In Depth

Rwandan genocide 25 years on: what happened?

As many as one million people from the Tutsi ethnic group were brutally slaughtered over the course of just 100 days in 1994

Twenty-five years ago this week, a simmering ethno-political dispute in the central African nation of Rwanda reached a flashpoint after decades of tension, marking the start of what is now known as the Rwandan genocide.

In just 100 brutal days, between 800,000 and one million Tutsi people were slaughtered at the hands of their Hutu neighbours in a devastating genocide sanctioned by the Hutu-majority government.

Up to 70% of the Tutsi population was wiped out by the killings. Most occurred within the first weeks of the genocide, in April 1994 - a period The Guardian calls “the most momentous month in Africa's post-independence history”.

The international community was left dumbfounded by not just the scale of the genocide, but the brutality of the killings, the majority committed by machete - a ubiquitous tool in Rwandan households. Signs of extreme torture before executions were also common.

Action on Armed Violence reports that 200,000 women were raped and “left to live with the legacies including unwanted pregnancy, HIV and Aids”.

However, despite press around the world covering the conflict, the role of international peacekeepers in the genocide remains a highly controversial topic. The United Nations has been heavily criticised for “stepping back and allowing it to happen”, NPR says, calling it a “notorious episode of abandonment”.

By the time the dust settled, as well as the hundreds of thousands who were killed, a further two million Tutsis and Hutus had been displaced.

The tragedy remains an open wound from which Rwanda has struggled to recover. “The immensity of this tragedy sears in our minds,” anti-genocide charity The Sentinel Project says, adding: “We must move beyond scale and statistics, and grasp that each life lost represents a family, a community, a nation changed forever.”

A quarter of a century on from one of the largest genocides since the Second World War, we take a look what happened in Rwanda in 1994.

How did it start?

The roots of the ethnic conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis can be traced back to colonial rule. The Belgian occupiers openly favoured the minority Tutsis over the Hutus, placing them in positions of power.

This caused resentment to fester and played a role in the so-called Hutu Peasant Revolution in 1959, which forced hundreds of thousands of Tutsis into exile and handed political control to the majority Hutus.

On 6 April 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down, resulting in his death. The Hutu government claimed that the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) was behind the attack, while others accused Hutu extremists of attempting to thwart an imminent peace deal.

The Huti armed forces used the president’s death as an excuse to attempt to eliminate the Tutsis. Within an hour of the plane crash, government soldiers, alongside the infamous Interahamwe Hutu militia, began their horrifying campaign.

What happened?

The killings began in the capital but quickly spread across the country, with militiamen on radio stations encouraging Hutu civilians to rise up and “weed out the cockroaches”.

Roadblocks were set up by militias, and Hutu citizens armed with machetes went from village to village, door to door, torturing and murdering Tutsi men, women and children.

Neighbours killed neighbours, and husbands were forced to kill their Tutsi wives, the BBC says. “Even priests and nuns have been convicted of killing people, including some who sought shelter in churches,” the news site reports.

Meanwhile, the RPF continued fighting the Hutu army and militias, and slowly began taking back control of parts of the country.

Within just 100 days of conflict, upwards of 800,000 Tutsis were murdered.

Some 100,000 Hutus were also killed, some by the RPF, others by fellow Hutus for protecting or sympathising with the Tutsis.

How did it end?

The RPF, backed by the Ugandan army, finally regained control of the country in early July, bringing an end to the mass killings. The Hutu government and militias fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire), along with two million Hutu civilians. 

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established in Tanzania that November, with trials against those responsible for the genocide beginning the following year. Many of them, however, remain at large in the DRC.

Did anyone help the Tutsis?

The international community has been widely condemned for not stepping in to stop the slaughter.

“Unlike earlier mass killings, such as the Holocaust, the international community had advance evidence of the coming genocide,” says Vox.

The UN was warned by one of its generals in January 1994 that Hutus were planning a massacre, the website says.

“Once it launched, they had evidence of where it was going, and still did nothing,” Vox adds. “The United States actively discouraged the UN Security Council from authorising a more robust deployment.”

Four years after the genocide, US President Bill Clinton and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan both apologised to the victims for not attempting to prevent the atrocities that took place.

The international community “must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy”, Clinton said. “We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.”

Speaking to the Rwandan Parliament, Annan said: “We will not deny that, in their greatest hour of need, the world failed the people of Rwanda.”

Black Earth Rising continues on BBC Two at 9pm on 17 September

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