Country Briefing

In 1994, Rwanda suffered, perhaps, the most egregious genocide since The Holocaust. The genocide began immediately after the suspicious deaths of moderate President Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira in a plane crash in Kigali.

The ensuing massacres appeared well-planned by the Rwandan government. Thousands of  imported machetes were distributed, and death lists were broadcast by radio. A small United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda fled as the killings spread, while Tutsi rebels (the RPF) counter-attacked. The international community and the United Nations were impotent to intervene to halt the wide-scale genocide.

The story of the Rwandan genocide has been portrayed in the gut-wrenching and highly-acclaimed movie Hotel Rwanda.


Tutsi cattle breeders began arriving in the area from the Horn of Africa in the 15th century and gradually subjugated the native Hutu inhabitants. The Tutsis established a monarchy headed by a mwami (king) and a feudal hierarchy of Tutsi nobles and gentry.
Through a contract known as ubuhake, the Hutu farmers pledged their services and those of their descendants to a Tutsi lord in return for the loan of cattle and use of pastures and arable land. Thus, the Tutsi reduced the Hutu to virtual serfdom.

In the late 1880's the "White Fathers" began to arrive. In 1899, the mwami (king) submitted to a German protectorate without resistance. Belgian troops from Zaire expelled the Germans In 915 and took control of the country.

After World War I, the League of Nations mandated Rwanda and its southern neighbor, Burundi, to Belgium. Following World War II, Ruanda-Urundi became a UN Trust Territory with Belgium as the administrative authority.

Reforms instituted by the Belgians in the 1950s encouraged the growth of democratic political institutions but were resisted by the Tutsi traditionalists who saw in them a threat to Tutsi rule.

An increasingly restive Hutu population, encouraged by the Belgian military, sparked a revolt in November 1959, resulting in the overthrow of the Tutsi monarchy.
Two years later, the Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement (PARMEHUTU) won an overwhelming victory in a UN-supervised referendum.

Over the next several years, thousands of Tutsis were killed, and some 150,000 driven into exile in neighboring countries. The children of these exiles later formed a rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and began a civil war in 1990.

During the 1959 revolt and its aftermath, more than 160,000 Tutsis fled to neighboring countries. The PARMEHUTU government was granted internal autonomy by Belgium on January 1, 1962 and in July the UN recognized full independence of both Rwanda and Burundi.

Gregoire Kayibanda, leader of the PARMEHUTU Party, became Rwanda's first elected president. Despite the a degree of progress inefficiency and corruption undermined the country in the 1960s.

Rwandans went to the polls in December 1978, overwhelmingly endorsed a new constitution, and confirmed President Habyarimana as president. President Habyarimana was re-elected in 1983 and again in 1988, when he was the sole candidate.
President Habyarimana announced in July 1990 his intention to transform Rwanda's one-party state into a multi-party democracy.

On October 1, 1990, Rwandan exiles formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and invaded Rwanda from their base in Uganda. The rebel force, composed primarily of ethnic Tutsis, blamed the government for failing to democratize and resolve the problems of some 500,000 Tutsi refugees living in diaspora around the world.

The war dragged on for almost 2 years until a cease-fire accord was signed July 12, 1992. Political talks began August 10, 1992.

On April 6, 1994, the airplane carrying President Habyarimana and the President of Burundi was shot down as it prepared to land at Kigali. Both presidents were killed.

As though the shooting down was a signal, military and militia groups began rounding up and killing all Tutsis and political moderates, regardless of their ethnic background.

The prime minister and her 10 Belgian bodyguards were among the first victims. The killing swiftly spread from Kigali to all corners of the country; between April 6 and the beginning of July, a genocide of unprecedented swiftness left up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead at the hands of organized bands of militia--Interahamwe.

The government-sponsored radio called on citizens to kill their neighbors, calling them "cockroaches." The MRND Party Inspired and orchestrated the genocide.

The RPF invasion continued and civil war raged concurrently with the genocide for 2 months.

French forces landed in Goma, Zaire, in June 1994 on a humanitarian mission. They deployed throughout southwest Rwanda in an area they called "Zone Turquoise," quelling the genocide and stopping the fighting there.

The Rwandan Army was quickly defeated by the RPF and fled across the borders neighboring states along with as many as 2 million refugees.

The RPF took Kigali on July 4, 1994, and the war ended on July 16, 1994. The RPF took control of a country ravaged by war and genocide. Up to 800,000 had been murdered, another 2 million or so had fled, and another million or so were displaced internally.
The international community launched a large, If belated, humanitarian relief effort. The UN peacekeeping operation, UNAMIR, whichh had been rendered Impotent during the fighting was reinforced after the RPF victory and remained until March 8, 1996.

Following an uprising by the ethnic Tutsis in eastern Zaire in October 1996, a more than 600,000 refugees trekked back to Rwanda in November. Anotherr 500,000 refugees returned from Tanzania In December 1996. 

In 2001, the government began implementation of a grassroots village-level justice system, known as gacaca, in order to address the enormous backlog of cases.
With the July 2005 release of 36,000 individuals detained for genocide charges, over 40,000 individuals remain in the prison system and are scheduled to face the traditional court system. Those released and others facing lesser charges from the genocide await trial under the gacaca system.

The victorious RPF organized a coalition government In 1994 and the MRND Party was outlawed.

On May 26, 2003, Rwanda adopted a new constitution and held open elections in August. Paul Kagame was elected to a 7-year term.

Although most of the refugees have returned to Rwanda, about 10,000 remain in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo and have formed an extremist insurgency bent on retaking Rwanda.

Kigali's increasing centralization and intolerance of dissent, the nagging Hutu extremist insurgency across the border, and Rwandan involvement in two wars in recent years in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to hinder Rwanda's efforts to escape its bloody legacy.

Tutsi, Hutu, Hema, Lendu, and other conflicting ethnic groups, associated political rebels, armed gangs, and various government forces continue fighting in Great Lakes region with violence spilling into neighboring countries that are also unstable.




Area: 26,340 sq km
Population: 9,442,000

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Nightline 1994
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