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In 1994, the plane carrying the Hutu president of Rwanda was shot out of the sky. In response, extremist Hutus began a wave of killings targeted against the nation’s Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus. Over half a million people were killed. The roots of this violent conflict lie deep in Rwanda’s history. Despite a common language and religion, and some intermarriage, a Tutsi king and aristocracy had long dominated the Hutu majority. This system was exploited by German and later Belgian colonialists, who ruled through the Tutsi king and limited Hutus’ education and employment. The Belgians also used Tutsis as overseers to drive the forced labor of Hutus. In 1959, supported by the Catholic Church, a Hutu-initiated rebellion overthrew the government, unseated the king, and won independence for Rwanda.

The revolt completely reversed the power balance in the country. Now, it was the Tutsis, a minority of 15 percent, who faced discrimination and humiliation. By the late 1980s, however, Rwanda’s economy was collapsing and the policy of Hutu supremacy was under attack. The President began moving the country toward democracy as a condition of foreign aid, but a hardcore of Hutu supremacists resisted. After the president’s plane was shot down, these supremacists initiated the genocide. So contested was Rwanda’s past, that the teaching of history was halted. A group at the country’s only university proposed to write a new history, one that allowed Rwandans to face up to their past. Two seminars on Rwanda’s history have revealed that genuine reconciliation will depend on the resolution of some long-standing differences. The Hutus want democracy, and majority rule. The Tutsi minority wants justice for the genocide victims, and assurance that the Hutus will respect equal rights for Tutsis and will not resume the killings.