Rwanda is a landlocked country in Eastern Africa. Tutsi cattle breeders began arriving in the area in the 15th century and gradually subjugated the Hutu inhabitants. The areas of present-day Rwanda and Burundi became part of German East Africa in the 1890s. In 1919, following World War I, the region was mandated to Belgium as the territory of Ruanda-Urundi. Following World War II, Ruanda-Urundi became a United Nations Trust Territory with Belgium as the administrative authority. In 1959, the majority ethnic group, the Hutus, overthrew the ruling Tutsi king. Two years later, the Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement (PARMEHUTU) won an overwhelming victory in the United Nations-supervised referendum. A 1962 United Nations General Assembly resolution terminated the Belgian trusteeship and granted full independence to Rwanda (and Burundi). During the 1959 revolt and its aftermath, more than 160,000 Tutsis fled to neighboring countries. The children of these exiles later formed a rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and began a civil war in 1990.
The war, along with several political and economic upheavals, exacerbated ethnic tensions, culminating in April 1994 in the genocide of roughly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu regime and ended the killing in July 1994. (See Synopsis below) Some two million Hutus fled to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), including some of those responsible for the massacres. The international community responded with one of the largest humanitarian relief efforts ever mounted, including the United Nations peacekeeping operation that remained in Rwanda until March 1996. By late 1996 most of the refugees returned to Rwanda. Rwanda has used traditional "gacaca" community courts to try those suspected of taking part in the 1994 genocide. But key individuals - particularly those accused of orchestrating the slaughter - appear before an International Criminal Tribunal in northern Tanzania.
Rwanda is a poor rural country with about 80 percent of the population engaged in mainly subsistence agriculture. Coffee and tea serve as its primary sources of export earnings. The decline of world coffee prices, the lack of economic diversification, corruption, and economic mismanagement all contributed to Rwanda's economic deterioration in the early 1990s. The 1994 genocide further damaged Rwanda's fragile economic base. Following the 1994 genocide, Rwanda undertook an extraordinary national regeneration program, and considerable progress has been made in stabilizing and recovering the economy.
Synopsis of the Tutsi-Hutu conflict that resulted in genocide --
Prevailing tensions between ethnic Bahutus (Hutus) and Batutsis (Tutsis) during the late 1980s-early 1990s, along with collapse of the country's coffee-based export economy, which made payments to government workers difficult, are believed to be the roots of the conflict that wracked Rwanda in 1994. With political pressure bearing down on President Habyarimana, he looked to support from his Bahutu base, in order to shore up his power and influence. At the same time, the Batutsi minority was demonized, thus contributing to an ever-polarized social and political landscape.
On the other side of the equation, Batutsis in the political opposition agitated for democratic changes, aimed at improving their beleaguered status. A Batutsi militant wing operating from Uganda, Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded Rwanda in 1990, with the intent of either ousting President Habyarimana or compelling him to offer more political channels for the Batutsi minority. The move resulted in a bloody conflict between the Rwandan government forces and Batutsi rebels. In 1992, a ceasefire was established, and a year later, a United Nations mission was deployed to Rwanda to monitor the peace process.
But in 1994, the peace process collapsed when an aircraft carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana and his counterpart from Burundi was shot down by militants, killing both leaders. The actual identity of the militants who shot down the aircraft was unknown. While some blamed Batutsi militants, others blamed extremist Bahutus. Regardless, the incident sparked political chaos.
Indeed, an extremist and violent Bahutu movement -- the Interahamwe -- then initiated a mass campaign of genocide, with both ethnic Batutsis and moderate Bahutus as the victims. The movement was said to have been orchestrated at the top levels by the Rwandan president's political party but carried out by in a grassroots manner. Church leaders and other members of civil society were implicated in the fomenting of intra-Rwandan hatred. As well, vituperative discourse was transmitted on radio, thus inciting ethnic hatred in Rwanda.
In total, close to one million Batutsis and moderate Bahutus were killed by the Interahamwe and its allies who were not limited to soldiers, but also included ordinary citizens. Among the victims were the Rwandan prime minister and her ten Belgian bodyguards, as well as a Batutsi queen. Most of those killed were violently hacked to death, with women and children no more spared than men, and the notion of "refuge" a distant concept. Indeed, many killings targeted people taking refuge in churches.
In this way, the Rwandan genocide stands as one of the most significant and disturbing human atrocities of the 20th century. While the Rwandan perpetrators of the 1994 genocide ranged from the official authorities to ordinary farmers, it should also be noted that the international community did nothing to stop this blight on modern human history.
A shift in the political winds occurred when an armed wing of the RPF seized control of the Rwandan capital of Kigali. That development set the stage for the establishment of a transitional unity government, based on the Arusha Accords.