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 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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.