Rwandans share a common language and have historically thrived within a system of self-government that predates the colonial expansion of the Great Lakes region of Africa. At the turn of the twentieth century, Germany took control of the area as part of what was known as German East Africa. However, they wanted little to do with the maintenance of the region and primarily left the Rwandans to rule themselves.
By 1916, the Germans ceded control of Rwanda to the Belgians, who would eventually exert a greater level of control over the country. Polarizing the so-called ethnic groups, they skewed the political landscape in such a way as to allow the Tutsi minority to control the country and oppress the Hutu majority. During Belgian control, identification cards based on European eugenic standards were issued, dividing the two groups into a rigid racial system.
In the 1950s, the Rwandans began to petition for independence, leading the Belgian government to throw their support behind the long oppressed Hutu in order to maintain some form of control over the country. As the Tutsi lost their influence, they were subject to brutal measures that resulted in hundreds of deaths and the eventual exile of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi to neighboring countries.
Rwanda gained its independence in 1962 following an abolishment of the monarchy system and the installation of elections. Over the following decade, oppression of Tutsi became more extreme and the lack of effective government control was seen as corrupt and weak by many, including Juvenal Habyarimana, who assumed the presidency in 1973 through a bloodless coup.
In the following years, Rwanda stabilized both economically and socially. While Habyarimana was Hutu, he was seen as a moderate; during the next fifteen years, the ethnic violence diminished, even though pro-Hutu attitudes persisted. This would come to an end in the 1980s when the price of coffee dropped unexpectedly, throwing Rwanda into an economic crisis with increased tensions between the two groups.
By the 1990s, after decades of living without rights in Uganda, Tutsi refugees from the 1950 Diaspora took up arms as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and invaded the Northern Province of Rwanda. This was the start of a four-year-long war that ended in the signing of the Arusha Peace Accords which allowed refugees to return home and mandated power-sharing measures between the Hutu and Tutsi.
In late 1993, the United Nations dispatched the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) to assist with implementing the Peace Accords. UNAMIR consisted of 2500 soldiers commanded by Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire and carried a mandate that called to:
On January 22, 1994, UNAMIR saw the first signs of the impending genocide when a DC-8 loaded with weapons and ammunition bound for the Hutu-controlled Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) was allowed to land. Although Dallaire wanted to intervene and confiscate the weapons, he was prevented from doing so by his UN mandate. As tensions continued to escalate, FAR and Rwandan government officials began checking identification cards at regular intervals, allowing Hutu extremists to begin organizing lists of Tutsi who would be targeted during the genocide.
When President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, the country broke apart in a genocidal frenzy. Hutu extremists claimed the RPF was responsible for the death of the president and used this as an excuse to commit mass murder against the Tutsi minority. The result was the slaughter of 800,000 - 1,000,000 Tutsi between April and July of 1994.
Perversity of Ethnicity
For westerners, the Rwandan genocide has often been complicated by the use of the term ethnicity when referring to the Tutsi and Hutu. In truth, pre-colonial Rwanda used the terms in a fluid way to denote a sort of socio-political-occupational “status” that does not have a true equivalent in western society; for example, a person could start out life as a Hutu and become Tutsi later in life (or vice versa). To complicate the issue, pre-colonial Rwandan society was structured around ubwooko (clan), which cut across Tutsi/Hutu lines and provided a sense of integration between the various groups. Each village was governed by a lineage head, chosen by the population; each settlement was a sort of extended family with interlocking relations, the leader picked from within.
When the Belgians took control, they used Eurocentric eugenic studies to create a rigid identity model from existing labels. The result was the elevation of the Tutsi – loosely defined as those who had “European features” -- to the status of “ruling class” at the cost of pushing the Hutu into second class citizenship. The Belgians spent decades reinforcing these stereotypes to the point that they became engrained in Rwandan society.
Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Romeo Dallaire
Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld
The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda by Scott Straus