Why Hutu and Tutsi Are Killing Each Other: A Rwanda Primer


Rwanda's Tutsi kings ruled over Hutu peasant farmers for three centuries. But in 1959, the Hutu finally overthrew the Tutsi monarchy. From then until President Juvenal Habyarimana's death two weeks ago, Hutu have ruled the country. But today, Tutsi guerrillas of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) are fighting their way toward power.

If the RPF defeats the predominantly Hutu Rwandan army, the question is whether it would share power with Hutu, who make up about 85 percent of the population. RPF leaders say they will. But as their guerrillas advance on the capital of Kigali, they pass by the corpses of at least 20,000 Tutsi civilians, most of them killed by Hutu soldiers or ruling party militiamen. For a while at least, revenge may preclude reconciliation.

The (recent) violence began hours after Hutu President Habyarimana's plane either crashed or was shot down April 6, killing him as well as the Hutu president of neighboring Burundi.

Unlike in Rwanda, Burundi's Tutsi never lost power, although they represent no more than 14 percent of the population in either country. In recent years, both Burundi's minority Tutsi regime and Rwanda's majority Hutu regime have allowed opposition parties to form. But elements of Burundi's Tutsi army assassinated its previously elected Hutu president in October, while this month elements of Rwanda's ruling Hutu regime, in addition to slaughtering Tutsi civilians, murdered Hutu opposition party members en masse.

Rather than two separate tribes, Hutu and Tutsi are different ethnic groups of the same society. The Tutsi migrated from the Horn of Africa in the area of Ethiopia to the Lake Victoria region of Central Africa many centuries ago, and came to subjugate the Hutu who lived there. Since the 17th century, the two ethnic groups evolved as a single society, sharing a common language, Kinyarwanda, but not power. While nobles, military chiefs and cattle herders were Tutsi, Hutu were predominantly subsistence farmers.

Rwanda's ruling Hutu regime has been in power since 1973, when then Defense Minister Habyarimana deposed the Hutu president who had appointed him. As president, Mr. Habyarimana promised not to discriminate against Tutsi. But with time he discriminated against both ethnicities, giving most government positions to people from his own northwest region. Until recently, Mr. Habyarimana generally appointed Cabinet ministers only related to either him or his wife. This ruling clan was known in Kinyarwanda as "the Akazu." It translates as "the little house" around the president.

They ruled over one of Africa's poorest countries. Rwanda has little industry or resources. Although most people are peasant farmers, Rwanda, the size of Maryland with a population more than 50 percent larger, does not have enough land to go around. (Its population is denser than any nation except Bangladesh.) Jobs are also scarce, with many peasants, prostitutes and professionals alike all dependent upon foreigners or their organizations for income or food.

Although Mr. Habyarimana developed his country's infrastructure, largely financed through foreign aid, he did little to improve conditions for people. Last year, for example, relief agencies suspended food shipments because his regime was stealing more than acceptable amounts. This year, the same agencies reported -- before the present crisis -- that one in eight Rwandans is on the verge of starving.

One in three is HIV positive in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. Yet, civilian hospitals are atrocious. Military hospitals are almost as 11 bad. In one last year, I saw a soldier suffering from gangrene, while another endured an untreated open femur fracture. Both had been wounded in combat several days before. But it was Sunday; government doctors don't work weekends.

This hospital, like every public building, Western embassy and even relief organization, was required by law to hang Mr. Habyarimana's photo. He and the Akazu relied on repression to maintain power. They formed a ruling party, and organized armed militia called the Interahamwe, meaning "Those who attack together," and the Impuzamugambi, or "Those who have the same goal."

Until this decade, they ruled Rwanda as a one-party state. But under both domestic and international pressure, Mr. Habyarimana, in July 1990, finally allowed opposition parties to form. All but one of them, a very small one, were Hutu.

One of the reasons Mr. Habyarimana allowed Hutu parties to form inside Rwanda is that he knew a guerrilla movement of expatriate Tutsi was forming abroad. Three decades before, after the Hutu seized power, its leaders publicly executed some 20 prominent Tutsi leaders, while agitated Hutu mobs killed as many as 20,000 others. By 1964, an estimated 150,000 Rwandan Tutsi had fled. Since then, they and their descendants have swelled to a Tutsi population of about 500,000. Although they have been living in neighboring countries now for three decades, most of them remain refugees without statehood or citizenship.

About 200,000 of them have lived in Uganda, competing with its citizens -- sometimes violently -- for land and water. Like many Ugandans, Rwandan refugees there were repressed under both dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote. As a result, at least 2,000 of them eventually joined a guerrilla movement which began in 1981. Five years later they won power. Their leader, ex-Defense Minister Yoweri Museveni, is now president of Uganda.

On Oct. 1, 1990, about 7,000 RPF guerrillas invaded Rwanda. More than half of them had been soldiers in the Ugandan army, which provided most of their weapons. To counter what it called "aggression launched from an English-speaking country," France rushed in 300 troops from the Central African Republic, and supplied mortars, artillery and ammunition.

France was honoring a military cooperation agreement it had signed with Mr. Habyarimana in 1975; France has similar arrangements with most Francophone African countries.

France was usurping the role previously played by Belgium, which had governed Rwanda as a protectorate until its independence in 1962. Since then, Belgium had been Rwanda's main military patron. But Belgian law prohibits the providing of arms to a country at war. Shortly after the RPF invasion, Belgium cut off all lethal aid. France made up the difference, and pursued a military victory rather than a political settlement.

While Belgium, for example, recalled its ambassador in March 1993 for two weeks over human rights abuses, French officials defended the record of the Habyarimana regime.

Although the RPF's 1990 invasion was limited to only the northeastern area of Rwanda, forces loyal to the Habyarimana regime simulated a firefight in Kigali three days later. This alleged attack was used as pretext to arrest at least 8,000 people, mostly Tutsi. Many were beaten and tortured.

In the countryside, violations were worse. Local officials and members of the ruling party militia organized mobs of agitated Hutu. Often carrying placards of Mr. Habyarimana above their heads, they went field to field in search of Tutsi. About 2,000 were killed, most of them hacked to death by machete. In February 1993, the RPF launched an even bigger offensive with more heavy weapons. France rushed in at least 680 troops, including paratroopers.

But in August 1993 the RPF and Mr. Habyarimana signed a treaty to end the war. Although the peace process had been delayed many times, this February Mr. Habyarimana agreed to a new transitional government. Cabinet posts were divided equally among the regime's Akazu, RPF representatives, and Hutu opposition representatives.

Rwanda's political conflicts never seemed closer to ending: Mr. Habyarimana's regime was sharing political power with other Hutu; and for the first time in its history, Rwanda's Hutu and Tutsi had accepted a concrete formula for reconciliation. Among the three groups participating, the regime's Akazu was the most reluctant to go along.

Immediately after the president died in his own plane, the Akazu ordered the Presidential Guard to cordon off the airport crash site; its soldiers prevented Western diplomats or United Nations peacekeeping commanders from examining it. While both French and Rwandan officials claimed that the plane was shot down by ground fire, State Department and other Western diplomats await confirmation.

Hours later, members of the Presidential Guard killed two Hutu ++ opposition party Cabinet members, Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana and 10 Belgian peacekeepers. Most other leaders and many rank-and-file members of the opposition also appear to have been killed.

While the slaughter against these mostly Hutu victims numbered in the thousands, members of the regime's ruling party militia, soldiers under irregular command, along with mobs of other drunken Hutu men, killed Tutsi men, women and children, numbering into the tens of thousands. In a population of 7.5 million, most of them were killed within three days. It was the worst violence in Rwanda since 1961.

Within a week of the plane crash, the main body of RPF forces began to attack Kigali. Since then, the Hutu regime's slaughter of its Hutu opponents and all Tutsi has been largely replaced with a military struggle between the RPF and the army. The armed forces had more than 30,000 men before this crisis. They were equipped with at least $5.9 million in arms bought from South Africa in 1992, and another $6 million bought the same year from Egypt.

Fighting has been intense. On Wednesday, Rwandan army mortars fell upon refugees huddled in the national stadium for safety. The same day, the RPF began to use Katyusha multiple rocket launchers within city lines.

Representatives of both sides have recognized the need for a cease-fire, but neither has offered to sign one. As a Third World guerrilla army, the RPF struck me as exceptionally motivated, highly disciplined and well trained. The Rwandan army is far less professional. But many of its soldiers and officers may nonetheless fight to the death, as they would expect the RPF to torture and execute prisoners.

RPF commanders say that instead they will bring members of the ruling Hutu regime responsible for most of the bloodletting to trial. The world will have to wait to see. It would be an indication whether an RPF takeover would merely mean the restoration of Tutsi dominance over Hutu, or a new start toward sharing power.

Regardless, Tutsi will remain a minority. Once the fighting is over, the United Nations, the United States, and Rwanda's mother country of Belgium should throw their collective diplomatic weight behind a formula for power-sharing to make the establishment of another ethnic-based dictatorship less likely.

A free-lance journalist and consultant, Frank Smyth is the author of "Arming Rwanda: The Arms Trade and Human Rights Abuses," released in January by the Human Rights Watch/Arms Project based in New York.

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