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Rwandan Genocide

Read more about the historical events that shaped the life of Howard Davies.
In April 1994 the Rwandan President's plane was shot down. Within hours of his death a new radical Hutu regime came to power in Rwanda and violence against Tutsis and moderate Hutus began

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Hutu and Tutsi are the terms historically used in Rwanda for different 'ethnic identities'. However, they speak the same language, practice the same religion and have inter-married so most ethnographers and historians conclude they are not from separate ethnic groups.

There are some important social differences between being a Hutu and a Tutsi. In pre-colonial Rwanda wealth was associated with the ownership of cattle. Traditionally, Hutus were farmers and Tutsis were herdsmen. Therefore Tutsis were generally wealthier than Hutus.

But the social status of Hutus and Tutsis was not fixed or clear cut. A reversal of fortunes could result in a Tutsi losing his or her position and a Hutu could move up the social ladder or marry into a Tutsi family.

The colonial period
In the late 1880s Rwanda became part of German East Africa. After Germany’s defeat in the First World War Belgium took control of Rwanda. Baffled by the complex society they encountered there, the Europeans sought an explanation that met with their racial belief that all Africans were primitive.
‘In a period of 100 days from April 1994 c.800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered’

Because the Tutsis had a higher status in Rwandan society, and were thought to have come from a taller, fairer race from north-east Africa, the Belgians concluded they were racially superior to the Hutus.

The Belgians strengthened the position of the minority Tutsi elite in order to consolidate their rule in Rwanda. From 1933, everybody in Rwanda was issued with identity cards. Eighty five percent of the population was classified as Hutu, fourteen percent as Tutsi and one percent as Twa.

Whatever it meant previously to be a Hutu or a Tutsi now became irrelevant as ethnicity was formalised by the state in the identity card.

Independent Rwanda
After independence in 1962 the government was dominated by the Hutus. Violence against Tutsis broke out several times before the genocide in 1994. Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, many ending up in Uganda.

In 1990 exiled Tutsis formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and invaded Rwanda from Uganda. The success of the RPF and international pressure forced the Rwandan government to accept the Arusha Peace Accords in 1993. It was hoped that a government comprising Hutus and Tutsis would be established. UN troops were dispatched to ensure peace.

Rwandan refugee with ID card indicating ethnic status at Benaco camp in Tanzania, 1994. The cards, a legacy of colonialism, were used by Hutu militias to identify ethnic Tutsi during the genocide. Photograph by Howard Davies

Read their stories

  • Howard Davies
    Howard has worked as a photojournalist for eighteen years. After the outbreak of violence in Rwanda in 1994, Howard made several trips to Rwanda and the Great Lakes region to document the work of aid agencies and the aftermath of the genocide.
Hutu refugees carrying their belongings return to Rwanda from Zaire, August 1994 Photograph by Kevin Weaver IWM Ref: CT_1658
The genocide
But in April 1994 Rwandan President Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down. It was never proved who was responsible. Within hours of Habyarimana’s death a new radical Hutu regime came to power and violence against Tutsis and moderate Hutus began. Hutu militias, including the Impuzamugambi and Interahamwe demanded to see identity cards. Anyone identified as a Tutsi was killed. 

In a period of 100 days from April 1994, it is estimated that around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus people were murdered. The aim of the killers was to completely eradicate Tutsis from Rwanda.

Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, the main propaganda tool for the Hutu extremists persuaded many Hutus that they were under threat from Tutsis. The station called on Hutus to ‘cut the Tutsi down to size’, referring to the physical stereotypes propagated by the colonists. It also urged Tutsis to be sent ‘back to Ethiopia’ via the nearest river. During the genocide thousands of bodies washed up on the shores of Lake Victoria.

Although the killings were well organised, the weapons used were relatively primitive and included machetes and clubs. The killings were accompanied by mass rape and looting.

In July 1994, Rwanda’s capital Kigali was captured by the RPF. Most of the killers fled to neighbouring countries, along with 2 million Hutus fearing revenge from Tutsis.

International response
Major General Dallaire, Head of the UN Mission in Rwanda, and others had warned that a massacre of Tutsis was being planned. But the international community took no action to stop the genocide. When violence broke out most Westerners were evacuated from Rwanda and virtually all UN personnel pulled out.  

The US government refrained from calling the killings a genocide. Under the Genocide Convention of 1948 the UN is legally obligated to intervene to put a stop to any acts of genocide. 

The actions of France in Rwanda remain controversial. France had close links with the Hutu government and had given military support to Habyarimana since 1975. In June 1994 France mounted Opération Turquoise, claiming it was humanitarian mission. But it has been accused of allowing the genocide to continue and helping the perpetrators, along with their weapons, to escape to Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo).

It was not until July 1994, that the first significant international humanitarian effort was sent to help the refugees who had fled to neighbouring countries.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established by the UN in November 1994. Several individuals have been charged with genocide, including the former prime minister Jean Kambanda.

Local Rwandan courts, known as ‘Gacaca’ courts were also set up to prosecute the perpetrators.