Trigger Warning: Sexual assault
The Rwandan Genocide is one of the most gruesome and little-known genocides in recent memory. It began on April 6, 1994 after the airplane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down. After the airplane was struck down, all hell broke loose as the RTLM (a Hutu propagandic radio station) instructed the Hutus, an ethnic minority in Rwanda, to attack and kill the “tall trees” or “cockroaches”, degrading names for the ethnic majority, the Tutsi, in Rwanda. It is very important that we remember the Rwandan Genocide as we find ourselves in the middle of the nation’s 100 days, where the genocide is commemorated from April 6 to July 15. To remember is to prevent, and to forget is to be compliant.
Photo: Faustin Tuyambaze on Unsplash
The Hutus and Tutsi lived peacefully until they were colonized by the Belgians in 1916. The two tribes living peacefully were given titles and roles, declaring the Hutus to be those who worked in the fields and did more physical labor. The Tutsi did the less physically hard work, like establishing a small government. These roles, especially since the new work done by the Tutsis generated more money, created a rift and stereotypes between the two once-peaceful groups. Both groups, since 1916, were constantly battling each other. 1994 in Rwanda found the two groups very much at odds, and when the Hutu president and vice president were shot down, the Hutus blamed the Tutsis and started attacking with machetes. These attacks were premeditated, because there were thousands of machetes shipped to Rwanda from all over the world in advance.
During the 100 days of the genocide, over 800,000 Tutsi were murdered. At the height of the killing, one could walk across the miles long Kagera River, using bodies as stepping stones that were dumped in the river. So many bodies were dumped into the river that fishing in Lake Victoria, a large river in Uganda that the Kagera River empties into, only resumed in 2013 due to the acute health risks that the bodies created. The RTLM was a Hutu propaganda radio that encouraged people to murder their neighbors and steal their belongings because they were “cockroaches” or “tall trees”, again, code. The United Nations (UN) found themselves in a difficult spot when they did not listen to UN member Lieutenant Romeo Dallaire who expressed concern for the possibility of violence breaking out. Dallaire was the last UN employee on the ground and stayed in Rwanda initially, as he was trying to save as many people as possible. He was not the only one trying to save lives; there were quite a few Hutus who successfully saved Tutsi lives. Two million people were externally displaced refugees trying to flee from violence with nowhere to call home.
Killing by machete was not the only method of destruction during this genocide: rape and the spread of HIV/AIDs was also something Hutu leaders and the RTLM encouraged. The death toll of the Rwandan Genocide is not yet finalized because of the amount of people who contracted HIV/AIDs during the genocide and are dying from it. The genocide ended when Tutsi rebels overthrew the Hutu government. After the genocide, the nation needed to rebuild itself after the literal and figurative scars left by the genocide. The people that survived could not trust their neighbors, return home, or even enjoy places like church, because those sanctuaries of safety were where many Tutsi met their untimely deaths.
President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, was voted into office and declared an end to the titles “Hutu” and “Tutsi”; everyone is Rwandan. He, along with other international groups, like the UN, found a way to help the Rwandans heal from the genocide: gachacha courts. A traditional localized form of retributive justice that literally translates to “on the grass” helped Tutsi survivors confront their families’ killers, rapists, and attackers, helped to clear out the Rwandan prisons that were vastly overpopulated, and allowed for the citizens to almost feel a sense of healing.
Rwanda has made a lot of positive steps since the genocide. Strides in environmental justice, government, local economy, and infrastructure have been made. However, there is a sense of foreshadowing in Rwanda: President Kagame voted himself “president for life”, Hutu refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are rearming in an attempt to “take back” Rwanda, and there are still pockets of violence breaking out in Rwanda and the nations surrounding it (Uganda and Burundi especially). During this year’s 100 Day commemoration of the Rwandan Genocide, it is especially important that we remember. We must honor those who lost their lives and, in turn, work to prevent the possibility of more violence.
Elizabeth Coleman is a passionate writer from Massachusetts. She is twenty three years old and is currently working on her MS from Nova Southeastern University in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. She graduated last year from Keene State College with two BAs, one in Holocaust and Genocide Studies with a minor in history and the other in Criminal Justice Studies. Elizabeth loves to read, but her all time favorite book would have to be "To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. In five years, Elizabeth hopes to be investigating extremism and hate groups in the United States. Elizabeth steps up for justice, equality, and making the world a bit better for everyone.