In the 1920’s, after World War 1, Rwanda ceased to be a colony of Germany and became part of the Belgian colonial Empire. The Belgian authorities decided to take a more direct role in running the nation than the relative autonomy the Kings of Rwanda had enjoyed. They decided that almost all political power should go to ethnic Tutsis rather than the far more populous Hutus, the rulers of Rwanda would need Belgian military power to retain their crown and so the Kings could not revolt.
Of course it wasn’t quite that simple, the Belgian authorities needed to find a way to legitimise this policy so they turned to the racist, pseudo-scientific field of Hamitic theory. This theory proposed that Tutsis were the descendents of North African migrants who… you know what? It’s complicated, it would take a long time to explain and it’s utter bollocks. The upshot of it is that racist Europeans used this field of study to ‘prove’ that Tutsis were racially superior to Hutus, and it stuck. Tutsis became a form of upper class Rwandan whereas Hutus were the teeming multitude of the working class. In 1935 Belgium introduced identity cards to Rwanda which labelled the bearer as either Hutu, Tutsi, Twa (a tiny minority) or ‘Naturalised’. All of a sudden it was impossible to change tribes, as it had been before, if you were born a Hutu you could never become a Tutsi. Social advancement was stopped in its tracks.
It couldn’t last forever of course, the Hutu emancipation movement began to gain ground, soured and became a Hutu supremacist movement. They claimed that throwing out the Tutsis who, according to Hamitic theory, were migrants to native Hutu land anyway was the right thing to do. Violence broke out, as it had before, and thousands died.
Sporadic outbreaks of deeply aggressive racial violence broke out over and over again, the predominantly Tutsi military killed many Hutus, Hutu gangs killed many Tutsis and it achieved nothing. Eventually the Tutsi king was ousted and deposed and the Belgian authorities realised that they were going to have to leave. They created a Republic with Grégoire Kayibanda, a Hutu, as president and left Rwanda a simmering mess of racial violence. Huge numbers of Tutsis, probably rightly fearing for their lives, fled to neighbouring countries and launched guerrilla attacks on Hutus who would respond by murdering vast numbers of Tutsis.
A military coup under the command of a Hutu general in 1973 put a stop to the violence, though seething racism bubbled under the surface. A combination of western disaster capitalism and a slump in the internal Rwandan coffee market caused the economy to collapse. The Tutsi exiles began to organise themselves into a military force and they invaded in the late 1980’s.
Civil wars bring out the worst in people, I suspect for the same reason that family arguments are often the most bitter. The propaganda spread by both sides was disturbing in the extreme. One of the most widespread calls to arms was the so-called ‘Hutu Ten Commandments,’ including ‘The Hutu should have no mercy for the Tutsi’ and ‘The Hutu must be firm and vigilant against their common Tutsi enemy’. Tutsi propaganda was no less vitriolic. Finally, after a few years, the government of Tanzania managed to negotiate a ceasefire with the two sides and peace broke out, only the simmering hatred remained.
On April the 6th, 1994, an aeroplane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi, was blown out of the sky as it prepared to land in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. Everyone on board perished.
To this day there is fierce debate about who actually did it, though it seems, on balance, most likely to have been Hutu extremists unhappy with the peacemaking ambitions of the two presidents. Whoever it was quickly became academic, blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of the Tutsi rebel army by the Hutu authorities. They had been preparing for an outbreak of violence for some time, the Interahamwe (officially the youth wing of the Hutu extremist MRND party but literally translating as ‘those who attack together’) were armed, some with kalashnikovs and grenades but mostly with machetes, and waiting for a signal. On April the 7th, one day after the assassination of the President, extremist Hutus, many of them soldiers, slaughtered almost all of the remaining moderate Hutus with any form of political power. Across Rwanda radios crackled into life telling all Hutus that failure to take part in the coming violence, failure to pick up a weapon and kill their Tutsi neighbours, would be considered treachery worthy of a bullet. Gangs of men, some organised and some not, took up arms and went into the streets.
What happened next is almost unfathomably horrifying. The awful violence of it cannot be easily put in to words, though I feel duty bound to attempt it, if you’re reading this and you’re of a delicate sensiblity I strongly advise you to skip the next paragraph.
First some statistics; around one million people were killed in one hundred days of violence. This is far more people than you will likely ever interact with in your entire life. It is 400 murders per hour for over three months. Most of the victims were killed with machetes, the perpetrators would often not use guns even when they had them. Statistics don’t help, do they? They’re too big to fit into your mind, too abstract. Some other, non statistical data; Hutus who refused to take part in the genocide of the Tutsis were summarily executed. Most of the victims were killed by people from their community, people they knew. Rape of Tutsi women and moderate Hutu women was commonplace. AIDS patients were dragged out of hospital and forced into rape squads in order to spread HIV to the Tutsi population. Almost all surviving Tutsi women were raped at one point and it is likely that most Tutsi women who did not survive were raped then murdered. Some pregnant Tutsi women had their stomachs cut open and their unborn children torn from their womb. Tutsi men were rarely raped (though it did happen) but were instead castrated and their severed penises were displayed as trophies in public. Victims of both genders had their genitals mutilated with acid. Tutsi women had acid pumped into their vaginas. Children were cut to pieces by men, grown men, with machetes. Children were raped. I can just barely imagine it, and I don’t want to.
The violence ended when the Tutsi army finally took the country and thousands upon thousands of Hutus fled to form filthy refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cholera broke out and the death toll and squalor was unimaginable.
There is no genetic difference, at all, between Tutsi and Hutu. None. Even if there was it would be utterly irrelevant, the genocide would still be one of the most sickening events in human history, but the reason for this violence was a lie told three quarters of a century earlier to keep the powerful in power. That’s the lesson to take from it, that’s the good that can come out of it; don’t believe what you’re told, don’t take it at face value. I’ve written about this now because this year sees the 20th anniversary of this atrocity and I doubt anyone will even mention it. There may be some late night slot on Radio Four or some well meaning, earnest documentary tucked away on some distant television channel but most people in Britain and America will hear nothing, say nothing or simply shrug their shoulders and say what was said at the time: ‘well, that’s Africa.’
I can’t accept that. I won’t accept the gall it takes to write off a continent, I won’t accept ‘well, that’s Africa,’ or ‘well, that’s human nature’. That’s not good enough, not by a long shot. I won’t forget it, I won’t ignore it, I shall try to learn what lessons can be learned from it, I hope the rest of the world does the same.