Historical Background

Pre-colonial era

There are three main groups that make up the population of modern-day Rwanda: the Hutu, the Tutsi and the Twa. It is generally agreed that the Twa, also known as pygmies, were the original inhabitants of the jungle that is now divided between eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire), western Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Sometime at least 600-700 years ago, Hutu farmers and Tutsi cow-herders moved into this area, greatly reducing the jungle as they cut trees to create pasture for cows and farmland. As their economic system developed, ownership of cows became a sign of wealth and leadership of tribal groups was taken over by “royal” families. The system was essentially feudal and was very similar to feudal systems that developed in Europe—the king and other wealthy tribe members ruled and pledged protection to the mass of peasants who were farmers or had only a few cattle. There were many wars between the various tribal families throughout the region.

An industrious and enterprising peasant in this system did have some opportunity to improve his position in the social ladder through the accumulation of wealth (cows) and, though perhaps not easy to cross, the lines between various economic groups were fluid. Many a Hutu became part of the “royalty” through hard work or marriage and many a Tutsi were part of the peasantry as they fell on hard times.

The Mwaamis (kings) of what is now central Rwanda (based in Nyanza near Gitarama), who were Tutsis, were particularly fierce in their determination to increase their kingdoms and much of what is now Rwanda came under their leadership by the end of the 19th century, with the (later important) exception of the northwest of current-day Rwanda (around Ruhengiri and Gisenyi) which had a Hutu Mwaami.


Rwanda was first colonized by the Germans. The Germans’ great contribution to the future of Rwanda was their fascination with an anthropological method in which they categorized everything they encountered according to its physical characteristics. Hence they proffered the theory that the Tutsi, with their high foreheads, thin long noses, tall slim builds and “refined” manners must not be a negroid race at all but were part of the “lost sons of Ham” who migrated into central Africa from Ethiopia. The Hutu, on the other hand, were clearly simple-minded, happy, flat-nosed negroid with a large frontal lobe. The proposition of this theory (still believed by many Rwandans) undoubtedly eased the German occupation of Rwanda. In 1919, under the Treaty of Versailles, the territory of Ruanda-Urundi became a UN protectorate and was put under Belgian control.

Shortly after the Germans came to Rwanda, the White Fathers, a Catholic missionary order, made their first successful inroads into this area, coming from Tanzania and setting up their first mission in Gahini. The official strategy for conversion at that time was to work from the top down, that is, to convert the leadership of the country first, on the assumption that the masses will follow. Unfortunately, this strategy never worked in Rwanda. The Tutsi royalty were quite arrogant and, frankly, did not see any need for, or gain from, embracing this white man’s gods. The missionaries continued to follow their strategy for several decades, setting up schools to educate the children of the Tutsi elite, many of whom professed the faith to the extent necessary to receive a free education, but not much further. The peasantry, however, saw the promise of education as a tremendous benefit and began to convert in great numbers. This discrepancy between what they “knew worked” and the reality of the situation in Rwanda caused somewhat of a split in the church which was exacerbated when the last Mwaami converted to Catholicism and more radical priests with a socialistic bent switched their allegiance to the “poor, suffering Hutu masses.”

The Belgians were known as rather cruel colonizers. With little interest in the people, culture, land or environment that they colonized, their strategy was to exploit the land and people in order to extract whatever they needed or could use back in Belgium. They worked within existing social and political structures, twisting them as necessary to serve their ends. The refined hierarchy and inbred deference to authority they found in Rwanda worked very well. The major modifications they made were to solidify the fluid boundaries between classes and to use both Rwandan mythology and the “anthropology” of the Germans to lock people into the positions they were in at the moment the Belgians took over. In 1933, they created identity cards indicating whether one was “Tutsi,” “Hutu,” or “Twa.” A Tutsi was defined as anyone owning more than 20 cows. Then they taught everyone that these were “ethnic” distinctions and that the “Tutsi” were “naturally” superior. By 1929, they had replaced virtually every Hutu leader with a Tutsi, all the way down to the hillside captains. They imposed “community work days” where everyone worked “for the community” rather than on their own farms and the Tutsi captains were given production quotas. Fierce beatings were common and the system was run on fear.

Modern Rwanda

In the 1950s, a variety of events conspired to alter Belgian allegiance from the Tutsi elite to the Hutu majority. One was the influence of politically active priests who were encouraging a revolution. Another was the liberation movements across Africa and other European colonies. Still another was the increasingly confrontational attitude of the Tutsi-dominated National Rwandese Union (Union Nationale Ruandaise, UNAR. This party was militantly anti-Belgian and pro-monarchy and advocated immediate independence from Belgium. The Belgians also believed them to be part of the “communist threat” spreading across Africa and so they switched sides and supported the PARMEHUTU (The Party for the Emancipation of the Hutus). This party tended to appeal to the Hutu as a disadvantaged class. When the Tutsi Mwaami Rudahigwa died in 1959, the Hutus rose in rebellion and killed between ten and one hundred thousand Tutsis while the Belgians did little to stop it. This prompted the first major flood of refugees fleeing Rwanda and was followed by another round of killings and refugees fleeing in 1961-62. This preponderance of ethnic over class sentiments served the Belgians well, since in a class conflict they would have been identified as the oppressors. In 1961 elections were engineered by the Belgians in which Grégoire Kayibanda, head of PARMEHUTU, came to power as the first president of Rwanda. Independence was declared in 1961 and formally granted in 1962. Between 1961 and 1964, Tutsi refugees from surrounding countries mounted ten major attacks on Rwanda in an effort to regain power. Each of these resulted in another set of massacres of Tutsis living in Rwanda. Similar attacks followed by similar massacres happened in 1968 and 1971.

In 1973, Juvénal Habyarimana, then Major General of the Army, staged a military coup and deposed Kayibanda. Kayibanda, coming from southern Rwanda, always favored the Hutus from that area and generated tremendous animosity between the Hutus of the south and those of the northwest. Habyarimana was from the northwest. Though his family was not one of wealth, he married into the former ruling family of the region. Despite the relative calm that ensued after the coup, Habyarimana, in the name of “fairness” instituted a quota system for all education, government and other institutions, decreeing that the percentage of Tutsis in any secondary or higher school, government office, or the military must not exceed the percentage of Tutsis in the population (9%). In order to define this percentage, a census was taken and identity cards were once again issued indicating one’s “ethnicity.” These identity cards became critical tools during the genocide for figuring out whom to kill.

In 1990, a group of rebels known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) composed of Rwandan refugees from Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire, attacked Rwanda from the north. Early in the war, their leader Fred Rwigyema died and was replaced by his close friend and comrade from the Ugandan National Resistance Army (which overthrew Milton Obote and brought Yoweri Museveni to power in Uganda), Paul Kagame (now Vice President of Rwanda). Although they lost many people due to the harsh conditions in the mountains that winter, the well-trained and disciplined rebels were able to become a significant threat to the Kigali government.

Simultaneously, there was increasing pressure on President Habyarimana, both from inside the country and from the international community, to create a multi-party system and become a democracy more in fact than declaration. In 1991, several new political parties came into being, the biggest of which were:

PSD: Social Democratic Party—a center-left party attracting teachers, civil servants and professionals.

PL: Liberal Party—a center-right party with an urban focus and appealing especially to businessmen. It also appealed to those of mixed heritage or in mixed marriages.

MDR: Democratic Republican Movement—a revival of the previously outlawed PARMEHUTU party, it had populist appeal.

MRND: National Revolutionary Movement for Development (Habyarimana’s party)

CDR: Coalition for the Defense of the Republic

The CDR was formed by the most extreme elements of the Hutu elite. Many of these were the akazu—the group around Madame Agathe Kanziga, Habyarimana’s wife—including most of her family and other close acquaintances from Ruhengiri and Gisenyi. They created the interahamwe—civilian militias. They expressed extreme racist ideas and fueled fear of anyone “Tutsi.” In December of 1990, the “Hutu Manifesto” was published in the CDR newspaper Kangura, exhorting the Hutu to “stop having mercy on the Batutsi” and to “be firm and vigilant against their common Tutsi enemy.”[1]. In July, 1993, Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLMC), brainchild of CDR intellectuals, began broadcasting. This “independent” radio station became a powerful tool for the dissemination of instructions, fear and propaganda during the genocide, with broadcasts such as “The grave is only half full. Who will help us fill it?”[2]

After a round of massacres in Bugesera in March, 1992 the opposition parties forced President Habyarimana into setting up a multi-party cabinet and beginning peace negotiations with the RPF. In August of 1993 a peace agreement was signed in Arusha that included the RPF in a broad-based transitional government, the integration of RPF soldiers into the Rwandan army and the return of the refugees. However, Habyarimana procrastinated in implementing the Arusha Accords. In late March of 1994, Habyarimana flew to Arusha for another round of talks where increasing pressure to comply was applied from the international community, the leadership of the RPF and Rwandan opposition political parties. Upon his return to Kigali on 6 April 1994, as his plane approached Kigali airport, it was shot down at close range and everyone on board was killed.

The genocide

Within moments of the downing of the Presidential plane, the massacre began. Most major opposition leaders were killed in the first week, along with 10 Belgian peacekeepers. By April 20, after having evacuated all but perhaps 30 white people in the entire country, the UN peacekeeping force was reduced to about 500 with no mandate to do anything but watch as one tenth of the Rwandan population and as much as seventy-five percent of the Tutsi population was killed.

Husbands killed wives. Neighbors macheteed neighbors to death. Small children were forced to use a massue (a club with nails sticking out of it) to bash in the heads of infants. Drunk young men were given guns and grenades, whipped into a frenzy, and let loose on unarmed villagers. Businessmen donated trucks and beer and food to support the effort. The military came in to handle particularly difficult situations. Doctors opened the hospitals to shelter fleeing people and then arranged for the interahamwe to come in and kill them all. Political and religious leaders encouraged their communities to gather in schools and churches where they were systematically blown up and then chopped down.

No place, no thing, no relationship was sacred.

O my God. I can hardly write. Weak at the thought of what I saw. The stench is still in my nose. Will it ever leave? I fear being too graphic in my description, just as I fear closing my eyes, that I will be sick.

50,000 people. When he said the number I had to ask him three times. “Cinquante mille????” I could not believe. Surely I misheard him. That can’t possibly be true.

Every room the same. Room after room. A nice school. Good buildings. A rich school on the hillside overlooking valleys of farms. Every room the same. Bodies, bodies, bodies. Large and so incredibly small. Hair still on some of them now 4 years later. I am in shock. What could I say? Skulls smashed in. Postures of fear, protection, terror. The stench. Oh my God. I cannot believe this. I cannot believe it. 50,000 people.

And those were the rooms that were cleaned. The bodies removed, clothes removed, cleaned up for the memorial. Bodies laid out neatly on racks. In various stages of decomposition. One room of neatly placed skulls and bones.

Then the others, not yet prepared. Bodies just piled high in heaps. Decomposing in one lump. The stench. I have to step out to breathe. Remember to breathe through my mouth so I don’t puke. Be tough. Hold myself together. O my God. I worship a God who created a world in which this can happen? O my God. O my God.

The clothes hanging on a line. A woman and a few men at work, cleaning the place up. How on earth can they do this? How can they work here? What is being purged in their souls through this work? How numb are they to the horror?

All the rooms the same. “All of them?” “Yes.” I count 10 buildings with 6-8 rooms each.

Then there is the mass grave. A deep trench. A few hundred were in there.

On the wall is graffiti—Yesu amakari – “Jesus saves.” O my God.

We sign the guest book. I donate 5,000 francs ($15). Then there is the gravesite. The family of a man who used to be the regional development coordinator for the Episcopal church. Flowers on the grave and a cross. They had a service, a church funeral.

In shock. The pictures still float through my head. The still visible looks of terror on faces. The tiny, tiny babies’ bodies, will they be able to tell from the pictures just how small they were?

And I had to take pictures. I had to do something to give me a tiny bit of distance; something to reassure myself that I did not have to take it all in now. So overwhelming. And the stench. The hair still on some heads. The clothes that indicate gender. Graffiti on the walls. “Jesus saves.”

O my God.[3]

Those who could, fled. They hid in swamps, in ceilings, in latrines. They covered themselves in blood and lay perfectly still underneath a heap of corpses, “playing dead.” They hid in their houses, waiting for the end. They bribed, bartered, begged and pleaded to be allowed to live, to get through this roadblock, to make it to the next town, to get across the border. Children watched their parents be killed and hid in the woods or in bushes for weeks. Women were taken as sexual slaves for militia and army leaders.

Some people fought back. They formed committees and defended themselves with rocks and stones against machetes, grenades and guns. Some people saved friends, acquaintances, and relatives. Neighbors were hid in the ceiling and fed for weeks. A school friend was recognized and put back on a car at a roadblock and allowed to pass through. A cousin was given bribe money and a lift to the border.

Five thousand were killed in the church at Ntarama, several thousand more a few miles away in the church at Nyamata. Fifty thousand were killed at Mirambi Technical School in Gikongoro. Of the fifty thousand Tutsis who used to live on the hills of Bisesero, only one thousand survived. Eighty to ninety percent of the Tutsis in Cyangugu prefecture were murdered, ten thousand of them in Kamarampaka Stadium. The Seventh-Day Adventist hospital at Mugonero, the refugee camp at Kibeho, Saint Famille church in Kigali, the church at Nyarubuye, the town of Taba, the list of sites goes on and on. . . some have been kept as memorials, some reclaimed and rebuilt. Who will remember these sites and all who were massacred there? The human capacity for forgetting seems infinite.

Within 100 days, between 800,000 and 1 million people were dead, killed at three times the rate of the Jews during the Holocaust. Their bodies littered the streets.

There are virtually no dogs in Rwanda now. The French, when they came for their “Operation Turquoise” in mid-June, killed all the dogs. They were feasting on the corpses.

Each year, usually in early April as the nation mourns the genocide, a few more bones are exhumed from mass graves and given a proper burial.

[1] Hugh McCullum, The Angels Have Left Us, Appendix 2, p. 114-115

[2] Radio Mille Collines, April 1994

[3] Personal Journal, 31 August, 1998