was under-way, and spearheaded a relief operation for the killers in the refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania when the genocide was over.

Rwanda was a member of the U.N. Security Council at the time of the genocide. As the killings unfolded, none of the other member states even suggested expelling Rwanda from the Security Council.

Rwandan Genocide - Disorderedworld

photo credit: John & Mel Kots via photopin cc


The current US Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, is herself a severe critic of the behaviour of the United States during the Rwandan genocide.

‘The United States did much more than fail to send troops.’ Power writes, ‘It led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers already in Rwanda and refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the genocide.’

The Clinton administration’s unwillingness to intervene stemmed largely from the so-called Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia the previous year. In October 1993, Somali militia killed eighteen Americans, wounded seventy-three, and captured one Black Hawk helicopter pilot. Somali television broadcast a video interview with the terrified pilot and showed pictures of the corpse of a U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. In response, Clinton promptly announced that all U.S. forces would leave Somalia within six months.

Clinton’s determination not to become embroiled in further peacekeeping operations shaped his response to Rwanda. American leadership was not absent though, Power argues, ‘it was present regarding Rwanda, but devoted mainly to suppressing public outrage and thwarting UN initiatives so as to avoid acting.’


France’s behaviour was even more appalling. France armed Rwanda’s murderous regime, sent soldiers to support it as the genocide was unfolding, and accepted some of its leading perpetrators as “refugees” after the killing stopped.

Throughout the genocide, French officials adopted the position of the Rwandan government that the killings were not the result of a planned campaign of extermination, but rather the result of mass popular outrage at the murder of President Habyarimana.

In mid-June, when most Tutsis were already dead, France sent soldiers to Rwanda under the guise of a U.N. humanitarian mission. French soldiers arrived in Rwanda believing that they had come to protect victims. Welcomed by cheering mobs of interahamwe, they soon realized that they were, in fact, protecting killers.

On June 16, the Hutu Power President Bagosora and most of his cabinet fled into the French controlled area of the country. Despite French promises to arrest them, they were allowed to flee Rwanda.

Even France’s own ex-President Valery Gisgard d’Estaing accused his country of ‘protecting some of those who had carried out the massacres.[1]

Never Again?

Philip Gourevitch describes visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. in May 1994. Waiting in the line for tickets, he studied the front page newspaper image of countless bloated bodies clogging an African stream – the corpses of genocide victims in Rwanda. He then noticed the buttons on the blazers of the Museum attendants, which bore the slogans ‘Remember’ and ‘Never Again’.

The Holocaust Museum had been opened a year earlier by President Bill Clinton. In the opening ceremony, Gourevitch recalled, Clinton had described it as ‘an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lurks ahead.[2]

That insanity threatens us still.

[1] Philip Gourevitch, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Picador, 2000, p157

[2] Philip Gourevitch, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Picador, 2000, p152


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