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A crowd of mostly Tutsi civilians, seeking protection against Hutu militiamen, sit in the Sainte Famille Catholic church in the then-government controlled part of Kigali, listening to a member of the security services address them. Over several months, ma

Human Rights Watch Rwanda Archives

March 1993 – December 1994

A crowd of mostly Tutsi civilians, seeking protection against Hutu militiamen, sit in the Sainte Famille Catholic church in the then-government controlled part of Kigali, listening to a member of the security services address them. Over several months, many people were taken from Sainte Famille church and killed by Hutu militiamen, who maintained checkpoints around the church during the genocide.© 1994 Corinne Dufka

Human Rights Watch has been documenting and exposing human rights violations in Rwanda since the early 1990s. Its senior adviser in the Africa division, Alison Des Forges, one of the world’s foremost experts on Rwanda, dedicated her career to the struggle for human rights in the Great Lakes region of Africa, and to Rwanda in particular. In the period leading up to the 1994 genocide, she worked tirelessly to alert world powers to the impending crisis in Rwanda. Few would listen. By the time the genocidal forces had unleashed their sinister program and the world had awakened to the full horror that was unfolding in Rwanda, it was too late. The killings in Rwanda increased as a civil war in Burundi waged on. The violence in Burundi, also based on ethnic divisions between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, lasted from 1993 until 2005.

Des Forges’s efforts did not stop when the genocide ended. She continued to painstakingly gather information on the killings, rapes, and other horrific crimes, which she compiled into what has become one of the main reference books on the Rwandan genocide: “Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda”, a 500-page account of the genocide published jointly by Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) in 1999. 

Des Forges testified as an expert witness in 11 trials at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, as well as in domestic court proceedings involving Rwandan genocide suspects in several countries.

Des Forges campaigned vigorously for justice for the genocide until her tragic death in a plane crash in the US on February 12, 2009. She also documented human rights abuses by the new government of Rwanda after the genocide and advocated for accountability for all abuses, past and present.

Thirty years after the genocide, Human Rights Watch has begun the process of digitizing and making available some of Des Forges’s archives. The documents summarized below are some of those that remained in Human Rights Watch possession after Des Forges’s death and help shed light on efforts by Des Forges and others to warn about, and then attempt to stop, the genocide. These are just a selection of the many documents in the archives; others will not be published at this time for a variety of reasons. The private exchanges, letters, statements, and reports below do not purport to be a comprehensive account of the work of Human Rights Watch and others at the time, as it is likely documents are missing from the archive.

Before the Genocide: March 1993 – March 1994

Human Rights Watch (then Africa Watch) began reporting on massacres of Tutsi and other human rights abuses in Rwanda in 1991. As part of an international commission of inquiry, Human Rights Watch documented abuses and violations of international humanitarian law from October 1990 through January 1993. In a report published March 8, 1993, the international commission found the Rwandan government guilty of serious and systematic human rights abuses during this time.

The commission's report concluded that the majority of the approximately 2,000 victims of massacres, and thousands of victims of other abuses during that period were Tutsi who had been targeted for the sole reason that they were Tutsi. Other victims were mainly Hutu members of the opposition. It determined that authorities at the highest level, including the president of Rwanda, were responsible for these abuses, which were carried out by civilians, Rwandan army soldiers, and  the militias attached to the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (Mouvement révolutionnaire national pour le développement, MRND), the ruling party of President Juvénal Habyarimana, and the Coalition for the Defense of the Republic (Coalition pour la Défense de la République, CDR) a Rwandan far-right Hutu Power political party.

Testimony given to the commission indicated that the majority of victims were killed on the basis of their Tutsi ethnicity, demonstrating intent to murder members of an ethnic group. It was stated, however, that the casualty figures, while tragic, “may be below the threshold required to establish genocide.”

The commission’s report added to the work of numerous Rwandan and international human rights organizations who tried to alert the world to ongoing preparations and increasing cases of killings and ethnically motivated attacks. In the months that preceded the genocide, several human rights defenders and other individuals who opposed the killings were physically attacked, harassed, and threatened, and survived attempts on their lives. The attacks shed light on the strategy of targeting human rights defenders as they were likely to first alert the world to the ongoing escalation of violence and mass atrocities.

In a March 19, 1994, internal email, Des Forges told colleagues: “I spoke with [Alphonse-Marie] Nkubito late Friday (Steve, he is a leading activist and well-connected in Rwandan politics). He believes Habyarimana is pushing for active war to start again to give him an excuse for wiping out the internal opposition. Once he does this, he will return to negotiating with the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front].”

In a December 1993 letter to Habyarimana, Human Rights Watch condemned threats against Matthieu Uwizeye, a judicial official and human rights activist, who had also provided information to the international commission. In February 1994, Human Rights Watch wrote to Habyarimana again to raise concerns about attacks against André Katabarwa of the Association des Volontaires de la Paix and Monique Mujawamariya, a leading human rights defender who founded the Association rwandaise pour la Défense des Droits de la personne et des Libertés publiques.

These attacks are only the latest in a long series of attempts to kill, injure, and intimidate human rights activists in Rwanda. Other examples include the following: the attack in November on Alphonse-Marie Nkubito of the Rwandan Association for Human Rights; the attacks in May on Ignace Ruhatana and another on Carpophore Gatera, both of whom are with the human rights group Kanyarwanda; and the attack in April on Gakwaya Rwaka of the Christian League for the Defense of Human rights in Rwanda.

In January 1994, the Human Rights Watch Arms Project published a 64-page report documenting the flow of French, Egyptian and South African arms to the Habyarimana government and alerting the international community to the possibility of a disaster of major proportions.

The report concluded:

It is impossible to exaggerate the danger of providing automatic rifles to civilians, particularly in regions where residents, either encouraged or instructed by authorities, have slaughtered their neighbors. In light of the widespread and horrific abuses committed by Hutu civilian crowds and party militia armed primarily with machetes and spears, it is frightening to ponder the potential for abuses by large numbers of ill-trained civilians equipped with assault rifles.

In March 1994, weeks before the genocide began, a joint civil society statement expressed concern about the lack of progress in implementing the Arusha Peace Accords, which was signed by the Rwandan government in August 1993 and formally ended its three-year old war with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The statement also warned about the possible consequences of arms distributions to civilians, and “the systematic attacks, threats and harassment directed against human rights activists, independent journalists and other persons working to establish democracy.”

In a March 16, 1994 letter to José Ayala Lasso, the newly appointed UN high commissioner for human rights, Human Rights Watch pressed for increased attention to the situation in Rwanda and Burundi and for Lasso to visit both countries after taking office.

During the Genocide: April 1994 – June 1994

April 1994

April 8, 1994 – A note by Des Forges to Human Rights Watch staff is published in the Washington Post, describing the phone conversations between Des Forges and Monique Mujawamariya, a human rights defender in Rwanda, two days after the start of the genocide. Mujawamariya describes how members of the Rwandan presidential guard entered house after house in her neighborhood in Kigali executing people. For days, Human Rights Watch believed Mujawamariya had been killed.

April 12, 1994 – A press advisory by the Human Rights Watch Arms Project reiterates the January 1994 report’s conclusions, including that France’s support to the government of Rwanda was “tantamount to direct participation in the war,” and calls on French troops deployed to Rwanda as part of an evacuation force to be replaced with neutral forces from other countries.

April 12, 1994 – The national radio station, Radio Rwanda, broadcasts a press release from the Defense Ministry. It denies “lies” about divisions in the armed forces and among Hutu generally and insists that:

Soldiers, gendarmes [National Police], and all Rwandans have decided to fight their common enemy in unison and all have identified him. The enemy is still the same. He is the one who has always been trying to return the monarch [an implicit reference to Tutsis] who was overthrown….the Ministry of Defence asks Rwandans, soldiers and gendarmes the following: citizens are asked to act together, carry out patrols and fight the enemy.[1]

April 15, 1994 – Human Rights Watch sends letters to Col. Gatsinzi, the commander-in-chief of the Rwandan Armed Forces and Col. Alexis Kanyarengwe, president of the RPF, calling on them to respect international law and determining that the ongoing massacres “constitute crimes against humanity.”

Human Rights Watch issues a statement condemning the April 12 call for violence and the daily broadcasts by Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), reiterating its call to Col. Gatsinzi and Col. Kanyarengwe, calling for the protection of “terrorized civilians” who have sought refuge, and underlining the planned nature of the killings, which it determines constitute crimes against humanity:

Human Rights Watch/Africa cautions that the violence of the last ten days in Rwanda cannot simply be dismissed as anarchy or tribal conflict. Organized killings […] lie behind the generalized carnage. Key leaders as well as ordinary members of opposition political parties have been summarily executed or have disappeared. Human rights activists critical of government abuses have also been targeted.

The statement confirms that Monique Mujawamariya is alive and has escaped Rwanda, alongside Alphonse-Marie Nkubito, while deploring the killings and disappearances of several other human rights defenders.

April 16, 1994 – Des Forges publishes an opinion piece in the Washington Post, calling for a cease-fire between the RPF and the Rwandan forces, for the RPF to maintain discipline within its ranks, and for negotiations to facilitate a power-sharing agreement.

April 19, 1994 – In a letter to UN Security Council president Colin Keating, Human Rights Watch draws attention to the fact that “Rwandan military authorities are engaged in a systematic campaign to eliminate the Tutsi. The organized campaign […] has become so concerted that we believe it constitutes genocide.” The letter raises alarm that the last remaining telephone lines in Rwanda had been cut, and the prefect of Butare, Jean-Baptiste Habyalimana, an opposition member and Tutsi who had opposed the killings, had been removed from his post. He was replaced by a military hardliner. The letter calls on the Security Council to condemn those responsible for the atrocities by name, call for them to cease and desist, and make clear there will be consequences. The letter also calls for the UN peacekeeping force, UNAMIR, to be maintained in Rwanda in order to “continue safeguarding the 20,000 to 25,000 Rwandans who are under U.N. protection”.

An April 19 Human Rights Watch press statement calls on the international community, and particularly France, to insist on the restoration of telephone communications. It also draws attention to the increasing tensions between Rwandans and Burundian refugees, and Hutu and Tutsi within these communities, in Butare province, where the prefect had been replaced by a hardliner military officer, “suggest[ing] that keeping the peace is not a goal of the authorities.”

An April 18 opinion piece by Des Forges in the Washington Post gives details of Mujawamariya’s days of hiding in her house’s ceiling, and subsequent lucky escape from Rwanda.

April 20, 1994 – Human Rights Watch issues a press release calling on the UN Security Council to maintain UNAMIR forces in Rwanda. Kenneth Roth, the Human Rights Watch executive director at the time, said:

“The orchestrated campaign of mass killings of Rwandan Tutsi, who have been singled out by the Rwandan army and armed political party militia for extermination on no grounds other than their ethnicity amounts to genocide.”

April 21, 1994 – Despite repeated calls by civil society to maintain the UN force, the Security Council votes to withdraw the majority of the remaining troops and to leave behind a skeleton force of 270 soldiers. The United States, initially in favor of removing the UN presence completely, led this move to retain only a token UNAMIR presence, amounting to an abdication of the responsibility to prevent a genocide that was clearly taking place.  

April 22, 1994 – Human Rights Watch issues a statement condemning the Security Council’s decision to reduce UNAMIR to a skeleton force of 270, therefore abandoning the 20,000 to 25,000 people, mainly Tutsis, who had placed themselves under UN protection.

April 24, 1994 – Des Forges and Mujawamariya are interviewed in the Washington Post, explaining the nature of the genocide and what the UN, US, and African leaders need to do to stop the killings.

April 25, 1994 – Human Rights Watch sends a letter to Agathe Habyarimana, the widow of the late president, pleading with her to issue a strong public appeal to stop the massacres.

An accompanying press release sounds the alarm about ongoing killings in Butare province and the detention of 5,000 civilians in Cyangugu and ongoing executions. The statement calls on the international community to make clear that the Rwandan government will not receive international recognition and for the UN Security Council to reconsider its decision to reduce its forces.

April 26, 1994 – Human Rights Watch sends a letter to Bruno Delaye, the counselor to the French president, expressing concern that the French government had officially received a delegation of the “self-proclaimed government of Rwanda” and to urge the French government to use its influence with the Rwandan military to publicly urge them to stop the genocide. The visit is also publicly denounced in a press statement on April 27.

April 27, 1994 – Human Rights Watch sends a letter to José Ayala Lasso, the UN high commissioner for human rights, sharing information about the ongoing genocide. The letter explains the current situation particularly the distinction between the armed conflict between the RPF and the Rwandan army, and the massacre of unarmed, mostly Tutsi civilians on the basis of their ethnicity. The letter names Rwandan officials responsible for the killings, urges Lasso to press governments with influence in Rwanda to signal that the government will not receive foreign aid and international recognition if the killings continue.

The letter urges the UN to appoint a high-level individual to meet with the military high command and convey that they will be held accountable for the mass slaughter and urges Lasso to travel to Rwanda as soon as possible to deliver this message to Rwandan military leaders.

April 29, 1994 – In a press release, Human Rights Watch denounces a broadcast by Radio-Télévision Libre Mille Collines that declared May 5, the date of the funeral of the late President Habyarimana, as the target date for finishing the “clean-up” of the Tutsi minority and members of the opposition. The statement also denounces efforts by Rwandan officials to present the killings as a “spontaneous explosion of rage” following Habyarimana’s death.

May 1994

May 4, 1994 – Kweisi Mfume and Donald M. Payne of the US Congressional Black Caucus write to President Bill Clinton to ask for more effective US action.

Des Forges testifies before the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa.

May 8, 1994Des Forges sends a letter with information and recommendations to High Commissioner Lasso, welcoming his decision to visit Rwanda and Burundi. The letter highlights the steps Lasso should take to try and stop the killings during his visit.

May 10, 1994 – Des Forges sends a follow up letter to Lasso, saying “we have just learned that the national committee of the Interahamwe militia last night broadcast a communique calling on their members to stop killing Tutsi and members of the political opposition. They also asked them to help stop killings by those who were not members of their groups.” The reaction to Lasso’s visit highlights how scrutiny from external actors may have had a direct impact on the orders being given to the killers, because of the Rwandan self-proclaimed government’s desire for international recognition.

May 11, 1994 – An opinion piece by Des Forges in the New York Times calls on the UN Security Council to vote in favor of deploying more troops to Rwanda to protect civilians, and for global leaders to call out those responsible for the genocide and to block visas to representatives of the self-proclaimed government.

May 13, 1994 – US Senators Paul Simon and Jim Jeffords send a letter to President Bill Clinton urging the US to send a signal to the Rwandan government that it will not receive assistance from the US if it does not take steps to end the violence and protect and provide assistance to civilians; take steps to discourage the importation of arms into Rwanda; press the UN Security Council to increase the deployment of UN troops and broaden their mandate to stop the massacres; and provide adequate support to countries that will be providing these troops.

May 16, 1994 – Human Rights Watch sends a letter to President Bill Clinton and releases a press statement calling on the US to issue clear instructions to the US delegation at the UN to press for an increased force in Rwanda, after the delegation indicated they had received “no instructions” from Washington.

May 19, 1994 – A Human Rights Watch press release welcomes the UN Security Council decision to send more troops to Rwanda with an expanded mandate to protect civilians. The statement also calls on the US to cease “obstructing efforts” to ensure the immediate deployment of troops. It calls on the French government to use its influence to protect the thousands of hostages held in a former refugee camp in Nyarushishi, transferred from a sports stadium in Cyangugu where they had been held for weeks in inhuman conditions.

May 24, 1994 – A letter to the editor (written May 10, published May 24) in the Washington Post by Des Forges responds to another letter to the editor published on May 9, 1994, by Aloys Uwimana, the Rwandan ambassador in Washington DC. In her letter, Des Forges refutes the ambassador’s allegations with regards to the number of civilians the RPF had killed, which was an implied justification for the killings of Tutsi. In his letter, the ambassador claimed that “hundreds of thousands” of Hutu were killed in RPF controlled zones, a gross exaggeration.

June 1994

June 9, 1994 – Human Rights Watch addresses recommendations to the UN Human Rights Commission’s special rapporteur on Rwanda, René Degni-Ségui on concrete steps to take, interlocutors to attempt to speak with, and places to visit to try to stop the killings. It asks the UN to recognize that the ongoing killings constitute genocide and to begin collecting evidence for future accountability.

June 13, 1994 – In an opinion piece published in USA Today, Des Forges once again draws attention to the ongoing massacres, including of 2,800 people in a church center in Kibungo and another 10,000 at a parish in Nyarubuye. She highlights the political nature of the killings: “the plane crash that killed the president of Rwanda on April 6 was not the cause of the latest fighting, merely the pretext for Hutu extremists to launch their highly organized slaughter.” Des Forges blasts the United States for its late reaction to the genocide and for its slow delivery of logistical support to the increase in UN troops, as well as the White House’s attempts to shirk responsibility by ordering staffers to stop using the word “genocide.”

On the same day, 31 members of the US House of Representatives introduce Resolution 453 stating:

“Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives–

1. strongly condemns the atrocities being carried out in Rwanda; and

2. calls such atrocities genocide.”

After the Genocide: August 1994 – December 1994

August 21, 1994 – In an opinion piece in Le Monde, Des Forges calls attention to France’s role in protecting those who may be responsible for genocide in a humanitarian zone established by the French military. Des Forges write, “The Rwandan genocide is so blatant that France’s refusal to arrest the alleged perpetrators would mean a pure and simple denial of [the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide’s] ratification.”  

September 15, 1994 – Human Rights Watch publishes a report “The Aftermath of Genocide in Rwanda: Absence of Prosecution, Continued Killings” highlighting delays in gathering evidence and providing resources to enable prosecutions of those responsible for the genocide as well as continued killings by RPF soldiers.

November 9, 1994 – Human Rights Watch releases a press statement on the UN Security Council decision to establish an international tribunal to prosecute crimes committed during the genocide and on deliberations regarding the establishment of a permanent international court.

December 1994 – Human Rights Watch publishes a report “Rwanda: A New Catastrophe?” documenting limited, scattered and poorly supported efforts to bring those responsible for the genocide to justice. It condemns the international community’s failure to deliver much-needed aid to the new Rwandan government, hindering its ability to establish an effective civilian administration and fueling reprisal killings, disappearances, and manipulation of genocide accusations. It also documents renewed militia activities in displaced persons’ camps in Rwanda.

December 13, 1994 – Human Rights Watch writes to Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu and General Paul Kagame, then the vice-president, to share a copy of its latest report and express concerns about continuing abuses by soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

December 20, 1994 – Human Rights Watch writes to then Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu to share a copy of its latest report and request action on abuses by soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Army.



[1] Quoted in Human Rights Watch/International Federation for Human Rights, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (New York: Human Rights Watch/International Federation for Human Rights, 1999), : Radio Rwanda, “Defence Ministry communique urges Rwandans to ignore ‘the lies’ of RPF radio,” April 12, 1994, SWB, AL/1970 A/5, April 13, 1994.

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