Rwanda is a mountainous, landlocked nation whose economy is based on agriculture and most residents are farmers. Their domestic consumption is mainly bananas and yams, and their export is mainly coffee. In 1994, only 5% of the populations resided in cities, the rest were in rural settlements. It is one of the poorest and most densely populated nations in the world; ranked 210 in GDP per capita.
For hundreds of years Rwanda was a unified kingdom, which dwelt three principal ethnic groups – Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. The three ethnic groups shared customs, culture, and their language, Kinyarwanda. Mixed marriages were also more common. In 1994, the ethnic division was 84% Hutu, 15% Tutsi, and 1% Twa.
The story of Rwanda as a modern state is one of the saddest examples of the corrupt, exploitative “contributions” of European colonialism in black Africa. Rwanda declared its independence on July 1st 1962, after being granted independence from Belgium. In order to understand the sources of violence in the country, which ultimately led to its horrifying genocide, we must look back about 500 years in the history of the region which Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi are located today.
The Pre-Colonial Period:
The Kingdom of Rwanda was founded in the 16th century; the tribes of Tutsi, Hutu and Twa were the three ethnic groups. The Tutsi were also known as the Watusi – a nomadic people of tall stature, cattle herders who lived in warring bands. The Watusi were members of the Nilotic peoples who arrived in the region from Ethiopia around the time of the 16th century. The Hutu, also known as Bahutu, were an agricultural people, of short stature and descended from the Bantu family of tribes, who arrived in the region between the 6th and the 12th centuries. To this day researchers are divided over Rwanda’s pre-colonial ethnic and class structure; some believe that the Tutsi, Hutu and Twa were different ethnic groups . Others believe that the Tutsi, Hutu and Twa were different economic caste of one ethnic group. In all accepted explanations, it is agreed that the Tutsi were the ruling minority who enjoyed privileges not granted to the majority of the people, the Hutu and Twa.
The first European researchers who arrived in the area at the end of the 19th century found a society where the three groups shared a common language, culture, living areas, and also served in a common army. Despite the division between tribes, there was also a central uniting factor in pre-colonial Rwanda, the King. According to local faith, the King was the divine ruler whose authority was never questioned. It is also important to note that even during these early stages, the vast majority of the heads of clans, the chiefs, were Tutsi. The ruling class in the kingdom was the cattle herders, all of who were Tutsi. The farmers, who were mostly Hutu with a minority of Tutsi farmers, belonged to the subordinate class. Ownership of cattle, which was a kind of “entry ticket” to the ruling class, was forbidden to the Hutu. The Hutu supplied their agricultural products to their Tutsi masters and in exchange received their protection. There were also customs of forced labor in the kingdom that applied only to the Hutu, and from which the Tutsi were exempt.
The Colonial Period:
German rule 1898-1916
Belgian rule 1916-1962
From a territorial perspective, colonial Rwanda does not exactly match what was the traditional kingdom of Rwanda. Three small kingdoms were annexed to it by the Belgians: Kibari in 1918, Bushiro in 1920 and Bukinya in 1931. In these three kingdoms, the Hutu were in power, and this matter has significance for the rest of the story.
Starting from the colonial period, Rwanda contained three Hutu kingdoms which were not part of the old, pre-colonial order, and in which the Hutu were subordinate and subject to discrimination in rights and economics means. In the future, these kingdoms would produce the leaders of the resistance to the old order in which the Tutsi ruled. These kingdoms would also produce the leaders of the genocide against the Tutsi.
Racial Theory in the Colonial Period
In the 1930s, the Belgian occupiers defined physical characteristics for distinguishing between Tutsi and Hutu through the use of “physical anthropology” – a system for deciding who belonged to which group via measurement of their skulls. This system was similar to the widespread systems used in Europe at the time, which were the theoretical “scientific” foundation for Nazi racial theory. The Tutsi were identified as taller, more beautiful, more intelligent, possessing a more delicate nose and a wider forehead than did members of the Hutu majority. Accordingly, the Belgians saw the Tutsi as the “smarter” and “superior” group relative to the Hutu, and therefore saw them as local partners in implementing Belgian rule, despite the fact that they were a minority. The Belgians implemented policies of forced labor under the supervision of Tutsis, primarily in coffee plantations. Thus, the hostility was exacerbated and the differences between Tutsi and Hutu were accentuated.
As a result of colonization and missionary activity, a massive wave of conversion to Christianity began among the African population. In order to belong to the ruling elite it was necessary to belong to the Church. In 1933 the Belgians made the differentiation even more extreme by producing identity cards in which ethnic group was indicated. A person was defined as Tutsi if they were the owner of at least ten cows, or of Tutsi appearance. If these two conditions did not apply, the individual was required to prove that he was not a Hutu, and thus ethnic identity received for the first time legislative backing. After the legislation passed, class mobility was severely restricted. Previously, it was possible via marriage or acquisition of cattle. Legislation also affected the mixing of populations, which until that time had been considered acceptable. The colonialist’s legislation made the divide between the Tutsi and the Hutu official and unalterable.
In 1929 the Belgians decided to unify the positions of chief, which entailed responsibility for land, cattle and population, in order to reduce the amount of leaders., The Belgians took the opportunity to fire most of the Hutu chiefs, so that by the end of the 1950s there were only 2 Hutu chiefs and 43 Tutsi chiefs. This further concentrated power in the hands of a small number of people.
The Hutu Revolution 1959-1962:
In the 1950’s UN member states supported granting independence to the colonized countries in Africa. In 1957, nine Hutu intellectuals from Rwanda published the Bahutu Manifesto, in which they demanded the breaking of the political, economic and social monopoly of the Tutsi. In the manifesto, the nine demanded “democratic majority rule” and getting rid of the “racist colonial system of the Tutsi.” The Tutsi demanded that the Belgians grant them independence immediately and hand over ruling power without elections. Ironically, this call won the support of the UN, including the Communist Bloc and the Third World. The Belgians, who had used the Tutsi as their partners in managing the state for decades, surprised the world and supported the Hutu and demanding democratization. This change in Belgian policy continued throughout the 1950s, which can be attributed to the Belgian public who had begun to sympathize with the oppressed, “democratic” majority, the Hutu, and to abandon the feudal-aristocratic minority, the Tutsi. The Catholic Church also transferred its support to the Hutu, out of fear of losing masses of believers.
At this time a number of political parties were being organized in Rwanda. Some were Tutsi and some were Hutu, and some democratic in character, while others with racist and violent platforms. The democratic revolution of the Hutu quickly spilled over into acts of serious violence against Tutsi, led by the extremist Hutu party MDR Parmehutu. In the years 1959-1961, tens of thousands of Tutsi were killed in riots and many fled to neighboring countries. The children of these refugees would come to play a significant role in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the Belgians fired the Tutsi chiefs and nominated Hutu in their stead. In 1960 the first elections were held under Belgian rule. The outcome was a sovereign Republic of Rwanda. The King was expelled and a council with an extremist Hutu majority, and an extremist Tutsi minority, was elected .In the 1960s, riots against Tutsis continued and grew to be systematic. The extremist Hutu rule deprived Tutsis of their government positions and their land.
Rwanda gained formal independence on the July 1st, 1962. Some of the representatives of the extremist Hutu MDR party, were also composers of the Bahutu Manifesto. In 1964 Rwandan President Gregoire Kayibanda, a Hutu, said, “If the Tutsi refugees attempt to seize power again, they will know for sure that the whole Tutsi race will be destroyed.” Opposition leadership was made illegal, state institutions underwent Hutuization, and the government incited against the Tutsis. Kayibanda’s government was authoritarian in character, not especially different from the monarchical system which had existed previously and which was cancelled after the revolution. The Kayibanda regime came to its end as a result of an internal coup based on intra-Hutu power struggles. The Defense Minister in the Kayibanda government, General Juvenal Habyarimana, rose to power. This coup signified further radicalization of the state, in which the northern Hutus, who were more extreme, repelled Kayibanda, who was a southern Hutu.
The Habyarimana regime, ruled by one party required government permits for all citizen activity. All government investments were directed towards the northern Hutu. Hutu men were even forbidden to marry Tutsi women. In regards to women, it is interesting to note that one of the most dominant figures in the country during this period was the President’s wife, Agathe Habyarimana. She controlled a centralized political power bloc, referred to as “Agathe’s clan,” made up of men from her clan, who were considered the “purest” Hutus. In their region of origin, northern Rwanda, it was not customary to have mixed marriages with Tutsis, unlike the rest of the country.
Despite its totalitarian characteristics, the dictatorial regime won the support of Belgium and France, who had financial interests in Rwanda, by virtue of being “democratic” and “committed to Christianity.” It also won support due to the emphasis it placed on “modernization and development.” Even the Christian Democratic parties in Italy and Germany supported this “Christian Democratic” regime.
In Neighboring Burundi:
In Burundi, like Rwanda, a Tutsi dynasty ruled during the traditional pre-colonial period. The 1959 revolution in Rwanda affected Burundi, but in the opposite manner, as the ruling Tutsi fortified their control of the country. In the 1960s a revolution overthrew the Tutsi dynasty, but it was replaced by a Tutsi military regime. Although, Burundi and Rwanda were both Belgian colonies, during the 1960s and 1970s in Burundi, Tutsi oppressed the Hutu, whereas in Rwanda the Hutu oppressed the Tutsi. From a domestic, political standpoint, each country used the other’s situation as justification for its acts of oppression and discrimination. (slightly unclear)
In 1972 the Tutsi regime of Burundi committed a Genocide against Hutus civilians. In this Genocide approximately 250,000 Hutus died and some 400,000 fled into Rwanda. Those Burundian refugees caused further radicalization of the response of the Hutu regime in Rwanda against their Tutsis civilians.
The Establishment of the Rwandan Patriotic Front:
In the 1990s an armed Tutsi militia, called the Rwandan Patriotic Front, RPF, began to organize along the Rwanda-Uganda border. Tutsi from Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi were enlisted. The goal of the RPF was to fight racist Hutu rule in Rwanda. Despite being persecuted, the RPF continued to grow in numbers, and in particular educated Tutsis. These educated Tutsi blamed the white man for conflict between ethnic groups.
In the 1990s RPF forces invaded Rwanda. The invasion was thwarted, except for the conquest of a small part of northern Rwanda. This invasion strengthened the racism of the Hutu, who used the event as proof that the Tutsi were a fifth column who aimed to take over the country again.
The Response of the Rwandan Government to the Rwandan Patriotic Front:
The central government was threatened by the RPF’s activity and increased efforts to arm its military with arms, supplied primarily by the French. The regime organized riots against the Tutsi in order to create solidarity among Hutu. The RPF attack was portrayed as an attack on the capital city of Kigali, in order to increase the level of hysteria. The media was used to incite against the Tutsi and RPF, and Tutsi citizens were accused of collaboration. In the years 1992-1993 armed militias of Hutu citizens were situated around the country.
The Arusha Accords:
Under international pressure a “peace agreement” was reached between the Rwandan Government and the RPF. The agreement stipulated a cease-fire, the establishment of a temporary government in Rwanda, a reduction in the size of the Rwandan military, and the return of Tutsi refugees to Rwanda. The agreement granted the RPF representation in a broad unity government (what is a broad unity government?) which would sit until new elections were held. A group of Hutu extremists vigorously opposed power-sharing with the RPF and refused to sign the agreement. When they finally acquiesced and agreed to sign, some members of the RPF were opposed as well. The accords were finally signed in Arusha, Tanzania in 1993 where it was agreed that Rwandan military forces would merge with the RPF, and that a United Nations peacekeeping force would be dispatched to oversee the implementation of the accords.
The UN Force Commander, General Dallaire, who arrived in Rwanda in 1993, did not sense any special danger and suggested sending only a small number of forces in order to “keep the peace in the region.”
Laying the Foundations for Genocide:
After Rwandan President Habyarimana signed the Accords, Hutu extremists claimed that he had sold out his people. The military expressed rage at the agreement. Hutu extremists decided on the establishment of “Hutu Power” and tens of thousands enlisted. A half of a million machetes were secretly imported into Rwanda for distribution as weapons to the new recruits. Meanwhile, a new extremist radio station opened, which was managed by the party. Talk of a “final solution” for the Tutsi had begun.
The Beginning of the Genocide:
In April 1994 in Arusha, a commission convened in order to try to implement the Accord. On the return trip the plane carrying the Presidents of Rwanda, Burundi, and also the Deputy Prime Minister of Kenya, was hit by a rocket. The rulers and several others were killed.
To this day it is unclear who fired the rocket, and there are a number of different theories. One theory suggests that it was extremist Hutus doing in response to the signed Arusha Accord. It could even be that Presidential Guard itself carried out the attack, since the guard prevented UN forces from access to the crash site.
On that same morning the RTLM radio station broadcast announced that something was going to happen, and the Hutu should be ready for developments later in the day. Immediately after the news about the plane crash was broadcast, the Hutu militias set up roadblocks and received extermination lists. The RTLM radio station started calling for the murder of Tutsi as revenge for the killing of the President. The President and Foreign Minister who initiated the Accord were first to be killed, although they had been moderate Hutu. The members of “Hutu Power” took control of the government after the murder of the President, and the United Nations and the international community recognized them.
Beginning from April 6th, 1994, the day the presidential plane was shot down, and over the course of the following 100 days somewhere between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people were murdered, most of them with machetes. The majorities were Tutsi, and portions were Hutu who opposed the murder. Throughout the entire period, radio stations broadcast calls for murder and complete destruction of the Tutsi. People murdered their neighbors, colleagues, and even family members murdered each other, because in Rwanda it was a long-established custom to intermarry between ethnic groups. With the outbreak of the genocide the RPF renewed its war against the Hutu government. The leader of the RPF, Paul Kagame, commanded the forces at the front along the border with neighboring Uganda and Tanzania, and led his forces to conquer Rwanda. The war continued for some two months, during the genocide.
The Response of the International Community:
With the loss of stability in the country and the outbreak of genocide, foreign embassies were shut down and UN forces were ordered to concentrate on the evacuation of foreign citizens from the country. Belgian forces withdrew from Rwanda after the murder of dozens of Belgian soldiers who had been guarding the Prime Minister. The entire world related to what was occurring in Rwanda as “internal affairs”, and international institutions refrained from defining the events as genocide.
The UN Security Council decided to decrease the UN forces in Rwanda to 260 soldiers from Canada, Ghana, and the Netherlands. These forces were concentrated in relatively protected areas.
On April 29th, 1994, some three weeks after the killings had begun; it was decided to send UN troops to Rwanda. The decision was then delayed by funding disputes. On June 22nd, 1994, since UN forces had yet to be stationed in the region, the Security Council allowed France to place troops in the city of Goma, Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Goma there were Hutu refugees in need of humanitarian assistance. The State of Israel sent three humanitarian aid delegations to this region.
The Ceasefire and the End of the Genocide:
In July 1994, RPF forces defeated the Hutu regime and ended the genocide. Some two million Hutu fled and became refugees in Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire. Some fled because they had participated in the annihilation of Tutsi and feared acts of revenge. Thousands died of infectious disease in refugee camps. The war in Rwanda and the refugee crisis led to violation of any political and military order and the outbreak of war at the border region with Zaire. Hundreds of thousands of refugees returned to Rwanda beginning in 1996.
Under RPF rule Rwanda began putting thousands of accused perpetrators of genocide on trial. Simultaneously, the UN established the International Criminal Court for Rwanda, which is located in Arusha, Tanzania. The UN court tried former senior government and military officials, while the Rwandan justice system tried local and lower-ranked leaders.
The Tutsi regime understood that it could not ignore or oppress the Hutu who make up the vast majority of the population. The government announced the cancellation of the death penalty and the establishment of a national reconciliation process. By 2000, approximately 120,000 alleged genocidaires were crammed into Rwanda’s prisons and communal jails. From December 1996 to December 2006, the courts managed to try about 10,000 suspects at that rate it would take another 110 years to prosecute all the prisoners. However, the courts needed a more expeditious means of delivering justice. In response, Rwanda implemented the Gacaca court system, which evolved from traditional cultural communal law enforcement procedures. The Gacaca courts are a method of transitional justice, designed to promote healing and moving on from the crisis. The Gacaca trials are meant to promote reconciliation and justice. The defendant is accused and brought to trial in public, where survivors and the victims’ families can confront the accused. The accused can confess to their crimes or maintain their innocence and the villagers can either speak for or against the defendant.
Lastly, the government has banned any legal distinction between ethnic groups. However, most leaders are still Tutsi, and some Hutu oppose the campaign against ethnic divisions, so ethnic tensions still do exist.
*This article was written with the help of Jacqueline Murekatete