The highlands of Rwanda and
Burundi, east of Lake Kivu, are the last part of Africa to be reached by
Europeans in the colonial expansion of the late 19th century. Before
that time local tradition tells of many centuries during which the
Tutsi, a tall cattle-rearing people probably from the upper reaches of
the Nile, infiltrate the area and win dominance over the Hutu, already
in residence and living by agriculture.
Historical records begin with
the reign of Rwabugiri, who comes to the throne in 1860 and eventually
controls a region almost as large as the present Rwanda. His realm is
organized on a feudal basis, with the Tutsi as the aristocracy and the
Hutu as their vassals.
When first described by
Europeans - and in particular by Speke, who encounters them east of
Rwanda on his exploration to Lake Victoria - it is assumed that the
distinction between Tutsi and Hutu is entirely racial. But this simple
classification is blurred by intermarriage and by the custom of allowing
people to become honorary members of the other group.
A more valid description of the
Tutsi-Hutu divide is by class and occupation. The Tutsi are the upper
class and are mostly herdsmen. The Hutu are the lower class and for the
most part live by farming.
The first European to enter
Rwanda is a German, Count von Götzen, who visits the court of Rwabugiri
in 1894. The next year the king dies. With Rwanda in turmoil over the
succession, the Germans move in (in 1897, from Tanzania) to claim the
region for the Kaiser. At the same time they claim Burundi, a separate
kingdom to the south. The entire area is treated as one colony, to be
known as Ruanda-Urundi.
German rule in this most
inaccessible of colonies is indirect, achieved mainly by placing agents
at the courts of the various local rulers. So the German influence is
not yet extensive when the region is taken abruptly from their hands
after the outbreak of the European war in 1914.
Belgian colony: AD 1914-1962
When Germany invades Belgium,
at the start of World War I, the Belgians retaliate in a smaller way in
central Africa. Belgian troops move east from the Belgian Congo to
occupy (in 1916) Ruanda-Urundi. After the war the League of Nations
confirms the existing state of affairs, granting Belgium in 1924 a
mandate to administer the colony.
From 1925 Ruanda-Urundi is
linked with the neighbouring Belgian Congo, but colonial rule takes a
very different form in the two territories. The administration of the
Congo is centred in Brussels, but in Ruanda-Urundi it is left in the
hands of the Tutsi aristocracy. Indeed the Belgians, observing the
distinction between Tutsi and Hutu, make it the very basis of their
The Hutu are subject to the
forced labour which disfigures many European colonies in Africa, but
here it is the Tutsi who supervise them at their tasks. From 1933
everyone in Ruanda-Urundi is issued with a racial identity card,
defining them as Hutu (85%) or Tutsi (14%). The remaining 1% are the
Twa, the remnants of the original Pygmies indigenous in this area.
This Belgian attitude, setting
in stone the distinction between the two groups and favouring one of
them, prepares the ground for future violence (in earlier times racially
based massacres have never occurred between Hutu and Tutsi). The
predictable occasion for its outbreak is the rush towards independence
in the late 1950s.
The problem is more immediately
evident in Ruanda than in Urundi. In 1957 Hutu leaders in Ruanda publish
a Hutu Manifesto, preparing their supporters for a future political
conflict to be conducted entirely on ethnic lines. In 1959 the first
outbreak of violence is sparked off when a group of Tutsi political
activists in Gitirama beat up a Hutu rival, Dominique Mbonyumutwa (he
survives the attack but the rumour of his death spreads rapidly in Hutu
circles and is still believed today).
The resulting nationwide
campaign of Hutu violence against Tutsis becomes known as 'the wind of
destruction'. Over the coming months many Tutsis flee from Ruanda,
including the 25-year-old hereditary ruler, the Mwami.
In elections in 1960 Hutu
politicians score an overwhelming victory. Grégoire Kayibanda, one of
the authors of the Hutu Manifesto, leads a provisional government for
the interim period to independence.
In Urundi the Tutsi monarchy
proves at first more resilient, both in holding on to the reins of power
and in attempting a resolution of the Tutsi-Hutu conflict. When
elections are held in 1961, they bring a landslide victory for a joint
Hutu and Tutsi party. It is led by the popular Prince Rwagasore, the
eldest son of the Mwami. He is assassinated a few months later, before
independence has been formally achieved. But this disaster does not yet
tip Urundi into ethnic violence.
Independence: from AD 1962
The two parts of Ruanda-Urundi
become independent in July 1962. There is pressure from the UN to
federate as a single nation, but both opt to go their separate ways.
Ruanda, in which ethnic violence has continued during 1960 and 1961,
becomes a republic (automatically, since the young ruler has fled and
has been formally deposed in his absence). The spelling of the name is
changed to Rwanda.
Urundi, by contrast, becomes
independent as a constitutional monarchy - but again with a change of
name, to Burundi.
The first presidential election
in Rwanda is won by Grégoire Kayibanda, the leader of the interim
provisional government. The name of his party, the Parti du Mouvement de
l'Emancipation du Peuple Hutu (Party for Hutu Emancipation), makes all
too plain what is to be the central plank of government policy.
In the spirit of Kayibanda's
movement, 'cockroaches' becomes the favourite slang name for Tutsis. The
killing of cockroaches is soon an all-too familiar feature of Rwandan
life, in a frenzy whipped up by the government at any time of crisis -
particularly whenever Rwandan exiles, most of them Tutsi, attempt
invasions from across the borders.
In December 1963 several
hundred Tutsi guerrillas enter southern Rwanda from Burundi. They
advance to within twelve miles of the capital, Kigali, before they are
eliminated by the Rwandan army. This event prompts the government to
declare a state of emergency, emphasizing the need to 'clear the bush'
of subversive elements.
Within days some 14,000 Tutsis
are massacred in the southern province of Gikongoro, in a coordinated
campaign described by Bertrand Russell as 'the most horrible and
systematic massacre' since the Holocaust. It will prove minor compared
to what Hutu Power achieves in the 1990s.
In the interim there is a coup
within the Hutu regime. In 1973 Kayibanda is removed from power by a
group of army officers who replace him with a major general, Juvénal
Habyarimana remains in power
for twenty-one years, running a conventional self-serving military
dictatorship (with enthusiastic support from several western countries,
in particular France). But his Hutu ethnic policy creates an increasing
problem on Rwanda's frontiers. Over the borders there are a vast number
of mainly Tutsi refugees. As time passes they are increasingly unwelcome
in their host countries. Efforts are made to send them home. But Rwanda
In 1986 Habyarimana states as a
matter of policy that there will be no right of return for Rwandan
refugees. In the following year Rwandan exiles form the group which soon
transforms the situation - the RPF or Rwandan Patriotic Front, committed
to armed struggle against Habyarimana's regime.
The nucleus of the RPF is Tutsi
officers serving in the Ugandan army. On a prearranged date, 1 October
1990, they desert from the army with their equipment and move south over
the border into Rwanda. It is a minor invasion which eventually, against
all the odds, puts an end to Habyarimana's regime. But it also provokes
one of the century's most appalling acts of genocide.
The prelude to genocide: AD
President Habyarimina is able
to repel the initial RPF invasion of northeastern Rwanda, in October
1990, largely thanks to French paratroops sent for the purpose by
President Mitterand. But the event provides the pretext for a new wave
of Tutsi persecution within Rwanda.
The country's most fervently
racist newspaper publishes in December the Hutu Ten Commandments. This
is a litany of hatred, attributing dishonesty and treachery not only to
all Tutsis but also to any Hutu who befriends them. The eighth
commandment, quoted at the time more often than any other, is: 'Hutus
must stop having mercy on the Tutsis.' In 1991 a name is coined for this
new level of ethnic triumphalism - Hutu Power.
To ensure the effectiveness of
Hutu Power, Habiyarimina's government begins to recruit Hutu youth
militias. These become known as the Interahamwe, meaning 'those who
attack together'. In public these violent young men roar around on
motorbikes, like any gang of hooligans, and hold drunken rallies under
portraits of President Habiyarimina. In private they gather together to
perfect the skills of wielding machetes, setting fire to houses, and
drawing up lists of local Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers.
In this mood ethnic violence
increases steadily, and is often ratcheted up a sudden notch - as when,
in March 1992, Radio Rwanda spreads a deliberately false rumour that a
Tutsi plot to massacre Hutus has been discovered.
By 1992 President Habyarimana
is himself beginning to disappoint his extremist supporters. Having
failed to suppress the guerrillas of the RPF, and under international
pressure to come to terms with them, he begins to negotiate. The news
that he has agreed a ceasefire, in August 1992, provokes a new wave of
attacks on Tutsis. Over the next year the peace process continues,
alienating the president ever further from the thugs of Hutu Power.
In August 1993, after talks at
Arusha in Tanzania, Habyarimana signs a peace treaty with the RPF,
officially bringing the war to an end. But the terms of the treaty go
much further than that.
In what becomes known as the
Arusha Accords, Habiyarimana accepts the right of return for all
Rwanda's refugees, the merging of the RPF with the national army, and a
transitional period leading up to elections and a democratic government.
During this period power will reside with a provisional government in
which, most startling of all, the RPF will be represented. And UN forces
will be invited into Rwanda to secure this process.
These concessions seem
outrageous to the Interahamwe and their political masters. On 6 April
1994 a rocket, almost certainly fired by Hutu extremists, brings down a
plane. In it are two presidents - Habyarimana, and the head of state of
Genocide: AD 1994
The assassination of the
president, even if secretly contrived by extremist Hutus, is the
immediate pretext for the orgy of Hutu extremism whipped up over the
following weeks. Radio broadcasts urge people to do their duty and seek
out the Tutsis and Tutsi-sympathizers living among them in their streets
or villages. Eliminate the cockroaches is the message.
On April 29 the state radio
announces that May 5 is to be the 'cleanup' day by which the capital,
Kigali, must be cleansed of Tutsis. One notorious broadcast even
suggests a necessary precaution in the interests of thoroughness; unborn
children should be ripped from the wombs of dead Tutsi women who are
In this atmosphere the
Interahamwe and a large proportion of the ordinary Hutu population of
Rwanda go to work with a frenzy probably unparalleled in human history.
Between April and July some 800,000 Rwandans are slaughtered. And this
is without the modern aids of mass destruction. The characteristic tool
in Rwanda's genocide is the everyday machete, used more normally in
agriculture. The UN forces, though by now present, are powerless to
The terror of 1994 is followed
by another human disaster, as some two million refugees flee to Zaire,
Burundi and Tanzania. But these are for the most part Hutus rather than
Tutsis. And they are trying to escape from the RPF, who resume their
military campaign the day after the assassination of the president.
genocide: AD 1994-1999
In the chaos of mid-1994 the
RPF, capable of putting into the field an extremely well disciplined
guerrilla force, makes rapid progress against the Rwandan army. By July
RPF troops are in Kigali, and a provisional government is formed. By the
end of August almost the entire country is under control.
Though largely led by Tutsis,
the RPF has been from the start committed to racial equality. This is
achieved in the first cabinet, whose members reflect the numerical
balance in the country. Sixteen of its members are Hutus, six are
Tutsis. But if the RPF government can rid itself of racism, this ideal
proves very much harder to achieve in the nation (though an important
first step is abolishing the ethnic identity cards, in use since
The immediate problem is the
refugee camps just over the border in Zaire. There are some 1.1 million
Rwandans in these camps, most of them Hutus. But these are not normal
camps. They are extensions of Hutu Power in exile. Among the ordinary
refugees are members of the Interahamwe - the killers responsible for
the genocide - who have fled over the borders to avoid the advancing RPF.
Once in the camps they
establish brutal control (and in their local excursions profoundly
affect the politics of Zaire). Everyone agrees that they need to be
identified and separated from the other refugees. But neither Zaire nor
any international force is willing to undertake this task.
The problem delays the return
of the refugees to Rwanda, where the RPF government is otherwise eager
to receive them. When the refugees do finally begin to stream back, late
in 1996, some of the thugs of the Interahamwe are still among them. But
the more notorious killers, unable to return, stay in Zaire - where they
arm and train for violent sorties across the border.
For the rest of the 1990s the
Hutu-Tutsi problem continues to sap Rwanda's strength. The oceans of
spilt blood demand vengeance. But how can justice cope with such crimes
and so many unidentified criminals?
An attempt is made. The prisons
gradually fill with suspects awaiting trial, as many as 130,000 of them
by the end of the decade. But a fair judgement of each case poses an
Even the return of innocent
refugees brings its own difficulties. Those who fled in 1994 come home
reasonably quickly. They are familiar with present-day Rwanda. But the
new hope offered by the RPF brings back many whose lives and
expectations have been shaped by decades in other places - even the
'fifty-niners' who fled from the very first manifestation of Hutu
intolerance. Such long-absent citizens can be hard to accomodate.
Worst of all, though, is the
threat still posed by the Interahamwe. Armed incursions across the
border lead to permanent infiltration, particularly in the northwest of
the country. At times in 1998 few districts can be considered safe
outside the capital, Kigali. To the advocates of Hutu Power this is seen
as a war of liberation, similar to the one fought by the RPF in the
early 1990s. But it ensures that the virus of ethnic hatred flourishes
still in Rwanda.
Sudden appalling acts of
violence against Tutsis and retaliation against Hutus disfigure the late
1990s, just as before in Rwanda's short history of independence. The
scale is less, but the pattern is alarmingly familiar.