The politics of the Great Lakes region - comprising Burundi, eastern Congo, and Rwanda, as well as areas of western Tanzania and south-western Uganda - are shaped in crucial respects by forced migration. Before independence, at least 500,000 Rwandans and Burundians moved to neighbouring countries for economic or political reasons. The independent Republic of Rwanda was born in a refugee crisis in 1962, and every subsequent political crisis (1973, 1990, 1994, 1996, and 1997-8) has resulted in large-scale displacement. Burundians fled their country in large numbers in 1972, 1988, and 1993-2001, eventually forming one of Africa's largest groups of refugees. The wars in Kivu in eastern Congo since 1993 have resulted in one of the world's worst situations of internal displacement. In addition, the long-term presence of Rwandan and Burundian refugees has had a decisive effect on the domestic politics of the main host states, Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, and of course Rwanda and Burundi themselves, which have both hosted large numbers of refugees from each other.
The Great Lakes region comprises the mountainous 'interlacustrine' areas that include Rwanda, Burundi, the Kivu region of Congo, and south-western Uganda. Land is used intensively throughout the Great Lakes region, and it supports both agriculture (particularly bananas, sorghum, and millet) and animal keeping (mostly cows and goats). Protected parks are virtually the only land that is not used by humans. This is due to the region's population density, the highest in Africa. Population pressures have in fact frequently been assumed as a 'cause' of violence, particularly for Rwanda. This factor has probably been exaggerated. Rwanda has about the same population density (about 325 people per square kilometre) as the Philippines or Israel, and less than that of Bangladesh. But Rwanda's and Burundi's geography does shape patterns of forced migration, because in a crisis there is hardly anywhere to hide. There is very little 'bush' or uninhabited land. This is one of the reasons why the killing during the genocide was so efficient. The only real option open to an asylum-seeker is to cross a border to a neighbouring country.
The terrain is punctuated by hills and valleys, and most rural people prefer to live close to their fields rather than in village communities. The term 'hill' (umusozi) is as much social as geographical. In a region without natural 'villages', the hill is the first layer of belonging and identity, as well as being the most basic unit of government. Inherited rights to land are usually tied to the hill of one's ancestors. Internal mobility for rural people is therefore risky and expensive in material terms. Added to this are the difficulties inherent in becoming a 'stranger' on another hill, without kinship ties and other forms of protection. This is why both the perpetrators and the victims of the Rwandan genocide had to return to live together afterwards. This daily cohabitation of survivor and killer seems to be unique in the history of genocide. The ensuing emotional atmosphere of fear, guilt, anger, and remembrance is one of the most important factors in post-genocide Rwandan politics, and it is a situation which no other country or people has ever had to confront on such a scale.
- Gacaca: Living Together Again in Rwanda? http://www.frif.com/new2002/gac.html
Nearly every introductory source on Rwanda and Burundi begins by remarking that their society 'is composed of Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa'. Percentages are then given: 85 per cent Hutu, 13 per cent Tutsi, and 2 per cent Twa - figures which have remained unchanged since the first Belgian census in the 1920s. This deceptively precise accounting is misleading. These labels are variously described as tribes, ethnicities, castes, races, communities, or simply groups. None of the first four is remotely satisfactory, and the latter two are just hand-waving. These social concepts are indeed crucial for understanding the violent history of the Great Lakes region, but they have been 'fetishized' to the exclusion of other politically relevant social categories, such as regional origin and clan membership. There is also a tendency to reify the concepts, and fail to take stock of how their meanings have changed over time.
The Rwandan court had been contacted by various Arab traders operating on its periphery, but they were never allowed to enter the kingdom and there were no slave raids. Both Speke and later Stanley had been repulsed, 'by arrows'. The death of the long-serving and politically astute Mwami Kigeli Rwabugiri in the 1800s - primarily responsible for forging the modern Rwandan polity through thirty-five years of military campaigns - caused a violent struggle for power amongst the leading families. The Germans successfully exploited the confusion to establish control. Richard Kandt, who become the first German colonial governor in 1898 left a chatty memoir (Kandt 1904), which manages by accident to record the important observation that Hutu were already 'complaining' of mistreatment by Tutsi attached to the court. According to Vansina (2001), this tension seems to have emerged in the course of the later half of the nineteenth century as a result of the generalized suffering that Rwabugiri's constant war-mongering imposed on the population, especially in northern Rwanda. Hutu peasants bore the brunt of it, having their crops destroyed and their relatives killed at regular intervals.
Germany, bogged down along the Kenya-Tanganyika border, failed to defend Ruanda-Urundi during the Great War. Congolese troops under Belgian command seized the territory without a fight in 1916. They didn't really want to keep it. Belgian ministers had concocted a complicated scheme that they attempted to push through during the Versailles negotiations after the war. The plan was to offer Rwanda to Britain in exchange for British pressure on ailing Portugal to cede to the Belgian Congo the south bank of the Congo River from Angola. Britain was assumed to be coveting Rwanda because the proposed Cape-to-Cairo railway would have necessarily had to pass through the Rwanda's eastern grasslands. But Portugal's pride wouldn't bend; Britain had anyhow begun to doubt the feasibility of the railroad; nobody really took the Belgians seriously. And so, by mistake, Rwanda and Burundi were stuck with Belgium (for details of this diplomatic history, see Louis 1963). In 1923, Belgium formally received Ruanda-Urundi as a Trust Territory of the League of Nations, later of the United Nations. It was never, technically, a colony.
But once the inevitable was accepted, Belgium threw itself into its 'civilizing mission' with gusto. The structural and institutional reforms undertaken during this period of Rwandan history, from about 1923-39, were to sow the seeds for much of the post-independence violence. Three elements should be stressed: fixation on Tutsi/Hutu, in education, civil service, clergy, and ID cards; the role of the Catholic Church; and the Mission d' Immigration de Banyarwanda (MIB). But it should always be born in mind that these seeds were sown in a context of a history extraordinarily violent political conflict, with all the forms of barbarism that are known from recent events. Fear, treachery, and the total annihilation of opposing groups are ever-present elements in the numerous dynastic chronicles, poems, and oral histories that have been recorded.