Most people agree that the first Rwandans were the forest-dwelling Twa, traditionally hunters and gatherers. However, there is disagreement over the origin of Rwanda's other main groups - the Hutu and Tutsi. Some say that the two groups have distinctly eparate ethnic histories, and that the Hutu, traditionally farmers, arrived in the 7th to 10th centuries, followed by the traditionally cattle-owning Tutsi around the 14th century. The Hutu and Tutsi, collectively known as Banyarwanda, speak the same language, Kinyarwanda, live together and share common social structures, customs and religious beliefs. Historically in Rwandan society, however, the Tutsi constituted an aristocratic minority of landowners and cattle raisers, while the Hutu formed a subordinate majority of subsistence farmers.

By the time Europeans arrived in the 1800s, Rwanda was ruled by a Tutsi king. The area was a German protectorate from 1899 to 1916, and later became part of the Belgian territory of Ruanda-Urundi. The Belgians divided the Banyarwanda by ethnic group. People who owned ten or more cows were registered as Batutsi, and those with fewer were registered as Bahutu. Both groups had to carry an identity card showing which "race" they belonged to. The colonists ruled through the Tutsi, who got the largest share of jobs, education and other privileges.

Later, attitudes to the two groups began to change. First, in the 1940s, the Belgians expelled a number of Tutsi for advocating independence. Then in 1959 the moderate King Kigari V died and was replaced by a king who favoured the Tutsi. Demanding equal rights, the Hutu majority rebelled, demanding equal rights and killing tens of thousands of Tutsi. In 1961, the Hutu, with Belgian support, won the elections and gained control of the government. They abolished the monarchy and declared Rwanda an independent republic.

Due to political instability between 1959 and 1964, more than half of Rwanda's Tutsi fled the country. Many settled in neighbouring nations and proceeded to build up an army, which eventually became the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Meanwhile in Rwanda, Major General Juvenal Habyarimana came to power in 1973 and established Rwanda as a one-party state. In 1990 the RPF invaded Rwanda from enighbouring nations, demanding political reform. Habyarimana revised the constitution to allow other parties into a new government, but fighting continued until the RPF and the government signed a peace accord in August 1993.

The uneasy peace was shattered on April 6th 1994 when Habyarimana and Buruni President Cyprien Ntaryamira were killed in a suspicious plane crash. Habyarimana's death unleashed a wave of violence by hard-line Hutu. In the next 100 days, over 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were systematically slaughtered. Eventually the RPF gained control and installed a government of national unity, headed by both Tutsi and moderate Hutu. By this time, more than 2 million Rwandans had crossed the borders to neighbouring countries, becoming refugees, and an additional one million were displaced within Rwanda. Many children were separated from their parents, and almost all Rwandans lost at least one close family member.

Today, there are about 130,000 people in prison waiting to be tried for their part in the genocide, and well over 300,000 children with no relatives to care for them. The government has reinstated moderate political parties and is rebuilding the country's economic and social systems.