Rwanda, the world's swiftest genocide

Initially reported to be spontaneous, 1994's genocide was long planned, and left more than 800,000 people dead, including about 70 percent of all the Tutsis in Rwanda.

Late on April 6, 1994, two surface-to-air missiles hit the Rwandan presidential jet on its final approach to the airport in Kigali, bringing it crashing to the ground and killing all on board.

Those killed included Rwanda's leader, Juvénal Habyarimana, and the president of neighboring Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira.

Within hours, across Rwanda, a massacre began that would end 100 days later with as many as 1 in 5 of the country's entire population murdered, mostly with machetes, hammers, and clubs.

It was not, as early news reports suggested, a spontaneous outpouring of tribal hatred by the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority over the death of the Hutu president.

Instead, the world's swiftest genocide was long planned. Lists of Tutsis had been drawn up and distributed. Container loads of machetes had been delivered and stored. Radio stations had spent months broadcasting euphemistic orders to prepare to kill.

The aim, formulated by the extremist core of the Hutu elite that refused to share power, was to eliminate the Tutsis from Rwanda forever. They almost succeeded – more than 800,000 people died, among them an estimated 70 percent of all Tutsis living in Rwanda at the time.

United Nations peacekeeping commanders, Red Cross officials, and diplomats stationed in the country warned repeatedly in the weeks ahead of the killings that something terrible was coming.

The world looked away. As the killings intensified, UN soldiers at first failed to intervene, then fled when they came under attack. The country was left to its fate.

From the north, however, marched the Rwandan Patriotic Front, then a rebel army under the command of the charismatic and West Point-trained Gen. Paul Kagame.

They fought all the way to Kigali and then beyond, chasing the men with the machetes out of Rwanda and eventually, by mid-July, bringing an end to the slaughter.

That rebel army is now a political party, which has ruled Rwanda since 1994. Kagame is now President Kagame, midway through his second democratically elected term in office.

An age-old system of village justice, called gacaca, was dusted off because of the overwhelming demands that the country's court system would encounter. Some 2 million cases were processed through its rudimentary system of trial courts.

Held in public areas in villages and towns nationwide, these courts encouraged accused killers to face the relatives of those they'd murdered, confess, give details, and ask for forgiveness. Largely as a way of clearing the air and of bringing some sense of justice, it worked.

Separately, the architects of the genocide, including politicians, policemen, and priests, were transferred to a purpose-built court center in Arusha in northern Tanzania, called the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Its work is due to be completed this year, and 61 trials already have finished or are in progress. So far, 29 people have been convicted.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Rwanda, the world's swiftest genocide
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today