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.
A 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 colonial system.
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.
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 rejects them.
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 1990-1994
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 hooligangs, 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 ratchetted 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 neighbouring Burundi.
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 pregnant.
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 intervene.
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.
After 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 colonial times).
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 insoluble problem.
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.