Twenty Years Ago Today: Genocide, Day One

Agathe Uwilingiyimana, rightful President of Rwanda - until she was murdered on the first day of genocide. Twenty years ago today, killers were loose on the streets of Kigali and across Rwanda. But they were not the kind of murderers that police hunt down. Nor were they foreign invaders intent on conquest and loot. They were neighbours, colleagues and even friends of the people they turned upon.

There was no police force to call for help, because the police were collaborating. There was no army to defend the victims, for the army were wielding the knives along with the militias. This was the day the Rwandan genocide began in earnest.

Hutus were the killers, seeking the minority Tutsis who had once been their overseers in colonial times. But first they targeted any Hutu moderates who sympathised with the Tutsis. One of them was the Prime Minister, who should have become President. Agathe Uwilingiyimana was murdered by the Presidential Guard along with her husband, and the Belgian peacekeepers who tried to defend her were dragged away to torture and death.

There had been even more killings overnight: ministers and judges and party leaders were killed in their homes along with their spouses. By midday, the moderate Hutu leadership was dead or in hiding, and any hope of preventing the genocide died with them.

Rwandan ID card from 1994, clearly identifying the holder as a Tutsi - as good as a death sentence.

The killing of Tutsis accelerated during the 7th of April, spreading throughout the country. A crowd gathered in Gisenyi province, the heartland of Hutu extremism. Crowds were ordered to begin their work and spare no one, not even babies. On this first day, it was easy to tell who was Tutsi and who was Hutu: you held them down and rifled through their pockets or bags for their identity cards, which recorded their ethnicity. Those caught with Tutsi ID cards did not survive.

There was nothing to stop the Hutu population from turning on their Tutsi neighbours. The UNAMIR peacekeepers sent to monitor the ceasefire were completely out of their depth. The army and police were part of the conspiracy. The ministers that might have calmed the tensions were dead in the streets.

And so the killing began.