Death of a president - then the bloodbath

A year ago today Rwanda's nightmare began. Richard Dowden examines the countdown to genocide

Their plans were laid, their weapons were ready, the lists were drawn up, their propaganda had been spewing out of their radio station and newspapers for months. The killers needed only a signal to go. Hutu power was to be re-established by killing all Tutsis and all moderate political elements in the country.

President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda was no stranger to these people. He was sympathetic and had defended their broadcasts and editorials in the name of press freedom. He had twisted and turned for five months to prevent the implementation of the agreement he had signed in August 1993. It seemed he would do anything but share power with the Rwandese Patriotic Front, a guerrilla army which had grown out of the Rwandan Tutsi exiles. It had invaded the country in 1990 but failed to take over the government. Then the French had sent troops to protect Mr Habyarimana, but the price was that he had to allow the Tutsis to return and share power.

At the end of 1993 and the beginning of 1994, he resisted heavy pressure to implement the Arusha Accords, the power-sharing agreement. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund cut off funds, aid was suspended. "It is five minutes to midnight," Mr Habyarimana was told by Willy Claes, then the Belgian foreign minister. At last on 6 April, Mr Habyarimana caved in and accepted the government proposed by the RPF.

There was deep relief among his neighbouring heads of state, but Mr Habyarimana was uneasy. Maybe he guessed that he had signed his death warrant. Before he flew back to Kigali in the Mystere-Falcon jet given to him by the French government, he insisted certain key players travel with him. Perhaps he was holding them like hostages. On the way back, someone in the control tower at Kigali kept asking who was on board.

As the plane came in to land just after 8.30pm, two rockets struck it, and it plunged to the ground in flames. There has been speculation ever since about who fired the missiles. They were of a sophisticated type not used by the Rwandese army, and were fired from or near the barracks of the presidential guard.

The remnants of the government blamed the RPF rebels while the extremist Hutu media blamed the Belgian contingent in the UN observer mission. By dawn on 7 April, the killings had begun. Roadblocks were set up around the capital by the presidential guard and the President of the Constitutional Court and other ministers were killed. The Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, was murdered the following morning, as well as 10 Belgian soldiers. Prompted by Belgium and the United States, the UN force in Rwanda was cut to 270.

Although the killings began with lists and targets, the genocide spread through the country like a whirlwind. The planned elimination of opponents was the spark which ignited an insane racist hatred in which almost everyone joined. A month later, around half a million people, mostly Tutsis, had been shot or hacked to death.

What made Rwanda unique was that the two ethnic groups live on the same hills, in the same villages, share the same culture and language, but also share a unique relationship of aristocrat and serf. The Hutus were driven by fear that they would be subjected to traditional Tutsi domination. Since they share the same territory, the aim of violence was not to drive the Tutsi away, but to wipe them out. The killings were comprehensive, callous and indescribably vicious.

The RPF immediately advanced from its salient in north-east Rwanda and tried to take over the rest of the country. The extermination of the Tutsis was carried out while the civil war raged. When the RPF took over the capital hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled into Tanzania or Zaire. Thousands died of cholera in makeshift camps.

While there has been a vast international humanitarian effort to keep them alive, almost nothing has been done to secure their return to Rwanda. That will take political reconciliation and commitment on a stupendous scale. Few Hutus in the camps recognise the evil that has been done.

None of those who planned and led the genocide have been detained and many are living openly in European and African capitals. In the camps in Goma in Zaire and in Ngara in Tanzania, paranoia and revenge are breeding as virulently as cholera once did.

Neglected Tutsi exiles formed the RPF and invaded in 1990. How long will it be before the Hutus, armed and angry, make their return to Rwanda?

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Gabriel Agbonlahor, Alexis Sanchez, Alan Pardew and Graziano Pelle
footballAfter QPR draw, follow Villa vs Arsenal, Newcastle vs Hull and Swansea vs Southampton
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam