Remembering Rwanda on 6 April
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This year’s International Day of Sport for Development and Peace marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide.

"I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists, and therefore I know there is a God.” - General Roméo Dallaire, Head of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Rwanda, 1993-1994

On the evening of 6 April 1994, a plane was shot down while approaching the airport of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, killing the country’s president Juvénal Habyarimana as well as his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, among others. That event provided the spark for a genocide in which upwards of 800,000 people were killed in just 100 days.

At the time of the genocide it was estimated that 85% were Hutus, 14% Tutsis and 1% Twa. Divisions between Hutus and Tutsis had been intensifying since the arrival of the Belgian colonists in 1916. Considering the Tutsis superior, the Belgians provided them with better access to jobs and education. This led to resentment among the Hutus, culminating in riots in 1959.

20,000 Tutsis were killed and many fled to neighbouring countries. After Rwandan independence in 1962, the Hutus took over power. Tutsis were discriminated against in the following decades and treated as scapegoats during times of crises. A group of Tutsi exiles in Uganda formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). They invaded Rwanda in 1990 and fighting continued until a 1993 peace deal was agreed upon.

Responsibility for the attack on the plane is disputed, with most theories claiming it was either the RPF or government aligned Hutu extremists opposed to negotiations taking place under the peace deal. Either way, the Hutu extremists blamed the RPF and used it as a pretext to begin slaughtering Tutsis within hours.

The killings over the next few months were carried out in an orchestrated way, and the evidence suggests the genocide had been planned for years. Local officials and government radio stations read out lists of Tutsi targets and ordered ordinary Hutus to kill their neighbours with machetes. Those who did not were often murdered themselves.

The UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda was understaffed and underfunded, a situation that intensified when the murder of 10 Belgian peacekeepers caused the Belgian contingent to leave. While UN officials in New York bickered about whether the situation amounted to genocide – a definition that requires greater intervention according to international law – the killing continued, eventually ending the lives of an estimated 70% of the Tutsi population. It was only when the RPF intensified its efforts to overthrow the Hutu government and took Kigali on 18 July that the genocide ended.

The human tragedy did not end there. The presence of many government officials and militias responsible for the genocide among refugees fleeing to eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) led to further instability, the invasion of Rwandan forces and two wars that lasted from 1996 until 2003.

Today, Rwanda is much transformed, although there are mixed views. Some point to its newfound reputation for stability, its rapid GDP growth rate and major improvements in indicators such as child mortality and primary school enrolment. Others emphasise that underlying tensions still exist and point out that the government represses journalists, political opponents and civil society.

Sport is part of story of modern day Rwanda. A new cricket stadium, built in 2015, plays host to social projects as well as international cricket fixtures, while the country is marketing itself as a sports tourism destination and multiple organisations are using sport to promote development and build relations between communities.

Every year on 6 April, Rwanda starts 100 days of mourning to commemorate the genocide. On that day, many of us will be celebrating the role of sport in contributing to social, economic and environmental goals worldwide. As we do so it is worth remembering the story of Rwanda and that the date takes on a different significance for the central African country.


Senior Project Manager
International Platform on Sport and Development