Reconciling Rwanda

Lara Kajs | 15 July 2022 |

In the aftermath of the genocide, reconciling Rwanda has been a long process that has included retribution, regret, and remembrances. Twenty-eight years later, Rwanda has two public holidays to mourn the genocide and all the lives lost. The wounds left are still deeply felt.

On 6 April 1994, a plane carrying the president of Burundi and Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was hit by a ground rocket attack and crashed, killing everyone on board. The attack was the catalyst for genocide, and what unfolded over the next 100 days were violent and systematic massacres. Within an hour of the plane crash, the Hutu-led government seized control of the nation’s radio station and began to roll out messages of hate, discrimination, and orders to kill all Tutsis. It was a mandate to commit genocide.

Mandate for Genocide

The ethnic breakdown of Rwanda’s population in 1994 was majority Hutu (85%), minority Tutsi (14%), and a small portion of the population Twa (about 1%). Rwandans carried Identification cards that were marked with their ethnic affiliation. Checkpoints and barricades were set up to check ID cards; Tutsis were taken aside and killed.

The following day, 7 April, the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and her husband were brutally murdered in their home, by Rwandan government soldiers, The PM’s children survived by hiding in the house. Ten Belgium peacekeepers, part of the PM’s protection detail, were taken to the military installation Camp Kigali, where they were tortured and murdered. In response, Belgium withdrew the rest of its forces from Rwanda.

Anyone who opposed the genocide was killed. There are testimonies of people being ordered to kill their family, friends, and colleagues – or they would be killed – so they complied to save their own lives. Tutsis were slaughtered in their own villages, by their Hutu neighbors. People were massacred in churches, schools, and hospitals, where they were hiding. They were hunted and viciously killed, most often by machete.

Rape as Genocide

Rape was used as genocide. Rape squads were organized by the Hutu government. HIV-infected men were told to rape women and girls. The intent was to infect women and cause them a slow inescapable death. Tutsi women were targeted with the purpose of destroying their ability to reproduce. Hutu women participated in the violence. Rapes were often followed by sexual violations which included mutilation of the vagina with machetes, knives, sharpened sticks, or burning. Men were also victims of sexual violence, including public castration or burning.

Lifetime Responsibility

The scale and brutality of the genocide stunned the international community. There were hundreds of thousands of bodies – macheted to death – thrown in the river or left in the open. And yet, no country intervened to stop the killing. Despite repeated calls for intervention, UNAMIR forces were reduced from 2,165 to a limited 270 troops. The UN’s power to reduce human suffering in Rwanda was compromised by the unwillingness of its Member States to respond. Despite all the requests for urgent support and intervention, the requests were denied. Intervention could have changed the dynamic of the genocide and prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths.

On 22 June, the Security Council finally authorized French-led troops to mount a humanitarian mission. Although the killings continued, the arrival of support allowed the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) to gain control. However, by the time that happened, approximately 800,000 people had been slaughtered in 100 days of genocide.

But there was plenty of blame to go around for the failure to prevent or stop the genocide. The UN, the US, and Belgium were deeply criticized for their failure to act. In 2014, the UN Security Council publicly admitted that it should shoulder some of the blame for its failure in its responsibility to protect and prevent the genocide. Former US President Bill Clinton admitted that one of his biggest regrets as President was the failure to intervene in Rwanda. He said he feels a “lifetime responsibility.”

Reconciliation and Honoring Loss

After the genocide, Rwanda was dysfunctional. Its infrastructure was in shambles and nearly a million of its citizens had been brutally murdered. Many families were completely wiped out. Nearly 500,000 women and girls had suffered extreme sexual violence and rape. At least 400,000 children were orphaned, with 95,000 becoming the head of the family. Countless survivors have long-term emotional, psychological, and physical trauma.

Over time, survivors helped to rebuild Rwanda. They preserve memorial sites and serve to educate anyone who will listen about the dangers of Xenophobia, extremism, and hate. In Kigali, some 250,000 people are buried on the grounds of the genocide museum. The genocide museum honors all those killed with oral histories, photos, videos, and testimonials from survivors.

Oral histories and testimonials allow the space to release the anger, process the experience, and reduce the trauma. Giving testimony restores dignity and meaning to the lives of those murdered. The intent of genocide is to deny the value of the lives destroyed and to erase their memory, but the opportunity to give testimony and share oral histories takes back the power and prevents the intent of the offender from enduring.


Retribution to Rwanda has been a slow process. Some two million Hutus absconded to avoid being held accountable. However, over the decades many have returned, and they have faced some level of justice, which has brought some conciliation for survivors.

Several key figures were held accountable for their roles in the genocide, Theoneste Bagosora, believed to have organized and planned the genocide, was convicted of eight crimes, and sentenced to life in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). In 2011, his sentence was reduced to thirty-five years – his appeal for release was denied. Bagosora died in prison on 25 September 2021.

Bernard Ntuyahaga, who was responsible for handing the peacekeepers over to be murdered, was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment by the ICTR. He was released and extradited to Rwanda in 2018. He is no longer in prison.

The Rwandan Genocide Fugitive Tracking Unit continues to investigate the genocide and works to bring the surviving perpetrators to justice. While not an easy task, prosecutions, and convictions are being made. The Rwandan National Public Prosecution Authority noted that nearly two million people had been charged, nearly two-thirds of them convicted.

Never Again

But, how many times will the world declare “Never Again” after atrocity, before we learn from history and change the paradigm of prejudice, hate, discrimination, and “othering” that leads to atrocity crimes and genocide, and chooses to promote a legacy of empathy, equality, peace, and reconciliation? Only then will we be able to say Never Again and truly mean it. Twenty-eight years later, Rwandans continue to work for healing and peace.

Photo Credit: Munitions-Riddled Façade of Room Where Belgian Peacekeepers Were Murdered – Former Camp Kigali – Kigali – Rwanda – 01” by Adam Jones, Ph.D. – Global Photo Archive is licensed under CC 2.0