Quite an exceptional trial is currently taking place before the Court of Appeal in Brussels, almost 24 years after the facts.
It is a civil appeal against the Belgian State and two of its military officers (then Col Marchal – deputy to Gen Roméo Dallaire, the commander of the UN Mission in Rwanda in 1994 – and the highest ranked Belgian officer in charge, and Col Dewez, who was the commander of Kibat, the Kigali Battalion) that begun on March 2, 2018.
They are accused of war crimes by failing to act.
This first day of the trial was devoted to the prosecution, where Mr Gillet, Mr Walleyn and Mr Lardinois recalled the historical context of the killings and the responsibility of the Belgian State in this massacre.
On April 11, 1994, the Belgian soldiers abandoned between 2,000 and 4,000 persons who had found refuge at the ETO Don Bosco School in Kigali – then the main cantonment of the Belgian UN troops.
The Belgian contingent formed the backbone of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) but was ordered to pull out of the country following the murder on April 7 of ten Belgian soldiers by government forces.
When peacekeepers tricked refugees
On April 9, the order was given to the head of the cantonment at ETO – called “Beverly Hills” – to prepare the evacuation of his troops, after having evacuated only the foreigners. On April 11, the official order was given to Belgian peacekeepers to regroup at the airport, a couple of kilometres from the school.
The Belgian officers were not unaware of the fate that awaited the helpless refugees they were leaving behind, as they were surrounded by the then Rwandan army (FAR) and Hutu extremist militias who were openly threatening the refugees from outside the school.
To evacuate the camp, the Belgian troops even had to trick the starving and desperate refugees by lying to them that there was food in the refectory only to take advantage of the moment to leave in a hurry. A few terrified refugees knelt in front of the vehicles and held on to the trucks, pleading with the peacekeepers to stay and save their lives.
Instead, the Belgian troops shot in the air and drove off in their jeeps. Shortly after the Belgian contingent left the cantonment, the school was attacked by the killers who forced the refugees out of the school and forced them to march to Nyanza (a few kilometres away) where they slaughtered them with machine guns, grenades and machetes.
Options that were never considered
In 2004, 10 years after the facts, Florida Ngulinzira, the widow of former Foreign affairs minister Boniface Ngulinzira, filed a complaint before the Civil Court in Belgium for the death of her husband.
As a high-profile public figure, a signatory of the 1993 Arusha Agreements and opponent to President Habyarimana, his life was clearly threatened after the shooting of the plane carrying the President and the beginning of the Genocide against the Tutsi.
On April 7, 1994, he had been brought to the ETO school by the Belgian troops to “be protected” but was abandoned there, along with the other victims. Almost all the refugees except for a few dozens were murdered in Nyanza.
Boniface Ngulinzira, who tried to escape when the Belgians left, was arrested and killed.
In his plea, Mr Gillet explained the Belgian decision to abandon the camp and the intense Belgian lobbying in New York and the capitals of the Member States of the Security Council in order to put an end to the UNAMIR.
He recalled that in addition to the Belgian soldiers of the UNAMIR, Belgium had sent over elite and well-armed troops in operation Silverback to evacuate the Belgian expatriate in Rwanda.
According to him, the combination of those two forces was stronger than the Rwandan army and militias in Kigali and could have evacuated the ETO’s refugees to the airport or to the Amahoro stadium in Kigali for them to be protected by other components of the UNAMIR.
The RPF took over the hill of Nyanza and the Don Bosco technical school less than 48 hours after the massacres. The Belgian forces also had the option of putting these refugees under the protection of RPF.
However, this was not even considered because at that time, the Belgian and UN approach was to remain “neutral” at all costs, even at the cost of thousands of lives.
The trial takes place under a Belgian law of 1993 (just one year before the Genocide). This law not only condemns the perpetrator of violations of the Red Cross Geneva Conventions on humanitarian law but also the failure to act when a person is in a position to act (“omission d’agir” in French) which was the case of the Belgian troops.
Mr Gillet also stressed that there was an obligation for officers and soldiers to disobey if they received an unlawful order, as the Belgian officers could not ignore the fate of the refugees they left behind.
Mr Walleyn, for his part, drew a parallel with what happened in Srebrenica (Bosnia) regarding the Dutch battalion.
After many years of trial, the Dutch government was finally found guilty of abandoning the Bosnian refugees who were seeking refuge in and around the compound of the Dutch battalion. This situation was remarkably similar to what happened at the ETO in Kigali.
After the accusation, it was the turn for the defence on March 8. Their lawyers did raise questions over the prescription and statute of limitations of the public actions, as we are 24 years after the facts.
In 1997, the report of the Committee of Inquiry of the Belgian Senate was very critical of the Belgian government at the time. The question is now whether a legal responsibility for what happened at ETO in Kigali will be recognised by a court.
The writer is a senator in Belgium and initiator and secretary of the Belgian Senate Commission of inquiry on the Genocide in Rwanda (1997).
The views expressed in this article are of the author.