Colonial Background of the Rwanda Genocide

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Stanford University Engr297A

Ethics and Development in a Global Environment

Colonial Background of the Rwanda Genocide


Nolan Gallagher

December 3, 2004

Ten years ago, two Rwandan tribes started a massacre that would change the world forever. Over a period of one hundred days, almost one million people were murdered. The main weapons of killing: machetes, clubs, and sticks. In April of 2004, the Hutus and the Tutsis, two tribes of Rwanda, began a civil war that was later looked upon as one of the worst genocides during human existence. This paper will discuss how separations during the colonial era of Rwanda instigated the genocide. It will analyze how the genocide of 1994 resulted in colonial decisions made almost eighty years prior. The events of the genocide will be thoroughly discussed and the effects of the event will be examined.

Rwanda, the area surrounded by the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Burundi, and Tanzania, was settled by people around two thousand years ago.

People began living in this area because the land was covered with fertile soil and the climate was great with normal rainfall. This would provide a great agricultural base. The wet lands, in the north, attracted more cultivators, while the drier lands in the east were populated by the pastoralists and their cattle. The majority of the population was cultivators, who farmed the land and owned very few, if any, cattle. The rest of the community was pastoralists, who owned large herds of cattle(Leave None to Tell the Story Genocide in Rwanda).

By the eighteenth century, Rwanda had become a very powerful state. The country had developed the, Kinyarwanda, a common language that was spoken by almost all people of the area. Eventually, the pastoralists emerged as the elite tribe in Rwanda. They grew to become the powerful people of the area. The power of person was measured by the size of one’s cattle population. People with the largest herds of cattle became the strongest rulers. Pastoralists were called “Tutsis.” The name “Tutsi” was originally given to people rich in cattle, but, ultimately, “Tutsi” was the name given to the whole community of people who believed themselves to be elite. The rest of the population was known as the “Hutus”, which, at first, was used to describe a person who followed powerful people, but, after colonization, was used to refer to the cultivators as a whole(Leave None to Tell the Story Genocide in Rwanda).

The people of the groups intermarried, which, in time, created two tribes with very divergent appearances. While the Tutsis became a tall, skinny, and narrow featured people, the Hutus developed into a shorter, more muscular people with broader features. The interbreeding eventually would cause problems in the early nineteen century(Leave None to Tell the Story Genocide in Rwanda).

By the twentieth century, Tutsis made up fifteen percent of Rwanda’s population and the Hutus represented eighty-four percent. The “Twa” made up one percent of Rwanda. The Twa were hunters and gatherers, who lived, in the forests, away from the Hutus and Tutsis. They spoke their own version of Kinyarwanda. Although the Twa worked as servants and laborers for the Hutus and Tutsis, intermarriage with the Twa was looked down upon(Leave None to Tell the Story Genocide in Rwanda).

Germans arrived in Rwanda around 1900. While their purpose for coming to Rwanda is uncertain, many believe that they came to grow tea and coffee to provide large economic gains for their country. When they arrived in Rwanda they faced trouble in the governing system. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many hierarchies were installed in Rwanda, which caused the country to be controlled by many rulers, who, in part, controlled a small population of people. This form of governing created problems for the Germans when they began colonizing Rwanda. The Germans could never find a way to control the numerous rulers and their people.

After World War I, the Belgians tried to reconstruct the Rwandan governing structure. Although they believed in keeping the original configuration of Rwanda’s government, the Belgians eradicated hierarchies and installed “chiefdoms” and “sub-chiefdoms”. The Belgians used chiefs and sub-chiefs to control the population.

When the Belgians first arrived in 1916, they came upon three distinct ethnic tribes. Each Rwandan tribe had its own distinct physical features. This was caused from interbreeding during the earlier centuries. The Hutus were shorter, stronger people with broad features.

a)Hutu people

b) Tutsi male c) Tutsi female

The Tutsis were skinny, tall, narrow featured people. Because the Tutsi people looked more “European” than the Hutus they were empowered and became the elite group. . The differences in appearance caused the Belgians to divide the power between tribes. While the Tutsis were provided education and good jobs, the Hutus were oppressed. Beginning in the 1930’s government offices would register a Rwandan citizen as a Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa at the time of birth. The citizen was registered under their certain tribe, so Rwandans, who could not be identified by physical features, could not change their tribe to reap the benefit of a different tribe. Rwandans began carrying cards which showed the official tribe of each person. The form of identification caused the tribes to separate even more than they had in the past.

Even though most Hutus did not possess much political before the Belgian arrival, now because of the changes the Belgians made, they would never acquire political supremacy. The Tutsis were to rule over the Hutus and Twas. The Belgians made education only available to the Tutsis. Also, all political positions were now run by Tutsi people. Tutsis continued to be educated and hold political positions up to 1959.

From 1931 until 1959, Rwanda was ruled as a monarchy, led by Mutara Rudahigwa. Over the thirty year span the Tutsi were supported by the Belgians. By the late 1950’s, the United Nations sought to force the Belgians out of Africa and rid Rwanda of colonialism. With pressure from the UN, Rwanda began to see Hutu gain political power. Hutu, also, began to attend secondary schools. Before the Belgian influence was wholly eradicated, both, the Tutsi and Hutu were fighting to seize governmental power. When Mutara Rudahigwa died in 1959 and his younger half-brother, Kigeri Ndahindurwa, seized power, riots began to occur. Before, Rudahigwa had told all Rwandans the problems would be solved and he seemed to keep the Rwanda community calm. Now, his half-brother, Ndahindurwa, who was strongly influenced by an extremist Tutsi group, caused Hutu to fear the rule of a Tutsi extremist. While Hutu extremist parties such as the Parmehutu began to appear, the Tutsi extremist group, the Union Nationale Rwandaise (UNAR), also was started. These various radical groups began to separate the tribes more than ever before. An attack on a Hutu sub-chief started the war known as the “Hutu Revolution”( Leave None to Tell the Story Genocide in Rwanda). During the revolution, which started in 1959, Hutu killed nearly 20,000 Tutsi and 300,000 were forced to flea to Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda(BBC News: Rwanda: How the genocide happened). In 1962, Belgium granted Rwanda its independence. The country became a republic with a multiparty presidential system, but, now, Hutu possessed nearly all power.

Over the next thirty years Rwanda created a single party state. The Hutu people exterminated all Tutsi power in Rwanda. The identification cards Rwandans carried, which showed the race of each citizen, were once used to Tutsis advantage, but were now used against the Tutsi tribe. Since the Hutu gained power, Tutsis were now discriminated against in education and employment. As a result of the constant discrimination, Tutsi people would flea Rwanda or in some cases try to reregister as a Hutu citizen, thus providing themselves with greater opportunities and treatment. Due to the prejudice, by 1991 the Tutsi population had declined to 8.4% of Rwanda’s population, compared to 17.5% in 1952(Leave None to Tell the Story Genocide in Rwanda).

While Tutsis, who remained in Rwanda, were being discriminated against, Tutsi refugees in neighboring countries began the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF, which was supported by moderate Hutus, was made up of refugee Tutsis, mainly in Ugunda. Their goal was to overthrow the Hutu regime and gain power back in their home. The RPF was continually growing because Tutsis were fleeing Rwanda nearly everyday. By the late 1980’s the RPF had some 600,000 refugee Tutsis.

General Juvenal Habyarimana, seized power in July of 1973. Rwanda, officially, became a single-party sate under Habyarimana. All citizens of the country were, now, forced to be apart of the only existing party. Habyarimana forced structural changes and empowered many governing officials to oversee a small population of ordinary people. The structural changes were part of a plan to gain more control of the country. Throughout Habyariman’s rule, the refugees tried, several times, to return home to Rwanda, but were denied access for reasons such as overpopulation. This caused the refugee population in neighboring Rwandan countries to increase.

As a result of the governmental changes and persistent rejection from Rwanda, the RPF thought change was necessary. They were lead by leaders such as Paul Kagame, who had grown up in Uganda and helped other groups seize control of Uganda. The RPF’s army, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), was lead by Kagame. The army totaled seven thousand men; half were Rwandan refugees.

Though rumors of an attack on the Rwandan government had surfaced at the beginning of 1990, Habyarimana did not make any attempts to reinforce armies at the border. By October, 1990, the refugees in Ugunda had crossed into Rwanda and overtook the border unit. In three days the RPF had fought to a distance about fifty miles from the Rwandan capital, Kigali. After intense fighting on October 4, government officials announced that the RPF had attacked cities in Rwanda, causing arrests of Tutsi citizens throughout the country. Some 13,000 people were imprisoned and held without charged for long periods of time(Leave None to Tell the Story Genocide in Rwanda). Later, it was discovered Habyarimana knew about the RPF attacks in October, but ignored the warnings so that he could announce the RPF as the Hutu enemy. Allowing the attacks would create national hate against the Tutsi. He knew that the strike would cause citizens to back the government and the Hutu regime. The attacks also allowed the leader to imprison and punish other remaining Rwandans believed to be Tutsi supporters. Proof that government officials knew of the attacks before they occurred came when the minister of justice spoke of the event. He called the Tutsi, ibyitso, “accomplices” of the enemies, and he also stated “to prepare an attack of that scale required trusted people (on the inside). Rwandans of the same ethnic group offered that possibility better than did others”( Leave None to Tell the Story Genocide in Rwanda). In both statements, it was evident that the purpose behind the attacks was to repress the Tutsi population even greater. Because of the attacks, other countries began backing Habyarimana and his government. Belgium, Zaire, and France all provided support for the Habyarimana and his Hutu regime. With help from French the RPF was forced back to Ugunda soil(Leave None to Tell the Story Genocide in Rwanda) .

In August 1993, Habyarimana signed a peace treaty with the RPF. The treaty gave members of the RPF political positions and provided a military presence in Rwanda. When the peace treaty was signed, the United Nations dispatched 5,000 peacekeepers to Rwanda to aid in setting up a transitional government between the RPF and the existing government. Many extreme Hutus did not approve of the peace treaty with the RPF. They knew they would have to solve the problem themselves so they began planning the genocide. The Hutus believed by killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus they would protect their country against enemies. This idea was called “Hutu Power”, a movement that organized the genocide of 1994 (Case Study: Genocide in Rwanda, 1994).

On April 6th, 1994, a plane carrying President Habyarimana and the Burundi president was shot down. While responsibility for the assassination has never been definite, most believe that Hutu extremists shot down their own president. The Hutu extremists could have done this to make the assassination appear as if the Tutsi rebels killed the president, which would create an uprising against the Tutsi. Many believe that Habyarimana was about to implement the Arusha Peace Accords, which Hutu radicals were strongly opposed to, implying the president was killed by his own government. Few believe that the Tutsi, whose purpose was to rid the Hutu regime from power in Rwanda, shot down Habyarimana’s plane.

Within twenty-four hours of Habyarimana’s assassination, killing began. An unofficial militia, the interahamwe (means “those who attack together”), which was 30,000 persons strong began setting up roadblocks and killing all Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus. The main killing weapon was the machete. Early organizers of the massacre were Hutu military officials, politicians, and businessman. “Doing murder with a machete is exhausting, so the militias were organized to work in shifts. At the day’s end, the Achilles tendons of unprocessed victims were sometimes cut before the murderers retired to rest, to feast on the victims’ cattle and to drink. Victims who could afford to pay often chose to die from a bullet”(Wrage).

a) A man survived a machete attack

Other forms of weapons included sticks, clubs, rocks, and hoes. Killers would look at the ID cards of civilians and if the ethnicity read “Tutsi” the civilian would be hacked to death at the spot. Sometimes, a Hutu would be killed because he was taller and had skinnier features than a normal Hutu. Any representation of Tutsi ethnicity would result in death.

At the start of the genocide, woman and children were spared. It was believed that woman “had no ethnic group”, thus saving their lives. Around the middle of May, many believed a decision was made by national leaders to allow and begin the slaughtering of women and children, because after this time murder rates of women drastically increased(Case Study: Genocide in Rwanda: 1994). Many women were gang raped and infected with the HIV virus. “Rape was a weapon of genocide as brutal as the machete. “I was raped by so many interahamwe and soldiers that I lost count,” said one survivor, Olive Uwera. "I was in hospital for a year afterwards. A few months after my child was born the doctors told me I was HIV-positive”(McGreal). After the war, 25,000 Tutsi women of the Widows of Genocide organization (Avega) were tested for HIV. Two-thirds of the women tested HIV positive(McGreal).

On April 7, 1994, Agathe Uwilingiyiman, the prime minister of Rwanda and ten Belgian soldiers were arrested, tortured, and murdered when the soldiers were tricked into giving up their guns to radical Hutus. This event caused Belgium and the UN to withdrawal the remainder of their troops from Rwanda. On April 9, France and Belgium sent troops into Rwanda to save their citizens. American people were also airlifted out, but no Rwandans were rescued. On April 21, the UN Security Council voted, unanimously, to withdrawal most of the UN troops, which took the force from 2,500 to 270. Finally, on May 17, the UN decides to send 5,500 troops to Rwanda to aid in the ceasing of the genocide, but the forces are delayed due to arguments over who will provide the equipment and who will pay the cost. By June 22, the UN had still not deployed troops, so the Security Council deployed French soldiers in south west Rwanda, but killing still continued in the UN serviced areas (100 Days of Slaughter A Chronology of U.S./U.N. Actions). On March 25, 1998, United States president Bill Clinton apologized for the UN’s decision in 1994: ... the international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe havens for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide. We cannot change the past. But we can and must do everything in our power to help you build a future without fear, and full of hope ...” (100 Days of Slaughter A Chronology of U.S./U.N. Actions). The UN is still, today, strongly criticized for making an attempt to stop the genocide in Rwanda.

Throughout the genocide, Hutu killers were strongly motivated. Hutu would, at times, be given money, food, and some were even told they would receive the land of the Tutsi they killed. Hutu extremists started a radio station, the The Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTML), where hate propaganda against Tutsis was often broadcasted. The RTML often told Tutsis to gather in churches, schools, any buildings that would serve as protection. By gathering the Tutsis into confined places, the Hutus armies would arrive with machine-guns and grenades and easily murder all people inside the buildings.

a) Church where hundreds were killed by b) School were 25,000 Tutsis, who sought

Hutu soldiers shelter, were killed in two days.
In some cases Hutus were forced to murder Tutsi neighbors by military personnel.

On July 4, the RPF captured Kigali, and the “war” was official declared over on July 18. Nearly 2,000,000 Hutus fled to Zaire (Dem. Rep. of Congo) after the Tutsis obtained power. Though the RPF was greatly outnumbered during the war, they were able to eradicate the Hutu government because they were better trained and because they attacked as a unified army. While the Hutu were fighting, both, the RPF and also trying to exterminate the entire Tutsi population, the RPF was only trying to overtake the Hutu government. Because the forces of the Hutu army were so spread out, the Hutu force was greatly weakened, which allowed the RPF to defeat the forces at Kigali and successfully overthrow the government. It is known that the RPF was taught by the Ugandan army and given weapons by the army as well. Rumors of countries that support the RPF, financially, also, involve Uganda. It is believed by some that because the Tutsis helped Museveni, the Ugandan president, obtain power in the 1980’s that he supported the RPF. The RPF was also probably supported financially within. When the Tutsi population fled Rwanda in the 1950’s and 1960’s they left as prosperous people. For the past twenty years, they had possessed the best jobs and the education which left them very wealthy.

The total number killed in the genocide will never be able to be known because of the chaotic matter of the killings, but in February 2002, the Rwandan government released the results of the census found that 1,074,017 people (one-seventh of the total population) died from 1990 until 1994. A UN expert, Professor Gerard Prunier, estimated that 800,000 thousand Rwandans were killed from April to May. Before the massacre he estimated the Tutsi population to be 657,000 and after the war he said the Tutsi population was 150,000. 507,000 (about 75%) Tutsis were murdered.

In Rwanda, approximately 120,000 people have been jailed on counts of participation in the genocide. Many have died in the jails because of unsanitary conditions. By April 2000, close to 2,500 people have been tried and about 300 were sentenced to death. Of the 300 people sentenced to death, twenty-three have been executed and seventy-three will spend their life in jail. Some 25,000 prisoners have been released. After all the killing, 300,000 orphans were left. The government provides education for all people, but there is very little psychological help for young people.

Since the genocide, a multi-ethnic government has been formed, which has promised all refugees a safe return to Rwanda, though the “safe” return is trusted by few.

Ethnicity has been erased from identification cards so people cannot be discriminated against or harassed because of the ID on their card. The UN has designated April 7 as international day of reflection on the genocide.

Rwanda will be affected by their civil war forever. Fear still remains. Could another massacre happen? The UN expert, Prunier, writes “the genocide happened not because the state was weak, but on the contrary because it was so totalitarian and strong that it had the capacity to make its subjects obey absolutely any order, including one of mass slaughter”. He also warns “Rwanda's economy remains badly damaged, with little hope of a quick recovery. There are several reasons for this, including the lack of roads, bridges, and telephone lines. Education is also suffering due to a shortage of schools, educational materials, and teachers, many of whom died in the genocide. ... Many Tutsis are increasingly convinced that the only way to ensure their survival is to repress the Hutus. Many Hutus believe they have been proclaimed guilty by association and that no one cares about their sufferings under the current Tutsi-led government. Extremists on both sides retain the belief that the only solution is the annihilation of the other. These groups are preparing for a future struggle, one that could include another wave of mass slaughter”(Prunier 353-54).

Ten years later, after a new government and new leaders, Rwanda is as unstable as it ever was. Hatred for the opposing tribe has only augmented and there is more fear in hearts of all citizens. Even after one million people died, many are afraid that another massacre could begin.

Works Cited
“100 Days of Slaughter A Chronology of U.S./U.N. Actions.” Public Broadcasting Station. 1999. <>.

Jones, Adam. “Case Study: Genocide in Rwanda, 1994.” Generdice Watch. 2002. <>.

Leave None to Tell the Story Genocide in Rwanda.” Mar. 1999. Human Rights Watch.

< /1999/rwanda/index.htm#TopOfPage>.
McGreal, Chris. A Pearl in Rwanda's Genocide Horror. The Guardian [UK], 2001.
Prunier, Gérard. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. Columbia University Press, 1997.

“Rwanda: How the genocide happened.” 1 Apr. 2004. <>.

“The World Factbook.” 30 Nov. 2004. CIA. <>.

Wrage, Stephen. “Genocide in Rwanda: Draft Case Study for Teaching Ethics and International Affairs.” 18 Mar. 2000. <>.

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