The genocide memorial museum in Kigali (Photo: AdamJones/

In the course of three months in 1994, between 800 000 and 1 million Rwandans were brutally slaughtered in systemised attacks. The reconciliation process that followed has been hailed all over the world. But for many Rwandans the hundred days of horror linger. More than a lesson in reconciliation and how to move on, the Rwanda genocide is a lesson in the importance of intervening.

On 6th April 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. Within hours of this attack, mass killings of the Rwandan Tutsi population began. Over the next 100 days, between 800 000 and 1 000 000 Rwandans were killed in a systemised attack that destroyed approximately 70 percent of the Tutsi population.

The nature of the violence in Rwanda can be characterised by its speed and brutality. Some 10 000 people a day were killed at close proximity, often with crude instruments such as machetes, scythes, clubs and sharpened sticks. The killers were not only the Rwandan army, and the government-backed Hutu militia. Many victims were killed or tortured by their neighbours and community members - people they saw every day.

During the genocide, an estimated 250 000 to 500 000 women were raped. This led to a massive outbreak of HIV/AIDs, which in some cases was the intention behind the rape. While some women were killed after rape or died as a result of their injuries, an unknown number of women became pregnant after the attack. Due to the shame and trauma associated with these attacks, many women have concealed what happened to them from their children.

Twenty-five years on, Rwanda is a different and arguably more unified country, however, some survivors feel that justice has not been served and their voices are being forgotten.

Justice for the victims
The sheer number of perpetrators implicated in the Rwandan genocide presented a significant problem for the Rwandan government and the international community. The Rwandan government warned that it would take over 200 years for an international court to deal with every perpetrator. As a result, some 120 000 accused genocidaires (perpetrators of genocide) languished for a number of years in Rwandan prisons, often in dangerous, even murderous, conditions. In 2003, the government finally realised that the perpetrators could not be dealt with by the fragile legal system, so 20 000 prisoners were released from the prisons and back to their communities.

The UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) aimed to bring perpetrators to account and provide justice for the victims of genocide. Despite the failings of the international tribunal to adequately address the crimes, it has provided valuable case law and refined the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity in international criminal law. However, over the 11 years the court was active, it was ultimately only able to indict 93 perpetrators.

Between 2002 and 2012, the Rwandan government implemented the gacaca courts, a form of justice that allows for collective healing and discussion in a public forum.  The traditional form of justice was moulded, with significant intervention from the Rwandan government, to fit the contemporary world. However, the courts faced both international interest and criticism. Condemned by some as a form of ‘victor’s justice,’ there was no legal representation for the alleged perpetrators and sentences seemed almost arbitrary and inconsistent.

Rwanda: 25-years on
25 years on, Rwanda still struggles. There are restrictions on freedom of speech and political activity, with members of the opposition ‘disappearing’ or dying in mysterious circumstances as recently as March 2019. In 2015, the Rwandan constitution was amended, allowing President Paul Kagame to stand for election for an unprecedented third term of office.

Although the prison population in Rwanda has significantly dropped since 1998, largely due to the release of a vast number of supposed genocidaires who were being held without trial, the country is still in the top ten of prison population rates globally. This could be a legacy of the genocide, but also signifies a larger problem of incarceration and suppression of the political opposition. According to Human Rights Watch, torture or pressuring for information is a problem throughout the prison system.

While survivors are often considered the lucky ones, they are haunted by their memories. Perpetrators have now been released from prisons and in many cases are living back in the communities where they committed their crimes. Rwanda is a country that is slowly reckoning with its complicated past. While some scars are fading, victims and perpetrators alike are faced with searing memories of those 100 days. In 2003, the UN designated the 7th April as “the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda” to ensure that the genocide is not forgotten. It also serves to remind us of the danger of divisive politics and to no longer be bystanders of atrocity. We should not forget or ignore genocide, lest it happen again.

The lesson learnt
Genocide is not a word that should be used lightly. It is a highly nuanced and complicated term, tied up in legal rhetoric and carrying great obligation to do something. Yet, sometimes it a correct description of the circumstances. It is crucial to use the term when it is necessary and to intervene to prevent atrocity. Twenty-five years ago, the international community were greatly criticised for not intervening in Rwanda. Memos sent from representatives in Rwanda back to the UN speak of stockpiling weapons, escalating tensions and divisive rhetoric inciting violence. However, the international community largely stood by and watched the events unfold - a source of apparent regret for the US government and the leadership of the UN at the time.

The ground-breaking Responsibility to Protect mandate was signed by UN member states in 2005. This treaty is supposed to protect vulnerable populations from mass atrocity, and is arguably the most tangible result of the Rwandan genocide and the other conflicts of the 1990s, including the Bosnian and Kosovan wars. But there is still a great reluctance to use the word ‘genocide’ or intervene to protect vulnerable populations, even in cases where there is insurmountable evidence that genocidal activity or other mass atrocity is occurring. There has been no international intervention to help, for example, the Rohingya in Myanmar or the Uyghur in China. Only after immense pressure from the community themselves and few international actors was there an intervention to assist the Yazidi in the ISIS caliphate.

The danger of not recognising or intervening to prevent genocide come at a huge cost of life, culture, language, and ultimately can result in history repeating itself.

By Anna Gopsill, PhD candidate and communication assistant