Twenty Years Ago Today: The Nightmare Begins

Juvenal Habyarimana, third president of Rwanda. Twenty years ago today, an airplane fell to earth in Rwanda. But this was not just any airplane. This one carried the presidents of two nations. Both of them were killed, though it was the death of Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda which sent his nation into hell. Nor was it an accident: witnesses reported seeing missiles flying towards the plane. Something terrible was about to happen.

Rwanda was divided between two main ethnic groups, the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis. This had been the case ever since independence from their Belgian colonial masters, though there's some doubt as to whether the two groups had existed beforehand. The Belgians may have simply segregated the population according to those they were willing to trust as overseers (Tutsis) and those they were not (Hutus). Or they may have co-opted existing ethnic divisions to enforce their own ideas of racial purity. It's hard to tell, when the only records were made by a bunch of racist colonists whose main interest was screwing as much money out of the country as possible.

Habyarimana led a coalition of Hutu groups and was increasingly seen as too moderate, while a fragile ceasefire was holding between his government and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by the Tutsi leader, Paul Kagame. The Rwandan president was returning from a conference to discuss ways to quell the ethnic tensions across the region, doing his best to resolve the conflicts that had dogged his country and those around it.

All hopes for peace died with Habyarimana. The missiles that killed him were alleged to have been fired by Kagame's forces (though later analysis showed that this was unlikely). Within only a few hours, Hutus were responding to the terrible news with a terrible vengeance. Explosions were heard in the capital, Kigali. Radio stations were issuing cries of hatred against the Tutsis. Machetes were being sharpened.

The genocide had begun.