There had always been animosity between the majority Hutu people and the minority Tutsis, although the two ethnic groups are very similar - they speak the same language, inhabit the same area and follow the same traditions. However, Belgian colonists preferred to see them as two groups with distinct identities and issued identity cards which classified people according to their ethnicity.
During the colonial period the Tutsis were were treated as superior by the Belgians. Resentment grew among the Hutus and, during a series of riots in 1959, more than 20,000 Tutsis were killed and many fled to neighbouring countries, including Uganda.
In 1962, Rwanda gained independence and the Hutus took control of the country. The Hutu government used the Tutsis as scapegoats for the country's problems. As the economic situation worsened in the early 1990s, the President's popularity began to decline. Meanwhile, in Uganda, Tutsi refugees, with support from moderate Hutus, formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The RPF wanted to overthrow Habyarimana and return home. Habyarimana exploited the threat. Tutsis living in Rwanda were accused of collaborating with the RPF. Following several conflicts and months of peace negotiations, an agreement was signed by Habyarimana.
It is not known whether the President intended to stick to the agreement, but it is thought likely that extremist Hutus, unwilling to give any concessions to the RPF, were responsible for shooting his plane down. This action was followed by the murder of the Rwandan prime minister and other moderate Hutus.
A wave of killing by the national army and those who supported the aim of extremist Hutu politicians began throughout the country with the aim of wiping out the Tutsis and anyone who protected them. Soldiers killed with bullets and grenades, while those civilians who joined in used machetes.
The killing was brought to an end in July 1994, when the RPF captured Kigali, Rwanda's capital city. Today, women who were raped during the genocide and deliberately infected with HIV continue to die.