Never Forget, Never Again: 30 years on from the Rwandan genocide

07 04 24

Thirty years ago today the first shots were fired in what was to become known as the Rwandan genocide. Nick Lowles reflects on this anniversary and why we must redouble efforts ensure Never Again actually means Never Again. 

Over the following 100 days, between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people – 93.7% Tutsis – were murdered at the hands of the majority Hutu population. Neighbours turned on neighbours, friends turned on friends and even family members turned on family members 

The scale of the deaths is unparalleled in recent times. More than six people were murdered every minute of every hour of every day – for more than three months. What’s worse, the deaths were not the result of modern warfare and destructive weapons but rifles, machetes, clubs and knives.

Many of the deaths happened as Tutsis took refuge in churches and community centre. Men, women and children butchered to death as Hutu militias, funded and trained by the French military and supported by willing Hutus in the community, systematically attempted to wipe out an ethnic group.

The statistics are almost unbelievable. One in ten of the population were killed. Two million people were displaced. Over one million Hutus have been indicted for their involvement in the genocide, with 840,000 found guilty.

While men and boys made up the majority of those who were murdered, women and girls were also targeted in the most despicable way. Between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped, 67% going on to become infected with HIV and Aids.

A study of 9-18 year olds who lived through the genocide found “over 90% witnessed killings and had their lives threatened; 35% lost immediate family members; 30% witnessed rape or sexual mutilation; 15% hid under corpses.” 

What is almost as reprehensible about this genocide is that it happened in our lifetime and – depressingly – without any intervention from the international community. Small contingents of French and Belgian troops were in the country at the time of the genocide but were ordered back to their bases by their superiors, before being told to prioritise European citizens and then being withdrawn from the country altogether.

The UN Security Council failed to act the issue until the conflict was almost over, by which time the genocide had happened. More shockingly, the US and UK Governments were aware of what was happening but choose to withhold information about the scale of the killings from the wider international community and the UN Security Council in fear that they would be compelled to act. 

The divisions in Rwanda society were partly the product of the country’s colonial past. While the Tutsis and Hutus as ethnic groups date back many hundreds of years, the seeds of separation and resentment were largely created by the Belgians, who occupied and controlled the country from 1916 until Independence in 1962. The Belgians favoured the minority Tutsis and gave them a range of advantages over the majority Hutus. They even made all Rwandans carry identity cards that classified people by their ethnicity.

A Hutu revolution in 1959, supported by the Belgians, forced as many as 300,000 Tutsis to flee Rwanda, and when Belgium granted Rwanda independence in 1962, the country was governed by parties representing the Hutu majority. The Tutsis faced discrimination and violence, and thousands more fled to neighbouring Burundi. By the mid-1960s, half of the Tutsi population was living outside Rwanda. 

But that did little to reduce the discrimination Tutsis faced in Rwanda and as the country’s economic troubles grew in the 1980s this only became more intense. In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi rebel group, invaded from Uganda and while the attack failed, Hutu extremists began plotting to finally rid their country of their Tutsi problem.

A peace accord, signed in August 1993, might have brought an end to hostilities, the Hutu extremists were furious. They began drawing up lists of Tutsis and moderate Hutu leaders to be dealt with, whilst simultaneously ramping up anti-Tutsi propaganda, often alleging that the Tutsis were planning a killing spree. 

Radio RTLM, a private Hutu-owned radio station, relentlessly condemned Tutsis and their supporters, characterising them as subhuman and calling them cockroaches. Responding to popular fear, the Hutu Government began importing huge quantities of machetes and distributed the weapons to the Interahamwe (“Those Who Attack Together”) and the Impuzamugambi (“Those Who Have the Same Goal”) militias.

On 6th April 1994, a plane carrying Rwanda’s president, Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down by a surface to air missle as it was landing in Kigali, the country’s capital. While the Hutus blamed the Tutsis, it has always been widely suspected that the assassination was the work of Hutu extremists to remove the moderate leader and give an excuse for the genocide that was to follow.

Lessons forgotten

In the aftermath of the Second World War, and the horrors of the Holocaust, the international community said Never Again. Institutions were created and conventions passed to ensure that the systematic elimination of entire ethnic or religious groups could never happen again. Every year, on Remembrance Sunday and on Holocaust Memorial Day, our political leaders once again invoke the language of Never Again. Sadly, the Rwandan genocide has taught us that sometimes words can be hollow.

Just a year after Rwanda, 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered in Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serb army. Twenty-two years after Rwanda, more than 25,000 Rohingya Muslims were killed and a further one million forced to flee their homes, many going abroad. More recently, we have had a cultural genocide in the Xinjiang region of China, where over one million Uyghur Muslims are in “re-education camps”, the Uyghur language and culture are severely restricted and mosques and other Islamic cultural centres destroyed.

On 7 October 2023, Hamas terrorists murdered over 1,200 Israeli Jews. The Israeli response is now being considered by the International Court of Justice as a genocide.

Five years ago today, I wrote the best way to mark the anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, and send a tribute to all those who died and those who continue to suffer today, was for us all to redouble our efforts to ensure Never Again actually means Never Again. 

While I stand by these sentiments, I realise that this is not enough. Given a chance, religious and political extremists will never cease to find ways to attack and even eradicate their opponents. The best defence is to rebuild and defend those institutions that were created after the Holocaust and enforce the rules and conventions that subsequently emerged.

Without real sanctions and accountability people will continue to carry out genocides and mass killings because they think – or even know – they can get away with them. It is only when people fear that they will be held to account for the actions that they might be deterred. This, ultimately, will be the best way to remember those who died in the Rwandan genocide.


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