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Remembering The Rwandan Genocide, 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago today, the widespread and deliberately-planned murder of hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda began. Today, the only thing that most people outside of Africa know about Rwanda-a small country in central-east Africa with a population of 12 million and a land area the size of Massachusetts-is that it had a genocide in the '90s. But even the facts of the genocide aren't well known and appreciated by most people.

In many ways, Rwanda's story is typical of that of post-colonial Africa. In the 19th century, when the great European powers were scrambling for control of territory in Africa (and its precious natural resources), the area that is now Rwanda was taken over by Germany. The two major ethnic groups of Rwanda are the Hutus (who make up about 85% of the population) and the Tutsis (15%). The two groups have had a tumultuous relationship for their entire history, with spurts of violence between the two a frequent occurrence. The Tutsis, despite being the minority group, have historically been viewed by other tribes and by the occupying European governments as the "racially superior" group. This created enormous esentment among the Hutus.

After its loss in World War I, Germany was forced to give up its rights to Rwanda, ceding control to Belgium. Belgium instituted a policy requiring every Rwandan citizen to carry paperwork identifying his or her ethnicity (Hutu or Tutsi), which further strengthened the country's racial and class divide. Missionary groups in Rwanda favored the Tutsis and helped teach them French, the country's business language, and a vital skill needed to rise out of poverty. Nationalism grew on both sides, and political parties and militia groups sprung from both groups, inciting violence against each other and ultimately leading to the Rwandan Civil War of the 1980s and early '90s.

A ceasefire in 1993 halted the violence, and for a year there was relative peace. This period came to an abrupt end when Hutu dictator Juvenal Habyarimana was assassinated, with the blame going to the Tutsis and the moderate Hutus who sided with them. In the time since the Civil War had ended, Hutu military leaders had prepared to fight Tutsis throughout the country, hoping to stop the "threat" of Tutsi violence. They even armed Hutu civilians and trained them to use weapons such as machetes to kill Tutsi and modern Hutu citizens. In the wake of Habyarimana's assassination the country was plunged into chaos, and the Hutu government leaders gave the order to begin the massacre.

Over the next 100 days, more than 800,000 people were killed, most of them hacked to death by machetes. These executions were carried out not by military personnel but by civilians acting on orders from local government officials. In many cases, the killers were neighbors and sometimes even family members of the victims.

These attacks were an official government policy issued by the legitimate ruling authority in Rwanda. That is one of the reasons why the world's major governments were so criticized at the time, and rightly so: They had the power and leverage to put a stop to the massacres, and did too little, too late. A Tutsi political party won control by force and the genocide stopped, but peace and stability were years away, as the various factions fought both inside and inside of Rwanda fought for control of the country.

Sadly, genocides are not historical anomalies but a frequent occurrence. Nor are they contained to one part of the world; the 20th century saw genocidal massacres not only in Europe during World War II but in Armenia, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Cambodia, and India, among others. This century has seen tragic ethnic violence in Darfur, South Sudan, and Syria. A day like today-Genocide Memorial Day, as it's known in Rwanda-should serve as a painful reminder to people everywhere of the heinous things human beings are capable of doing to each other.

It should also serve to remind us that, though Rwanda seems like a remote country, and that what goes on there doesn't affect us, we can't forget that it's a real, living, breathing country full of people living lives as real as ours. We owe it to them to learn about the history of their country, but to not reduce it to a single incident.


There are many great books and documentary films about the Rwandan genocide. If you're looking for a good place to start, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld is an account of the genocide told by some of the killers as they sit in prison awaiting execution, reflecting on their crimes and sins. Deogratias, a Tale of Rwanda is a graphic novel that tells the story of several Hutu and Tutsi children caught up in the genocide. And Greg Barker's 2004 documentary film for PBS, Ghosts of Rwanda, is available to stream online. Finally, the New York Times Magazine published a photo essay(including the image below) of images of citizens harmed by the genocide interacting with those who harmed them, 20 years later.

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