Understanding the Rwandan Genocide

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In April of 1994, the Ntarama church became the site of one of the most horrific episodes in recent human history when thousands of predominantly Tutsi men, women and children were mercilessly slaughtered by the Interahamwe, a Hutu-led militia. Seeking refuge from the throes of genocidal violence convulsing Rwanda, civilians began flocking to the church at the beginning of April, armed with only the barest of essentials. Within days, their numbers had swelled to 5000, as more and more fellow Tutsis, ravenous with hunger and exhausted by fear, hoped to avoid the bloodshed taking place across the country.

The Rwandan Genocide shares its most disturbing feature with other 20th-century genocides: the systematic and planned extermination of one group by another

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Their struggle for survival proved ineffectual, however, when armed men started to encircle the church compound on the 15th of April. Having sealed off all the escape routes, Interahamwe fighters began to hurl grenades at the church building – into which most of the civilians had huddled together in search of safety – before eventually managing to break down the door. The slaughter that followed continues to defy description. According to the few remaining survivors, panga-wielding Hutu fighters started hacking away indiscriminately, yet methodically; women were clubbed to death, children’s heads cracked open against walls, men stabbed and eviscerated like cattle. At the end of this orgy of violence, with their bloodlust temporarily sated, the génocidaires moved on to their next targets. Three months later, at the end of the Rwandan Genocide, the dead were estimated to be between 500,000 and 1,000,000.

Why is this so important

Despite its own appalling peculiarities, the Rwandan Genocide shares its most disturbing feature with other 20th-century genocides: the systematic and planned extermination of one group by another. Nevertheless, when one compares the Rwandan Genocide with other mass killings, such as the Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide, a number of recognisable parallels can be discerned, but also several peculiarities. It is these parallels and peculiarities that Ugur Ümit Üngör spends most of his working hours analysing, mapping and trying to understand.

Biography

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Ümit Üngör is an assistant professor at the Universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam as well as researcher at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Ümit Üngör has during his short career received much acclaim for his work on genocide and mass violence, including the 2006 UvA Thesis of the Year Award and the prestigious 2012 Heineken Young Scientist of the Year Award.

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My expertise

Holocaust, genocide, war