My research project back in Fall 2019 on a nation-wide reconciliation process through a theater performance has brought me to Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. Over a period of 14 days, I got to learn the other side. I got the chance to move down a different path. Discovering stories that could never be found in any history textbooks; hearing the narratives that reflect the self-understanding of the people of Rwanda on what happened in 1994. On this particular blog, I would first narrate some relevant historical information about Rwanda and to touch upon some stories behind the massacre. Then, I reveal the narratives of my host-family, which could easily be perceived as a trauma that is unfortunately permanent for the people in Rwanda, and to shed lights on the public’s self-perceptions in Rwanda to the failure of the international community to help to prevent the 1994 genocide.

Let’s Talk Rwanda: A Permanent Trauma

Rwanda. A Beautiful land in the converge of East Africa and African Great Lakes. One of the smallest countries in the continent. Holding the soubriquet “land of thousand hills”. It is the home of the one-of-a-kind mountain gorilla and beautiful lakes spreading across the country. According to the latest report of the World Bank, with over 7.5% growth average up to 2018 and over 5% annual GDP per capita growth, this country is projected to achieve the Middle-Income Country (MIC) status in 2035 and High-Income Country (HIC) by 2050. It seems that it would be just uphill for this country moving forward. Life expectancy at birth has climbed up to 69 in 2019 from 29 in the 90’s and maternal mortality has declined from 1,270/100,000 in the mid-1990 to 290/100,000 in 2019. However, many would overlook the aforementioned, and instead turn to only one of the pages of the history of Rwanda. The 1994 genocide. They are not to be blamed being aware of the indefinitely lasting devastating impact this tragedy has brought to the Rwandan society. In just 100 days, over 800,000 innocent people lost their lives in an appalling display of dehumanization, making it the quickest killing spree in human history.

Genocide in Rwanda is an extremely sensitive topic to be talked upon. Anyone who would like to dig deeper must wait until April, the month of commemoration. Anyone has to be extremely precautious on what to be asked and to speak about. There are series of laws regulating the narrative plotting the 1994 genocide that must be obeyed.

Living With a Local Rwandan Host-Family

My host family was an ordinary, very intimate family consisting of a father, mother, three daughters, and a son. I became acquainted with this family through their oldest daughter, Maria, one of the most famous actresses and poets in Rwanda, who I collaborated with on a performing art project at my university in Abu Dhabi. Maria is a youth advocate, who struggles with her identity as a Rwandan, due to Rwanda’s looming dark history of genocide. Her advocacy engagements are through performing arts. She grew up actively performing in several theatrical performances promoting social reconciliation and integration.

My host family is in a full-nationalistic mode, loving and supporting the country unconditionally. Taking all the downsides their country has went through as lessons learned, they optimistically and very positively look forward to a better future. They have full trust in the ruling elites to create prosperity, even though this implies sacrificing quite some amount of their individual liberties.

Africa’s Largest Genocide in Modern Times

Prior to the 1994 genocide, Rwanda consisted of three different ethnic groups: the largest being Hutu, which made up 85% of the total population, then followed by Tutsi at 14%, and finally Twa, which only accounted for 1% of the country’s population. The three different groups lived harmoniously together, sharing pieces of land and Rwanda’s rich natural resources, speaking the same language, and following the same traditions up until 1880. Following the Berlin Conference in in 1884 the dynamic in the region had started to be different, it was decided that the region that would later become Rwanda and Burundi would be under German control and influence. By supporting the king and the established hierarchy, and delegating control to local chiefs, the Germans were able to exert their influence. During this period of time the Germans introduced a stratified model of society following the widespread European racist beliefs in Eugenics. In 1916 Belgium took over after a League of Nations decision: due to World War I, Germany was unable to keep up its presence in Africa.

It was during the Belgian colonial period, that the distinctions between the three groups were redrawn and a lot more emphasized. The colonial authorities decided to stratify the groups based on wealth. Those who owned more than ten cows and were said to have long, pointed noses were determined as Tutsis, whereas those who owned fewer than ten cows and were assumed to have “smaller” noses were identified as Hutu.

From that point onward, the animosity between Tutsis and Hutus rapidly expanded. Immediately after arriving in 1916, the Belgian colonial bureaucracy introduced identity cards arbitrarily differentiating the society into sects based on ethnic origin. Given Tutsis’ physical appearance, which Belgian anthropologists claimed to be superior, the colonial master mandated more power, privileges, and leadership roles for Tutsis for the first several decades of colonial control. Following the special provisions and higher position in the social hierarchy enjoyed by Tutsis from the Belgian government, envy and resentment gradually spread among the Hutus. Series of riots took place in 1959, in which over 20,000 Tutsis were murdered, and many were forced to flee to the neighboring countries of Uganda, Burundi, and Tanzania. Finally, in 1962, when Belgian colonists left Rwanda, Hutus ascended to government power, while Tutsis were then labeled as the scapegoats of every issues. The animosity generated by colonial divide-and-conquer bred violence after independence. Since Hutus made up such a large majority in the region, they easily won the country’s first elections in 1961, and the regime that followed was firmly Hutu nationalist. Violence between Hutus and Tutsis became a characteristic of Rwanda’s post-independence era.

The mass slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, which is widely known as the Rwandan 1994 genocide, commenced following the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, when his plane was shot down after taking off in Kigali Airport on the sixth of April 1994. Though many speculations exist around who was behind the attack—whether it was carried by Tutsi rebels or Hutu extremists—a French judge has blamed Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda, and some of his close associates for the rocket attack. Paul Kagame vehemently denies this, claiming that it was the work of Hutu extremists who used it as a cover to carry out their long-planned extermination of the Tutsi people. Whoever was to blame, a campaign of violence erupted in the capital within hours. The presidential guard launched a vengeance drive right away. Leaders of the political opposition were assassinated, and the slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus began almost immediately. However, the president’s death was far from the only cause of Africa’s greatest genocide in modern history. In fact, the long-standing history of violence, tensions, and series of divide and conquer actions by the colonialists were the ones that had fueled the national mass slaughter long before 1994. The killing began on April 7th. Hutu militias, most infamously the government backed Interahamwe, slaughtered Tutsis with weapons and machetes from city to city and village to village. The militias were terrifyingly effective, using a radio station to organize the start of the campaign across the country and to inform people where “the graves were not quite yet full.”. They were killing about 8000 Tutsis per day.

A Permanent Trauma

It might be a note based on overemphasized observations from my side, but this family mostly expressed “they do not understand…” or “the international community is not aware of…” every time I have started to open up topics around the 1994 genocide. As if they would not dare to look from the inside and rather to shed the spotlights on things out of the hand of the nation.

Over a casual conversation that took place once during a car ride, I learned how this family deeply distrusts the international community, as a result of its largely complacent role during the 1994 genocide. It was a beautiful morning in Kigali, and we all were getting into the car. Lily, my host-mother, had to drop off two of her children, Tony and Alyssa, for school, and drive her eldest daughter, Mona, and me for our Rwandan Parliament visit. While listening to local radio, Lily began asking about my impressions of Kigali and how it differed from places I had visited in the past. As I was talking about how excited I was to visit the parliament, she then shifted the conversation to Rwanda’s political context. She went on to explain how the Hutus who were part of the RPF[1] were former prisoners in northern Rwanda but had been liberated by the initial members of the RPF. Overhearing this conversation about Rwanda’s political and historical context, Tony, who is only 8-year-old spoke out his confusion. Lily then started to explain the whole story on the historical separation of Rwandan ethnic groups and how the genocide took place.

What is fascinating to me was that Lily kept emphasizing how French authorities were the primary antagonistic actors in the story she was telling. Based on the narrative she believes in, which most people in Rwanda would agree to, France was the primary supplier for weapons and the back support of perpetrators side. She explicitly pointed out to Tony that if it was not because of the French, the genocide would have never happened in the first place. Based on a couple of historical records, France’s role in Rwandan Genocide begun when it strongly backed Juvénal Habyarimana’s Hutu-led government against the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front, which had been fighting for the rights of Rwandan Tutsis both within Rwanda and in exile in neighboring countries since 1990. Moreover, Following the assassination of Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira on April6,1994, France offered weapons and military training to Habyarimana’s youth militias, the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi, which were among the government’s primary means of operationalizing the genocide.[2] Lily narrated, “…French like to divide us so that they could remain the strongest power in Rwanda since they want to make Rwanda as their backyard and unfortunately, UN seems to invest in this idea.” Mona then added her voice into the conversation by telling how Rwandan “survivors” never really trust the international community after the 1994 genocide. Mona continued by explaining the main story of the “Shaking the Devil’s Hand,” which depicts a UN peacekeeping force that tried to help the victims in 1994, before the entire battalion was forced to disengage by the UN headquarters. The people in charge maintained that this was not their mandate, and the genocide was “just Africans killing each other, leave them alone to decide their own fate.”

Lily then took over and asked me if I have ever heard the story about Amaharo National Stadium. During the first couple of weeks of the massacre, the UN announced that all potential victims should gather for protection provided by the UN peacekeeping force in Amaharo National Stadium. This message was broadcasted across the country, so thousands of people made their way and stayed put in the stadium. However, not so long after these thousands of people gathered, the mandate from the UN Headquarters arrived forcing all the UN force to withdrawn and leave to the neighboring country, Uganda. Upon hearing the news that thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were left unguarded by the UN force in one consolidated location, Hutu perpetrators immediately rushed to the stadium, throwing grenades into the sea of innocent people and barricading the stadium with machine guns. In less than a day, thousands of innocents who initially came for hope and safe settlement were brutally killed.

The whole car went quiet upon hearing Lily narrating this gruesome story. Indeed, this snippet of my personal journal from my time in Rwanda, in which I try to understand the Rwandan political context through the words of its own people, is, needless to say, alarmingly tragic. Not only are Rwandans who experienced this tragedy perpetually haunted by its specter, but Rwandan children like Tony grow up within the grasp of this past trauma and wariness of the international community. While the world is moving forward promoting global citizenship education and transnational cooperation, kids like Tony in Rwanda has to suffer from many horrifying narratives against such promotions and concepts.

Is there a strong case that the international community could have stopped it?

Given all the hatred of my Rwandan host-family on the international community of being completely ignorant and of deciding not to employ force to stop the 1994 genocide, I wonder what the case would be, had the international community actually tried to do something to stop the massacre, and whether they had had any chance of success.

Unlike previous mass killings, such as the Holocaust, the international community was aware of the impending genocide. They had proof of where it was going after it launched, but they did nothing. In January 1994, for instance, Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who commanded the tiny UN observer force tasked with enforcing the peace agreement, received word that the Hutus were preparing genocide. He told the UN’s higher-ups, but he was not allowed to take action.

The international community did almost nothing even after the genocide began and the facts of slaughter became undeniable. The US aggressively worked to prevent the UN Security Council from approving a more comprehensive deployment[3]. There’s a fair chance the UN might have done something with retrospect. With an additional 5,000 soldiers and a stronger UN mandate, General Dallaire claims he could have saved “hundreds of thousands.”[4]

Indeed, it seems there were big possibilities of the international community to intervene to prevent the mass human slaughter to take place, or at the very least minimize the loss and severity.[5]

  • I would like to extend my gratitude to Andrew Sorota for helping me writing this article. A big appreciation to all of his feedback and encouragement throughout the whole process.


[1] The Rwandan Patriotic Front is the ruling political party in Rwanda. Led by President Paul Kagame, the party has governed the country since its armed wing defeated government forces, winning the Rwandan Civil War in 1994.

[2] Wallis, Andrew. Silent accomplice: the untold story of France’s role in the Rwandan genocide. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.

[3] Eriksson, John, et al. The international response to conflict and genocide: lessons from the Rwanda experience: synthesis report. Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, 1996.

[4] Klinghoffer, Arthur. The international dimension of genocide in Rwanda. Springer, 1998.

[5] Jones, Bruce D. “Peacemaking in Rwanda: the dynamics of failure.” Refugee Survey Quarterly 21.3 (2002).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.