On the evening of April 6, 1994, a surface-to-air missile shot down the plane carrying Rwanda’s president, Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, as it was landing in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. It is still not known who fired the missile, but the assassination was taken by extremist leaders of Rwanda’s Hutu majority as the signal to launch a carefully planned campaign to wipe out the country’s Tutsi minority, as well as moderate Hutu leaders who might oppose this program of genocide. Political and other high profile leaders who might have been able to take charge of the situation were killed immediately.
Under the cover of war, Hutu extremists launched their plans to destroy the entire Tutsi civilian population. Violence spread through the capital and into the rest of the country, and continued for roughly three months. As many as one million people, mostly Tutsis, were slaughtered in 100 days. Hutu militias, backed, trained and equipped by Rwandan government forces, were responsible for the majority of the killing.
As the level of violence became clear, groups of Tutsi—and Hutu who feared they might be targeted—fled to places that in previous times of turmoil had provided safety: churches, schools, and government buildings. Many of these refuges became the sites of major massacres. In addition to mass killings, thousands and thousands of Tutsis and people suspected of being Tutsis were killed in their homes and in the street, especially at roadblocks set up across the country by militias to prevent them from escaping. Entire families were killed at a time. Women were systematically and brutally raped. Sometimes, Tutsis were murdered or attacked by their neighbors.
The genocide ended when the Tutsi-dominated rebel movement, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), captured Kigali, overthrowing the Hutu government and seizing power.
Critical Thinking Questions
- Investigate the world and UN responses to the events in Rwanda.
- Why would the label of genocide be opposed or denied by other countries?
- How might citizens and officials within a nation identify and respond to warning signs of genocide or mass atrocity? What obstacles might be faced?
- How might other countries and international organizations respond to warning signs within a nation? What obstacles may exist?