Rwanda genocide

Genocide under embargo

In 100 days, it is estimated that more than 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda. A massacre to which media coverage arrived too late.

“By late afternoon, they looked like water lilies cloaking the river's surface. Only when the light reflected off the water did you catch a truer glimpse of them: bodies by the dozen, bloated and obscene, floating together downstream”.

Tom Giles, BBC, April 7th, of 1994


The wave of violence that fell over Rwanda goes back to the ethnic conflict between Hutus and Tutsis.

The tensions between the two were already coming from Rwanda’s colonial period.

After World War I, Belgium assumed the leadership of the colonies.

The Belgians consolidated the distinction between the two ethnics, issuing identity cards that indicated the citizens’ ethnics.

Besides, the Tutsi minority was favored for leadership jobs, over the Hutu majority.

In 1959, the Hutus rebelled against the Tutsis, forcing thousands of Tutsis to escape to Uganda. From 1961, the victorious Hutus expelled the Tutsi monarch that had the power and declared Rwanda as a republic.

The independence of the now republic was granted by Belgium in 1962.

But, after the independence, the violence between the two ethnics would aggravate.

The Civil War bursts

In 1973, the General Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu, rises to power and commandes the suspension of violence.

After a long period of more than 15 years, Rwanda lived in a relative peace, with the majority of Tutsis refugeed in Uganda.

Nontheless, the civil war that broke in Uganda made the Tutsi exiled in the country to join the Ugandese rebel forces. In 1987, the Tutsis form the Front patriotique rwandais, (RPF) (Rwandan Patriotic Front) and, in 1990, invade the East of Rwanda.

This was the turning point that Habyarimana needed to unify the Hutus against the common enemy: the Tutsis.




In the country’s capital, Kigali, the motivation given by the president financed the creation of the Kangura newspaper, which started to spread anti-Tutsi messages.

The French and the Belgians didn’t hold back in supporting the Hutus against the FPR, supplying weapons to them. The massacres and the persecutions continued, intensifying in 1992.

In August of 1992, the hope returned. The president Habyarimana signed, in Arusha, in Tanzania, a peace agreement with the FPR, which included a transition government to Rwanda.

The extremist Hutus, however, weren’t be satisfied with the Arusha Agreement. The worst was yet to happen.

The escalation of violence

On April 6th, 1994, am airplane that carried the president Habyarimana and the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot, not leaving any survivors.

Accusations varied between the extremist Hutus and the FPR.

Only an hour after the attack, the Hutu militia blocked the roads and the streets, as if it was all part of a previously defined plan.

The RTLM (Radio Télevision des Milles Colines), also diffusor of the anti-Tutsi propaganda, commanded the start of the Tutsi killing.

The door for the mass genocide of the Tutsi and the moderate Hutu had been opened.

The Hutu militia called Interahamwe was in charge of executing Tutsis, with arms and lists of targets to hit were distributed among the locals.

Neighbors killed neighbors, teachers killed students and even priests and nuns were accused of homicide.

The chaos and horror had settled and there was no turning back.

Parallel to the genocide of thousands of Tutsis, a civil war between the FPR and the Hutus broke in the territory.

On April 12th of 1994, only a week after the start of the killing, there were only 21 foreign journalists in Rwandese territory.

One of them was Rui Araújo, RTP’s special envoy.

«Mortar shots and bursts of automatic weapons, the combats in Kigali continue. The Rwandese troops entered the airport this morning, they are here behind me, the FPR rebels siege the city and us».

Through that month of April, the story of one of the worst crimes of the 20th Century wasn’t having highlight in the TV coverage. Such situation is even more flagrant due to the globalized age of satellites in which we were.

Besides the difficulty in accessing Rwanda, the majority of the correspondents was in South Africa, covering the election of the first black president.

On April 11th, only four days after the start of the fight, The New York Times wrote that violence had “appeared to slacken”, with Le Mondewriting, on the following day, that the battle had “diminished in intensity”.

Also the estimates regarding the number of victims advanced by the press were erroneous.

On April 16th, more than a week after the start of the conflict, The Guardian only estimated a total of 20 thousand deaths.

“The graves are not yet full”.

This was the message disclosed by the RTLM, which incited the Hutu people to kill the Tutsi minority.

But Rui Araújo, who remained in Rwanda in the following month, assisted the carnage’s horrors, that process in full force and vigor.

«The legs of a man were eatean by the dogs after he was killed (…) A youngwoman had her head broken into pieces by a machete», Rui Araújo for Diário de Notícias, on May 28th of 1994.

“This is the beginning of the final days. This is the apocalypse”, it was read in the cover of Time, on August 1st of 1994.

On June 27th, BBC transmitted the documentary Journey into Darkness that illustrated the true dimension of horror, without censorship.

It was difficult to transmit the genocide image, since the images were scarce and many times censored, due to its highly graphic content.

Besides, the UN and the United States refused to call the conflict a genocide, to avoid the terms of the Geneva Convention and be forced to intervene.

The United States, in special, refused the interference in the country, due to the embarrassment of the recent «Operation to Restore Hope» in Somalia.

Despite Belgian forces and the United Nations in the battlefield, the organization didn’t command to stop the killing.

At the eyes of many, France had the most shameful behavior.

With the goals of keeping its francophone influence zone in Africa, the French supported the Hutu government during the entire genocide, uniting against the FPR, which soldiers spoke English.

The shame was even bigger, once they could not allege ignorance. France was the first country to disclose the first news about ethnical tensions and the killing in Rwanda.




When, in July of 1994, FPR started to gain territory and occupied the Rwandese capital, the Hutus migrated in mass to Zaire (current Democratic Republic of Congo).

The war had ended.

Many genocide organizers and executers mixed along with the refugees that received humanitarian aid in Zaire, making their identification very difficult.

However, these refugees camps in Zaire would became the media focus, even after all the carnage had ended.

The massacre, the once had been ignored, earned its place in the cinema.

Hotel Ruanda, the movie by Terry George, took to the big screen the story of Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of the Hôtel des Milles Colines, that was responsible for helping more than 1.000 Tutsis and Hutus.




The movie received three Oscares nominations (best actor, best supporting actress and best original screenplay) and won the «Public’s Award» in Toronto festival, in Canada.

In 100 days of conflict, it is estimated the death of more than 80,000 people.

When the UN finally recognized the genocide status and creating courts to judge its authores, it was already too late. It was difficult to identify the responsible and the overwhelming number of victims was undeniable.

The genocide in Rwanda would become of the greatest atrocities of the 20th Century, and one of the media biggest failures.