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Last Updated: 04/01/2009
Genocide in Rwanda: Draft Case Study for Teaching Ethics and International Affairs
Stephen D. Wrage

This case aims to use the genocide of 1994 in Rwanda to help students appreciate what may be the roots and common causes of genocides. It is written in the suspicion that there may be some sort of "recipe" that can be followed by political elites bent on the extermination of a group.

This article was originally published on

“During the ninety days that began on April 6, 1994, Rwanda experienced the most intensive slaughter in this blood-filled century. It is important that the world know that these killings were not spontaneous or accidental ... they were most certainly not the result of ancient tribal struggles... These events grew from a policy aimed at the systematic destruction of a people.” 1

President Clinton, Kigali, March 25, 1998


Few countries are less strategically significant than Rwanda. No precious or strategic minerals have been discovered there, nor is it located on any “arc of crisis” or near any choke point for navigation. It is a small mountainous state in south central Africa, bordered by Uganda, Tanzania and the Congo, no larger than Maryland and landlocked with the nearest port more than six hundred miles away. Coffee and tea are the source of two thirds of its foreign currency, but most of its citizens live largely outside the money economy, practicing subsistence agriculture or herding, trading by barter, and earning the equivalent of about $200 per year.

The population of Rwanda is divided into three groups: the Hutu, the Tutsi and the Twa, whose proportions in 1990 were roughly 85%, 14% and 1% respectively. 2 The Twa are a pygmy people who were cave-dwellers before being dominated and displaced by Hutu or Tutsi invaders in the 15 th or 16 th century. It is not clear which of those groups arrived first, but both are thought to have migrated into the mountains of Rwanda about five hundred years ago. Each claims to have arrived before the other and considers the other late-coming invaders.

Some ethnographers assert that the Hutu are a Bantu people who came from the south and west and that the Tutsi are a Nilotic people who came from the north and east. Other ethnographers and linguists maintain that there is no demonstrable difference between Tutsis and Hutus in appearance or language or genetic background and assert that the divide between the two groups is based on imagined distinctions. 3

There may be no genetic distinction between the Hutu and Tutsi, but there is an economic divide. The Hutu traditionally were tillers of the earth; the Tutsi, herdsmen. Perhaps because cattle make more valuable assets than corn, over time the Tutsi came to be a wealthier class, and perhaps because property and power tend to be distributed in the same way, the Tutsi minority historically dominated the Hutu, even though the Hutu were five or six times as numerous. Some sources describe the Tutsi as a superior caste of aristocrats and the Hutu as their vassals. 4

The Hutu and Tutsi certainly perceived themselves as different, and each made the contrast the core of their view of the world and of their sense of self. They defined themselves by their differences — Tutsis were what Hutus were not and vice versa — and they clashed in the stories they tell about themselves. 5 For example, since both groups were thoroughly evangelized by Belgian missionaries early in this century, each group is quite conscious of the story of Cain, the farmer and Abel, the herdsman, and each makes it central to its public myth. 6

The Belgian colonial authorities 7 strongly favored the Tutsi who they perceived as taller, finer-featured natural aristocrats, and they abetted and encouraged the Tutsis treatment of the supposedly shorter, darker Hutu as serfs.8 In 1933 the Belgians helped deepen and perpetuate the divide between Hutus and Tutsis by establishing an identity card system that labeled every citizen of Rwanda a Hutu, a Tutsi or a Twa. As the Belgians began to pare down their presence in Rwanda preparatory to their total withdrawal in 1962, Hutu revolutionaries unleashed violent attacks on Tutsis, killing several thousand. Such attacks continued sporadically under the long dictatorship of Hutu General Juvenal Habyarimana who seized power in a bloody coup in 1973 and ruled until the day the genocide began.9 The Habyarimana regime overtly favored the Hutu majority and by 1990 more than a million Tutsi had left the country, about half of them fleeing to armed camps across the border to the north in Uganda. Although conditions for Tutsi were always oppressive and intermittently lethal under Habyarimana’s twenty-one-year rule, Rwanda prospered to a considerable degree. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was in some respects close to exemplary, at least in comparison to other former French and Belgian colonies in Africa. 10

Preparation for Genocide

By the late 1980s, Habyarimana’s hold on power was slipping. 1989 was a year of grave drought and 1991 and 1993 were equally bad. Starting in 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (or RPF, as the Tutsi rebels based in Uganda called themselves) launched numerous attacks across the border. Habyarimana’s dominance of the political scene was waning as political parties proliferated, partly as the result of American pressure to move toward democratization.11 Most of these parties were affiliated with the cause of “Hutu Power.”

Hutu Power proponents backed a series of Tutsi exclusion laws limiting Tutsis’ rights to own property, banning marriage to non-Tutsis, and denying the right to travel or to join most organizations or to form political parties. Hutu Power newspapers and radio programs warned that the Tutsi insurgents would overrun Rwanda and enslave and murder all Hutus, and preached the need to organize for self-defense.12 To this end they sponsored youth militias, many of them based on soccer clubs. Gourevitch describes the largest of these militias, the interahamwe, whose name means “those who attack together”:

The interahamwe, and the various copycat groups that were eventually subsumed into it, promoted genocide as a carnival romp. Hutu Power youth leaders, jetting around on motorbikes and sporting pop hairstyles, dark glasses, and flamboyantly colored pajama suits and robes, preached ethnic solidarity and civil defense to increasingly packed rallies, where alcohol usually flowed freely, giant banners splashed with hagiographic portraits of Habyarimana flapped in the breeze, and paramilitary drills were conducted like the latest hot dance moves. The president and his wife often turned out to be cheered at these spectacles, while in private the members of the interahamwe were organized into small neighborhood bands, drew up lists of Tutsis, and went on retreats to practice burning houses, tossing grenades, and hacking dummies up with machetes. 13

As the RPF scored successes in the north, Habyarimana chose a path of negotiation. On August 4, 1993 he signed a peace agreement with the insurgents in the Tanzanian town of Arusha. Under the Arusha Accords, Tutsi refugees would come home, the RPF would be included in a new transition government, elections would be held and a United Nations peacekeeping force would be sent to observe the process.

The promised power sharing divided the old Habyarimana oligarchy and cost the dictator many supporters. At the same time the promised moderation outraged the new extremists. An end to RPF attacks in the north threatened to rob them of their militias’ rationale for preparing violence against the Tutsis.

In October of 1993, the Security Council approved the United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR) and sent a multinational force of 5000 troops to Kigali under the command of Canadian Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire. It was on the 3 rd of the same month that eighteen U.S. Army Rangers died in a firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia. Later that same month the U.S. Navy ship Harlan County carrying Canadian and American peacekeeping forces was turned back from the docks of Port au Prince by an angry demonstration organized by the regime of dictator Raul Cedras.

Within days of the UN deployment, Ngeze was warning in his broadcasts that UNAMIR was nothing but a device “to help the RPF take power by force.... If the RPF has decided to kill us, then let’s kill each other. Let whatever is smoldering erupt.... At such a time, a lot of blood will be spilled.” 14

On January 11, 1994, General Dallaire sent an urgent fax to the Department of Peacekeeping at the UN headquarters in New York and to its director, Kofi Annan. The fax was titled “Request for Protection for Informant” and it detailed the reports of an informant high in interahamwe ranks. The informant said he had been charged with organizing a plot involving forty-eight commandos and a government minister to kill opposition leaders. Dallaire’s fax read:

They hoped to provoke the RPF... and provoke a civil war. Deputies were to be assassinated upon entry or exit from parliament. Belgian troops [the core of the UNAMIR force was from Belgium] were to be provoked and if Belgian soldiers resorted to force a number of them were to be killed and thus guarantee Belgian withdrawal from Rwanda.

Since UNAMIR mandate [the informant] has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali. He suspects it is for their extermination. Example he gave is that in twenty minutes his personnel could kill up to a thousand Tutsis.

Informant states he disagrees with anti-Tutsi extermination. He supports opposition to RPF but cannot support killing of innocent persons. He also stated that he believes the President does not have full control over all elements of his old Party/Faction.

Informant is prepared to provide location of major weapons cache with at least a hundred thirty-five weapons.... He was ready to go to the arms cache tonight & if we gave him the following guarantee. He requests that he and his family (his wife and four children) be placed under our protection. 15

Kofi Annan, who at that time was favored by the United States to succeed Boutros Boutros-Ghali as Secretary General, rejected the idea of a raid to seize weapons, saying it was beyond the scope of a peacekeeping operation. His office directed that the informant’s report be passed to government officials, in keeping with an agreement on information-sharing that was initialed at the time the UNAMIR forces entered the country.

The Execution

On April 6, 1994 President Habyarimana was returning by plane from a follow-on meeting with RPF representatives in Arusha. As the plane approached Kigali, it was hit and destroyed by a surface-to-air missile fired from near the airport. All aboard were killed. Hutu Power radio announced that RPF forces had infiltrated the country and were responsible for the attack. It was time to strike back in self-defense.

In the city the killing began with squads working from lists. They visited the home and work addresses of prominent Tutsis and moderate Hutus and took them to warehouses and army bases where they were executed. There was little rape or looting at the start and the victims were primarily adult males.

In two or three days, after the political decapitation was nearly complete, the Hutu extremists shifted their tactics to terrorizing people in the cities, driving them into the countryside, straining them through roadblocks on the way and selecting those whose names appeared on lists for execution. At this point it was typical for families to be exterminated as well and property was seized. 16

In the countryside the murders were typically committed in schoolyards and churchyards. Government radio announced that churches would be sanctuaries and in this way encouraged potential victims to concentrate themselves there. The churches were then surrounded by militias who often set up barbed wire and watch fires. Tutsis who defended themselves with no more than sticks and rocks sometimes were able to make standoffs last for days or weeks, even after water supplies and food were cut off. Finally experienced killers armed with rifles and grenades would be sent to the town to organize the slaughter. These interahamwe professionals often found willing executioners among the locals, but they also took care to compel as many people as possible to “do their duty” with a machete. 17

Doing murder with a machete is exhausting, so the militias were organized to work in shifts. At the day’s end, the Achilles tendons of unprocessed victims were sometimes cut before the murderers retired to rest, to feast on the victims’ cattle and to drink. Victims who could afford to pay often chose to die from a bullet. 18

The remains of the Habyarimana government collaborated openly with the Hutu extremists.19 They did not have much difficulty keeping the rest of the world at bay. Sovereign states and the UN were glad to look the other way, and this was remarkable since the genocide had started with a shocking act of provocation.

In the first hours after President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, General Dallaire, commander of the United Nations forces, had sent ten of his troops, all Belgians, to the office of the Prime Minister. Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana was a moderate Hutu, labeled by Ngeze as an accomplice to the inyenzi. Hutu militiamen surrounded her office, overwhelmed the ten UN soldiers, disarmed them, then hacked the Prime Minister to death. When General Dallaire heard what had happened, he hurried to the headquarters of the Hutu Power party. His car was stopped and his escorts arrested. He continued alone on foot to the party headquarters, and as he neared it he came upon the mutilated bodies of two of the men he had detailed to the Prime Minister’s office. When he reached the headquarters he was himself detained and stonewalled by lower officials. While he unavailingly demanded answers of the Hutu Power leaders, the other eight soldiers were tortured and killed.

As Dallaire’s informant had foreseen, the Belgian government responded by immediately withdrawing its forces from Rwanda. Dallaire led the remainder of the UN forces (about 450 men) in Rwanda throughout the genocide and brought them home safe, but he was unable to do much more than constantly move them about in order to keep them out from under Hutu mortar fire. 20

The genocide continued with astonishing speed. Although the killing was “low tech,” usually performed with a machete or a hoe, and although it was carried out in large part by amateurs — the neighbors and workmates of the victims — “the dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust.” 21

On May 10, 1994 the United Nations began to discuss sending 5,500 troops to Rwanda. The Clinton Administration opposed the plan and called for a smaller force. On May 31, 1994 Secretary General Boutros-Ghali reported to the Security Council, “We have failed in our response to the agony of Rwanda, and thus we have acquiesced in the continued loss of human lives.... There can be little doubt [that the killing in Rwanda] constitutes genocide.” The Clinton Administration took exception to this judgement as well. “As a responsible government, you don’t just go around hollering ‘genocide,’” U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda David Rawson replied. 22

By late May the pace of the killing had slowed as victims grew more scarce.

A Note on Outcomes:

The slaughter continued for just under one hundred days. Between the assassination of President Habyarimana on April 6th, 1994 and the fall of Kigali to the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front on July 6th, 800,000 people (about 7% of the population of Rwanda) were murdered. The slaughter was astonishing in its speed and intensity, yet also surprising for how quickly and easily it was stopped.

The Hutu-dominated Rwandan Government Forces outnumbered the Tutsi forces of the RPF by almost three to one.23 Nevertheless, they fell back quickly as the Tutsi military advanced from bases in Uganda. On the 18th of July, twelve days after the RPF took the capital city of Kigali, the "war" was declared over. Rwanda remains under the rule of puppet Hutu officials appointed by the leaders of the RPF.

In October 1994 the UN "sent 26 human rights monitors to investigate what may have been a million murders."24 About 6,000 suspects await trial in prison with an average of two inmates dying per day. In the town of Kadogo 147 inmates remain in a special prison built to house juveniles, aged seven to fourteen at the time of the genocide, who have been charged with murder. The government of Rwanda voted against the UN resolution establishing the war crimes tribunal as it was not empowered to impose the death penalty.

In December 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke to the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa saying "We, the international community, should have been more active in the early stages of the atrocities in Rwanda in 1994, and called them what they were — genocide." On March 25, 1998, President Clinton spoke at the airport in Kigali saying the words quoted at the top of the case study.


Allison, Graham and Robert Blackwill, "Case No. 10: The United States, the United Nations, and Rwanda," Course material for ISP-202: Central Issues of American Foreign Policy.

Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities. London: Verso.

Gourevitch, Philip. 1998. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux.

Hochschild, Adam. 1998. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Kertzer, David. 1988. Ritual Politics and Power. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Klinghoffer, Arthur J. 1998. The International Dimension of Genocide in Rwanda. New York: New York University Press.

Lewis, Paul, "Downside of Doing Good: Disaster Relief Can Harm," The New York Times, 27 February 1999, page B9.

London Economist, ‘Rwanda’s mass of murderers," 29 October 1994.

McNeill, William H. 1986. Mythistory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Prunier, Gerard. 1995. The Rwanda Crisis: A History of Genocide, New York: Columbia University Press.

Rosen, Gary, "Can We Prevent Genocide?", Commentary, February 1999, pp 51-56.

Speke, John Hanning. 1864. Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile. New York: Harper.

Note 1: Quoted in Gourevitch, 350.

Note 2: By 1995, the proportions had shifted to Hutus: 95%, Tutsi: 4% and Twa: 1%.

Note 3: Gourevitch is skeptical of any ethnic distinction: “With time, Hutus and Tutsis spoke the same language, followed the same religion, intermarried, and lived intermingled, without territorial distinctions, on the same hills, sharing the same social and political culture in small chiefdoms. The chiefs were called Mwamis, and some of them were Hutus, some Tutsis; Hutus and Tutsis fought together in the Mwamis’ armies; through marriage and clientage, Hutus could become hereditary Tutsis, and Tutsis could become hereditary Hutus. Because of all this mixing, ethnographers have come to agree that Hutus and Tutsis cannot properly be called distinct ethnic groups.” (Gourevitch, 47-48.) 
Imagined distinctions may be the most significant ones, however. See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities , in which he argues that all human communities create themselves in their collective imaginations through the use of certain shared symbols, rituals and narratives.

Note 4: See Rosen, 52.

Note 5: Historian William H. McNeill and anthropologist David Kertzer propose that all “human in-groups” (to use a phrase of McNeill’s) share within their group certain stories that describe themselves to themselves and explain their origins and their natures as groups. These stories of origin and purpose they call public myths. See William H. McNeill, Mythistory, and “The Care and Repair of Public Myth.” See also David Kertzer, Ritual, Politics and Power.

Note 6: In the Book of Genesis, Cain was a farmer and Abel was a herdsman. They made their offerings to God – Cain from his crops, Abel from his herds, but God looked on Abel’s offerings with favor. Moved by jealousy and anger, Cain killed Abel. (See Genesis, Chapter 4, Verses 1-10.) Tutsi preachers habitually recalled the ancient crime of the farmer, Cain, while Hutu propaganda before and after the genocide evoked the many ages of suffering of poor farmers long abused by God’s favorites.

Note 7: Rwanda was subjected to colonization later than most of Africa, reflecting the fact that it had been a coherent, powerful kingdom. The explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley attempted to visit Rwanda but was repulsed by warriors. The first Caucasian to enter the kingdom was a Count Von Gotzen of Germany who did not arrive until 1894, nine years after the Berlin Conference at which the colonial borders of much of Africa were determined. Rwanda passed to Belgium in the game of colonial checkers that followed the German defeat in World War I. (See Gourevitch, 53-4.) On the dismal Belgian record of rule, see Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.

Note 8: European explorers and colonizers found in the Hutu and Tutsi confirmation of a bizarre tenet of the “race science” that was developed in the latter half of the 19 th century. One of the race science faithful, John Hanning Speke, the adventurer who named Lake Victoria, endorsed the “Hamitic Hypothesis” in his Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile . 

Speke and others identified the Hutu as the cursed sons of Ham, who was the son of the biblical Noah, and the Tutsi as the blessed descendants of Noah’s favored sons, Shem and Japeth. As the story is told in Genesis, 9:18-27, Noah has survived the Flood, founded a new family, and reached the age of 600. He one day sprawled, drunk, unconscious, and naked in his tent. His youngest son, Ham, found him there, but did not cover his father’s nakedness. Instead, he left his father there, shamefully uncovered. Shem and Japeth later came upon their father and, walking backward so as not to see his nakedness, decorously draped him in a cloak. On waking, Noah learned from Shem and Japeth that his son Ham had not shown him proper respect. Noah damned Ham to be a slave, and to be the father of slaves, forever after. 

This story explained to colonial governors in Africa why it was right that they hold peasant populations in servitude and employ pastoral elites to keep them subdued. (It was of course a useful justification as well for slave owners in the American South.) This teaching would serve for decades as a rationale for dominance by the Tutsi minority, then as a call to avenge an ancient wrong that justified, indeed demanded, the violent redress that the Hutu offered in the mid 1990s. (See Gourevitch, 55-58.)

Note 9: It is often remarked that the violence between Hutus and Tutsis goes back to time immemorial and can never be averted, but Belgian records show that in fact there was a strong sense among Rwandans of all three groups of belonging to a Rwandan nation, and that before around 1960, violence on ethnic lines was uncommon and mass murder of the sort seen in 1994 was unheard of. 1959 was a bad year for ethnic violence, and then there followed a string of bad years that are remembered like grim vintages. 1963 was such a year, as was 1973. (See Gourevitch, 66.)

Note 10: “[C]ompared to much of the rest of postcolonial Africa, Rwanda appeared Edenic to foreign-aid donors.... Rwanda was tranquil – or, like the volcanoes in the northwest, dormant; it had nice roads, high church attendance, low crime rates, and steadily improving standards of public health and education. If you were a bureaucrat with a foreign-aid budget to unload, and your professional success was to be measured by your ability not to lie or gloss too much when you filed happy statistical reports at the end of each fiscal year, Rwanda was the ticket. Belgium shoveled money into its old stomping ground;... Switzerland sent more development aid to Rwanda than to any other country on earth; Washington, Bonn, Ottawa, Tokyo, and the Vatican all counted Kigali as a favorite charity.” (Gourevitch, 76.)

Note 11: In April 1991 the American ambassador proposed abolishing identity cards with ethnic coding. The French ambassador opposed the plan. (Gourevitch, 90)

Note 12: The most notable of the radio preachers was Hassan Ngeze, “a former bus-fare collector who had established himself as an entrepreneur, selling newspapers and drinks outside a gas station.” (Gourevitch, 85.) He popularized the term “ inyenzi” (which means “cockroaches”) to refer to Tutsi and warned everyone to be ready to defend themselves against inyenzi and their “accomplices,” meaning moderate Hutus. In December 1990 Ngeze issued “The Ten Hutu Commandments,” the last of which was “Hutus must stop having mercy on the Tutsis.” (Rosen, 52.)

Note 13: Gourevitch, 93. Between 1990 and 1994 the Habyarimana government imported massive shipments of machetes from China and rifles and grenades from France and distributed them to these militias.

Note 14: See Gourevitch, 100. The January 11, 1994 issue of Ngeze’s newspaper warned UNAMIR to “consider its danger.” (Gourevitch, 103.)

Note 15: Fax quoted in Gourevitch, 103-04. See also New York Times, February 28, 1998.

Note 16: As early as the first week, rape was deployed as a weapon to humiliate Tutsi women and destroy Tutsi families. Twa men were employed as rapists since there was an additional stigma attached to rape by a man of the pygmy race. (Gourevitch, 8.)

Note 17: Videotapes of the killings show that three or more killers often hacked on a single victim. Since the organizers wished to implicate as many people in the killing as possible, there may have been many more killers than victims. There were at least 800,000 victims. It may have been possible to evade the killing by migrating away from the violence, then returning to a village where the slaughter was already complete.

Note 18: The following description is from the London Economist, May 28, 1994, in an article entitled “The Art of Death”:

Using the organizational skills of the local civil service and the muscle of the army, it was easy for the Hutu militiamen to herd 5,000 members of the minority Tutsi tribe, and some Hutu members of opposition parties, into the church of St. Vincent – and then to kill them all. 
....Militiamen controlled by the ruling party had been asking every local council to organize ‘local security meetings’ since December. These were widely taken as means of identifying Tutsis for murder later on. ‘The Tutsis did not go, and those Hutu who refused would find themselves on a death list,’ says a UN consultant until recently based in Kigali. 
Quantities of machetes and grenades were sent to militia leaders, under the supervision of their leader, Robert Kavuga and the army director, Lieutenant Colonel Theomeste Bagasora....” 
....With the help of the army, the victims were then crowded into St. Vincent, a few yards away. Then the militiamen were let loose. They tossed grenades in through the windows, sprayed machine gun bullets from next to the altar, and finally went in – with their wives and children – to finish the slaughter with machetes. The local council’s earth-moving equipment was used to bury the bodies of the maybe 5,000 victims in a neat mass grave....”

Note 19: “Government ministers did nothing to prevent the slaughter. Dr. Rwamakuba, a medical doctor, and secretary for primary and secondary education, shouted during a recent interview; ‘We have tried to protect the minority [Tutsis] for 15 years. But they don’t want protection, they want war.’ Meanwhile two miles away helpless Tutsis were being murdered.” (From the London Economist, May 28, 1994, “The Art of Death.”)

Note 20: “Unless we’d received more equipment or a different mandate, all I had was a bunch of people waiting for the next mortar to hit them.” General Dallaire in an interview with Allan Thompson of the Toronto Star, July 31, 1994.

Note 21: Gourevitch, 3.

Note 22: See Alison and Blackwill, 2-3.

Note 23: The Hutu RGF had about 40,000 members, the Tutsi RPF about 15,000. The RGF was armed, trained and supported by the French who had long had ties to Rwanda as part of their effort to sustain Francophone Africa. The RGF received little or no support, however, from the extremist Hutu interahamwe militia which disbanded, melted into the Hutu refugee population and fled to camps in Uganda, the Congo and Burundi.

Note 24: Economist, 29 October 1994. "Rwanda’s Mass Murderers."

Stephen D. Wrage is Associate Professor of Political Science at the United States Naval Academy. Dr. Wrage writes and teaches about the formulation of U.S. foreign policy and on issues of ethics in international affairs.