The Rwanda Genocide

7 min 21Approximate reading time


Worrying, alarming, explosive…those were the kind of words used by analysts to describe the political situation in Rwanda before April 6, 1994.

However, despite repeated alarm signals, including a coded message sent by the commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR), General Romeo Dallaire in January 1994 suggesting the possibility of an outbreak of large-scale violence, no one would have imagined the extent of the catastrophe.

Questioned later by a Swiss daily, “Le Temps”, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, then in charge of peace keeping operations in the world, answered that “people are usually more lucid after an event”.

In the beginning there was war

In 1959, during the political troubles that broke out in the wake of independence, tens of thousands of Rwandans of Tutsi origin fled to neighbouring Uganda because of ethnic violence. For the next 35 years, the Hutu majority took over power.

On October 1, 1990, Tutsi rebels of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), made up mainly of second-generation Rwandan exiles in Uganda, launched an attack from their bases in Uganda against the authoritarian regime of Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, who had been in power since 1973.

With the looming threat from the outside and the internal opposition growing stronger, the regime tightened its grip. Over 10,000 “internal” Tutsis and Hutus suspected to be in cahoots with the attackers were arrested following a non-existent attack against Kigali.

Once they were released, they made up the core elements of opposition political parties that were authorised to operate in June 1991, following the Franco-African summit held in La Baule where French president François Mitterrand had conditioned economic aide to political reforms.

A combination of factors

Multi-party politics saw the day in the shadows of a civil war. While the belligerents were trying to consolidate their positions, political parties were struggling to get a foothold into the government. Habyarimana had to bow to combined pressures from the streets and donors.

This opening up of the political spectrum made it possible to hold direct negotiations with the rebellion and its political wing, the RPF. The talks were tedious and difficult, sometimes completely interrupted as, for instance, when massacres of Tutsis broke up in Gisenyi (north-west) in December 1992 and January 1993. The massacres brought to mind those that happened in Bugesera in March 1992 and of the Bagogwe (Ruhengeri-Gisenyi) in January 1991.

The massacres propelled the RPF to mount a “punitive expedition” in February 1993 that brought it to the gates of Kigali, itself having committed its own massacres on the way. Over one million people were displaced.

On the other hand, political parties continued with their attempts at taking a firm hold of the political landscape in the country, sometimes resorting to violent methods. One phenomenon of the time was the custom of “Kubohoza” (liberate) whereby politicians forcefully recruited members into their fold in a bid to chase away or destabilise local authorities (prefects, mayors and municipal counsellors) who did not support them.

That is when the party “youth wings” were transformed into self defence militia. The former ruling party’s (MRND) militia, the Interahamwe and that of the radical anti-Tutsi party, CDR, Impuzamugambi, spear-headed the genocide in 1994.

The same time saw the birth of partisan press that later evolved into “hate media” On the eve of the genocide, “virulence” directed against Tutsis and members of the opposition spewed by Kangura newspaper and Radio télévision libre de mille collines (RTLM) reached its apex.

Peace accords squeezed out of rivals

In August 1993, a peace accord was struck, with some difficulty, in Arusha between the government of Rwanda and the RPF. It called for the establishment of a “broad-based” government and the integration of the rebels into the ranks of the regular army.

The UN sent a contingent of 2,500 men of the UNAMIR to supervise the application of the accords. The arrival of the UN mission coincided with the military coup d’Etat of October 21, 1993 in neighbouring Burundi in which the country’s democratically elected president was killed.

“The assassination of the Burundi president was the right kind of tragedy useful to anti-Tutsi propagandists in furthering their aims”, wrote the historian and human rights activist, Alison Des Forges.

The events were largely exploited by the RTLM which had been on air for three months. The station even broadcast warlike songs, even though they were prohibited by the Arusha accords.

During the same period, rich businessman and member of one of the largest opposition party, the Mouvement Democratique Républicain (MDR) Frodouald Karamira, organized a political rally in Kigali where he coined the word “Hutu Power” which help radicalize a chunk of the political organizations. Most of the parties were divided in two factions: The extremists (“Power”) and the moderates (“Amajyojyi”), who tussled for supremacy.

This delayed putting in place the government and the transitional parliament as ascribed in the peace accords, as most parties presented two different lists each of their proposed candidates.

Habyarimana was sworn in January 5 as the president of the republic in the spirit of the Arusha Accords, but the installation of the government and parliament never was, as political deadlock caused by both the regime and the RPF set in.

Tensions hit an all time high on February 21 when the charismatic leader of the opposition and minister of public works, Felicien Gatabazi, was assassinated on his doorstep in Kigali. In retaliation, the president of CDR, Martin Bucyana, was lynched by an angry mob the next day in Butare (south), the home town of Gatabazi. More violence broke out, especially in Kigali and Bucyana’s hometown, Cyangugu (south-west).

Civil war, the forming of militias, rise in extremism, anti-Tutsi propaganda in some media… all the ingredients are ready to trigger off the “apocalypse”.


April 6, 1994, 18:25 GMT - The French-made Falcon 50 jet coming from Tanzania is shot down as it approaches Kigali airport. On board is Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira and several aides who participated in sub-regional negociations in connection with the implementation of the Arusha peace Accord.

A few hours later, soldiers of the presidential guards, Para-commando and reconnaissance battalions, and Interahamwe militia set up road-blocks around Kigali. Reports of political assassinations start filtering in.

April 7 – The Prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, the president of the constitutional court, Joseph Kavaruganda, and several ministers from the opposition are murdered. Door-to-door hunting down and killing of Tutsis begin.

Ten Belgian blue helmets guarding the Prime minister are also killed.

Soldiers start killing Tutsi patients at Kigali’s main hospital (CHK).

Soldiers of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) break out from their headquarters at the National assembly complex (CND). Fierce fighting erupts between them and members of the presidential guards.

April 8 – Killings spread to other parts of the country. Many government authorities take refuge at the French embassy including ministers.

Hundreds massacred at St. André College in Nyamirambo, Kigali.

Meetings are held under the direction of the director of cabinet in the ministry of Defence, Colonel Theoneste Bagosora to fill the constitutional vacuum left by the death of the president. Some elements in the army oppose a military takeover and opt to form a new government

April 9 – An interim government is set up with the appointment of Theodore Sindikubwabo as President and Jean Kambada as Prime minister. The government is made up of only the ruling party, MRND, and extremist members of the opposition parties.

French forces under Operation Amaryllis, and Belgian soldiers (Operation Silverback) begin evacuation of foreign nationals. Habyarimana’s familiy is evacuated first to Bangui, Central African Republic and then to France.

April 12 – The government flees Kigali and moves its headquarters to Murambi in Gitarama (central Rwanda)

April 13 – Belgium decides to withdraw its troops from Rwanda leaving thousands of unprotected people who had taken refuge at a school (ETO) serving as their headquarters. Soldiers and Interahamwe attack the school. Thousands are killed, including the former minister of foreign affairs, Boniface Ngulinzira. The killings trigger the first attack by soldiers and militia on areas where large numbers of Tutsi refugees are concentrated.

April 14 – Mass killings at Kibeho (Gikongoro) hospital

April 15 – More massacres take place Nyarubuye (Kibungo) and Mubuga parish (Kibuye)

April 16 – Major killings take place in Mugonero (Kibuye) Parish.

April 18 – Tutsis who had taken refuge at Gatwaro stadium (Cyangugu) attacked, thousands killed.

April 20-22 – Soldiers and Interahamwe militia attack patients and refugees at Butare university hospital.

April 21 – The United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR) reduces its troops in Rwanda from 5,500 to 270.

April 27 – Pope John Paul II is the first to refer officially to the events in Rwanda as genocide.

April 28 – US reluctant to classify the killings in Rwanda as genocide. State department spokesperson, Christine Shelley says "...the use of the term 'genocide' has a very precise legal meaning, although it's not strictly a legal determination. There are other factors in there as well."

April 30 – First major humanitarian crisis: Over 250,000 refugees flee the RPF advance and cross into Tanzania in one day.

May 12 – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at last pronounces the word “genocide” to describe the killings in Rwanda.

May 13-14 - Muyira hill in Bisesero (Kibuye), one of the last strongholds of Tutsi refugees, can no longer resist attacks. A combined force of soldiers militia and the local population launch a massive attack, thousands killed.

Mid May – The international Red Cross estimates that 500,000 have been killed.

May 22 – RPF captures Kanombe international airport in Kigali.

May 27 – First massive “exchange of refugees” is organised by UNAMIR. Hundreds of Tutsis and Hutu members of the opposition holed up in the Hotel des Mille Collines are ferried towards RPF controlled zones, while Hutus caught up behind the RPF zone in Remera (Kigali), and wishing to join government-controlled areas are ferried from the Amahoro Stadium. The exchange takes place in the “no-man’s-land” at Kacyiru roundabout.

May 29 - Government flees further north and camps in Gisenyi, close to the Zairian border.

June 2 - Gitarama falls to the rebels. Three days later 12 religious officials, including 3 Hutu bishops who had stayed behind to protect Tutsi refugees, are killed by soldiers of the RPF.

June 16 – RPF launches a commando raid behind enemy lines to rescue refugees at St. Paul church in the centre of Kigali, hundreds rescued and taken behind RPF lines.

June 17- Refugees massacred at St. Famille church in retaliation of previous day’s raid on nearby St. Paul.

June 22 – UN Security Counsel approves France’s plan to send troops to Rwanda to create a humanitarian corridor under the “operation Turquoise”

June 28 – The United Nations publishes a report on the genocide of Tutsis.

July 4 – Kigali and Butare fall to the RPF, France declares Kibuye, Gikongoro and Cyangugu as humanitarian safe havens.

July 13 – Refugees start pouring in in Goma (former Zaire) in hundreds of thousands.

July 15 – The United States ceases to recognise the former Rwandan government

July 17 – The RPF captures Gisenyi and Ruhengeri and declares the end of the war.

United Nations Rwanda Emergency Office Liaison in Goma reports that over a million Rwandans have crossed into the then Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo)

July 19 – The new government of national unity is sworn in with Pasteur Bizimungu as president, Major General Paul Kagame as vice president, and Faustin Twagiramungu as Prime Minister.