Ethnic Tensions in Rwanda
Rwanda, a small country in east-central Africa, had one of the highest population densities in Africa by the early 1990s. Approximately 85% of its population is Hutu; the rest is Tutsi, along with a small number of Twa, a Pygmy group who were the first inhabitants of Rwanda. Rwanda’s colonial period, during which the ruling Belgians favoured the Tutsis over the Hutus, aggravated the tendency of the few to oppress the many, generating a legacy of tension that erupted into violence even before Rwanda gained its independence. As many as 300,000 Tutsis were forced to flee the country after a Hutu revolution in 1959, making them an even smaller minority. Victorious Hutus had forced Rwanda’s Tutsi monarch into exile by early 1961, and declared the country a republic. Belgium officially granted Rwanda its independence in July 1962, after a U.N referendum in 1961.
Ethnically motivated violence continued for years after independence. In 1973, Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu, was installed in power by a military group. The only leader of the Rwandan government for the next twenty years, Habyarimana founded a new political party, the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (NRMD). He was elected president and then reelected in 1983 and 1988. Forces from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), comprising mainly of Tutsi refugees, invaded Rwanda from Uganda in 1990. In August 1993, Habyarimana signed an agreement calling for the creation of a transition government that would include the RPF. Hutu extremists were angered by this power sharing agreement and would soon take rapid and terrible action to prevent it.
In 1994, on April 6, a plane carrying Habyarimana and the president of Burundi Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down over Kigali, leaving no one alive. Within an hour of the plane crash, the Presidential Guard as well as members of the Rwandan armed forces (FAR) and Hutu militia groups known as the Impuzamugambi and Interahamwe set up barricades and road blocks and started slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus with impunity. One of the first victims of the Rwandan genocide was the moderate Hutu Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana as well as her 10 Belgian bodyguards, killed on April 7. This violence resulted in a political vacuum, into which an interim government of extremist Hutu Power leaders from the military high command stepped on April 9.
The mass killings in Rwanda rapidly spread from Kigali to the rest of the country, with about 800,000 people slaughtered over the following three months. During this time, government-sponsored radio stations and local officials called on ordinary Rwandan civilians to kill their neighbours. At the same time, the RPF resumed fighting, and civil war raged alongside the Rwandan genocide. RPF forces had gained control over most of Rwanda, including Kigali, by early July. Consequently, over 2 million people, almost all of them Hutus, fled Rwanda.
The international community mainly remained on the sidelines during the Rwandan genocide. In April 1994 a U.N Security Council vote led to the withdrawal of most of a U.N peacekeeping operation. As reports of the Rwandan genocide spread, in mid-May the Security Council voted to supply a more robust force, including over 5,000 troops. However, by the time that force arrived in full, the Rwandan genocide had been over for months.
In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, several prominent figures in the international community lamented the outside world’s general obliviousness to the situation and its failure to respond in order to prevent the atrocities from taking place. In 1995, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda started indicting and trying a number of high-ranking people for their role in the Rwandan genocide; but the process was made hard because the whereabouts of several suspects were unknown. Over the next decade and a half, the trials continued, including the 2008 conviction of three former senior Rwandan senior Rwandan military and defense officials for organizing the Rwandan genocide.