top of page



     The area occupied today by modern-day Rwanda was once part of a larger geographic community of people who lived in peace and cooperation.  The land was inhabited by rural villagers made up of farmers or “Hutu” and herders or “Tutsi.”  Hutu and Tutsi were not different tribes.  They lived side by side in these villages in peace, as they had done for generations.  They spoke the same language, shared the same culture and history, and were interdependent upon one another.  The demarcation between Hutu and Tutsi was blurred.  If someone owned 5 or more head of cattle they were considered a herder or Tutsi.  If someone owned less than 5 head of cattle, then it was assumed they lived primarily by farming and they were considered Hutu.  The significant majority of the population was Hutu, with a smaller minority of Tutsi.  Hutu and Tutsi not only lived side by side, they crossed these vocational divides, intermarrying and moving from one vocation to another.

     This was the quiet and long-standing cultural climate that greeted Belgian adventurers in the late 19th and early 20th Century as they explored and sought to subjugate the area that now makes up Rwanda (as well as Burundi, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo).  Rwanda came under the League of Nations mandate of Belgium after World War I, along with neighboring Burundi.     To assert control over the peoples occupying this area, it was the Belgians (including the Catholic clergy) who, even before that mandate, began to divide Hutu and Tutsi.  Specifically, the Belgians began literally a public relations campaign to convince the Tutsi that they were superior to the Hutu in intelligence, physicality and every other way.  The Belgians then forcibly installed a Tutsi King where none had existed previously.  Through the Belgians and their puppet monarch, the Tutsis developed as the aristocratic, educational and financial privileged of Rwanda.  For as long as it suited the Belgian’s purposes, the Tutsi remained in control of all aspects of Rwandan life.  Rwanda’s colonial period, during which the ruling Belgians favored the minority Tutsis over the Hutus, exacerbated the tendency of the few to oppress the many, creating a legacy of tension that exploded into violence even before Rwanda gained its independence. Then during the post-WWII independence movement that spread across Africa, the Tutsi began demanding more autonomy and independence from their Belgian overseers.  In response, the Belgians, fearing the loss of control over Rwanda, began inciting the Hutu to rise up to the very Tutsi establishment that the Belgians had created.  The Belgians calculated that with their support thrown toward the Hutu they could continue to control the country and its gateway to the natural resource rich Congo.  (Rwanda, itself, is an agrarian society; Rwanda has no rich natural resources like oil, precious metals or gems.) 

     A Hutu revolution in 1959 forced as many as 300,000 Tutsis to flee the country, making them an even smaller minority. By early 1961, victorious Hutus had forced Rwanda’s Tutsi monarch into exile and declared the country a republic. After a U.N. referendum that same year, Belgium officially granted independence to Rwanda in July 1962.  For years after, first the Belgians and then (when the Belgians abandoned Rwanda) the French continued to both prop up more radical and oppressive Hutu regimes and allow for (if not encourage) the subjugation of the Tutsi minority.  This fomenting of animosity, segregation and subjugation sowed the seeds for the coming tragedy that was the Rwandan genocide. 

     By the early 1990s, Rwanda, a small country with an overwhelmingly agricultural economy, had one of the highest population densities in Africa. About 85 percent of its population was Hutu; the rest was Tutsi, along with a very small number of Twa, a Pygmy group who were the original inhabitants of Rwanda. “Ethnically” motivated violence continued in the years following independence. In 1973, a military group installed Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu, in power. The sole leader of the Rwandan government for the next two decades, Habyarimana founded a new political party, the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (NRMD). He was elected president under a new constitution ratified in 1978 and reelected in 1983 and 1988, when he was the sole candidate.

     In 1990, forces of the RPF, consisting mostly of Tutsi refugees, invaded Rwanda from Uganda. A ceasefire in these hostilities led to negotiations between the government and the RPF in 1992. In August 1993, Habyarimana signed an agreement at Arusha, Tanzania, calling for the creation of a transition government that would include the RPF. This power-sharing agreement angered Hutu extremists, who would soon take swift and horrible action to prevent it.



     On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Habyarimana and Burundi’s president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down over Kigali, leaving no survivors. (It has never been conclusively determined who the culprits were. Some have blamed Hutu extremists, while others blamed leaders of the RPF.) Within an hour of the plane crash, the Presidential Guard together with members of the Rwandan armed forces (FAR) and Hutu militia groups known as the Interahamwe (“Those Who Attack Together”) and Impuzamugambi (“Those Who Have the Same Goal”) set up roadblocks and barricades and began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus with impunity. Among the first victims of the genocide were the moderate Hutu Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and her 10 Belgian bodyguards, killed on April 7. This violence created a political vacuum, into which an interim government of extremist Hutu Power leaders from the military high command stepped on April 9.

     The mass killings in Rwanda quickly spread from Kigali to the rest of the country, with some 800,000 people slaughtered over the next three months. During this period, local officials and government-sponsored radio stations called on ordinary Rwandan civilians to murder their neighbors. Meanwhile, the RPF resumed fighting, and civil war raged alongside the genocide. By early July, RPF forces had gained control over most of the country, including Kigali. In response, more than 2 million people, nearly all Hutus, fled Rwanda, crowding into refugee camps in the Congo (then called Zaire) and other neighboring countries.

     After its victory, the RPF established a coalition government similar to that agreed upon at Arusha, with Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, as president and Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, as vice president and defense minister. Habyarimana’s NRMD party, which had played a key role in organizing the genocide, was outlawed, and a new constitution adopted in 2003 eliminated reference to Hutu and Tutsi “ethnicity.” The new constitution was followed by Kagame’s election to a 10-year term as Rwanda’s president and the country’s first-ever legislative elections.



     As in the case of atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia around the same time, the international community largely remained on the sidelines during the Rwandan genocide. A U.N. Security Council vote in April 1994 led to the withdrawal of most of a U.N. peacekeeping operation (UNAMIR) created the previous fall to aid with governmental transition under the Arusha accord. As reports of the genocide spread, the Security Council voted in mid-May to supply a more robust force, including more than 5,000 troops. By the time that force arrived in full, however, the genocide had been over for months. In a separate French intervention approved by the U.N., French troops entered Rwanda from Zaire in late June. In the face of the RPF’s rapid advance, they limited their intervention to a “humanitarian zone” set up in southwestern Rwanda, arguably saving tens of thousands of Tutsi lives but also helping some of the genocide’s plotters–allies of the French during the Habyarimana administration–to both

slaughter the Tutsi and to escape.

     In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, many prominent figures in the international community lamented the outside world’s general obliviousness to the situation and its failure to act in order to prevent the atrocities from taking place. As former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told the PBS news program “Frontline”: “The failure of Rwanda is 10 times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia. Because in Yugoslavia the international community was interested, was involved. In Rwanda nobody was interested.” Attempts were later made to rectify this passivity. After the RFP victory, the UNAMIR operation was brought back up to strength; it remained in Rwanda until March 1996, as one of the largest humanitarian relief efforts in history.

     In October 1994, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), located in Tanzania, was established as an extension of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague, the first international tribunal since the Nuremburg Trials of 1945-46 and the first with the mandate to prosecute the crime of genocide. In 1995, the ICTR began indicting and trying a number of higher-ranking people for their role in the Rwandan genocide; the process was made more difficult because the whereabouts of many suspects were unknown. The trials continued over the next decade and a half, including the 2008 conviction of three former senior Rwandan defense and military

officials for organizing the genocide.

     Today, 20 years after the genocide Rwanda is in the midst of a multi-generational recovery from the genocide.  In the past 20 years, Rwanda has made significant progress in that recovery, including the implementation of universal health care, mandatory K-8 education, and the reestablishment of governmental institutions to promote learning, human welfare, and socio-economic development. By necessity, women have played a huge role in that process (a significant percentage of those killed in the genocide were men).  As a result, Rwanda has catapulted ahead of much of Africa (and the world) in its inclusion of women in government, law enforcement and other traditionally male dominated areas of society.  Much of the international aid that poured into Rwanda from the western world after the genocide has slowed.  Rwanda is, as a result and as of necessity, focused on sustained self-development.  Rwandans are profoundly committed to the development and redemption of their nation, and to wiping out the ravages of the genocide.  The need in Rwanda today is not so much for urgent humanitarian aid, but more for economic development and partnerships. 

For the tools to allow Rwandans to help Rwandans. 

It is this need that Yambi Rwanda seeks to assist in filling in some way. 

One person at a time.  


A Brief History of Rwanda

     From April to July 1994, members of the Hutu majority in the east-central African nation of Rwanda murdered more than 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority. Begun by extreme Hutu nationalists in the capital of Kigali, the genocide spread throughout the country with staggering speed and brutality, as ordinary citizens were incited by local officials and the Hutu government to take up arms against their neighbors. By the time the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) was able to gain control of the country through a military offensive in early July, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans lay dead and many more were displaced from their homes. The RPF victory created 2 million more refugees (mainly Hutus) who fled from Rwanda, exacerbating what had already become a full-blown humanitarian crisis


bottom of page