One of the early occurrences of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 took place this day when the country’s moderate prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana (pictured) was assassinated by the Génocidaires. Uwilingiyimana’s slaying and the killing of other key political figures threw Rwanda in to the throes of widespread genocide, where an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in about 100 days.
Uwilingiyimana, born May 23, 1953, was a Hutu, the largest ethnic group in Rwanda. She was a stellar student and married a fellow student, Ignace Barahira, from her village of Nyaruhengeri. In the early 1980s, she taught chemistry at the National University of Rwanda.
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Uwilingiyimana was the target of the Rwandan media as it was thought that women should not study science or work in the same posts as men.
Uwilingiyimana’s work in education caught the attention of President Juvénal Habyarimana, although she was a member of the Republican and Democratic Movement (MDR) opposition party. Habyarimana’s National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (MRND) party ruled Rwanda, but there was a power-sharing strategy between the five political parties of the nation that led to a brokered deal that saw Uwilingiyimana appointed as Prime Minister by President Habyarimana on July 17, 1993.
Uwilingiyimana’s position caused division in the country, and there were grumblings from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which was comprised of the Tutsi people who had issues with the Hutu-led government.
Uwilingiyimana’s official role as prime minister was essentially eliminated by President Habyarimana 18 days in to her post. She remained at her post in a “caretaker” role and was seen as an divider by her own Hutu people. In March 1994, the Broad Based Transitional Government was supposed to be enforced, but because one of the major parties did not show, the ceremonial motion of Uwilingiyimana did not occur.
On April 6, 1994, President Habyarimana; Cyprien Ntaryamira, the President of Burundi and the Chief of Staff of the Rwandan military; and many others were on president’s private jet that was shot down out of Rwandan airspace.
Who ordered the blasting of the aircraft still remains a mystery, although some thought the RPF was originally responsible. The French have also been accused of shooting down the plane and inciting more conflict.
After addressing the Rwandan people via Radio France, Uwilingiyimana was essentially the head of the government for 14 hours. The United Nations sent a peacekeeping escort to her home comprised of 10 troops from Belgium in the wee hours of the morning. They were to shield Uwilingiyimana and her family from harm as she intended to head to Radio Rwanda the the next day in order to encourage calm.
Holed up in her home with her husband and their five children, the military descended upon the residence under orders from Colonel Théoneste Bagosora who was the chief of staff of the Ministry of Defense.
Bagosora’s military forces and the presidential guard murdered the 10 Belgian peacekeepers and later cornered Uwilingiyimana and her husband who hid their children in a neighboring home.
Even though Uwilingiyimana and her husband surrendered to the forces to save the rest of the family, the troops killed and then physically assaulted Uwilingiyimana in plain view.
Uwilingiyimana’s husband and five other men were also killed, but the children escaped with the help of U.N. peacekeeper Mbaye Diagne. They were eventually sent to live in Switzerland.
Diagne was later killed by RPF forces the following month.
Major Bernard Ntuyahaga of the Rwandan military was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) for the murder of Uwilingiyimana and the peacekeepers; however, charges were later dropped.
On December 18, 2008, Colonel Bagosora was found guilty by he ICTR of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison for his part in the killing of the prime minister and U.N. peacekeeper forces.