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Background to the Rwandan Genocide

Pierre-Richard Prosper, Special Counsel and Policy Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues

Well, the Rwandan genocide was—I would say it was a complex situation. It was—there was some real sophisticated politics that were taking place there. A misconception about what happened in Rwanda was that it was a frenzy: that the one group just decided to pick up arms one day and slaughter their neighbor. But it wasn’t really the case. This was something that had been going on for decades, from the date of colonialism when the Belgians had Rwanda, that area, as a colony. Initially, the Belgians governed through the Tutsis; they found it to be convenient that way. They believed that the Tutsis were more European than the Hutus; therefore, the Tutsis were put in power. And mind you, the Tutsis were the minority, 14 percent of the population. The Hutus are about 85 percent, and then there’s another group called the Twa at 1 percent. In 1959, it reversed. I think the Belgians found it to their advantage to invert the power structure, because there was some resentment brewing within the Hutu community, and the Hutus now were in power. As a result, it was their turn to reap the benefits of governance. They began to take all the jobs, take all the school positions for the students, and they also began to harass, intimidate, and even kill some of the Tutsis within the country. What happened after that was in the early ’60s: approximately 150,000 to maybe 200,000 Tutsis fled Rwanda into neighboring countries, such as Zaire, Tanzania, and Uganda. At the same time, between 1963 and let’s say 1968, approximately 20,000 people, generally Tutsis, were killed during this period. After that, what we saw in Rwanda was basically a one party state, for the most part. The Hutus were in power. In the early ’90s, about 19 October 1990, the Hutu—excuse me, a Tutsi rebel group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front—they were all the descendants from the early refugees in the ’50s and ’60s—launched an attack from Uganda into Rwanda. Their goal was repatriation: to become part of Rwanda and to regain their citizenship, find their home again. This started a conflict that lasted several years. In 1993, a peace accord was reached between the Hutu government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The accord called for power sharing; it called for an integration in the military; and it basically called for the sharing of some of the benefits and an end to this ethnic hatred and conflict that had been taken place for several years. Unfortunately, the peace accord never took place, or never took hold. Between August of 1993 when it was signed and April of 1994, despite international pressure, local pressure, pressures by concerned countries, the government failed to take the necessary measures to implement the accords. On April 6 of 1994 the President of Rwanda was in Dar es Salaam. He was on his way back on a plane, the private government plane, with the President of Burundi. He was about to land in Rwanda when his plane was shot down by two—we believe rocket-propelled grenades. It crashed, and the president died upon landing, upon the crash. After that, the massacres basically started. Immediately, within hours, you saw road blocks being set up so moderate leaders of the government, people who were for the power sharing or the peace accords, were round up and massacred; and within days a new interim government, an extremist interim government, was put into place. The average population, the Tutsis, when they were on the streets they ran into road block. They were taken to the side and killed. Radio broadcasts called for the finding of Tutsis wherever they are, killing them, for they are the enemy. And it just escalated. It began essentially in Kigali, the capital, and spread throughout the rest of the country and moved from killing of intellectuals to eventually killing women and children. In the end, within a 100-day period, approximately 800,000 people were killed.

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About Pierre-Richard Prosper