Revisiting the Rwandan Genocide: Hutu or Tutsi?

If you’ve never been to Rwanda, the only thing you might know about the country is that there are two main ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. That’s really what the country boils down to, right? The Tutsis were the victims of genocide, and the Hutus were the perpetrators. So you get off the plane and immediately start trying to figure out who is who.

Am I talking to someone who lost his family, or someone who wiped one out? Tutsis are tall and thin (you’ve read that somewhere), except when they aren’t. Hutus have broad noses (someone told you that), except when they have narrow noses. The real giveaway, however, is that traditionally Tutsis are herders, and Hutus are farmers, except for the Tutsis who grow crops and the Hutus who keep cattle. And then there are the ones who live in the city and do neither.

In fact, they speak the same language, Kinyarwanda, eat the same food, go to the same schools, root for the same football teams, and in many cases, marry and raise children together.

It’s so difficult to tell them apart that even the Tutsis and Hutus can struggle. There is a famous story that Hutu militiamen attacked a group of school children and ordered them to divide themselves by ethnicity—Hutus on one side, Tutsis on the other. The children refused. So the militia killed them all.

One of the first things the post-genocide government did was to eliminate the ethnic designation on national identity cards, which were manipulated by the Belgians after World War I to divide the population and keep it subjugated.  And the national census no longer tracks ethnicity, so at least officially, no one knows how many of one or the other there are. The government has implemented a campaign encouraging people to discard these labels on their own, and it’s widely considered impolite to ask someone about their ethnic background. We are all one nation is the idea. If you ask one of these people what are you, he or she is likely to answer Rwandan.

David Guttenfelder and National Geographic staff writer Peter Gwin are currently in Kigali documenting the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide for National Geographic. This week, they share their words and images from Proof. Guttenfelder is posting these and other iPhone photographs in real time on Instagram at @dguttenfelder and @natgeo.

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