The Hutu and the Tutsi lived together in the pre-colonial Kingdom of Burundi, which was mainly ruled by the Tutsi. The Belgian colonial government increased the polarization between the two groups and created a policy of racial segregation. After Burundi gained independence, the Tutsi-dominated government became increasingly extreme. In 1972, the regime carried out genocide against the educated members of the Hutu, killing more than 200,000 people over a period of three months.
Burundi is a small, poor and densely populated country, where most residents live in villages and engage in agriculture. For hundreds of years, Burundi was a united kingdom with three main ethnic groups – the Hutu (84%), the Tutsi (15%) and the Twa (1%). The three ethnic groups shared a language called Kirundi, shared joint culture and customs, and often intermarried. Burundi and Rwanda are “twin countries,” they share a similar culture, history and ethnic composition. Their histories as modern nations illustrate the corrupting contribution of European imperialism in sub-Saharan Africa. In order to trace the origins of the violence in Burundi, we must review the past 500 years of the area, which today includes Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.
The pre-colonial period:
The Kingdom of Burundi was established in the late sixteenth or early eighteenth century’s and included the three ethnic groups of the area – the Tutsi, Hutu and Twa. The Tutsi are also known as the Abatutsi – a nomadic population of, cattle herders, living in warrior tribes and apparently belonging to the Nilotic tribes who arrived in the area from Ethiopia around the sixteenth century. The Hutu are also known as the Abahutu – a nation of agriculturalists, with their Bantu origins who migrated to the area between the seventh and twelfth centuries. Missionaries and researchers who traveled in the area described the society similar to that of a small kingdom, comparable to the social structure of the Greek Empire. The Tutsi upper class were mainly cattle herders , while the Hutu lower class were mainly farmers. In some of the cases, the ownership of cattle, which was the condition for entry into the ruling class, was forbidden to Hutu. The Hutu provided their agricultural products to their Tutsi rulers in exchange for protection. Forced labor was customary in the kingdom, and applied to the Hutu while the Tutsi were exempt. Researchers continue to disagree about the ethnic character of pre-colonial Burundi – were the Hutu, Twa and Tutsi really members of different tribes that made up all of the clans and kingdoms in the area, or did the economic caste system not have ethnic significance? In any case, researchers agree that the Tutsi minority were the ruling class who had greater privileges than the rest of the population. The first European researchers to arrive in the area in the late nineteenth century found a society of three groups with a shared language and culture, serving in the same army and sharing the same living area. Despite divisions, the one unifying figure in pre-colonial Burundi was the king, whose origins, according to belief, were divine, and whose authority could not be questioned. Even during these earlier periods, the majority of the chiefs were Tutsi.
Period of German colonial rule 1899-1916:
In 1899, Burundi became part of German East Africa – one of the three German colonies in Africa, and whose territory encompassed Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and more. The German occupiers were known for their cruelty in suppressing rebellion attempts. The Germans exacted taxes with the assistance of the king and tribal leaders. Initially, the King of Burundi opposed European influence, and unlike his neighbor in Rwanda, refused to pay taxes or wear European clothing. In response, the Germans used force and organized a rebellion against the king, who had no choice and ultimately accepted German rule.
Period of Belgian colonial rule 1916-1962:
After World War I, the British and the Belgians divided up German East Africa, and Rwanda and Burundi came under Belgian rule. During the 1930s, the Belgian occupiers defined physical characteristics to differentiate between the Tutsi and the Hutu using “physiological anthropology” – a method by which people’s skulls and other physical features were measured and analyzed to determine which group they belonged to. This practice was becoming an accepted technique in Europe, where at the time, Eugenics was becoming an accepted scientific theory. These principals of social Darwinism were instrumental in laying the foundation for the Nazis race theory. The Tutsis were identified as taller, more beautiful, intelligent people, who had more delicate noses and narrower foreheads than the Hutu. The Belgians used these distinctions to confirm their perception that the Tutsi were smarter than and superior to the Hutu, and therefore regarded them as the elite. The Belgians treated the Tutsi as their local partners in their rule despite being a minority of the population. The Belgians enforced a policy of forced labor, primarily on the coffee plantations, under the supervision of the Tutsi. Consequently, the animosity between the Tutsi and the Hutu was exacerbated. In order to belong to the ruling elite, one also needed to be a member of the church. Mass conversion of the African population to Christianity was a direct result of missionary activity and colonial rule. A Tutsi was defined as a person possessing at least ten cattle or with a Tutsi-like appearance. If these two conditions were not met, the person was required to prove that s/he was not Hutu. In 1929, the Belgians decided to merge the positions of chiefs and to decrease their number, and dismissed most of the Hutu chiefs, and by 1945 no Hutu chiefs remained. This process increased power into the hands of fewer and fewer people. In 1948, the region became a UN trust territory under Belgian administration, and in 1962 Burundi gained independence.
The military coup in Burundi:
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Belgians left the region, and a Hutu revolution broke out in neighboring Rwanda. Masses of Hutu removed the Tutsi monarchy and with the support of Belgium, held democratic elections. The newly elected Hutu in Rwanda massacred some 50,000 Tutsis, and as a result destabilized Burundi. In October 1965, after a failed coup attempt by Hutu officers, vicious attacks were directed against the Hutu in Burundi. In response, Hutu soldiers murdered hundreds of Tutsi civilians. In response, the Tutsi executed dozens of Hutu officers and took complete control of the army and police. In 1966, Colonel Michel Micombero led a military coup which removed the monarchy. The new military regime, led by Tutsi officers, established a policy of severe discrimination against the Hutu. All attempts at rebellion resulted in the widespread massacre of Hutu civilians. In September 1969, an additional attempted coup failed. The regime’s response was especially brutal: Some 50,000 Hutu who was affiliated with the political groups which attempted the coup were massacred by the security forces, including the entire Hutu political leadership was executed.
The Hutu uprising:
In 1971, there was a split within Burundi’s military regime. President Micombero, a Tutsi of the Hima clan, appointed members of his clan to his government and senior military positions and removed Tutsi from the Banyaruguru clan. In July 1971, Banyaruguru clan members were accused of plotting a coup by Hima elements, but they never even attempted to pull it off. A military court ordered the execution of nine senior officers and life imprisonment for another 11 officers, all Banyaruguru. The military regime was weaker than ever and increased its use of violence. On April 29, 1972, a group of Hutu rebels organized in the Tanzania, (most members were born in the Tanzania), took control of the city of Rumonge in western Burundi. On the same day, the gang instructed Hutu in the area to murder the Tutsi. Witnesses reported many massacres. In the nearby town of Bururi, all Tutsi soldiers, civilians and representatives of the Tutsi authorities were murdered. After the locals gained control of a 70km strip on the shore of Lake Tanganyika in western Burundi, from Rumonge to Nyanza Lac in the southwest, they declared that they would kill all Tutsi and any Hutu who did not join them. This area was declared an independent Republic of Martyazo and was controlled by the extremist Hutu militia. At most, a few thousand Hutu (most of them from the Congo) participated in the rebellion, and approximately one thousand Tutsi were killed. In June 1972, during the height of the genocide, the soon-to-be Tutsi government of Burundi claimed that 25,000 Hutu participated in the rebellion and that 50,000 Tutsi were killed.
Preparations for Genocide:
The leaders from the Hima clan exploited the state of political chaos in the Burundi government in order to make radical changes to the political structure. Just hours before the rebellion broke out, on April 29, President Micombero disbanded his government and increased his own authority. The night before the rebellion broke out on April 29, 1972, the King of Burundi Ntare V returned from six years of exile in Europe. He was executed that same night, on the president’s orders. The next day, on April 30, a group of senior officers of Hima-Tutsi origin, known to be close to the president, began planning the slaughter of all of Burundi’s Hutu. After the rebellion broke out, the president ordered the Foreign Affairs Minister Simbananiye’s authority expanded, and appointed him interior minister. On May 12, Simbananiye gave a “free hand” to the extremist Tutsi youth movement the Jeunesses Révolutionnaires Rwagasore (JRR). Youth movement leaders were ordered to provide the military with lists of all Hutus studying at schools and universities, and all of the Hutu members of the youth movement were slaughtered that day.
The Hutu rebellion a few days in early May. From the moment that the rebellion ended, the organized slaughter of Burundian Hutu began. At first, police and military commanders were ordered to kill all of their Hutu subordinates, leading to the murder of 750 soldiers and some 300 police officers. Next were teachers, students at high schools and vocational schools. Military trucks and vehicles arrived at schools where soldiers ordered all Hutu students and teachers to board the trucks which then drove them to killing pits, jails or military facilities where they were executed. JRR members also participated in the executions and massacres and served as an effective force for identifying victims. The soldiers also went to elementary schools, where at first only Hutu teachers were rounded up, but later, the students were as well. In June, it was reported that no Hutu teachers remained in high schools, and only 45% of them remained in elementary schools. Thousands of students were taken from high schools and universities and executed. In Bujumbura alone, 4,000 were placed on trucks and taken to killing pits. Thousands of Hutu state employees and priests were executed. State radio broadcast coded propaganda that called for killing Hutu: “hunt the python in the grass.” In many cases, the soldiers arrived with a pre-prepared list of victims. Moderate Tutsis were also murdered. By the end of August, more than 200,000 people had been reported killed and hundreds of thousands more had fled to neighboring countries — no educated Hutu remained.
The civil war:
The Hutu genocide paved the way for 20 years of Tutsi hegemony. In 1976, Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza removed President Micombero from office and conducted significant government reforms. Bagaza’s government was more moderate than his predecessor’s. In 1987, Pierre Buyoya removed Bagaza in another military coup. After his rise to the presidency, tensions between the Hutu majority and the dominant Tutsi minority increased once again. In 1988, about 25,000 Hutus were killed in northern Burundi. Violence flooded the streets and tens of thousands were killed in what unraveled into a civil war. In 1991, under pressure from the West, democratic reforms were initiated and a date was set for elections. In 1993, the first Hutu president was elected in Burundi. Three months after being elected, he was killed by Tutsi officers. The president’s murder triggered additional violent riots, where thousands of Hutu farmers rebelled against the Tutsi elite who continued to rule the country. The Tutsi and the Hutu slaughtered each other, resulting in over 100,000 citizens killed that year and over a million fleeing to neighboring countries. This murderous civil war was also a deciding factor in the outbreak of the Rwandan genocide in April 1994 in which the Hutu killed almost a million Tutsi in just three months. The war continued for many years, but as the years went on, the massacres against the civilian population decreased. By the early 2000s, some 300,000 people had been killed in the civil war. During the first fifty years of independence of Burundi over 500,000 Hutus and 100,000 Tutsi were killed by mass atrocities.
The current situation:
A report published jointly by the UN and the US government in 2002 claimed that the crimes of 1993 amounted to genocide and that the events of 1972 should also be studied, as it seems apparent that a systematic and organized genocide took place then and those responsible should be held accountable. In 2005, the first mixed government of Burundi was elected after the civil war, but it did not last very long. In 2010, the country once again deteriorated into brutal political violence between the Hutu and the Tutsi. In October 2011, the government of Burundi, under pressure from the West, established a truth and reconciliation commission which was meant to submit a report to the parliament by December 2012 regarding the civil war. The commission did not submit a report and apparently did not function at all. A Human Rights Watch report from 2012 describes several massacres carried out in Burundi in recent years and determines that dozens of political leaders and activists have been killed by the government since 2010. The report warned against the youth movements that are armed and trained by the government. In January 2012, it was reported that the Tutsi government, using bulldozers, destroyed mass graves where over 430 Hutu were killed in 1995. It seems that under current conditions, there is a danger that an additional genocide could break out in Burundi and that all of the evidence of the 1972 genocide could be destroyed, so that it would never be recognized by the world.
*This article was written with the help of Dr René Lemarchand