The Rwandan Genocide: Facts & Timeline

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Rwanda, like many nations with borders created by a former colonial empire, contains multiple ethnic groups that historically didn't get along. In this lesson we are going to discuss the Rwandan Genocide and see how this tragedy occurred.


Who lives in England? The English. Who lives in Korea? The Koreans. Who lived in Rwanda? Well, that's a bit more complicated. Rwanda, like many other nations of Africa, had its borders created by colonial nations, not by the ethnic groups living there. That meant that the country was home to several different ethnic groups, groups that historically didn't get along and never saw themselves as the same culture. Around 1990, there were three ethnic groups in Rwanda. The majority was the Hutu, who were about 85% of the population. The Tutsi represented 14% and only about 1% were Twa. You'll notice that I gave you the statistics for 1990. Within five years, those numbers would be drastically different.

The Rwandan Genocide was based in violent ethnic conflicts

Background to the Rwandan Genocide

While members of the Hutu ethnic group dominated Rwandan society and politics, the Tutsi had enough of a population to pose a political threat. As the 1990s began, the Hutu and Tutsi, who had been rivals for a while, became even more vehemently opposed to each other. The Tutsi claimed that the Hutu-dominated government did not represent their needs, and the Hutu blamed the nation's economic decline on the Tutsi. In addition, the Hutu still feared the Tutsi because the Tutsi themselves had been the oppressive rulers of the region a while back. So, there was a lot of tension, tension which was actively encouraged by the Rwandan president, a Hutu. Then, in 1994, a plane carrying the Rwandan president was shot down. It was enough to push the nation into a civil war.

The Rwandan Genocide

As the Rwandan Civil War broke out, violence swept over the nation. Hutu extremists in the government had already been secretly planning to eliminate the Tutsi, and not just their political rivals but the entire ethnic group. The war provided the excuse they needed. Hutu extremists took control of the government, launched their attack first against Tutsi politicians, and also killed moderate Hutu leaders who may have sided with the Tutsi. Roughly 1,000 Hutu may have been killed for demonstrating support of the Tutsi. Next, the military was sent across the country, massacring anybody even suspected of being Tutsi. For weeks, Tutsi men, women and children were systematically hunted and killed across Rwanda. The police and military encouraged private Hutu civilians to participate, and at times even forced Hutu people to rape and murder Tutsi neighbors. Official estimations place the number of participants in the genocide at up to 20,000, and the number of casualties between 500,000 and 1 million, roughly 75% of the total Tutsi population.

Tutsi refugee camp after the end of the war


The Rwandan Genocide didn't end until the militant Tutsi revolutionary group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front managed to overthrow the extremist Hutu government and install Tutsi rebel Paul Kagame as president. As the world heard about this massacre and the brutality of Rwanda's civil war, people everywhere started to ask: who's to blame? Obviously, the wealthy Hutu extremists were the direct perpetrators and those most responsible for planning and enacting a genocidal program on their own initiative. From the beginning of the 1990s, this group tried to cement their own power by encouraging ethnic divisions in Rwanda. After the Hutu president was killed, they used genocide to ensure that they stayed in power.

The civil war drastically impacted the Rwandan population

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