In 1994, over the course of 100 days, between 800,000 and 1 million Rwandans were brutally murdered. Six people were killed every minute of every hour, of every single day. As many as 500,000 women were raped. More than 67% of rape victims were infected with HIV and AIDS. 70,000 survivors were orphaned. On Monday, the international community commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Did we, as students of this world and comparatively fortunate individuals, realise the true extent of this brutal tragedy?
A recent study conducted by The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has found that eight out of ten British 16-24 year olds cannot name a single act of genocide since the Holocaust, despite the fact that millions were systematically slaughtered in Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia and Cambodia in recent history. In addition, 45% of the student-age participants could not identify the correct definition of genocide as a deliberate attempt to destroy a national, racial or religious group. The true scope and extent of ignorance is both stifling and deeply concerning. It is surprising that awareness does not parallel a greater access to information and resources available in this Internet saturated age. Awareness is key, and an entirely necessary prerequisite for genocide prevention. So to observe and commemorate its anniversary, let’s take a closer look at the Rwandan Genocide.
Starting in the late 19th century, Rwanda’s two primary ethnic groups – the Hutus and the Tutsis – were segregated under German, and later Belgian, colonial rule. Division was based on supposed racial aesthetics, determined by redundant pseudo-scientific methods. It was claimed that Tutsis possessed more Eurocentric, Caucasian features, and thus they enjoyed better educational and professional opportunities. Following Rwanda’s Independence in 1962, animosity and racial tension heightened between the groups, and the Tutsi population became a scapegoat for numerous crises. For decades this culminated in multiple riots and massacres. In the months prior to the genocide, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a political party and guerrilla army comprising of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, attacked the armies of Juvenal Habyarimana, Rwanda’s then Hutu President. His assassination, following the signing of a peace accord between him and the RPF, acted as a catalyst for the genocide. Following this, horrific violence and unfathomable atrocities ensued.
Very little was done by the international community either before, or in the wake of the genocide. There were grievous failures on behalf of the UN, and many nations individually. Governments and organisations knew what was happening, but no real, effective action was taken. The western world turned a blind eye and failed Rwanda, after effectively creating the pre-conditions for genocide. History can repeat itself in the absence of education and advocacy. Consequently it is of great importance that we know, and we remember.