This is a simplified and potted history of the events leading up to the 1994 Genocide, as told to us in country by a former member of the RPF.
The problems in Rwanda had been brewing for many years, at least since Belgian colonisation after WWI. Until then, Rwanda had been at peace for about 900 years and was ruled by kings from the affluent Tutsi minority. Apparently the ethnic distinctions between the Tutsis of northern origin and the Hutu from the south had blurred somewhat over the years. We were told that the definition was an economic one - that if you owned 10 cows you were a Tutsi; less than 10 cows a Hutu. However with the classic "Divide and Rule" philosophy, the Belgians encouraged emphasised tribal differences and rivalry, finally supporting the Hutus to take control of the country in the 1950s. This resulted in civil war and the country’s first recorded genocide. Large numbers of Tutsis were exiled into Uganda and surrounding African nations where they continued to live until 1994.
The children born of these exiles were never made to feel a part of their birth country. They were Rwandans who were not allowed to live in their own country and had a strong urge to return to their roots. In 1990 a small army was raised in Uganda, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and an attempt was made to take the country by force. This did not succeed, however in an attempt to pressure the Rwandan Government into allowing the exiles to return home, the RPF waged small scale guerilla warfare and occupied a small area of territory in the north west of the country.
After several failures, attempts began in earnest in 1993 to find a peaceful settlement to the situation, with the UN providing a small force of military observers and advisers, UNAMIR. Meanwhile, Hutu extremists within the government did not want peace nor the concessions and compromises it would bring. In order to protect themselves and their country they spread propaganda about the "Tutsi Devils" and began arming and training large portions of the civilian population into a militia, the Interahamwe. Only a very small proportion of this makeshift army were armed with guns, most making do with machetes and knives.
On the 6th of April, 1994 when returning from peace talks at Arusha in Tanzania, the aircraft carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down, perhaps by these extremists, killing all on aboard. Radio stations started urging the populace to kill all Tutsis and within hours the Government Forces (FRGF) and Interahamwe went on a rampage, indiscriminately killing Tutsis as well as intellectuals, doctors, nurses and other professionals. In total 800,000 to one million people died and much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed.
The RPF then took advantage of the chaos to seize control of the country, fighting a civil war lasting several months. During this war, a large percentage of the local population including Interahamwe leaders fled the advancing Tutsi army and congregated in refugee camps across the border or Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps within the country. The RPF were finally victorious in July 94 and set about rebuilding the country, maintaining control through their military wing the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA).
Also in July, the second UNAMIR mission (UNAMIR II) was established and Australia was requested to supply medical support as part of a 5,000 plus Peacekeeping Force.
For an alternative account, read these articles:
More links can be found at:
Interahamwe means "those who fight together in the Kinyarwanda language"
Note: the Interahamwe still exist and are now waging guerilla warfare in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire). Check out the links on my The Aftermath Links page.
For more on Australia's involvement in UNAMIR II, check out the AUSMED section.
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