It is fair to say that many young people first became aware of the Rwandan genocide from the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda.’ The film was a heroic depiction of one man going against the wishes of his tribe to save a handful of people.
By the end of the Rwandan genocide that started from the first week of April 1994, almost a million people had lost their lives. Most of them belonging to the Tutsi minority tribe of Rwanda.
It was three months of a bloody orgy of death. It left the few keen watchers of the events in Rwanda at the time reeling in shock.
They never expected it to happen so fast, so brutally and so efficiently. And the world hardly took any notice of it until after the events.
For the rest of the world, those bloody three months were not as important as the election in South Africa. The election would end years of Apartheid rule in the country. Nelson Mandela was poised to become president.
For football fans, nothing was as important as the summer World Cup in 1994. While countries were busy cheering their footballers between June and July of that year, one of the biggest crimes in modern history was in full swing.
And in Nigeria, citizens were more bothered about the transition to civil rule. It was the year Moshood Abiola declared himself president. He was arrested and locked. He died in detention four years later.
How could the world have stood by and allowed brothers, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and kinsmen to butcher each other? Those three months in Rwanda is still a blight on the conscience of the world.
How it all started.
It was all down to politics. Just like most of the biggest crisis the world had faced were all down to politics.
Some would trace the Rwandan genocide to the colonial masters Belgium. Though Belgium had already granted independence to Rwanda since 1962, they left a legacy that led to series of events leading to civil war in 1990.
There are two major ethnic groups in Rwanda. The Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority. The Belgians pursued a policy of favoring the minority Tutsi over the Hutus.
After independence, the Hutus, after prolong ethnic violence succeeded in imposing a Hutu, General Juvenal Habyarimana, as Military president in 1973.
The cost of that action was in the many Tutsis who lost their high government jobs. Many still had to flee the country into exile.
Many of the Tutsi exiles banded together to form the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group. The RPF launched a war against the government from their base in Uganda in 1990.
After two years of bloody conflict, a ceasefire was signed between the government and the RPF led by Paul Kagame, the current President of Rwanda. The agreement though did not go down well with Hutu extremists who saw it as giving too much power to the Tutsis.
The start of the campaign
The extremist Hutus and their supporters in government started a campaign of hate against the Tutsis. The propaganda included the dire things that would happen to the Hutus if the Tutsis were allowed influence in the country again.
The propaganda and hate speech against the Tutsis were very very intense.
Even state run television and radio stations got into the act. Hutus were told to prepare for the day they would have to kill Tutsis if they wanted to survive as a race.
When a plane carrying President Juvenal was shot down over Kigali (capital of Rwanda) airport, the Hutus were already primed to start what eventually became the Rwandan genocide.
Led by the government-sponsored militias, Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi, Hutus all over the country started killing Tutsis, moderate Hutus and other minorities in the country.
Every non-Hutu was a target.
Anybody who was seen as tainted with Tutsi blood either through marriage or genealogy was killed. A Hutu man married to a Tutsi woman risked losing his life. All children from that marriage were also killed.
And many of such families existed since there was a lot of intermarriage between the two tribes.
One of the biggest victims of the Rwandan genocide was the moderate Hutu Prime Minister, Agathe Unwilingiyimana. Her 10 Belgian bodyguards were also killed.
The killings lasted non-stop for 3 months as the militias combed every part of the country for people to kill.
After the killings started, RPF led by Paul Kagame resumed its armed conflict. So while RPF was waging a war, civilians were busy killing themselves.
The Rwandan genocide came to an end only after the RPF had gained control of most of the country including the capital Kigali. Paul Kagame implemented most of the terms of the ceasefire signed months earlier by establishing a coalition government.
However, because of the fear of reprisals from Tutsis, another set of refugees was created as a result of the victory of the RPF.
Over two million Hutus fled the country to neighboring countries causing a serious humanitarian crisis. Simply put, many died due to lack of food, clean water and attacks from armed militias.
By the time the world decided to respond to the crisis through the United Nations, the Rwandan genocide was already over. It was too little too late.
Twenty-three years later, Rwanda has not fully recovered from the events of that summer. Reconciliation is slow. This is understandable as the quest for vengeance is very high.
Perhaps, sometimes in the future, a generation would see the Rwandan genocide as a bold lesson that charismatic ethnic champions should never be allowed to thrive.