By Eden Allegretti
From April of 1994 to July of 1994, the genocide in Rwanda resulted in the deaths of almost 1,000,000 Tutsi people and displaced millions more. Instead of taking the initiative to put an end to the brutality, the international community ignored the crisis. While the United States created a multitude of excuses regarding the lack of intervention, President Bill Clinton admitted, “If we’d gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost.” The genocide was distorted and incompletely portrayed by the international community for months due to a lack of interest in the country of Rwanda. Even today, large governments choose not to intervene in circumstances of human rights violations when those countries are not part of the Western world. If the international community had offered more assistance to the people in Rwanda instead of solely regarding their own national interests, the genocide’s effects could have been minimized or even prevented.
Rwanda has been known for its ethnic conflict between the Tutsis and Hutus, but prior to colonialism the two groups lived together peacefully and instead of the terms “Tutsi” and “Hutu” having an ethnic connotation, they were terms that merely identified social roles. This was until German and Belgian colonists took over and constructed racial hierarchies that allowed the Tutsi population to dominate the country and abuse their constructed racial superiority. In 1959, the Hutus led a violent coup that overthrew the Tutsi government. Many Tutsis fled to surrounding countries, where they formed a rebel group known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). This ethnic tension rose until October 1, 1990, when the RPF invaded Rwanda to take back the country and allow the scattered Tutsi population to return. The resulting violence continued until 1993, when the U.N. and Organization of African Unity finally intervened with the construction of the Arusha Accords. The Arusha Accords were a U.N. sponsored peace treaty between the RPF and the Hutu Government of Rwanda (GOR) that was signed on August 4, 1993 and technically ended the civil war. However, on April 6, 1994, President Habyarimana of the Republic of Rwanda was killed when his plane was shot down. Blame was tossed between the RPF and the Hutus, fueling Hutu extremists that were dissatisfied with the Arusha Accords and wanted to take hold of the government to execute their plan of a genocide that would exterminate the Tutsi population.
The genocide started with the mass murders of moderate Hutu government officials that posed a threat to the genocide, such as Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana who was murdered in her home while her children sat hiding in a closet. Within the next two weeks 100,000 Tutsi people were brutally murdered. The Interahamwe and the Impuzamugambi were two of the major militia groups that worked to exterminate the Tutsis and were mostly made up of Hutu civilians that complied due to overwhelming peer pressure and propaganda. Many of these civilians were children that were given the choice to join the militia or be killed. The Nyarubuye Church massacre is an infamous example of the horror of the genocide, in which over 5,000 Tutsi people crowded into the Nyarubuye church. Valentina Iribagiza, twelve at the time and the only survivor of the massacre said, “They started killing, hacking with their machetes. They kept doing it, and I was hiding under dead people. They didn’t kill me, because of the blood covering me, they thought they had killed me.” While this was one of the biggest massacres during the genocide, the militias carried out most other killings in the same fashion.
Although the major international actors knew that the genocide was occurring, they chose to ignore it and instead labeled it as a civil war so they would not need to intervene as outlined by the 1948 Genocide Convention. Additionally, the United States had just staged an intervention in Somalia that went horribly wrong when eighteen U.S. soldiers were publicly beaten and killed in the “Black Hawk Down” incident. This national tragedy and the lack of economic and national interests in Rwanda became the excuses made by the United States as to why they did not intervene. Furthermore, the international media did not highlight the crisis in Rwanda, but instead focused on the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela. Both Europe and South Africa were white by majority at the time, leading to the media to orient the news around similar demographics as they believed their viewers would not connect and sympathize as much with the African country of Rwanda. Because of the media’s limited coverage in Rwanda, the international community claimed they did not know the scope of the genocide, but almost all the embassies in Rwanda were quickly evacuated which demonstrates that western did in fact understand the severity of the crisis. The only international response to the genocide was that of the peacekeeping mission, UNAMIR (United Nation Assistance Mission for Rwanda), which started in October 1993 to help implement the Arusha Accords and remained in Rwanda until March 1996. UNAMIR did not effectively end the genocide due to a lack of troops as Belgium was the only country to contribute a significant amount of aid and soldiers. Because of this, they could only focus on assisting and rescuing the thousands of displaced refugees and survivors.
The genocide ended in July 1994 when the RPF overthrew the Hutu government and appointed Paul Kagame, the leader of the RPF, as president. While the international community passively observed the genocide, 10% of the Rwandan population was brutally murdered in only 100 days, not to mention the millions more that were displaced and otherwise affected. While the Hutu extremists are clearly to blame, one cannot forget the silence of the international community. Today, we can draw comparisons from Rwanda to the Myanmar crisis. The Rohingya people are being “cleansed” from the country by their fellow Myanmar citizens. This crisis closely resembles that of Rwanda, as there has been no international response to the conflict. In attempting to fully understand the history of these events, it becomes clear that in the case of the Rwandan genocide, what was desperately needed was an intervention by the international community. We must remember our responsibility as members of the international community to speak up and take action during such catastrophic human rights violations. The reverberations of the genocide are still felt in the country today, as there will always be a generation of Tutsis silenced by the horrendous genocide that plagued Rwanda.