The Rwanda genocide was perpetrated between April and July 1994 and resulted in the intentional murder of over 500,000 Rwandan Tutsi, in addition to the murder of an estimated 25,000 – 45,000 Hutu. The genocide occurred in the context of a political transition from the decades-long single party rule of Juvenal Habyarimana to multi-party democracy. The transition was begun under pressure from opposition political parties of various orientation[i], an economic crisis, an armed conflict, and international actors.
Since Rwandan independence from Belgium in 1962, the Rwanda government had targeted ethnic Tutsi during various periods of violence: 1959–1961, and at several points between 1962 and 1967. With each wave of violence, Tutsi fled to neighboring Uganda. Key members of the Rwandan exile community, including Fred Rwigyema and Paul Kagame, who had played important roles in the insurgency that brought Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni to power, created the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1987. Despite a regional agreement to settle the refugee issue (brokered in August 1990), the RPF invaded Rwanda on October 1, 1990 with the intention of seizing control of the Rwandan government. This was the start of a cross-border armed conflict between the RPF and Rwandan Armed Forces. Over the course of the conflict, the Rwandan government carried out small-scale, retaliatory massacres of Tutsi civilians at several junctures. At times virulently anti-Tutsi propaganda aired on the radio and in the press.
In 1993, the Rwandan government and RPF signed the internationally mediated Arusha Accords which included multiple measures intended to end the conflict, allow refugee returns, and establish a multiparty political process. It also granted the RPF a prominent role in Rwanda’s government and military. Hutu hardliners resented this development, a resentment that only grew following mass violence in neighboring Burundi. On October 23, 1993, Burundi, which shares similar ethnic composition to Rwanda saw its first Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye, assassinated by the Tutsi-dominated army. Looking across the border, some Hutu in Rwanda interpreted the political violence as proof that power-sharing between Hutus and Tutsi was untenable. Nonetheless, in Rwanda, the transition outlined in the Arusha Accords haltingly moved forward, with the government resisting many of the changes.
On April 6, 1994, Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, and other officials including, Burundian President Cyprien Ntaramiyira, were killed when their plane, returning from yet another round of discussions with international mediators, was shot down. Following the plane crash, the RPF immediately began a large-scale offensive to defeat the government.
And inside Rwanda, the assassinations of the two Hutu presidents triggered mass killings in Rwanda that occurred in roughly four phases[ii]: (1) in the first days, assailants sought out and murdered targeted individuals from the political opposition and human rights activists; (2) subsequently, Tutsis were driven into public sites, like churches and municipal buildings, where they were massacred in large-scale operations; (3) towards the end of April, the interim government, which had taken control after Habyarimana’s death, initiated a campaign of “pacification” to gain more control over the violence and rein in militias acting independently; and (4) in mid-May, militias tracked down surviving Tutsis.
Scott Straus argues that killing occurred in four main locations:
1) at central congregation points such as churches, schools, and government buildings; (2) at roadblocks; (3) during house-to-house searches; and (4) during searches through cultivated fields, wooded zones, and marshes (I base this assertion on my own field research in Rwanda). Most massacres (large-scale killings at one time and place) occurred at the central congregation points.[iii]
In addition to systematic killing, assailants raped, tortured and stole from their victims. Hutu who resisted recruitment to engage in violence often found themselves targeted for death. The military and highly centralized state administrative apparatus were put in service of the genocide. In addition to the army and militias, an estimated 175,000-210,000 Hutu civilians participated in the killings through militias and loosely organized groups.[iv] Some were willing to kill or attracted by incentives such as land and plunder, while others were coerced by death threats.
As discussed in depth by Alison des Forges in her monumental report on the genocide, Leave None to Tell the Story, at least 500,000 Tutsi, representing 77% of the Tutsi population in Rwanda in 1994, were killed in the hundred days of the genocide[v]. The RPF is estimated to have killed between 25,000 and 45,000 from April to August, 1994.[vi] The overwhelming numbers of civilian killed were Tutsi targeted by forces associated with the Rwanda government.
We note, however, that there is evidence that up to 5,000 civilians were killed in 1995, although killings this year did not rise to the 50,000 threshold to constitute a new episode. Several dynamics can be seen. The single largest incident came when the post-genocide government of the RPF violently closed a displaced persons camp, Kibeho, killing an estimated 4,000 people.[vii] Other contexts include cross-border incursions from Zaire into Rwanda by forces associated with the remnants of the genocidal Rwandan government, including militias who helped perpetrate the 1994 genocide and targeted genocide survivors. Further killings occurred during the Rwandan government’s response to these incursions and other efforts to consolidate their control.[viii] This pattern of violence continued through 1998, but it is unlikely to have exceeded 5,000 civilian deaths a year beyond 1995.
The genocide ended when the RPF captured Kigali in July 1994. However, the RPF military strategy, which allowed them to first advance through weaker regions, then build pressure on the capital and the northwest, may have offered the best chance for military victory—but this was not necessarily the most expedient plan for ending the genocide. [ix] This case is related to violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
We code the case as ending through the defeat of the genocide’s perpetrators by domestic rebels. We further code this as mass popular violence, given the role of the population in addition to state armed groups in the killing campaign.
African Rights. 1999. “ Rwanda: African Rights briefing paper on northwest” January. Available at: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Hornet/irin_13099.html Accessed January 6, 2017.
des Forges, Alison. 1999. Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda. New York: Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch. 1996. “World Report.” New York: Human Rights Watch. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/reports/1996/WR96/Africa-08.htm#P599_141723
Jordan, Paul. 2003. “Witness to Genocide—A Personal Account of the 1995 Kibeho Massacre.” Australian Army Journal. 1:1, 127 – 136. Also available: https://anzacday.org.au/witness-to-genocide-a-personal-account-of-the-1995-kibeho-massacre Accessed January 6, 2017.
Lemarchand, René. 2009. “The 1994 Rwanda Genocide.” In Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts. 3rd edition. Edited by Samuel Totten and William Parsons, 483-504. New York: Routledge.
Reed, Wm. Cyrus. 1995. “The Rwandan Patriotic Front: Politics and Development in Rwanda.” Issue: A Journal of Opinion 23 (2):48-53.
Straus, Scott. 2006. The Order of Genocide: Race, Power and War in Rwanda. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Thompson, Allan, editor. 2007. The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre. http://web.idrc.ca/openebooks/338-0/
[i] Lemarchand 2009, 487-488.
[ii] des Forges 1999, 9 – 10
[iii] Straus 2004, 88.
[iv] Straus 2004, 93.
[v] Des Forges 1999, 15.
[vi] Des Forges 1999, 16.
[vii] Jordan 2003.
[viii] Human Rights Watch 1996.
[ix] Des Forges 1999, 23 and 698-9.