On This Day

rwanda plane crash, Habyarimana crash, rwandan genocide
Marc Boujou/AP
An RPF rebel walks by the wreckage of the April 6 plane crash that killed President Juvenal Habyarimana in Kigali, May 23, 1994.

On This Day: Rwandan Plane Crash Sparks Genocide

April 06, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On April 6, 1994, a plane crash killed Rwanda’s Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana, inciting the slaughter of the Tutsi minority by Hutu extremists. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days.

100 Days of Genocide

The Hutus and Tutsis, the two major ethnic groups in Rwanda, had been fighting a series of civil wars since the 1950s. In the early 1990s, a Tutsi militant group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), launched attacks against the Hutu majority government.

In August 1993, the RPF and the government of President Juvenal Habyarimana signed the Arusha Accords, which established a ceasefire and called for a power-sharing government, but ethnic tensions remained high.

On April 6, 1994, Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira were killed when their plane from Tanzania was shot down on the approach to Rwanda’s Kigali airport.

It is not certain who was responsible for the attack. Many Hutus believed the aircraft was shot down by the RPF, but it may have been carried out by Hutu extremists upset over the peace deal with the Tutsis.

Violence quickly erupted in Rwanda, as Hutus began attacking Tutsis and Hutus who objected to violence against the Tutsis. Hutu gangs traveled through the countryside, slaughtering thousands of people a day with machetes and other weapons.
A 2,400-member United Nations peacekeeping force was overwhelmed, and the UN and Western powers soon pulled their personnel from the country. On June 22, France unilaterally sent forces into Rwanda in an effort to create a safe area, but it could not stop the killing.

In July, the RPF seized Kigali, forcing the Hutu extremists to flee to Zaire. The Rwandan genocide was brought to an end after the murder of at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the span of about 100 days.

Analysis: The International Response

Many observers criticized United States and the international community for failing to intervene against the genocide.

According to the National Security Archive, a non-profit organization that has secured the release of classified U.S. government documents on the genocide response, “Despite overwhelming evidence of genocide and knowledge as to its perpetrators, United States officials decided against taking a leading role in confronting the slaughter in Rwanda.  …  The US did use its influence, however, at the United Nations, but did so to discourage a robust UN response.”

Samantha Power, author of “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” found that the government response was characterized by risk-averse thinking and bureaucratic inaction.

She writes, “The story of U.S. policy during the genocide in Rwanda is not a story of willful complicity with evil.  … But whatever their convictions about ‘never again,’ many of them did sit around, and they most certainly did allow genocide to happen.”

After the genocide had ended, many world leaders expressed that they had not been aware of the extent of the violence. In 1998, President Bill Clinton apologized to Rwandans in a speech in Kigali, saying, “We in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred.”

Gen. Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, told PBS that Clinton’s statement was not a true apology, calling his claims that he didn’t know about the genocide “outright lies.”

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