By Beatrice Maria Zanella
When we hear “Tutsi” or “Hutu”, our thoughts return to the year 1972, when the Hutu slaughter of 80,000 to 200,000 victims took place, and overwhelmingly to the year 1994, when the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide shocked the world. However, the Hutu-Tutsi conflict has roots that reach back far beyond this.
In pre-colonial times these two groups were able to live in relative harmony in an area split between modern-day Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. Although the Tutsis were the minority, they traditionally belonged to the wealthier ruling class. During Colonial times (first came the Germans, then the Belgians), the Tutsis were treated with far more respect than the Hutus and allowed to keep their higher social status. In the 1950s, as Belgian interests changed, they began to support the Hutus as means of overthrowing the 500 year old Tutsi monarchy. Whereas in Rwanda the Tutsi were therefore overthrown, in Burundi, after an apparently peaceful change, the Hutus were defeated.
The aftermath of colonialism therefore saw two bordering countries governed by two different groups; the Hutus in Rwanda and the Tutsis in Burundi. Hutu power in Rwanda came to an end in 1994 after the tragic and bloody genocide of the Tutsis, but in Burundi the Tutsis still today hold most positions of influence.
Today, Hutus and Tutsis are spread between Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, currently the most conflict-ridden area. New generations are told not to accept the labels of “Tutsi” and “Hutu”. But tragic incidents still take place, such as a recent story of a Hutu policemen who told schoolchildren to divide themselves based ethnicity. After their refusal, all of them were shot. It will take a long time before perpetrators of genocide and survivors are able to coexist in peace.
How can Tutsis and Hutus be differentiated? Not so easily any more as the Rwandan government has eliminated ethnic designations on identity cards. National census on ethnicity is not carried out anymore: the question “What are you?” will elicit the answer “Rwandan” most of the time. But the memories of such a horrific event are not yet forgotten and it will take a long time for the dust to settle completely.
It is frequently highlighted how difficult it is to teach history in a neutral way. Often only the sufferings of the Tutsis are mentioned, as if they were the only victims of the genocide. Hutus are portrayed simplistically as perpetrators and slaughterers, and it is still often not acknowledged that many thousands of Hutus were also killed. For schools in Rwanda, the place where the next generation of Rwandans are shaped, this is not an easy topic to navigate. Positive steps towards a reconciliation have been taken in Rwanda by the current president P. Kagame, and many citizens plan to flee to neighbouring countries in 2017, when he plans to step down.
Given the relatively recent brutality and senseless violence of the 1994 genocide, perhaps we can look at the development progress and relative stability enjoyed by Rwandans today as something of a success story. Yet there are many steps towards a complete peaceful resolution still to come, a path which hopefully will continue to be taken over the coming years.