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A History of Rwanda

By Ron Sirak Photos by Leigh Haeger
November 14, 2007

Hutus settled in what is now Rwanda between 500-1000 A.D., and Tutsis, a nomadic herding people, migrated into the area around 1300 A.D. The Tutsis adopted the language, customs and beliefs of the Hutus. In the 1600s Tutsi King Ruganzu Ndori unified the country. The majority Hutus (about 80 percent), primarily farmers, and the Tutsis (19 percent), mostly herders, and Twas (1 percent) peacefully coexisted. Tension did not occur until European colonists appeared in the late 19th century.

Rwanda became part of German East Africa in 1890, and Belgian forces occupied it in 1916 during World War I. As part of the peace process after the war, the League of Nations granted Belgium authority to govern Ruanda-Urundi, a rule administered through Tutsi kings. In a classic divide-and-conquer move, the Belgians deemed the Tutsis superior to the Hutus in part because their physical features are more European. Tutsis got better jobs and more educational opportunities. In 1932 Belgium introduced identity cards that made people declare whether they were Hutu or Tutsi.

Resentment among the Hutus gradually built and led to riots in 1959 in which more than 20,000 Tutsis were killed with many more fleeing to neighboring Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania. When Belgium granted Rwanda independence in 1962, the Hutus took control. Anything that went wrong was blamed on Tutsis, more of whom fled to neighboring countries. The generation of Tutsis born in exile in Uganda after 1960 became the core of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). In 1973 Juvénal Habyarimana took over Rwanda in a military coup. In 1990 the RPF invaded Rwanda from Uganda demanding the right to return to their homeland with full equal rights.