Hutu/Tutsi Relations Before the Genocide in Rwanda

The genocide in Rwanda was a tragedy.  In a span of about 100 days, approximately 800,000 people were killed.  The majority of the victims were “Tutsi.” However, a number of “Hutu” Rwandans were killed as well.  All Hutu men were ordered to commit genocide and join in the killing.  If a Hutu refused to join in, he was killed on the spot.  A quick glimpse at the genocide might yield a conclusion that the genocide was only a 100 day affair.  However, it started much before that.  One of the defining characteristics of most genocides is classification into groups.  In Rwanda, the division between Hutus and Tutsis goes way back in time.  The division between the two groups was rather arbitrary.  When the classification occurred, nobody thought it would escalate to mass killing.  The two groups were unaware of the consequences of being in one group as opposed to the other.

European colonization of Rwanda began in the late 1890’s.  Germany wished to colonize Rwanda, in part because of its’ strong military.  The Rwandans allowed this to happen, which was surprising, given the militaristic tendencies of the locals.  The local Rwandan’s were known for having a strong, aggressive military, yet permitted the colonization.  The Germans allowed the Rwandans to continue to govern as before, with minor counseling.  Christian missionaries entered Africa in the late 1890’s as well.  The Christian missionaries were especially attractive to the lower class Rwandans, typically Hutus.  The church seemed to grant political freedom at first.  When World War I erupted, Rwanda was affected.  The German forces were overrun by Belgian troops. Belgium took a backseat to the traditional Rwandan government and let them continue on, mostly as before.  Leon Classe, one of the first Catholic missionaries to enter Rwanda, took over as the highest Catholic figure in the country in 1907.  He widened the gap between Hutus and Tutsis.

In 1933, Belgium decided to hold a census count.  The purpose of the census was to label Rwandans as either Hutu or Tutsi.  The two groups had always known they were different, but Belgium made the divide “official.”  The Belgian’s did not create the divide, but nonetheless, made an impact by leaving behind feelings of animosity.  The decision was sometimes rather arbitrary and oftentimes, it was hard to tell which group an individual belonged in.  The Belgian government handed out identity cards, labeling citizens by their race.  The Belgians believed that the Hutus and Tutsis were different races.  In the 1950’s, Hutu-Tutsi relations reached a tipping point.  Tutsis occupied almost all of the important public offices, at the national and local level.  The Hutus were vying for more of a role.  When the United Nations mandated elections take place (part of the fall-out of World War II), the Hutus saw an opportunity to capitalize, given their majority.  The Hutus gained a large percentage of local leadership positions, but the national offices remained with the Tutsis.  After the unexpected death of the Mwami (King), Hutus and Tutsis both fought for the right to name a successor.  Before the national election could take place, the Hutus gathered an army and forced the Tutsis to step down.  Most Tutsis fled to nearby countries.  This revolution witnessed a shift of power, politically and ethnically in Rwanda.

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