Skip to main content
USF Libraries Exhibits



Map of Rwanda from the CIA World Factbook.

The Republic of Rwanda, which is about the size of Massachusetts, is a sovereign country in the Great Lakes region of Africa.  The climate is temperate to subtropical, with two rainy seasons and two dry seasons every year.  The economy is largely based subsistence farming, including crops such as coffee, tea, bananas, and potatoes and livestock such as cows, goats, sheep, and pigs.

There are three main population groups in Rwanda: the Hutu (84%), the Tutsi (15%), and the forest-dwelling Twa pygmies (1%).  Before colonial times, the Hutu and Tutsi lived and worked together in relative peace, often intermarrying.  Tutsis tended to own the land and Hutus were the people who worked the land.  Some scholars believe that the groups were social rather than ethnic and that moving from one group to the other was possible through marriage or a change in economic status. 

When Europeans colonized the area, the terms "Tutsi" and "Hutu" took on racial meanings.  Germany first colonized Rwanda in 1894.  Since, they thought that the Tutsi had more European characteristics, such as lighter skin and a taller build, they put Tutsis in roles of responsibility.  After World War I, Germany lost all of their colonies and Rwanda became a UN Trust Territory under the rule of Belgium.  The Belgians continued the practice of elevating the Tutsis above the Hutus and in 1933 they codified the categories by mandating the use of identity cards that labeled each person as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa.

By the mid 1950s, the Hutus were calling for change and chose armed conflict resulting in the 1959 Rwandan Revolution.  When Hutus began killing Tutsis, more than 100,000 Tutsis sought refuge in neighboring countries.  As the struggle for independence from Belgium grew, the Belgians switched the status of the two groups and in 1962, put the Hutus in charge of the new government.

Over the next three decades, violence and tensions grew between the Hutus and Tutsis.  Tutsis would attack from neighboring countries and Hutus would retaliate with repression against the Tutsis living in Rwanda.  This somewhat lessened when Juvénal Habyarimana took power in 1973 in a military coup.  However, by 1990 the Rwanda Civil War began when the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group comprised mainly of Tutsi refugees, invaded northern Rwanda.  Habyarimana was eventually forced to create a coalition government with the RPF in 1993, at which time a cease-fire began. 

The cease-fire ended on April 6, 1994 when Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down.  Within hours and for the next 100 days, up to 1,000,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in the Rwanda Genocide.  Members of civilian death squads, specifically the Interahamwe and the Impuzamugambi, did most of the killings by hand, using machetes and clubs, although as the genocide progressed many Hutu civilians participated in the killings, sometimes of former Tutsi neighbors.  Local officials helped to round up the victims, which included women, children, babies, and the elderly.  They were killed in schools, hospitals, and churches, sometimes with the clergy’s help.   Homes were burned, crops destroyed, and livestock stolen and eaten.  Meanwhile, the international community stood by and did virtually nothing. 

With the 1993 cease-fire ended, the Tutsi RPF restarted their offensive, defeating the Rwandan army, and seizing control of the country in mid July 1994.  Fearing retribution by the RPF, an estimated 1.2-2 million Hutus, especially direct perpetrators like government officials, soldiers, and militia members, fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), then Zaire.   

The genocide trials began in late 1996, about two and one half years after the genocide, primarily because the country had lost most of its judicial personnel and had to rebuild its courts, jails, etc.  By 2000, more than 100,000 suspected genocide perpetrators were awaiting trial.  Faced with this overwhelming number, the Gacaca justice system was implemented in 2001 in which communities elected judges to oversee the trials of all suspects except accused rapists and those accused of planning the genocide.  There was a great deal of controversy about the Gacaca courts, such as judges accused of being perpetrators, and on June 18, 2012, the system was officially closed.

The United Nations established an International War Crimes Tribunal in November 1994 to try the leaders of the genocide, at which the former prime minister of Rwanda confessed to genocide and conspiracy to commit it.  Thus far, 95 people have been indicted of which about half have been convicted.  The Tribunal is scheduled to close by the end of 2014, the year which marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide. 

Recommended Resources

Françoise Rudahunga Rwandan Survivor  
Binyenzi Schadrac Rwandan Survivor  
Alexandre Kimenyi Professor, California State University, Sacramento  
Joseph Mutaboba Permanent Representative of Rwanda to the United Nations  

View Larger Map