CONTENT WARNING: This episode contains depictions of extreme violence and may not be suitable for all audiences.
It’s the evening of April 6th, 1994 in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
At the presidential palace on the outskirts of the city, a young Rwandan guardsman patrols the lush gardens. It’s a clear, warm night. Water trickles through fountains and a gentle wind rustles through the tall palm trees that surround the compound.
As the guard walks across the palace grounds… the young man hears the high-pitched roar of a jet coming into land at a nearby airport. He instantly recognizes the unique sound of the engine: it’s the President of Rwanda's private plane. The young man looks up to see the lights of the jet twinkling in the darkness as it approaches.
The guard knows that after the president lands, he’ll be returning to the palace straight away. So the guard quickens his pace, circling the swimming pool, and heading back to his guard tower. But then, in the air above, he hears an unfamiliar sound.
He looks up as a streak of smoke cuts across the sky screaming toward the President’s jet. He watches in disbelief as the missile hits its target… and lights up the night.
The burning jet will slam into the grounds of the presidential palace, killing everyone on board, including Juvenal Habyarimana, the President who has ruled Rwanda since 1973.
For the last three and a half years, the country has suffered through a civil war between a rebel army and government forces; a conflict that has ripped Rwanda apart. But the assassination of President Habyarimana will plunge the country into an even deadlier crisis. Within a matter of months, hundreds of thousands of people will be murdered in one of the worst acts of genocide since World War Two, an atrocity that was set in motion when President Habyarimana’s plane was shot out of the sky on April 6th, 1994.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 6th: The Start of the Rwandan Genocide.
Act One: Civil War
It’s October 1st, 1990, three and a half years before the assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana.
In the rural northeast of Rwanda, an elderly farmer is hard at work in the fields when he hears the sounds of vehicles approaching. He stops working and stares out in the direction of the sound.
Beyond the ditch that marks the edge of his land is a road that leads to the border with Uganda, just a mile or two to the north. Rumbling along the road, the farmer sees a long column of army trucks, packed with heavily armed soldiers. They’re heading south, into Rwanda. The soldiers wear the uniforms of the Ugandan army. But they’re not foreign invaders; they’re Rwandan exiles, returning home to fight the current government. The population of Rwanda is largely divided along ethnic lines. The majority of the population are Hutus, people native to the Great Lakes region of Africa. But there is also a large minority group of native peoples – known as the Tutsis. There have long been tensions and discrimination between the two groups. The Tutsis were once the more powerful group, but in recent decades, the Hutus asserted their strength and now dominate the government, which is led by a former army officer named Juvenal Habyarimana.
Over the decades, thousands of Tutsis fled Rwanda to neighboring countries like Uganda. There, many found jobs with the Ugandan armed forces. But, in the late 1970s, some of those exiles founded a rebel army to fight the oppression of their Tutsi brethren back home. In October 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or ‘RPF’, made final preparations to cross the border from Uganda and begin what came to be known as the Rwandan Civil War.
The elderly farmer is a Tutsi as well. He recognizes the soldiers heading south as his people. He raises his hand in a salute. The men on the trucks wave back and hold their rifles in the air. From here, the RPF pushes south. Soon though, they will meet resistance from government forces.
And although the clashes are localized at first, the attack by Tutsi exiles heightens ethnic tensions all across Rwanda. The Hutu-dominated government orders the arrest of thousands of Tutsi political actors. But for many Hutu hardliners, the government clampdown doesn’t go far enough. As the civil war spreads, these hardline extremists begin a propaganda campaign aimed at turning the people of Rwanda against each other and laying the groundwork for genocide.
It’s August 4th, 1993, almost three years after the beginning of the Rwandan Civil War.
On the third floor of a conference center in the Tanzanian city of Arusha, a huddle of photographers jostle for position as a group of suited men take the stage. These politicians and leaders represent two groups: the Rwandan government and the rebel army: the RPF. The men are here today to sign a peace agreement to end the civil war.
The negotiations have been difficult. Talks have lasted for over a year and on more than one occasion, they nearly collapsed.
Then in late 1992, after months of back and forth between the government and the Tutsi rebels, the two sides were close to a deal. But President Habyarimana was feeling pressure from all sides. He wasn’t just negotiating with the Tutsi rebels, he was also dealing with hardliners among his own people, the Hutus. And these Hutu extremists were outraged by any hint of compromise.
All throughout the negotiations, violent protests broke out across Rwanda. Hundreds of Tutsis were killed. And in response, the Tutsi’s rebel army, the RPF, pulled out of the peace talks and resumed fighting.
With the government forces divided and demoralized, the rebels pressed the attack. Under the command of their leader, Paul Kagame, by early 1993, the Rwandan Patriotic Front was within 20 miles of the capital city of Rwanda, Kigali. From there, the rebels called a ceasefire and used their strong military position to drive a hard bargain in the peace talks that followed.
President Habyarimana was concerned. With his own armies unable to fight off the rebels and with Hutu hardliners withdrawing their support for his government, he realized that the only hope he had of clinging onto power was to make peace.
So today, Habyarimana joins his colleagues, and members of the RPF onstage. The cameras flash as both sides put pen to paper. And by signing this historic peace treaty, Habyarimana is agreeing to a deal with the rebels to form a transitional government, one that will unify the Rwandan people. Under the supervision of United Nations peacekeepers, power will be shared between the Hutus and the Tutsis. The two warring armies will be combined and within two years, free national elections will follow.
But the Arusha Accords, as this agreement is known, will not bring an end to the violence in Rwanda. Instead, less than a year later, a deadly attack on President Habyarimana will undo the fragile peace and spark a genocide.
Act Two: Genocide
It’s April 15th, 1994, a little over a week after the assassination of the president of Rwanda.
In the small town of Ntarama, an hour’s drive south of the capital city, Kigali, a young woman, a shopkeeper, huddles for space among hundreds of other Tutsis packed into the local Catholic church.
It’s a simple house of worship. The walls are bare brick. The windows are nothing more than concrete breeze blocks. The roof is corrugated iron. And during the storms of Rwanda’s long rainy season, the young shopkeeper can barely hear the words of the priest above the hammering of rain on metal.
But there’s no service today. And no storm either. Still, every inch of the church is packed with men and women, young and old. A suffocating silence hangs over the room. The shopkeeper is terrified. And she knows everyone else around her feels the same way.
Mere hours after President Habyarimana’s assassination, Hutu extremists began murdering innocent Tutsis.
The mass murders were organized, and systematic. In Kigali, armed men moved through the streets with kill lists. And within a matter of days, every moderate politician in the capital was murdered or forced to flee, leaving the extremists in charge. But this was just the beginning of the bloodletting.
All across the country, Hutu militias set up roadblocks. Anyone passing had to show their ID cards, which identified who was a Hutu and who was a Tutsi. Any and all Tutsis, men, women, and children, were killed.
In the town of Ntarama, hundreds of Tutsis fled here to the local Catholic church. They hoped they’d be safe from the militia. In the past, whenever violence broke out, the sanctity of church grounds was always respected.
But with every day that passed, more and more terrified people took shelter here. They filled the church, squeezing into every space between the simple wooden benches. Then they spilled out into the grounds, sleeping in the open if they had to, or finding a sliver of bare concrete in the huts where Sunday School lessons were normally held.
All the while, the Hutu militia roamed the woods beyond the fence surrounding the church grounds. The militiamen were armed with machetes and pickaxes, or clubs studded with nails. Some of the Tutsi men in the church tried to frighten the militiamen off, throwing rocks if they came too close. But for the most part, the militiamen have kept their distance.
Inside the church, the young shopkeeper huddles with her fellow Tutsis. Outside, eight busloads of local Hutu police and soldiers join the militia and surround the church.
Soon, the silence inside the church is pierced by deafening explosions. Most of the Tutsis scream and hit the ground. But the young shopkeeper pushes her way to a nearby window. She sees that a grenade has flattened the gates and that the Hutus are storming the grounds.
The mass of people sheltering across the churchyard scatters. But they’re surrounded and escape is impossible. The shopkeeper watches with horror as the whooping young men of the Hutu militia cut them all down.
In the church, terror sweeps through the close-pressed crowd. Mothers clasp their children to their chests, the elderly grip their rosary beads and whisper prayers, as the screams of agony outside grow louder.
Then, the doors to the church are forced open. The crowd inside surges back, trying desperately to get away, clawing at the windows and scrambling up the walls, but there’s nowhere to go.
The militiamen cut through the crowd with brutal efficiency. The young shopkeeper recognizes one of the Hutu who wields a bloodied club. He’s a neighbor, a man she’s known for years. But she’s never seen him like this, his face glistening with sweat and gore. In the midst of the bloodshed, they lock eyes. The man raises his club, the shopkeeper cries out, and then for her, the world goes black.
When she comes to, she’s lying beneath one of the pews. Bodies press down on top of her, and the rough concrete floor is sticky with blood. Her head throbs, her eyes blur in and out of focus. She can still hear the crack of gunshots, the wet thud of metal on flesh, the moans of the injured and dying, and the cries of those waiting their turn. Eventually, the violence gives way to silence as the Hutus abandon the church and move on. But the shopkeeper waits until nightfall to make her escape.
Finally, as darkness creeps into the church, she pries her body out from underneath the bench and sees an endless pile of bodies. There are so many she can hardly tell where one begins and another ends. Still dizzy, she crawls toward the doorway and slips out into the night.
The young shopkeeper will escape from the church in Ntarama and, with a small group of fellow survivors, she will flee into marshes, where she will hide from the Hutu militia for more than a month.
Meanwhile, horrific scenes, just like the one she witnessed, will play out all across Rwanda. Up to a million people will be murdered.
After World War Two, when six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, the western world promised ‘never again’. But in Rwanda, the world will look on in horror at yet another genocide and they will do nothing. Instead, the task of stopping the violence will fall to the invading rebel army: Rwandan Patriotic Front.
Act Three: Peace
It’s July 4th, 1994, three months after the assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana.
Smoke rises over the capital city of Kigali as a Tutsi boy hurries through the dusty backstreets.
The boy hasn’t been outside for months. His family has been hiding from the blood-thirsty Hutu militias. But today, liberation is here. Troops from the rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or the RPF, have taken the capital city. And the boy doesn’t want to miss a thing.
After the death of President Habyarimana, Hutu hardliners unleashed a wave of violence against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. In response, the leader of the RPF, Paul Kagame, ordered his men to take up arms.
By mid-June, the RPF had the capital city surrounded. After two more weeks of fighting, they swept into the city center forcing the remnants of the Hutu government to flee.
In the months the Tutsi boy has been hiding, the city outside has changed. Unburied bodies litter the streets. Shops are boarded up and houses that once echoed with life stand empty. But today, seeing the RPF soldiers flood the streets, the boy has hope.
But this is not a victory parade. The soldiers march in solemn, determined silence. The civil war may be over, and the nation may have a new leader in Paul Kagame, but those blood-stained months that began with President Habyarimana's death will never be forgotten.
The identity of the assassins who blew up the President’s plane remains a mystery to this day. Some investigators have blamed Hutu hardliners in the Rwandan government, who hated the peace agreement with the rebels. Others have accused the RPF, claiming they killed the President in order to plunge the country into a crisis ripe for exploitation. Conclusive proof, either way, remains elusive. But what cannot be doubted is the horror of what happened in Rwanda that year, a genocide that claimed the lives of up to a million people, was set in motion on April 6th, 1994.
Next on History Daily.April 7th, 1739: In York, England, the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin is hanged for stealing horses.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack. Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.