Today we mark the 22nd anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. April 6, 1994 began 100 days of horrific violence and slaughter that would leave nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead. Looking back at the Rwandan genocide, we are reminded of the countless warning signs that went unheeded, the propaganda that poisoned the minds of so many, the speed with which Hutu extremists were able to kill, and the inaction of the international community to stop the slaughter.
For a brief overview of Rwanda’s history and the foundation that led to the genocide, watch this short clip from the History Channel’s documentary “Rwanda-Do Scars Ever Fade?”
Almost as soon as Rwandan President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, roadblocks lined the streets and door-to-door searches for Tutsis and moderate Hutus began. Pre-written kill lists were used to seek out Tutsis, radio broadcasts acted like a GPS to help identify where Tutsis and moderate Hutus were living or hiding, and the Interahamwe—militia forces trained to carry out the genocide—were well prepared to carry out their “work” (a euphemism used to describe the killing of Tutsis). The training and organization of the Interahamwe was said to be so efficient that they were able to kill 1,000 Tutsi in 20 minutes.
Many of the killings were carried out by ordinary citizens with crude weapons such as machetes or clubs—a testament to how much influence propaganda and fear can have over a population. The Hutu leadership spent a lot of time spreading messages of hate, dehumanizing the Tutsi population, and ensuring that the people knew killing Tutsis was the “right” thing to do. Neighbors killed neighbors, Hutu husbands killed their Tutsi wives, and those who initially were not participating in the killings were often forced or pressured into it.
When discussing Rwanda it is important to understand the speed with which the genocide occurred, as well as how the international community responded. In “100 days of slaughter,” PBS details key moments in the genocide and the United States and the international community’s inaction.
Rwanda offers many lessons to be learned, but perhaps the two most important are:
- Genocide and mass atrocities are only possible if people are willing to commit them. There will always be radicals that propagate divisive messages of hate. But, in order for those messages to spread to the point of genocide, enough people must be willing to listen, and unwilling to stand up and speak out in opposition.
- Preventing mass atrocities must be the focus of the international community, because once genocide or atrocities break out, the more difficult it is to respond effectively. Prevention must be focused on the root causes and drivers of violence, and efforts must be taken to tackle dangerous/hate speech and propaganda that can fuel divisions within societies. These types of interventions are a long-term approach, but are far more effective than the short-term ad hoc strategies the U.S. has been invested in.
To learn more about the Rwandan genocide:
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch
Shake Hands with the Devil, Romeo Dallaire