Rwanda History: Civil war and genocide

Rwanda consists of three tribes including the Tutsi, Hutu, and Batwa pygmies. The Tutsi established a monarchy in the 16th century and became a dominant class over the others until the arrival of Europeans. The country was colonized by Germany between 1884-1919.

After World War 1 and defeat of Germany, Rwanda was put under the Belgian colonial administration. The country got independence on 1 July 1962.  The political system elevated the Hutu into leadership to replace the traditional Tutsi monarchy. The Catholic Church under the French diocese was established in the 1900s and became the dominant religion. Several religious institutions including schools, hospitals, and churches were constructed across Rwanda in Nyarubuye, Nyamata, and Ntarama.

However, some churches were used as death traps during the genocide wars in 1994. The state and the church promoted divide and rule policy, social inequality, and greed for power among the Hutus and Tutis. The tribal conflict led to the outbreak of the first Rwandan civil war. The Hutu, backed by colonial authorities, carried out a political revolution between 1959-1961. The Hutu led government was established removing the Tutsi from power. This was followed by anti-Tutsi propaganda and various forms of violence against the Tutsi including persecution, forced relocation, systematic massacres, and discrimination.

According to the World Council of Churches, over 10,000 Tutsis were killed in Murambi area in Nyamagabe district southern province (formerly Gikorongo) between July 1962 – July 1973.  The massacres became widespread, over 300,000 Tutis fled to the neighboring countries including Burundi, Uganda, and DR Congo. Tutsis in exile formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) with support from Uganda. The RPF launched attacks on Rwandan armed forces from 1 October 1990 and fighting escalated into a genocide in 1994.

The Rwandan genocide

The Rwandan genocide against Tutsi in 1994 was sparked off by the death of president Juvenal Habyarimana. On 6 April 1994, Juvenal and his Burundian counterpart died in a plane crash at Kanombe airport in Kigali under unclear circumstances. Some assert that the plane was shot down. The Hutus blamed it on the Tutsis and started widespread killings targeting mostly Tutis and some Hutu sympathizers. Peacekeepers, and political figures were also hunted down. The Rwandan genocide lasted until July 15, 1994 with the Tutsi-led RPF taking control of Kigali capital city. Over the course of four months, it is estimated that over 800,000 to 1,000,000 million people were killed is some of the crueliest ways imanginable. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Rwandan Genocide Against Tutsi is ranked 6th among the world’s worst genocides. Given the scale of killings in just 100 days.

How the massacres were carried out

 The massacres were mainly carried out by militias associated with the Rwandan armed forces and the presidential guards. People were attacked in various places including churches, schools of which some were turned into genocide memorial sites across the country. Today, there are over 250 memorial sites registered in Rwanda of which six are national genocide memorial sites including Kigali genocide memorial, Nyamata, Bisesero, Ntarama, Murambi, and Nyarubuye. Four of these which include Nyamata, Bisesero, Murambi, and Kigali genocide memorials have been inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list.

Remembrance of the victims and rebuilding of lives

In the aftermath of the genocide, the National Commission for Fight Against Genocide was devoted to study and preserve the Rwandan civil war history through research and education. The genocide memorial sites were created by estimating the number of victims that died on spot. The International Day of Reflection on the genocide against the Tutsi was formed by the United Nations General Assembly on 4 April 2003 and is observed annually.

Today, Rwanda focused on rebuilding lives and has successfully recovered from the tragedy based on economic development, social justice, and reconciliation indicators. For instance, the survivors and perpetrators are now living together in mutual forgiveness, which is amazing. According to the World Bank, she is ranked among the least corrupt and easiest places to do business in the world today. However, the country is faced with challenges including low human resource development, unemployment, and inflation.

International response

The international humanitarian response to the Rwandan genocide against Tutsis involved signing of cease fire agreement in Arusha, Tanzania on 22 July 1992. This was supported by Tanzania through the African Union (AU) to help form the transitional government of both parties. The war escalated and the AU called for further assistance from the United Nations Security Council. The United Nations Observer Mission Uganda-Rwanda (UNOMUR) was created in June 1993 to ensure that Uganda wouldn’t give any military assistance to Rwanda followed by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in October with a peacekeeping force to further implement the agreement, prevent genocide, and protect civilians through creation of humanitarian zones. The force of Belgian and French soldiers carried out “Operation Turquoise” in the Gikorongo prefecture. Although many lives were lost, many were also saved by brave men and women who risked their own lives to protect one another. According to Human Rights Watch, over 1,200 people hid at Hotel des Mille Collines. The manager named Paul Rusesabagina is credited for having provided shelter, food, and water. Those who volunteered to save others exercised their kind heartedness known as Obumuntu in Rwanda.

National genocide memorial sites in Rwanda

There are six national genocide memorial sites in Rwanda which include the following:-

The Kigali Genocide Memorial 

The the Kigali Genocide Memorial was opened during the 10th commemoration of the genocide against Tutsi along with the release of the movie Hotel Rwanda in April 2004. The site is a resting place for over 250,000 genocide victims located in Gisozi in the heart of Kigali city. This is the largest genocide memorial site in Rwanda. The names and  pictures of those buried there are well preserved to keep the remembrance alive. Visiting Kigali genocide memorial offers visitors an opportunity to learn the Rwandan civil war and genocide against Tutsi through audio recordings and visual displays. The memorial is founded on three pillars which include rebuilding lives, learning, and remembrance.

The slogan ‘Never Again’ was adopted to instill among visitors and the public alike to heal from the past mistakes and move forward. Never Again is a social justice organization to raise awareness through online resources and organized workshops in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. One of the private initiatives spearheading this cause is called Ubumuntu, which empowers young Rwandans through arts, film, contemporary dance, and music. Ubumuntu is also a short documentary film (2013) that points out stories of people who saved others during the civil war in Rwanda. The Ubumuntu Arts Festival was also launched by a local contemporary dance group called Mashirika in 2015.

The event is held annually in Kigali capital city and offers a wide range of custom-made products including branded-T-shirts, jewelry, pins, precious stones, Migongos traditional Rwandan wall hanging art, artistic logos, wristbands, and notebooks. Obtaining souvenirs when you visit Rwanda is the best way to support the pillar of rebuilding lives. The products are also available in gift shops at Kigali Genocide Memorial, Hotel des Mille Collines, and several art centers in Kigali capital city. According to Rwanda Development Board (RDB), arts and culture sector has been important to rebuilding lives in the post genocide era. The creative arts industry in Rwanda encampasses performing arts, performing arts, cultural tourism, beauty and fashion, and the film industry.

Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre

The Murambi genocide memorial is located in the Nyamagabe area 126 km (2 hours’ drive) south of Kigali capital city. The center consists of three sections, which include an exhibition room, a section of preserved corpses, and a cemetery. Mass killings of Tutsis in Murambi village and the surrounding areas mainly occurred in April 1994. According to Rwanda Genocide Archives, over 50,000 people were killed in a series of attacks including mass shootings on 21 April 1994 by Hutu militias and soldiers.

The remains of 1,200 corpses were retrieved from a mass grave exhumed and preserved for public display along with objects such as clothings. Murambi is the only genocide memorial center with preserved bodies and skeletons of victims in Rwanda. There’s also a cemetery with memorial gardens where 5,000 victims are laid to rest. The killers dug trenches and a mass grave where an unknown number of bodies were dumped. It is alleged that one of the mass graves was covered by building a volleyball pitch over the surface.

The pitch lies near a former French military camp that was mandated under UNAMIR to mediate the conflict and ultimately prevent the genocide against Tutsi  in the Cyangugu-Kibuye-Gikongoro area. When the genocide started this was considered a humanitarian zone for people to seek shelter under french protection. Over 65,000 Tutsis were ordered to stay at a technical school and some churches in Murambi village. Unfortunately, water and power, and food supplies were cut off and the schools and churches were targeted for mass killings with little resistance. Today, the classrooms serve as evidence of how people were murdered in some of the cruelest ways imaginable.

The Bisesero National Resistance Memorial Centre

Bisesero genocide memorial is located on Muyira hill Bisesero village in Karongi district western province on the shores of Lake Kivu. The site is along the Karongi-Rusizi road 30 km from Karongi town, 115 km (2-hour drive) north of Nyungwe forest national park, 150 km (4-hour drive) south west of Kigali capital city, and 112 km (2-hour drive) south of Gisenyi. It is a perfect stopover for those traveling along the Congo-Nile trail. The memorial was established in 1997 to honor the brevity of the Tutsis who fought and resisted before they were overpowered by the killers.

Over 40,000 people died in the area and the site consists of mass grave yards, three houses with human remains, and a monument of resistance. The structures are built on a hill in a zigzag manner, which is a tactic that was used during the fight. Despite the fact that many lives were lost perished, some people survived given that Muyira hill was a strategic location for people to fight against armed invaders. The residents sought refuge on top of the hill and fought by throwing stones, spears, and sticks downhill at the invaders.

Ntarama and Nyamata churches

Ntarama and Nyamata are located in Bugesera district 32 km south of Kigali capital city. The catholic churches were converted into national genocide memorial on 14  April 1995. Ntarama is where over 5,000 people were killed including children, babies, and their mothers. Human remains such as skulls, mounds of blood stained clothing and other items of personal belongings are preserved inside the building. The churches portray the influence of the catholic church ideology in the Rwandan genocide.

The French white fathers introduced Catholicism in the 1900s which became the dominant religion in Rwanda. For instance, some of the clergymen are known to have supported the Hutu uprising of 1959 -1961 and maintained a divide and rule colonial policy. According to Prof. Nancy Wadsworth’s 2018 Advanced Asia-Europe Seminar in 2018, not all the priests aided the genociders. In fact Antonia Locatelli who was an Italian nun is credited for having refused to support the genocide against Tutsi ideology and also played a role in protecting people. Earlier in 1992, she reported the impending danger to the UN peacekeeping mission in Kigali and was killed for that act.

Nyarubuye Genocide Memorial

Nyarubuye was a catholic church and nursery school located in Nyarubuye Village, Nyarutunga Cell, Nyarubuye Sector, Kirehe District, Eastern province. The genocide center is 85 km (1-hour drive) south of Akagera national park and 140 km (4-hour drive) south east of Kigali capital city. According to Rwanda genocide archives, Nyarubuye village witnessed massacres of over 35,000 people in only two days in April 1994. The site contains an exhibition displaying the weapons used by the militias and the mass graves outside the church.

Visiting Rwandan genocide sites is available for booking through a Rwanda safaris tour operator. Overall, Rwanda offers a unique blend of dark tourism, natural beauty, gorilla trekking, and contemporary art and culture. Check out what to do and see in Rwanda.

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