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Rwanda - History

Rwanda History

The earliest known inhabitants of what is now Rwanda were the Twa Pygmies, an ethnic group that still lives in the country today but makes up only a paltry 1% of the population. The Twa held sway over much of the mountainous terrain until around the 11th century, when Hutu farmers migrated into the region and displaced them. A few hundred years later the Hutus were subjugated by the warrior-like and pastoralist Watutsis, who came down from either Ethiopia or southern Sudan in the 16th century and forcefully impressed their harsh system of feudalism on the area.

The Watutsi (or 'Tutsi') reign was characterised by the absolute rule of a mwami (king) who, with a lot of religious ceremony and formal conqueror's pomp, oversaw the extraction of labour from the Hutus and determined which of them got land and how much. Nothing much changed in Rwanda until a couple of land-grabbing European powers, namely Britain and Germany, decided to divvy up large swathes of East Africa in the late 19th century - the British snatched Uganda and Kenya, while the Germans put their greedy paws on Burundi and Rwanda.

German colonialism introduced urban development and Christian prosyletisation. At the end of WWI, Rwanda was taken off Germany and passed to Belgian adminstration as reparation for its suffering during the war, though no such compassion applied to the Rwandans.

The Belgians found it administratively convenient to increase Tutsi admininstrative and military power over the large Hutu population. In the late 1950s, Hutus started demanding an improvement in their living conditions and an easing of their ethnic suppression. The response from a powerful Tutsi clan in 1959 was a mass murder of Hutu leadership, leading to a Hutu uprising in which an estimated 100,000 Tutsis were massacred.

Rwanda's independence in 1962 was followed by the country's first officially recognised Hutu government. However, tensions between the two dominant groups remained high and the inter-tribal killings continued. In 1972, tens of thousands of Hutu tribespeople were massacred in neighbouring Burundi, and in the aftershock of the incident Rwandan Prime Minister Gregoire Kayibanda was overthrown by his army commander, Major General Juvenal Habyarimana. Habyarimana somehow managed to keep a lid on Hutu-Tutsi hatred for the next 18 years, even keeping the country's depressed economy afloat by sidestepping the burden of huge, internationally financed debt, but then in 1990 the country imploded.

On 1 October, Rwanda was invaded by some 5000 well-armed Tutsi exiles - collectively called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) - from their base in Uganda, led by current president Paul Kagame. Within days, the Hutu army (bloated with extra troops from France, Belgium and Congo/Zaïre) went on a rampage against the Tutsi and any Hutu suspected of collaborating with them. Thousands of people were slaughtered. But regardless of the human toll, the RPF tried again in 1991 and, after a failed ceasefire, yet again in 1992. A year later saw the signing of a peace accord between the government and the RPF, but the peace that was accorded unfortunately turned out to be a very short one.

In 1994, after years of fiery anti-Tutsi government rhetoric circling Rwanda, and prompted by the death of Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart after their plane was shot down on the outskirts of Kigali, Rwanda became the scene of the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII. In just three months, some one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered in what was believed to have been a campaign orchestrated and encouraged by Hutu extremists in the government and the army - the vast majority of the murders have in fact been blamed on machete and rifle-wielding civilian militias that were allegedly trained by the Rwandan military. Over three million Rwandans fled the country to refugee camps in neighbouring countries. The killing spree abated only when the United Nations Security Council finally decided enough people had died to warrant the time-consuming and generally inconvenient deployment of international troops.

By July 1994, the still-active RPF had taken Kigali and established a Government of National Unity, which began to try and deal with the aftermath of the attempted genocide. This included the poverty and ethnic violence that still faced a million Tutsi refugees in border camps and insurgencies from Hutu extremists now based in the camps and in Congo (Zaïre). The outbreak of civil war in Congo (Zaïre) in 1996 didn't help matters - the fighting quickly saw Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Hutu militias lined up in new President Laurent Kabila's corner, and Uganda and Rwanda in the Tutsi-led rebel's corner, with refugees from the genocide caught in the middle.

In recent years, though, the situation in Rwanda has improved: the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Tanzania, has begun bringing those directly responsible for the events of 1994 to trial; large numbers of genocide refugees are being slowly repatriated and resettled; the economy is being rebuilt; and travellers have returned, albeit in small numbers. The first parliamentary elections since 1994 were held in 2003 and the RPF won a convincing 74% of the vote, although this result was probably due in part to curbs on both the press and opposition. RPF leader Paul Kagame was again elected president, with 95% of the vote. However, as long as rebels remain at large in Congo (Zaïre), Rwanda’s stability remains ephemeral. Regional conflicts constantly threaten its security, but considering the country's track record and the history of bloody unrest in the region, it's unlikely that Rwanda will ever be entirely free from ethnic conflict or live harmoniously with all of its African neighbours. It can only be said that for the time being, Rwanda has been able to stick the 'Open for Inspection' sign back on its front lawn.

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