A General’s memories of 45 years in the army

The relatively up-scale mansion in the equally up-market suburb of Kagarama in Kicikiro Distirct would pass as an ordinary wealthy Rwandan’s home, would it not be for a military policeman on 24-hour guard duties at the green gate.
Gen Marcel Gatsinzi
Gen Marcel Gatsinzi

The relatively up-scale mansion in the equally up-market suburb of Kagarama in Kicikiro Distirct would pass as an ordinary wealthy Rwandan’s home, would it not be for a military policeman on 24-hour guard duties at the green gate.

This is the home of Gen Marcel Gatsinzi, Rwanda’s first soldier to attain that rank, who retired last month after 45 years in military service. 

Gen Gatsinzi is no ordinary soldier who needs no introduction on account of his long career and meticulous rise from the lowest rank to a full General. When we met at his home last week, the soldier in him is still visible—manifesting in a high degree of neatness, attentiveness and seriousness—some of the virtues of a member of any disciplined force.

That Wednesday morning, I found the grey-haired General in white shirt and black pair of trousers chatting with his second last born, a man now in his early twenties, on tiled and sparklingly polished veranda of his mansion. 

There was no protocol to go through to reach this 65-year-old father of six. He wore no stress on his face and above all, there were no frequent phone calls coming through to interrupt as he took us through his long military career, an indication that the General has started enjoying his retirement.

Born in 1948 in Muhima, Nyarugenge District at a place commonly known as Ikiyovu cyo Hepfo, Gatsinzi attended primary school at the nearby Saint Famille. He later joined Saint André Secondary School to study Latin and Sciences before enrolling in military service as recruit at 20.

“Some officers came to met us after our national exams, and asked us to join the army. I did the test just for fun and was surprised to hear that I had qualified.”

Gatsinzi spent two years in training school, Ecole Supérieure d’Officiers Militaires (ESM), and graduated with the rank of Lieutenant in 1970. He was retained as a trainer and underwent several training programs in 1971-1976 in Belgium War School, known as Institut Royale Supérieure de Défense from which he gained experience in command. “I am an expert in commanding units,” he said. 

The 1994 Genocide against Tutsi found Gatsinzi at the rank of Colonel and serving as the director of junior officers’ school, ESO (Ecole des Sous-Officiers), located in Ngoma Commune, now Huye District. But the General has no fond memories of that part of his history.

“During this period, our army lacked cohesion, because of mistrust… The north, I mean Gisenyi, was segregating the rest of us; who were then commonly called abanyenduga [a reference to people from the south and central],” he said.

After the death of former president Juvénal Habyarimana in a plane crash on April 6, 1994, Gatsinzi was appointed Chief of Defence Staff, a position he held for only ten days before he was sacked by the interim administration and replaced by Col Augustin Bizimungu.

Gatzinzi says he often found himself at odds with the old regime because he always stood for “togetherness.”

Integrating into RDF

On the eve of the fall of Kigali to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), Gatsinzi, then Brig General had camped at Kigeme, Southern Province, together with a handful of soldiers. It is from there that he crossed to Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, via Rusizi.

He lived in DR Congo for about a month before returning to join RPF on the urging of the new government. “The government had declared that those who did not commit Genocide were free to return home. After all, the officers I had fled with mistrusted me and had started to call me an accomplice [of RPF] and had been whispering that they would kill me.” 

He was integrated into the RPF (now Rwanda Defence Forces) at lower rank of Colonel—a rank he held before his brief stint as Chief of Defence Staff. 

His first assignment in RDF was deputy Chief of Staff, then Chief of Staff of Military Police, before being appointed Chief of the NISS in 2000. At that time, he was a Major General. 

In 2004, Gatsinzi was decorated full General and appointed Minister of Defense, a position he held until 2010 when he was transferred to the newly created ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugee Affairs. At the time of his retirement alongside five other Generals on October 25, Gatzinzi held no official position. 

Best moments

Even with a meritorious rise through the ranks, Gatzinzi says it was never that easy to navigate waves of intrigue and mistrust that characterised the ex-Forces Armées Rwandaise (ex-FAR). “I always faced harassment and survived several assassination plots.”

His best moment in military service did not come while serving in the force that he joined as a youthful-20-year-old but rather from the RDF, the army that he previously fought against. “I really had wonderful time [serving in RDF] because I was trusted and spoke freely.”

His best moment in the RDF come when he was promoted to full General.

“When the President promoted me to a full General, I was very excited. First of all, I was the first Rwandan ever to get that rank and secondly, being a soldier reintegrated from another force -- it was amazing. I felt highly honored.” “Retiring in dignity” was also another great moment for Gatsinzi.

The General says he did nothing extraordinary to enable him rise to a General, but simply performed his duties professionally. 

“I used to act professionally, putting the country’s interests first and my personal interests last. I have never tried to seek favours from my superiors. This professionalism allowed me to go through ranks according to the military procedures.”

To serving officers and men of RDF, Gatsinzi has this message: Favoritism and selfish interests is the worst enemy for any army. Serve the country and never put personal interests above national interests. 

Gatsinzi is a believer in Ndi Umunyarwanda (I am a Rwandan), a national programme that seeks to impart patriotism among citizens.

“It is a timely initiative because it will eradicate exclusive tendencies started and spread by former regimes that resulted in attempts to exterminate the Tutsi.”

He suggests that all Rwandans should speak freely about what they felt, what they went through and their different roles in the past—including during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.  

He says this will help end prejudice and unite the country towards a common goal.

Five cows 

Even in retirement, Gatsinzi says he has a lot of personal work to do.

Unlike some who retire to farms, farming is not Gatsinzi’s type of business, but he keeps only five cows “just to feel close to the farmers.” And he will not reveal where his five cows are because that is “a private matter.” 

He is not even interested in starting new business ventures on account of advanced age. “I will join other people and we work together in a cooperative or association.”

He is not a passionate fan of soccer, but, his favorite team is Kiyovu Sports, then APR FC. In his younger days, he played football and liked swimming but stopped as old age took its toll.

Today, the General only jogs to keep his body fit.


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