*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Since the end of the European colonial era in the middle of the 20th century, portions of the African continent have been in near-constant turmoil. In the early 1990s, the nation of Rwanda was a center of conflict, notably for 100 days following April 7, 1994, when Hutu government officials organized the killing of as many as 1 million Tutsi rivals. With as much as one-fifth of the population dead, the Rwandan genocide is regarded as arguably the worst human rights failure by the United Nations in modern history.
In the late 19th century, as the different nations of Europe seized large swathes of the last uncolonized landscape on the planet, Africa, Rwanda fell under the influence of Germany. For the most part, the people within the East African nation’s borders at the time were divided into regional tribes along ethnic lines, primarily into two groups, Hutu and Tutsi. Despite the cultural differences, Rwandans united under the Tutsi Mwami, a sort of king, and co-existed relatively peacefully until a rebellion broke out in 1894.
Three years later, the first Europeans seized on the upheaval and began to arrive in great numbers, some looking to exploit the natural resources and others motivated by the prospect of converting the continent to Christianity. Very quickly, white entrepreneurs in search of a profit began to meddle in Rwandan life. Changes to the ages-old grain trade impacted the local economy, a turn which impacted Hutu-Tutsi relations almost immediately. Instead of maintaining lifestyles the natives had always known, the Germans formed a hierarchy resembling classic European society: the minority Tutsis, on account of their openness to religious change and existing political structure, were installed as de facto lords over the “peasant class” Hutus, who would work the land to produce vast coffee crops.
The Germans, intent on enhancing Tutsi control, gave the Hutus reason for resentment. By introducing paper currency and imposing equal taxes for each Rwandan regardless of tribe, the Europeans inadvertently stoked the fires of rebellion: so far as the Hutus were concerned, the Germans were now the ruling party. Making up a larger portion of the overall population, it was only a matter of time before the Hutus attempted to eliminate the Tutsis altogether. The Germans, in turn, were forced to engage militarily in order to maintain their tenuous hold on the country.
After World War I, as the nations of Europe disassembled the German Empire, Rwanda was ceded to Belgium. During the mid-1920s, the Belgians arrived, determined to shore up the Rwandan economy and turn the colony into a successful agricultural center. One of the first moves the new colonial administrators made reinforced the Tutsi-led government, intensifying the bitter feelings between the Hutus and Tutsis.
Further complicating matters, when scientists arrived to quantify the differences between the groups, the Europeans proclaimed the Tutsis the superior race. Using the racially-biased theories of eugenics, researchers believed the differences in bone size and skin tone proved their conclusions: the taller, lighter-colored Tutsis were “more European” and should, therefore, be the dominant force. Though modern evidence has shown the differences are most likely due to dietary considerations — the two cultures are almost exactly alike, except for what they eat — the Tutsis used this new-found “proof” to justify ruling the Hutus, a fact made much easier by identity cards issued by the Belgians.
As the world recovered from World War II, the independence movement swept through Africa. Within Rwanda, a shift toward democratic representation and social equality blossomed. Hutus rapidly gained political clout, backed in no small part by the Catholic Church turning away from its pre-war involvement in the segregation of the Rwandan population and voicing protests against the Tutsi policies. Finally, on September 25, 1961, the country became a republic nearly three months after gaining independence — but not before violence broke out between the pro-monarchy Tutsis and pro-parliament Hutus.
During the following decade, Hutus seized control of the government as Tutsis moved into neighboring Uganda and Burundi to escape the Rwandan military. After years of oppression, it seemed as if the Hutu leadership wished to squeeze the Tutsis as they had been for so long. Dissension steadily increased following a military coup in 1973 and Rwanda was on the brink of an all-out civil war by the mid-1980s.
On October 1, 1990, a band of Tutsi guerillas pushed into northern Rwanda from bases in southwestern Uganda. Hoping to force political equality so that some 500,000 Tutsi refugees could return home, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was seen instead as a new faction attempting to depose Hutu leadership. Three years later, following intense fighting and a final cease-fire agreement in Rwanda, the assassination of a Hutu leader in Burundi — itself unstable due to Tutsi-Hutu conflict — ratcheted up the tension once again.
With both sides looking for a way to seize the initiative, an opportunity finally came for the Hutus: the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, Juvenal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, were shot down while flying into the Rwandan capital of Kigali on April 6, 1994. Suspecting Tutsi militants, the Rwandan army and various Hutu citizen militias swept out into the streets and gathered every member of the minority they could find. The next day, April 7, 1994, a secret plan to murder the entire Tutsi population and any supportive Hutus was put into effect.
In just three months, somewhere between 500,000 and a million people were dead, a genocide on such a massive scale, it may never be replicated — as many as 20 percent of the Rwandan population died. A United Nations peacekeeping force, frustrated by minimal resources, could do little more than watch and beg for attention.
In August 1994, after RPF troops captured Kigali, leader Paul Kagame installed Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, as President and himself as Vice President. Believing the joint Hutu-Tutsi front to be the only way to ensure a solid future for Rwanda, the next major obstacle would be to get displaced residents to return. Millions had fled the violence, causing a massive crisis in Zaire, Tanzania and Uganda. Within a few years, all but 100,000 of the refugees returned home.
As the nation continues to rebuild nearly two decades later, Rwanda remains a vivid reminder of the importance of international intervention to support human rights. With questions surrounding the current administration’s commitment to equality, the UN and several non-governmental organizations are watching closely to ensure a new tragic chapter in Rwandan history is not written while the rest of the world drags its feet.
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