Rwanda - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Rwanda: the Bradt Travel Guide

Rwanda’s genocide and the aftermath

The genocide

It had been well planned, over a long period. Roadblocks were quickly erected and the army and interahamwe went into action, on a rampage of death, torture, looting and destruction. Tutsis and moderate Hutus were targeted. Weapons of every sort were used, from slick, military arms to rustic machetes. Orders were passed briskly downward from préfecture to commune to secteur to cellule – and the gist of every order was: ‘These are the enemy. Kill.’

A painfully detailed account, which includes many eyewitness testimonies and brings home the full horror of the slaughter, is given in the 1,200 pages of Rwanda – Death, Despair and Defiance (African Rights, London, 1995). In A People Betrayed, L R Melvern analyses the political and international background (Zed Books, London & New York, 2000), as does Gérard Prunier in The Rwanda Crisis. A condensed overview of events is given below.

In three months, up to a million people were killed, violently and cruelly. Barely a family was untouched. The international media suddenly found Rwanda newsworthy. Chilling images filled our TV screens and the scale of the massacre was too great for many of us to grasp. Amid the immensity came tiny tales of heroism: of villagers who flatly disobeyed the order to kill or who actively protected their Tutsi neighbours, at great (often fatal) risk to their own lives. But these glimpses of humanity were engulfed and lost in the great, surging tide of slaughter that spread across the country.

On 8 April, just two days after the plane crash, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) launched a major offensive to end the genocide. As they advanced from Uganda, they rescued and liberated Tutsis still hiding in terror from the killers. Meanwhile, however, a new Hutu government, based on the MRND and supporting parties, was formed in Kigali and later shifted to Gitarama.

The United Nations’ UNAMIR force was around 2,500 strong at the time. They watched helplessly, technically unable to intervene as this would breach their ‘monitoring’ mandate. After the murder of ten Belgian soldiers the force was cut to 250. On 30 April the UN Security Council spent eight hours discussing the Rwandan crisis – without ever using the word ‘genocide’. Had this term been used, they would have been legally obliged to ‘prevent and punish’ the perpetrators. Meanwhile tens of thousands of refugees were fleeing the country.

In May the UN agreed to send 6,800 troops and police to Rwanda to defend civilians, but implementation was delayed by arguments over who would cover costs and provide equipment. The RPF army had taken control of Kigali airport and Kanombe barracks and was gaining ground elsewhere. In June, France announced that it would deploy 2,500 peacekeeping troops to Rwanda (Opération Turquoise) until the UN force arrived. These created a controversial ‘safe zone’ in the southwest.

On 4 July the RPF captured Kigali and set up an interim government. The remnants of the Hutu government fled to Zaire, followed by a further tide of refugees. The RPF continued its advance westward and northward. Many thousands of refugees streamed into the French ‘safe zone’ and still more headed towards Zaire, cramming into makeshift camps on the inhospitable terrain around Goma. The humanitarian crisis was acute, later to be exacerbated by disease and a cholera outbreak which claimed tens of thousands of lives.

On 18 July 1994, the RPF announced that the war had been won, declared a ceasefire, established a broad-based Government of National Unity and named Pasteur Bizimungu as president. Faustin Twagiramungu was appointed prime minister. The following day, the new president and prime minister were sworn in, and RPF commander Major General Paul Kagame was appointed defence minister and vice president. By the end of July, the UN Security Council had reached a final agreement about sending an international force to Rwanda.

By the end of August Opération Turquoise was terminated and UN forces had replaced the French. Internationally, it had now been accepted that a ‘genocide’ had indeed taken place – and it was over. At sites of the worst massacres, memorials now commemorate the dead and remind the world that such an atrocity must never, never be allowed to occur again.

Natural history

Giraffe Akagera National Park by Willem Tims ShutterstockA giraffe in Akagera National Park © Willem Tims, Shutterstock


In prehistoric times, as much as a third of what is now Rwanda was covered in montane rainforest, with the remainder of the highlands supporting open grassland. Since the advent of Iron-Age technology and agriculture some 2,000 years ago, much of Rwanda’s natural vegetation has been replaced by agriculture, a process that has accelerated dramatically in the last 100 years. The only large stand of forest left in Rwanda today is Nyungwe, in the southwest, though several other small relic forest patches are dotted around the country, notably Gishwati and Mukura Forests. Patches of true forest still occur on the Virungas, though most of the natural vegetation on this range consists of bamboo forest and open moorland.


Rwanda naturally supports a widely varied fauna, but the rapid human population growth in recent decades, with its by-products of habitat loss and poaching, has resulted in the extirpation of most large mammal species outside of a few designated conservation areas. Rwanda today has three national parks - Volcanoes, Akagera and Nyungwe - along with a few smaller forest reserves (of which Gishwati is earmarked for future national park status). Each of the three established national parks protects a very different ecosystem and combination of large mammals. Broadly speaking, however, Akagera supports a typical savannah fauna dominated by a variety of antelope, other grazers such as zebra, buffalo and giraffe, the aquatic hippopotamus, and plains predators such as lion, leopard and spotted hyena.

Nyungwe and Volcanoes national parks probably supported a similar range of large mammals 500 years ago. Today, however, their faunas differ greatly, mostly as a result of extensive deforestation on the lower slopes of the Virungas. The volcanoes today support bamboo specialists such as golden monkey and mountain gorilla, as well as relict populations of habitat-tolerant species such as buffalo and elephant. The latter two species are extinct in Nyungwe (buffalo were hunted out 25 years ago, while no elephant spoor has been detected since the last known carcass was found in late 1999), but this vast forest still supports one of Africa’s richest varieties of forest specialists, ranging from 13 types of primate to golden cat, duiker and giant forest hog.

Despite the retreat of most large mammals into reserves, Rwanda remains a rewarding destination for game viewing: the Volcanoes Park is the best place in the world to track mountain gorillas, while Nyungwe offers visitors a good chance of seeing chimpanzees and 400-strong troops of Angola colobus monkeys – the largest arboreal primate troops in Africa today.

Rwanda is a wonderful destination for birdwatchers, with an incredible 700 species recorded in an area smaller than Belgium and half the size of Scotland. Prime birdwatching destinations include Nyungwe (310 species including numerous forest rarities and 27 Albertine Rift endemics) and Akagera (480 species of savannah bird, raptor and water bird). Almost anywhere in the country can, however, prove rewarding to birders: an hour in the garden of one of the capital’s larger hotels is likely to throw up a variety of colourful robin-chats, weavers, finches, flycatchers and sunbirds.

People and culture

Women weaving in Muhanga by Ariadne Van Zandbergen Africa Image LibraryWeaving is a popular handicraft in Rwanda © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

Rwanda today probably contains inhabitants raised in a greater number of countries than most other African nations, as long-term exiles returned after the genocide from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Europe, the USA and more. But of course Rwanda is their origin and their home.

Following the disruptive ethnic clashes of the post-colonial years, which culminated in the 1994 genocide, the currently accepted line is to stress Rwandan unity: the fact that before the arrival of the colonisers Rwandans were living together on the same hills, speaking the same language and practising the same culture.

In fact, matters may not be quite so clear-cut and the insistence on ‘same-ness’ should not be carried to the extent of concealing historical individuality. But there’s no doubt that the people of Rwanda in general are committed to overcoming any awkward or damaging differences. One genocide survivor wrote: ‘Before the genocide, Hutus and Tutsis lived together. I remember we used to play with Hutu children and share everything. There were even intermarriages. The only time when we felt discriminated against was when a place at school, or a job, was given to a Hutu, even if there was a Tutsi more qualified for it. But this was no reason for hatred between the two groups.’

Of course individual attitudes may vary from place to place and person to person. Inevitably differences persist in some areas; sadly these have led to a few instances of bullying in schools, which are being firmly tackled. However, the energetic – and courageous – efforts at reconciliation and peaceful coexistence are visible nationwide, extending from the top down to rural groups and individuals.


A written language was not introduced until the Europeans arrived in Rwanda at the end of the 19th century, so there is no great tradition of written literature. However, there is a wealth of oral literature in the form of myths, folk stories, legends, poetry and proverbs. These have passed on not only stories but also moral values and historical traditions from generation to generation. Before (and to some extent after) the arrival of the Europeans, the Mwami’s court was a centre for training young nobles in various art forms, particularly the composition and performance of songs and poems dedicated to valour in warfare and the magnificence of their cattle.

The historian Alexis Kagame wrote extensively about oral poetry and recorded many poems in both Kinyarwanda and French. A display in the National Museum of Rwanda in Huye/Butare gives an idea of the intricacy of some poetic structures.


Music is of great importance to all Rwandans, with variations of style and subject among the three groups. Traditionally, Tutsi songs praised excellence and valour; Hutu songs were lighter, sometimes humorous and linked to social occasions; Twa songs related more directly to aspects of their original occupation, hunting. During the time of the monarchy, the court was dominated musically by the royal drummers, and drumming is still of great artistic importance.

A full drum ensemble typically consists of either seven or nine drums. The smallest of these, sometimes called the soprano, which is often (but not invariably) played by the director of the orchestra, sets the rhythm for each tune and is backed up by some or all of the following drums: a tenor, a harmonist alto, two baritones, two bass and two double bass. The other widely used musical instrument is the lulunga, an eight-stringed instrument somewhat resembling a harp. It is most often played solo, perhaps as the background to singing or dancing, but may also be used to provide a melodic interlude and/or as a counterpoint to drums.


Dance is as instinctive as music in Rwanda and its roots stretch back through the centuries. As with music, there are variations of style and subject among the three groups. Best known today are the Intore dancers, who perform both nationally and internationally. At the time of the monarchy and for centuries before colonisation, the Intore dancers at the royal court were selected young men who had received a privileged education and choreographic training in order to entertain their masters and to perform at special functions. The name intore means ‘best’, signifying that only the best of them were chosen for this honour.

Traditionally their performances consisted mainly of warlike dances, such as the ikuma (lance), umeheto (bow) and ingabo (shield), in which they carried authentic weapons. In the 20th century dummy weapons were substituted, the dances were given more peaceful names and rhythm and movement (rather than warfare) became their main feature. The Intore dancers were divided into two groups. The first group, the indashyikirwa or ‘unsurpassables’, were all Tutsi. The second, the ishyaka or ‘those who challenge by effort’, were Twa led by a Tutsi.


As in other countries, most genuinely traditional handicrafts have a practical use or are decorated forms of everyday objects. An object which gives purely visual pleasure and is unrelated to any function has probably evolved for the tourist market – although it is none the worse for that. In Rwanda the weaving (of bowls, mats, baskets, storage containers, etc) from various natural fibres is particularly fine. The quality of wood-carving is variable, but at best it’s excellent. Pottery made by the Twa community is plain but strong and its uncluttered style is attractive.

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