GISENYI, RWANDA — According to Western popular culture - based largely on movies like Tarzan and King Solomon's Mines, for example - an "African tribe" is an antlike group of people with fixed ideas and customs and a chief whose word is law.
This thinking makes it easy to misunderstand the fighting now convulsing Central Africa. It holds that age-old hatreds and rivalries caused Hutus to murder up to 1 million minority Tutsis and Hutu moderates, and that Hutus don't like Tutsis the way elephants don't like mice.
But the truth is different. Though they are referred to as ethnic groups, Hutus and Tutsis are more like social castes than tribes, and their rivalry has not always been so bloody.
To outsiders, politics in Africa's Great Lakes region may seem irrational, but the hatred and killing have their own political logic.
The region's present ratio of Hutus to Tutsis - about 85 percent to 13 percent in Burundi and Rwanda - dates back to the Middle Ages, when the Tutsis' cattle-herding ancestors migrated down from the north.
They entered into an almost-symbiotic relationship with the Hutu farmers who already inhabited the hilly region between Lakes Victoria, Tanganyika, and Kivu. Tutsis dominated the aristocracy.
French historian Gerard Prunier says there is no evidence of systematic violence between Hutus and Tutsis in precolonial times. But Tutsis were used by colonial powers Germany and later Belgium to rule Burundi and Rwanda. The Tutsis sometimes abused their powers to seize Hutu land. Hutu resentment spilled over into massacres in 1959, driving hundreds of thousands of Tutsis into exile and culminated in the genocide of 1994.
The genocide was fueled by colonial-era resentments and Belgian-inspired racial myths, but it was also deeply rooted in power politics. Squeezed by a declining economy, international calls for reform, and Tutsi exiles raiding from Uganda, the ruling Hutu clique deliberately played the racial card in a bid to get rid of its Tutsi rivals, most of whom were killed.
Instead, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels overran the country in three months and drove the genocidal government into exile with up to 2 million civilian refugees.
While international attention focused on Rwanda and Burundi, a related conflict was raging in neighboring Zaire's Kivu region. Earlier this month, unidentified rebels routed government forces from the provincial capitals of Bukavu and Goma, threatening to break up Zaire's fragile unity. The rebels are believed to be mainly Rwandan-speakers born in Zaire. Some are the children of recent exiles; others the descendants of Tutsis who settled in the area centuries ago.
In recent years, authorities in Kivu have tried to deny the "Banyarwanda," or Rwandan speakers, Zairean citizenship and called for the extermination of Tutsis who failed to "return" to Rwanda or Burundi. Zairean-born Hutus and exiled Rwandan Hutu militias have inflicted "ethnic cleansing" on local Tutsis and other groups such as the Hyunde. A recent report prepared for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that between 6,000 and 40,000 people have been massacred in north Kivu alone over the past two years. Much of the region's native Tutsi population has fled.
While the rebels claim to be a multiethnic coalition, most seem to be Zairean Tutsis, and they are believed to have drawn support from the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan government.