The Roots of the Rwanda Genocide Go Back 40 Years

Roundup: Talking About History

Sudarsan Raghavan, in the Kansas City Star (April 2, 2004):

The origins of the massacre of more than three-quarters of a million people in Rwanda, most of them members of the Tutsi tribe, date back more than 40 years.

In 1959, the Hutus came to power in a bloodless revolution. For the next 35 years, the Tutsis were depicted as a despotic tribe that wanted to enslave Hutus. Meanwhile, Tutsis living in exile in neighboring Uganda were forming their own army and plotting to take power.

In 1990, the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front, made up primarily of Tutsis, invaded Rwanda and began attacking Hutu leaders and institutions. In 1993, the Hutu government and the Tutsi rebels agreed to share power.

It wasn't until April 6, 1994, however, that Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana, who'd ruled Rwanda since 1973, agreed in talks in Burundi to implement the pact. That evening, on its way back to Rwanda's capital, Kigali, Habyarimana's plane was shot down. It's still unclear whether Tutsi rebels or Hutus opposed to his concessions down the plane.

Hours later, the genocide began. Senior Hutu leaders used the downing of the plane as an excuse to exterminate Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

They organized and armed Hutu extremist militias called the Interahamwe with machetes, hoes, guns and grenades. Commands over the radio ordered them to"kill the Tutsi cockroaches."

The killing stopped only after the Rwandan Patriotic Front swept into Kigali. Some 2 million Hutus fled into neighboring Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, settling down in sprawling refugee camps run by Western aid agencies.

Today, Rwanda's government is led by former rebel leader Paul Kagame, who calls himself a Rwandan and downplays his Tutsi heritage. The government dominates most aspects of life, exerting tight control over the media, military and politics.

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