On this day in 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down as it approached the capital of Rwanda, Kigali. This event was a catalyst which caused ethnic tensions to become a genocidal mass slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority government.
Ethnic tensions had existed for decades in Rwanda, with the Tutsi people experiencing extensive persecution. This bred into a civil war by the 1990s in which a UN peacekeeping operation was designated to enforce a peace treaty that had been signed by the Rwandan government in Kigali and the rebels in the North. The Tutsi considered themselves stateless and unrepresented because they were the minority compared to the Hutu people who had ruled Rwanda since the nation gained independence from Belgium in the early 1960’s. The UN peace accords had guaranteed a power sharing agreement between the Hutu and Tutsi people in order to enable greater integration and political stability, but the peace was tenuous at best and the poorly organised UN operation of peacekeeping was ill-equipped as well as too ill-educated to the political geography to properly enforce it.
This situation was enhanced by reports of a third group, the Interahamwe, of extreme Hutus inciting riots and carrying out assassinations of even moderate Hutu leaders in the name of destroying the peace and ridding Rwanda of the Tutsi people. The Interahahmwe were allegedly planning to attack the UN troops in order to convince them to flee the country and allow the peace to falter at which point the highly trained militia group could enact its plan. To try and discourage this, the generals on the ground planned an assault against the Hutu militia, but the UN head office requested they instead inform the Rwandan government that they were aware of this plan and the international community would be watching events closely to intervene if required.
Though this act was ignorant in hindsight, events 3 months earlier in Mogadishu, Somalia had seen helicopters shot down and 18 Americans killed on a UN mission, thus discouraging military action and engagement from the UN but especially from the Clinton administration. The seemingly untouchable nature of the Hutus encouraged them further, as political assassinations became a daily occurrence, death lists were drawn up and machetes imported.
On April 6th, 1994, as the Presidential plane carrying Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira approached to land in Kigali, a missile was fired by an unknown individual destroying it. A crisis ensued with a committee being formed under the command of Colonel Bagosora a Hutu extremist who refused to recognise Prime Minister Miss Agathe as next in line to the Presidency. The UN once again committed to a non-violent aims and told their leading figure in the peacekeeping operation, General Dellaire, not to take military action.
Killings ensued immediately. All Tutsi people and moderate Hutus were at risk, including Prime Minister Agathe who was killed on April 7th. The extremely violent Hutu government killed numerous Belgian peacekeeping troops leading to the withdrawal of international support for the UN mission and its subsequent retreat.
Border crossings were erected at which ID cards were checked which had been introduced under Belgian colonial rule and contained information regarding the ethnicity of the individual. As such, Tutsi people found trying to cross the borders would be hacked to death by machete or shot down in the streets, whilst Hutu people were encouraged to take arms and rape, pillage and murder their Tutsi neighbours.
By the time the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front, which had held the North of Rwanda, seized Kigali in July, it is estimated 1 million people had been killed. That equates to around 1,000 deaths per day, the vast majority of which was done with clubs, bats and knives.
The aftermath of the genocide brought intense international condemnation, with nations like Belgium, the US, the UK and France as well as international bodies like the UN being considered wholly ineffective at stopping the massacre. Moreover, although the country is now considered democratic, it still deals with the impact of the tragedy with grenade attacks around elections being prominent, and questions are continually asked as to the democratic nature of the country, with Paul Kagame winning 93% of the vote from a 98% turnout in the 2010 presidential elections.
The genocide in Rwanda is a regularly overlooked and ignored blemish on the history of the world. The idea that human beings have the capability to kill with such brutality based purely on ethnic constructs is a difficult fact to face. It is only by studying and understanding events like these, what caused them and how best to handle them that we can avoid repeating them.