Make your own free website on
Refugee News                       July 1997
Home page
Useful links
Rwanda: present troubles have roots in colonial times More information
As more details emerge of the massacres perpetrated on Rwandan Hutu refugees during the civil war in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and as the UN continues to repatriate thousands of refugees to an unstable situation back in Rwanda, many questions arise about the origins of the racial hatred between the Tutsis and the Hutus. 

The enmity between Tutsis and Hutu does not date back to time immemorial but can be traced to events in the last one hundred years. Decisions taken by the Europeans colonizers rarely helped to diffuse tensions between the two groups; in actual fact they often exacerbated them! 

Unlike other African states, Rwanda and Burundi existed as separate entities before the arrival of Western powers. In Rwanda, there were three social groups who spoke in the same language, had a common culture and lived in the same areas without problems. Ethnically, they were one race, the Banyarwanda. The three groups differed only in the type of work each performed: the Hutu worked the land, the Tutsi bred cattle and the Twa were potters and produced weapons. No group was considered superior but the King was always a Tutsi. 

The colonial administrators and the missionaries failed completely to grasp this social arrangement. In their minds Rwanda was like a medieval European state: the Tutsi were the nobles and the Hutu the slaves! The missionaries tried to convert the Tutsis as a first step towards converting the Hutus. 

After the First World War, Rwanda passed from the Germans (who had arrived in 1884) to the Belgians. The latter considered the Tutsis the superior race and more able to lead. This misconception led to a tragic mistake in 1933. In a census carried out that year, a 'Tutsi' was defined as someone owning at least 10 cows! All the others were 'Hutu' or 'Twa' according to the work they performed. Thus a few rich Hutu became 'Tutsi' and many poor Tutsi became 'Hutu'! 

By this new definition, the Tutsi became an elite minority that they were not before. Today the constitute only 15% of Rwanda's inhabitants The Belgians started to use them to control the rest of the population. They put all the power in their hands and gave them the best education and career opportunities. 

After the death of King Mutara III Rudahigwa in 1959, the colonial and church authorities switched sides and started favouring the Hutu but this only led to more 'racial' hatred. That year marked the first major massacre of Tutsis by the Hutu. Others occurred in 1959, 1963, 1967, 1973, 1992 and in 1994 the now infamous genocide took place. 

In the early nineties, the party of the Hutus in government set up the Interahamwe ("those that kill together) militia who planned, organized and led the genocide together with the Rwandan army of the time. Half a million Tutsis were killed. When the Tutsis gained control of Rwanda, after the genocide, the Interahamwe led the exodus of two million Hutus, mainly into eastern Rwanda. In the camps set up here, the militia continued to rule. The airstrips used to bring in food and medicines served to deliver arms too! 

Even the rebellion in Zaire has its origins in the past. The forces of the new President, Laurent Kabila, are led by officers from the Banyamulenge, ethnic Tutsis whose ancestors came to east Zaire 200 years ago and became relatively rich from mining. It was they who started the rebellion last September when the government tried to strip them of citizenship. They were joined by all those who wanted President Mobutu out and in eight months took over the whole country. 

There were allegations that, at the time of the massacres of Hutu refugees, soldiers were heard talking in Rwandan. Some observers think that Tutsi soldiers helped Kabila's troops during the war and were then given a free hand to deal with the refugees. Rwanda has denied any involvement in the Zairian civil war. 

The involvement of former Western colonial powers in the tragedies that have hit the peoples of the Great Lakes Area in these last few years provides yet another insight into the legacy of colonialism. 

Killers hide behind refugee status 

Rwandan refugees make solemn homecoming - May 8, 1997 

UNHCR - information on: 
Congo (Dem. Rep.) 

Refugee News: More on Rwanda