The original Rwandans, the Twa Pygmies, were gradually displaced by bigger groups of migrating Hutu tribespeople from 1000. Later came the Tutsi from the north, arriving from the 16th century onwards. The authority of the Rwandan mwami (king) was far greater than that of his opposite number in Burundi, and the system of feudalism that developed here was unsurpassed in Africa outside Ethiopia. Tutsi overlordship was reinforced by ceremonial and religious observance.
The Germans took the country in 1890 and held it until 1916, when their garrisons surrendered to Belgian forces during WWI. During Belgian rule, the power and privileges of the Tutsi increased, as the new masters found it convenient to rule indirectly through the mwami and his princes.
However, in 1956, Mwami Rudahigwa called for independence from Belgium and the Belgians began to switch allegiance to the Hutu majority. The Tutsi favoured fast-track independence, while the Hutus wanted the introduction of democracy first. Following the death of the mwami in 1959, armed clashes began between the two tribes, marking the start of an ethnic conflict that was to culminate in the 1994 genocide. Tutsi fled the country in numbers, resettling in neighbouring Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
Following independence in 1962, the Hutu majority came to power under Prime Minister Gregoire Kayibanda. The new government introduced quotas for Tutsis, limiting opportunities for education and work, and small groups of Tutsi exiles began to launch guerrilla raids from neighbouring Uganda. In the round of bloodshed that followed, thousands more Tutsis were killed and tens of thousands fled to neighbouring countries.
The massacre of Hutus in Burundi in 1972 reignited the old hatreds in Rwanda and prompted the army commander, Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, to oust Kayibanda in 1973. Habyarimana made some progress towards healing the ethnic divisions during the early years of his regime, but before long it was business as usual.
In October 1990, the entire intertribal issue was savagely reopened when 5000 well-armed rebels of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi military front, invaded Rwanda from their bases in western Uganda. Two days later, at Habyarimana’s request, France, Belgium and Zaïre (as the DRC was then known) flew in troops to assist the Rwandan army to repulse the rebels.
The RPF invaded again in 1991, this time better armed and prepared. By early 1992 the RPF was within 25km of Kigali. A cease-fire was cobbled together and the warring parties brought to the negotiating table. A peace accord between the government and the RPF was finally signed in August 1993.
In 1994, the conflict erupted again on an incomprehensible scale. An estimated 800, 000 Rwandans were killed in just three months, mostly by Interahamwe militias – gangs of youths armed with machetes, guns and other weapons supplied by officials close to Habyarimana. Three million people fled the country to refugee camps in Tanzania, the DRC and Uganda, and an estimated seven million of the country’s nine million people were displaced.
The spark for the carnage was the death of Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, on 6 April as their plane was shot down attempting to land in Kigali on their return from peace talks in Tanzania. It will probably never be known who fired the missile, but most observers believe it was Hutu extremists. Whoever was responsible, the event unleashed one of the 20th century’s worst explosions of blood-letting. The massacres that followed were no spontaneous outburst of violence but a calculated ‘final solution’ by extremist elements of Habyarimana’s government to rid the country of all Tutsi and the Hutu reformists. Rwandan army and Interahamwe death squads ranged at will over the countryside killing, looting and burning, and roadblocks were set up in every town and city.
The UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was in Rwanda throughout the genocide, but was powerless to prevent the killing due to an ineffective mandate. The international community left Rwanda to face its fate. By the time UNAMIR was finally reinforced in July, it was too late. The genocide was already over and the RPF had taken power in Kigali.
Hutu extremists and their allies fled into eastern DRC to regroup and launched cross-border raids into both Rwanda and Burundi from the refugee camps in the Goma and Uvira regions. Rwanda responded with raids into eastern DRC and support for Tutsi rebels north of Goma.
The Hutu fought alongside the Congolese army, and the entire situation turned ugly, as one million or so refugees were caught in the middle. But the RPF and their allies soon swept across the DRC, installing Laurent Kabila in power and breaking the grip of the extremists on the camps. However, they soon decided Kabila was not such a reliable ally and became embroiled in Africa’s biggest war to date, fighting over the DRC’s mineral wealth with nine other African states.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (www.ictr.org) was established in Arusha (Tanzania) in November 1994 to bring to justice former government and military officials for acts of genocide. Several big fish have been sentenced in the past decade, but in Rwanda the prisons are still overflowing with smaller fish. Most important was Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, who filed a guilty plea and provided the trial with much inside information on other architects of the genocide. His was the first-ever conviction of a head of state for the crime of genocide.
Rwanda has done a remarkable job of getting back on its feet. It has achieved an impressive degree of stability and security in a remarkably short time, albeit with considerable help from a guilty international community that ignored the country in its darkest hour. Rwanda has done an excellent job of exporting its problem to the DRC in the past decade, but as long as rebels remain at large in the DRC, Rwanda has cause for concern. The only way peace and prosperity will finally come to Rwanda is with a solution to the wider regional problems and stability in its giant neighbour.
The RPF government has made an impressive effort to promote reconciliation and restore trust between the two communities. This is no small achievement after the horrors that were inflicted on the Tutsi during the genocide of 1994. It would have been easy for the RPF to embark on a campaign of revenge and reprisal, but instead the government is attempting to build a society with a place for everyone, regardless of tribe. There are no more Tutsis, no more Hutus, only Rwandans. Idealistic perhaps, but it is also the only hope for the future.