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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

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Ethnic Tensions in Rwanda

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.

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