Ethnic violence in Rwanda

Author: Rudolph Nkinzingabo '08

After World War I, when the League of Nations gave Belgium the authority to control what became Rwanda, the Belgian desire that the African nation make a profit turned the colony into a forced labor camp. The Belgians decided that the cattle-owning Tutsi, who made up about 14 percent of the Rwandan population, should be in charge of the local government. The majority Hutu, generally farmers, would be the laborers.

The Belgians saw the Hutu and Tutsi as two separate entities, although historians believe that because the two groups shared a common language and customs and frequently intermarried, the distinction was more one of class and occupation than ethnicity.

A divide between the two groups was solidified when the Belgians decreed in 1933 that residents must carry ethnic identification cards. The minority Tutsi retained power, with access to better education and jobs.

In 1959, the Hutus revolted against the Tutsi government, and more than 20,000 Tutsi were killed while others fled to neighboring countries. Three years later, Rwanda was granted independence. This time, the Hutus were in charge of the government.

The Tutsi who had fled to Uganda formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and in 1990 the Tutsi rebels invaded Rwanda in an attempt to overthrow the Hutu government. In 1993, accords were signed to create a power-sharing government between the two groups.

The country erupted into genocidal violence in April 1994 after the Rwandan president died when his plane was shot down near Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Almost a million Tutsi and Tutsi sympathizers were slaughtered in the next 100 days by Hutu.

The genocide ended in July when the Tutsi’s RPF took control of Kigali from the Hutu-led Rwandan army. A provisional government was formed, which balanced political power between Hutu and Tutsi. The country today is poor but stable, although memories of the horrific clashes between Hutu and Tutsi—of neighbor killing neighbor—still make for uneasy times.