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Rwandan Rebels Offer Cease-Fire, But Land, Ethnic Issues Simmer

ONE of Africa's smallest countries, Rwanda has seen some of the continent's biggest massacres of the past 31 years. Now the killing has begun anew, sparked by the same divisive issues of the past: scarcity of land and ethnic hatred. The latest round of violence began Oct. 1, when well-armed Rwandan refugees living in Uganda invaded Rwanda in an attempt to overthrow the government. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said the rebels, mainly Rwandan refugees from the minority Tutsi tribe, have told him that they would agree to an immediate cease-fire.

Maj. Gen. Juv'enal Habyarimana, Rwanda's president, on Monday ruled out peace talks with rebels until a cease-fire was firmly in place. But settlement of the land and ethnic issues is likely to take years.

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Rwanda is a tiny, landlocked country about the size of West Virginia, but with some 8 million people, making it one of the most crowded countries in the world. Both the cities and the mountainous rural areas are packed. A desperate search for farmland has forced farmers to cultivate right up the sides of mountains and steep hills. ``The land is saturated,'' says Ren'e LeMarchand, a professor at the University of Florida.

Now thousands of Rwandan rebels, many of them refugees who were serving as mercenaries in Uganda's military, want to gain power and give the estimated 250,000 to 1 million Rwandan refugees the right to go home. But ``there's simply no room for a massive influx of refugees into the country,'' says Mr. LeMarchand, a Rwanda expert.

Longstanding ethnic hatred has also divided the country. Most of the rebels are Tutsi. They comprise only 10 to 15 percent of Rwanda's population, but ruled the country as a kingdom from the 16th century until 1959. That year, the Hutu, comprising about 85 to 90 percent of the population, overthrew their feudal masters, massacring many Tutsi.

The Hutu formed a government and have ruled since then. In 1973, General Habyarimana, a northern Hutu and then minister of defense, seized power from the first Hutu president. From time to time, there have been further flare-ups between the Hutu majority and the tall Tutsi minority, resulting in more massacres. Tutsi are resented by many Hutu as an educated elite who are often successful in business. According to critics of the Rwandan government, Tutsi are blocked from high-level civil service or Army posts.

As a result of the massacres, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi fled. Many today live in countries around Rwanda, including Zaire, Tanzania, and Uganda. Some became mercenaries, working for Zaire's government, and assisting Ugandan President Museveni's successful guerrilla movement in the mid-1980s. Having worked their way up to key positions in the Ugandan military, the Rwandan mercenaries had access to large amounts of weapons, which they took with them to invade Rwanda.

``People were complaining about them [the Rwandan mercenaries] and their mistreatment of Ugandans,'' says a Ugandan official in Kampala, Uganda's capital. Museveni denies complicity in the rebel invasion of Rwanda.

A Rwandan rebel supporter contacted by phone in Uganda told the Monitor: ``We want to return and stop the injustice.... The government has been so exploitive.... There's no free elections.... Social services are not available to all.... People can't get employment or education.''

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The Tutsi rebels claim to have Hutu fighting with them. It is unclear to what extent this is true, but it does appear that many Hutu are strongly critical of the Hutu government. They claim it favors only Hutu from the president's home area in the north. A Western diplomat who has lived in Rwanda agrees that Habyarimana favors his own clan. A well-educated Hutu interviewed in Nairobi agrees: The government stays in power through an ``efficient system of repression.... There's a lot of discontent in the country among Hutu.''

Jean Paul Harroy, a scholar at the University of Brussels, says Habyarimana's government is ``good - and serious about development.'' Rwanda acts no differently from most governments in favoring the president's clan, he says. Rwanda's real problem, he adds, is declining world prices for coffee, the main cash crop. As for the population crisis, Mr. Harroy says the United Nations and other donors could help relocate many Rwandans to less-populated regions, such as parts of Zaire.

In their invasion, Tutsi rebels counted on discontent to bring many Rwandan Hutu to their side. This has not happened. Instead, both Hutu and Tutsi civilians have fled to Uganda and Kigali, Rwanda's capital.

In Nairobi, Rwandan Ambassador Cyprien Habimana denied reports that Rwandan troops had massacred civilians. All civilians - ``every one'' of them - had fled the area by Oct. 2, one day after the rebel invasion, he told reporters. But an international development official told the Monitor that his organization was working in that area up to mid-October and had seen Rwandan civilians. Away from battle zones, other massacres of Hutu civilians have been reported. Mr. Habimana says his government wants European nations to set up a peacekeeping force once a cease-fire is arranged. And just prior to the outbreak of war, he says, his government began moving toward multiparty elections.

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