Understanding the Genocide on the Tutsi: From Tragedy to Hope

March 4, 2024

View video of full event here

On Monday February 26th, Mr. Arthur Asiimwe, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Rwandan Embassy in Washington DC, provided profound insights into Rwanda’s transformative journey from the tragic events of the 1994 genocide to its present state. His lecture, titled “The Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda: Tragedy, Reconciliation and Rebuilding,” highlighted the country’s remarkable transformation over the past three decades, from a nation torn apart by genocide to a beacon of hope and progress in Africa.

The lecture was opened by Director of Prof. David Simon, Director of the Genocide Studies Program (GSP). In his introductory remarks, Simon emphasized the instrumental role that the GSP and the Voices for Hope program play in promoting research and education to foster understanding about genocide throughout history, including the horrific 1994 events in Rwanda.

Mr. Asiimwe traced the origins of the Rwandan genocide back to the colonial era, highlighting how Belgian colonialists exploited ethnic divisions among the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa ethnic groups. By implementing identity cards that rigidly classified individuals along ethnic lines, this colonial divisive system put in practice in the first half of the 20th century laid the groundwork for decades of discrimination and violence against the Tutsi minority.

According to Mr. Asiimwe, events in the year 1959 served as the catalyst for the massacre against the Tutsi. This year ignited a tumultuous era characterized by profound social and political upheaval, laying the foundation for the escalation of ethnic violence and discrimination against the Tutsi community. This period of unrest and persecution persisted, reaching its tragic climax in the 1994 genocide. Over the span of just 100 days, approximately one million Tutsi were ruthlessly murdered, shattering the social fabric of the country. During this period, the Rwandan radio served as a potent tool for mobilization under the control of extremists, broadcasting hate propaganda and actively aiding in the targeting of Tutsis in hiding. The international community’s failure to intervene effectively allowed the genocide to unfold unchecked, leading to devastating consequences.

Transitioning from the tragic events of the genocide, Mr. Asiimwe also addressed post-genocide efforts for justice and rebuilding in Rwanda. Given that the entire Rwandan judicial system had collapsed as a result of the mass killings, the pursuit of justice for the crimes committed during and as part of the genocide proved extremely challenging. While the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and their subsequent ruling that confirmed that a genocide had in fact happened set an important and helpful precedent, overall, the international justice process was rather slow and ineffective. To aid in accelerating the process of bringing justice, the traditional Gacaca courts were used in addition to the ICTR rulings. Gacaca courts, used in the pre-colonial days to solve disputes in the Rwandan community, consisted of a council of elders who served as judges. Although imperfect, these traditional courts served to promote accountability and reconciliation to large numbers of people. As a result, both the ICTR and the Gacaca courts proved to be crucial steps towards healing and rebuilding the nation.

In addition to these efforts for bringing justice and accountability, Rwanda’s visionary leadership has been instrumental in guiding the country’s journey of transformation from 1994 until today. Through inclusive policies that vehemently rejected any form of discrimination, a steadfast commitment to fostering unity and reconciliation, and a focus on sustainable development, Rwanda has emerged as a model of progress and stability in the continent. Today, Rwanda stands as a testament to the power of resilience and forgiveness. With a thriving economy, accountable governance, and a vibrant, inclusive society, Rwanda offers hope for a brighter future not only for its own people, but for the continent as a whole.

Mr. Asiimwe’s lecture concluded with a brief Q&A session, during which crucial insights were shared regarding the importance of genocide remembrance for comprehending and preventing future atrocities, as well as about the dangers of hate speech and the human susceptibility to propaganda. As his final remarks, Mr. Asiimwe highlighted the important role resilience and forgiveness play in the journey towards healing and reconciliation, even in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

Established in January 1998, the Genocide Studies Program (GSP) within Yale University’s MacMillan Center is dedicated to conducting research, hosting seminars, and organizing conferences that examine comparative, interdisciplinary, and policy aspects of genocide. Additionally, the program offers training to researchers from regions affected by genocide, such as Cambodia, Rwanda, and East Timor. The GSP is actively engaged in ongoing research projects focusing on various genocides, including the Nazi Holocaust, the atrocities in Bosnia and Darfur, as well as colonial and indigenous genocides.

Written by Leda Blaires Ciotti YC ‘24.