On this day 18 years ago, the silence of the rolling hills of Umutara region was broken by the sounds of gunfire. A hitherto clandestine force signed its entrance onto the Rwandan political scene by knocking over the loose defences on Rwanda’s border with Uganda.
The journey had begun. Despite the heavy setbacks suffered by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) in the early days of the uprising (decapitation of the rebel group’s leadership with the early deaths of the top commanders including charismatic leader Fred Gisa Rwigema), it was to prove many pundits wrong who thought it was just another rag-tag army seeking its 15 minutes of fame.
Journalist Catharine Watson, one of the few western journalists to report from the rebel frontline for most of the duration of the conflict, drew the line as early as September 1992 when she reported in the Guardian: “Unlike many guerrilla groups, the RPF seems not to be a peasant force. Most of the infantry seemed to have at least finished primary school and the 12,000 or so strong RPF now includes 42 medical doctors as well as lawyers, engineers and at least one priest,” Watson wrote at the time.
Very many people still to this day do not believe that the Ugandan establishment was caught unawares by the RPF invasion, but that is the truth. The Ugandan intelligence community only got wind of it when it was discovered that many Rwandan army personnel were missing during roll call the next morning.
At the beginning the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), the armed wing of the RPF, operated in small mobile groups to harass a much larger and better equipped government force.
On paper, the balance was tipped in favour of the Government army (Ex-FAR)– which between 1990 and the Genocide of Tutsis took the unenviable position of Africa’s third largest importer of weapons after Nigeria and Angola– but the realities on the ground spoke something else altogether.
The ex-FAR were career soldiers who eagerly waited for their end of month pay and fought textbook style: a battle could only be won if all the pieces were in place and the soldiers were well-fed.
But on the side of the guerilla movement, meticulous planning and having a reason to fight was the secret to success. The men on the drawing board had to adopt tactics to minimise loss of both material and men: each grain of maize counted.
The RPF learnt to fight on bare stomachs, but what they lacked in equipment was replaced by a bellyful of courage and determination.
Even though to many observers the structure of the RPF was modeled after leftist guerilla movements, i.e., Political Commissars in every unit charged with political education and awareness, political cadres working with small groups (cells) of the members of the public to drum up support, etc, that was as far as the similarities went.
From the early days, the movement espoused self sufficiency and efficiency as tools to win the war since it could not depend eternally on the diminishing financial muscle of its supporters.
The policies that mapped the liberation struggle were not left on the doorsteps of government in July 1994, but were part of the baggage the RPF team took with them and helped kick-start a failed nation.
The RPF refers to itself as the “engine of the government” and there is no question about it, but there is something else; what we like to call the “spirit of the 90s”, when Rwandans from four corners of the world selflessly came together with a purpose-driven spirit to build one country.
As we step back in the time machine and flip the button to the 90s, the images of those who sacrificed their lives so that our children could have a better future should be a constant reminder that we should not stray away from our purpose.
And at that time no one had even heard about Rick Warren’s bestseller, “A purpose driven life”, apart from those who took the journey in 1990, from different parts of the world, to prove history and textbook tactics wrong. Best wishes to all who shared the journey.