A Brief History of Rwanda
Trip Start Feb 20, 2007
38Trip End Jun 2007
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Rwanda's population is about 85% Hutu, 14% Tutsi, and 1% Twa Pygmy. The country was part of German East Africa until after World War I, when it was given to the Belgians, and was annexed to the Belgian Congo along with neighbouring Burundi. These two countries were ruled from Kinshasha, in the Congo. Traditionally Tutsis were cattle herders and Hutus agriculturalists, and the Tutsis held positions of greater power in the royal courts. Intermarriage between the tribes was frequent, and societal status was more to do with your proximity to the court rather than what tribe you were part of.
Early European explorers noticed physical differences between the two tribes, and were fascinated by this, formulating all sorts of theories about from where they descended. Hutus generally were short and stocky, with very dark skin, rounded faces, and flat, short noses. Tutsis were observed to be tall, thin, lighter skinned, with narrower faces and a more "European" nose. These explorers and early colonists got very excited about the Tutsis, postulating that they might have been of Ethiopian descent. The Belgians gave the Tutsis even more power than before, and had them completely rule and administer Rwanda for them.
Before Belgian rule the issue of ethnicity was certainly present, but not set in stone. Intermarriage was frequent, and so people could change tribe. The Belgians put an end to this by issuing identity cards that stated what group you were in, and suddenly it became far more significant what tribe you were part of. After a few years of Tutsi rule it was natural that the Hutu majority began to despise their oppression, and a pro-Hutu movement began, which was actually privately supported by the Church and Belgians, who were readying the country for its independence. In November 1959 there took place a "Rwandan Revolution", in which thousands of Tutsis were massacred, their houses burned, all with tacit Belgian approval. Furthermore, Hutus were rewarded by being given administrative positions vacated by murdered or fleeing Tutsis. Another big consequence of the events of 1959 was the number of refugees it created - by independence in 1962 it is estimated that the number of refugees in neighbouring countries and abroad stood at 120,000.
The first Rwandan president, Gregoire Kayibanda, was overthrown from power by another Hutu, Juvenal Habyarimana, in 1973, and he ruled the country until the genocide began. Meanwhile, in Uganda, many Tutsi refugees were being recruited into Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Army (NRA), and grew to assume high positions of command within this group before they successfully took Kampala in January 1986. Most notable in this group were Fred Rwigyema (who was second in command in the NRA) and Paul Kagame, who is now Rwanda's president. These well-trained guerrilla fighters formed a resistance movement, called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
In October 1990 the RPF launched an offensive against Habyarimana's regime, crossing the border from Uganda into northern Rwanda. So began a civil war, which lasted until the signing of the Arusha accords, a peace treaty, in August 1993. During the war the Forces Armees Rwandaises (FAR), Habyarimana's army, exaggerated the extent of the fighting, often staging mock battles in Kigali itself and then reporting through its various propaganda mouthpieces that the RPF had infiltrated the whole country. This allowed them to start a campaign against the Tutsi populous, claiming that no one could be trusted, in order to create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion throughout the country.
Tensions grew and grew in the early months of 1994, and it seemed the littlest of sparks could set off the civil war again. On April 6th 1994 a plane containing President Habyarimana and the Burundian president was shot down over Kigali, killing all who were on board. Much mystery still surrounds this incident - the two most popular theories are that it was extremists within the president's party that did it, or that it was a calculated move by the RPF to create a war situation in which they could seize power.
The extremist Hutus had become organized, naming themselves Hutu Power. For months previous to this they had been training groups of local youths in a militia outfit called interahamwe, or "those who work together". These young men started to carry out a systematic genocide of the entire Tutsi population of Rwanda over the one hundred days following April 6th. Unlike genocides carried out by the Khmer Rouge or the Nazis, which were primarily done by armed forces, this genocide was carried out by almost the entire Hutu population. People who refused to kill were considered to be Tutsi-sympathizers, and were often killed for that very reason. The killing was so generalized that even priests and nuns are widely reported to have taken part in it. As Philip Gourevitch, author of "We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families" (an excellent, highly recommended book) points out, killing "was not regarded as a crime in Rwanda; it was effectively the law of the land, and every citizen was responsible for its administration".
Although many of the interahamwe had guns (supplied by the French, who supported the Hutus up to, and during the genocide), to be killed with a bullet was a pleasure one had to pay for. The most popular weapon used to kill was the machete, and people were hacked slowly and methodically to death. Many Tutsis went to Churches for protection, and were nearly always eventually slaughtered within those houses of God, in their hundreds, with priests often directly or indirectly helping their murderers.
If things weren't bad enough, the international community let Rwanda down terribly in its hour of need. The UN had supplied a peacekeeping force, United Nations Assistance Mission For Rwanda (UNAMIR), deployed in October 1993, in order to try to enforce the Arusha agreements. They were grossly underfunded, and despite the best efforts of their commanders (in particular a Canadian, Romeo Dallaire) to try to prevent these atrocities from happening, time and time again their superiors in New York forbade them from intervening. Most notably, in January 1994, they received reliable intelligence from high up within the extremist Hutus telling them that a genocide was planned. Dallaire faxed his superiors (Kofi Annan was head of that department at the time) this information, but he was told not to trust it, and to in fact even share it with President Habyarimana.
Ten Belgian UNAMIR soldiers were killed in the first few days of the genocide and the UN responded by pulling the whole force out. It took months before another peacekeeping force was re-deployed, this time a UN-approved French force, Operation Turquoise. The French, who had trained, armed, and supported the Hutu extremists up to this point were clearly not the best choice of force for intervention, and it is widely reported that this operation was used more as a means of hiding evidence of their dubious pre-genocide involvement in Rwanda than any sort of meaningful operation to help stop the genocide.
All the while the RPF were making advances and by July 1994 controlled the whole country. Many of the genocidaires fled to refugee camps in neighbouring countries, in particular in Goma and Bukavo in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). Here international aid workers, who built refugee camps for them, greeted the murderers with open arms. As the likes of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) like to divorce their work from politics, they refused to take action when their camps became Hutu power breeding grounds. The genocidaires had nearly all their weapons still with them, and used these camps, where they were well fed and housed, to try to finish the extermination of the Tutsis. It was not until the RPF invaded these camps and dispersed the refugees that the Hutus returned home.
Now, you must imagine, that in any given Rwandan village, there are possibly a few Tutsi survivors. These people may have seen their whole families being killed in front of their own eyes. These murders, significantly, were not carried out by unknown soldiers, but rather by their neighbours, who more than likely now live back in that same village. What is so hard to comprehend about this genocide is that it was carried out by almost everyone who was a Hutu. And to make things worse, these murderers now live side-by-side with survivors, everywhere in the country.
So I hope I have set the scene for what is a country that is like no other on Earth, that still has a somewhat eerie atmosphere, where people still cannot talk of their past, and where many say that the troubles are still not over.