Why Hutu and Tutsi Are Killing Each Other: A Rwanda Primer

April 24, 1994|By FRANK SMYTH

Rwanda's Tutsi kings ruled over Hutu peasant farmers for three centuries. But in 1959, the Hutu finally overthrew the Tutsi monarchy. From then until President Juvenal Habyarimana's death two weeks ago, Hutu have ruled the country. But today, Tutsi guerrillas of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) are fighting their way toward power.

If the RPF defeats the predominantly Hutu Rwandan army, the question is whether it would share power with Hutu, who make up about 85 percent of the population. RPF leaders say they will. But as their guerrillas advance on the capital of Kigali, they pass by the corpses of at least 20,000 Tutsi civilians, most of them killed by Hutu soldiers or ruling party militiamen. For a while at least, revenge may preclude reconciliation.

The (recent) violence began hours after Hutu President Habyarimana's plane either crashed or was shot down April 6, killing him as well as the Hutu president of neighboring Burundi.

Unlike in Rwanda, Burundi's Tutsi never lost power, although they represent no more than 14 percent of the population in either country. In recent years, both Burundi's minority Tutsi regime and Rwanda's majority Hutu regime have allowed opposition parties to form. But elements of Burundi's Tutsi army assassinated its previously elected Hutu president in October, while this month elements of Rwanda's ruling Hutu regime, in addition to slaughtering Tutsi civilians, murdered Hutu opposition party members en masse.

Rather than two separate tribes, Hutu and Tutsi are different ethnic groups of the same society. The Tutsi migrated from the Horn of Africa in the area of Ethiopia to the Lake Victoria region of Central Africa many centuries ago, and came to subjugate the Hutu who lived there. Since the 17th century, the two ethnic groups evolved as a single society, sharing a common language, Kinyarwanda, but not power. While nobles, military chiefs and cattle herders were Tutsi, Hutu were predominantly subsistence farmers.

Rwanda's ruling Hutu regime has been in power since 1973, when then Defense Minister Habyarimana deposed the Hutu president who had appointed him. As president, Mr. Habyarimana promised not to discriminate against Tutsi. But with time he discriminated against both ethnicities, giving most government positions to people from his own northwest region. Until recently, Mr. Habyarimana generally appointed Cabinet ministers only related to either him or his wife. This ruling clan was known in Kinyarwanda as "the Akazu." It translates as "the little house" around the president.

They ruled over one of Africa's poorest countries. Rwanda has little industry or resources. Although most people are peasant farmers, Rwanda, the size of Maryland with a population more than 50 percent larger, does not have enough land to go around. (Its population is denser than any nation except Bangladesh.) Jobs are also scarce, with many peasants, prostitutes and professionals alike all dependent upon foreigners or their organizations for income or food.

Although Mr. Habyarimana developed his country's infrastructure, largely financed through foreign aid, he did little to improve conditions for people. Last year, for example, relief agencies suspended food shipments because his regime was stealing more than acceptable amounts. This year, the same agencies reported -- before the present crisis -- that one in eight Rwandans is on the verge of starving.

One in three is HIV positive in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. Yet, civilian hospitals are atrocious. Military hospitals are almost as 11 bad. In one last year, I saw a soldier suffering from gangrene, while another endured an untreated open femur fracture. Both had been wounded in combat several days before. But it was Sunday; government doctors don't work weekends.

This hospital, like every public building, Western embassy and even relief organization, was required by law to hang Mr. Habyarimana's photo. He and the Akazu relied on repression to maintain power. They formed a ruling party, and organized armed militia called the Interahamwe, meaning "Those who attack together," and the Impuzamugambi, or "Those who have the same goal."

Until this decade, they ruled Rwanda as a one-party state. But under both domestic and international pressure, Mr. Habyarimana, in July 1990, finally allowed opposition parties to form. All but one of them, a very small one, were Hutu.

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