Rwandan President Paul Kagame lighting a memorial flame during a ceremony to mark the 30th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, held at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, in Kigali Rwanda on Sunday, April 7, 2024
Rwandan President Paul Kagame lighting a memorial flame during a ceremony to mark the 30th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, held at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, in Kigali Rwanda on Sunday, April 7, 2024

Rwanda marks 30 years since genocide

Rwandans last Sunday paid solemn tribute to genocide victims, 30 years after a vicious campaign orchestrated by Hutu extremists tore apart the country, as neighbours turned on each other in one of the bloodiest massacres of the 20th century.


The killing spree, which lasted 100 days, claimed the lives of 800,000 people, largely Tutsis, but also moderate Hutus, before the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel militia, led by Paul Kagame, who would go on to become Rwanda's current President took over Kigali on July 4, 1994. Behind the months of violence was a battle for power between Rwanda's ruling Hutus and the Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front rebel group.

In the days that followed, RPF took control of the country, arresting those accused of being involved in the genocide. In the years since tens of thousands of Rwandans have been convicted. But hundreds more suspects are still at large.

Trigger of the killings

The killings were ignited when a plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamiraa, was shot down over the Rwandan capital, Kigali, along with everyone on board, both men were ethnic Hutus. 

The Tutsis were blamed for downing the plane and killing the president and became targets in massacres led by Hutu extremists that lasted over 100 days. Some moderate Hutus, who tried to protect members of the Tutsi minority, were also killed.

Government forces

Then, government forces, together with Hutu militia groups, known as the Interahamwe, a name that means “those who attack together”, set up roadblocks and barricades in Kigali and began to attack Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The killings quickly spread to other cities.

Thousands headed to churches, many after being offered assurances that they would be safe. But nowhere was safe. Churches were later recognised as the sites of numerous mass killings. The extreme threat to life pushed masses of people to Rwanda's borders. 

Hutus who had taken part in the genocide as well as many Hutu civilians fearing retaliation fled the country into the DRC. Government leaders raided the state coffers and also fled as far as France.

Strong recovery

Rwanda has shown strong recovery and economic growth in the years since, but scars remain and there are questions about whether genuine reconciliation has been achieved under the long rule of Kagame, whose rebel movement stopped the genocide and seized power. He has been praised by many for bringing relative stability but vilified by others for his intolerance of dissent.

Kagame led sombre commemoration events in the capital, Kigali. Foreign visitors included a delegation led by Bill Clinton, the US president during the genocide, and Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, whose country has been accused by South Africa of committing genocide in Gaza at the International Court of Justice.

Rwandan authorities have long blamed the international community for ignoring warnings about the killings, and some Western leaders have expressed regret.

Cause of the genocide

Tensions were already brewing between Hutus and Tutsis before April 1994. The Tutsis, who made up 8.4 per cent of the population, according to a 1991 census, were believed to be genealogically closer to white Europeans under now-debunked scientific theories and were favoured under Belgian colonialism.

The Hutus made up 85 per cent of the population, but they could not, in practice, access education and economic opportunities that the ruling Tutsis could.

“What’s commonly understood from historians is that the Belgians used the Tutsis as proxies in ruling the country, and that’s why they became privileged,” said Lennart Wohlgemuth, a researcher and former professor at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg.


Being identified as Tutsi or Hutu before colonialism was “fluid” and based significantly on class with wealthy Hutus able to attain an honorary Tutsi title. “It was really based on how many cows you had, [but] the Belgians built up differences between the two and manipulated it. The Tutsis were better off already, and they, of course, used their privilege to improve their lives,” Wohlgemuth said.

In 1932, Belgian colonists further entrenched those differences when they introduced identity cards that included individuals’ ethnicity. In 1959, as independence movements swept across Africa, the Hutus violently revolted against the Belgian colonists and the Tutsi elite. 

International community

The Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, blamed the inaction of the international community for allowing the 1994 genocide to happen as Clinton, after leaving office, cited the Rwandan genocide as a failure of his administration. 

“It was the international community, which failed all of us, whether from contempt or cowardice,” Kagame said in a speech after lighting a flame of remembrance and laying a wreath at a memorial site, which holds the remains of 250,000 genocide victims in Kigali.

“We will never forget the horrors of those 100 days, the pain and loss suffered by the people of Rwanda, or the shared humanity that connects us all, which hate can never overcome,” US President, Joe Biden, said in a statement.

Rwanda’s ethnic composition remains largely unchanged since 1994, with a Hutu majority. The Tutsis account for 14 per cent and the Twa just 1 per cent of Rwanda's 14 million people. Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated government has outlawed any form of organisation along ethnic lines, as part of efforts to build a uniform Rwandan identity.


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