18 Sep 2019

Text: Corinna/ Translation: Miriam & Daniel

# Burundi: A history of violence between Hutu and Tutsi

The Hutu and Tutsi population in Burundi have a collective bloody history which can be briefly summarised as follows: in 1965, the Hutu kill the Tutsi; in 1966 and 1969, the Tutsi kill the Hutu; additionally, the Tutsi kill each other between 1966 and 1972; in 1972, the Hutu kill the Tutsi again, a little while later it goes the other way around; in 1988, the Tutsi kill the Hutu again; and in 1993, both groups are killing each other. In this turbulent history, especially the 1972 massacre that cost the lives of between 150,000 to 300,000 people sticks out.

BurundiPhoto: Christine Vaufrey/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

# Context

Burundi is a fairly small, poor and overpopulated state in Central Africa. The population is made up of approximately 84% Hutu, 15% Tutsi and 1% Twa. The Hutu and Tutsi tribes have the same ethnicity, speak the same language and share their culture, as well as their religion. Yet there is tension between the two tribes that can be traced back to the colonial rule of the German Empire (1896-1916) and Belgium (1916-1962).[1]

The Germans began classifying the inhabitants of their colonies. All Africans that looked ‘European’ to them, were viewed as descendants of the Biblical figure Ham (son of Noah) and were therefore considered more intelligent and skilful. After the First World War, Belgium took over as the colonial ruler. They decided that the Tutsi were the ‘European race’ and gave them official posts and positions, while prohibiting the Hutu from receiving higher education. After that, the Hutu and Tutsi were issued passports stating which one of the two groups they belonged to. One of the classifying factors was the size of their nose: the Tutsis’ noses were 55.8 mm long and 38.7 mm wide, whereas the Hutus’ noses were only 52.4 mm long but 43.2 mm wide. Consequently, 84% of the population were classified as Hutu, 15% as Tutsi and 1% Twa.[2]

BurundiPhoto: Christine Vaufrey/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

# Hutu rebellion 1965

On the 19th October 1965, a rebellion of the Hutu police and army started the aim of which was to overthrow the Tutsi regime. The insurgents attacked the royal palace and started a wave of ethnic violence. Hutu groups began to kill innocent Tutsi civilians, King Mwambutsa fled to Switzerland and hundreds of people were killed. By way of an answer, the Tutsi government arrested 38 Hutu officials and 10 politicians who were all shot. 86 more death sentences against Hutu rebels were imposed by various military courts.[3]

# Mass violence of 1966 and 1969

In 1966, Burundi became independent and brought an end to their constitutional monarchy. The king’s successor, Ntare V., fled to Europe and the Tutsi gained full control over Burundi’s government and the army; the Hutus were not allowed any access to civil services.

When rumours about a new Hutu rebellion started in September 1969, the Tutsi government executed numerous well-known Hutus to ensure that there wouldn’t be a charismatic leader for any potential rebellion. Simultaneously, an inter-ethnic conflict between the Banyaruguru-Tutsi and the Hima-Tutsi which nearly left the country in anarchy had been smouldering since 1966.[4]

# 1972 – Two Genocides

In 1972, there was an outbreak of months of brutal and excessive mass killings. It isn’t easy to name the perpetrators, as there were actually two genocides happening.

The oppression and discrimination of the Hutu lead to another riot on the 29th April 1972. The rioters gained control over the West Burundian city of Rumonge and ordered the Hutu of the region to kill every Tutsi. Those who refused, would be murdered themselves. Approximately 1,000 Tutsi civilians, officials and soldiers were killed during the following days. Within a very short time, the rebels gained control over a strip of land from Rumonge to Nyanza Lac along Lake Tanganyika which they declared to be the Independent Republic of Martyazo.[5]

RuandaPhoto: configmanager/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

After only a few days, the government managed to stop the Hutu rebellion. Tutsi president Michel Micombero ordered for king Ntare V., who had just returned from his exile, to be murdered, and the Burundian Foreign Secretary Artémon Simbabaniy granted the extremist youth movement ‘Jeunesses Révolutionnaieres Rwagasore’ (JRR) permission to kill. On the same day, all Hutu members of the JRR were brutally killed and death lists were issued. All police and army commanders were ordered to kill their Hutu inferiors. More than 300 police officers and 750 soldiers were killed that day. Next, they targeted priests, state officials, teachers, professors and students. Even primary school pupils were not spared. Thousands of Hutu were killed.[6]

’12 Hutu priests are said to have been killed, and thousands of Protestant pastors, school directors and teacher.’ [7]

Tutsi students made lists of their Hutu classmates and abused them. Quite often, the victims were beaten to death by their former friends. Members of the army or the JRR came to the classrooms to collect all Hutu pupils – who then never returned. Those who defended themselves or refused to take part in the violence were murdered too.[8]

‘The Tutsi girls were given bamboos. They were made to kill by pushing the bamboo from below [from the vagina] to the mouth. It is a thing against the law of God.’ [9]

All well-educated Hutu were to be systematically eradicated to ensure the power of the Tutsi. It seemed the only logical consequence to ensure their own survival. And their plan worked. At the end of August, between 150.000 to 300,000 had been killed and countless people had been forced to flee the country. All well-educated Hutu of Burundi were dead, ensuring peace for the country for about 16 years.[10] All official government, administration, army and economy posts were given to Tutsi.[11]

‘If you are a student, that‘s a reason for killing you; if you‘re rich, that‘s a reason; if you are a man who dares to say a valid word to the population, that‘s a reason for killing you. In short, it is a racial hate.’ [12]

To this day, the country has not made an attempt to process the atrocities that happened in 1972. It has rather been erased from Burundi’s collective memory.[13]

BurundiPhoto: Dave Proffer/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

# International Community

The international community showed nothing but political disinterest for Burundi’s case. Not even the media were interested to raise awareness of the genocide. In their eyes, the situation was the consequence of the government’s attempt to restore law and order after ending a bloody rebellion. They seem to have ignored the fact that the response to the rebellion was far too brutal and excessive, even though the USA clearly knew about the situation in Burundi.[14]

‘No respite, no letup. What apparently is genocide continues. Arrests going on around the clock […] The liquidation of Hutu goes on apace. Catholic missionaries are increasingly disgusted. Stories which can only be called sickening reach us every day; many Hutu are being buried while still alive […]. The most normal means of execution have been sledgehammers. […] The death toll is in the thousands.’ [15]

– Michael Hoyt, former deputy ambassador of the United States of America in Burundi

# New outbreaks of violence 1989 & 1993

In 1988, new outbreaks of violence happened between the groups in the regions of Ntega and Marangara, where rumours of the Tutsi planning a new attack on the Hutu were widely spread. To pre-empt their ostensible plan, Hutu rebels killed hundreds of Tutsi civilians. Consequently, the military got involved and carried out a Hutu bloodbath. An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 were killed and over 40,000 fled the country. This time, however, the international community were outraged and reacted with political pressure and sanctions.

The first democratic elections were held in the course of the 1993 reforms. The Hutu party Hutu Front des Démocrats du Burundi won the election and there was a Hutu president for the first time. Consequently, the Tutsi felt like they were losing control over their livelihood. Tutsi extremists thought that the Hutu rule posed a risk and killed Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye on the 21st October 1993.

The Hutus’ violent response followed promptly and the incident turned into a orgy of violence. Approximately 25,000 Tutsi were killed by Hutu militants as well as by friends and neighbours. The army’s reaction was just as violent.[16] The following civil war lasted until 2005 and cost up to 300,000 lives.


# Lemarchand, R. (2009) „The Burundi Genocide“ in Century of Genocide, 3. Edition, pp. 406 – 427. Taylor and Francis, Inc. Available at: https://tandfbis.s3.amazonaws.com/rt-media/pdf/9780415871921/chapter10_theburundi_genocide.pdf (last accessed 18.09.19)

# Lemarchand, R. (2008) „The Burundi Killings of 1972“ in Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, pp. 1 – 11. Available at: http://migs.concordia.ca/documents/The-Burundi-Killings-of-1972Lemarchand.pdf  (last accessed 18.09.19)

# Neuffer, E. (2003) The Key to my neighbour’s house – Seeking justice in Bosnia and Rwanda. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

# www.combatgenocide.org „Burundi 1972“. Available at: http://combatgenocide.org/?page_id=893 (last accessed 18.09.19)

1 Lemarchand, R. (2008) p. 2
2 Neuffer, E. (2003) p. 88-89
3 Lemarchand, R. (2008) p. 3
4 Lemarchand, R. (2008) S. 3
5 www.genocidewatch.org
6 Genocidewatch.org
7 Lemarchand, R. (2009) p. 413
8 Lemarchand, R. (2009) p. 413
9 Lemarchand, R. (2009) p. 422
10 Lemarchand, R. (2009) p. 414
11 Lemarchand, R. (2009) p. 407
12 Lemarchand, R. (2009) p. 423
13 Lemarchand, R. (2009) p. 406
14 Lemarchand, R. (2009) p. 415
15 Lemarchand, R. (2008) p. 7
16 Lemarchand, R. (2009) pp. 417-418

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